Just because you’re doing an exercise the way you’ve always done it doesn’t mean you’re doing it right. We get it: Nothing gets under your skin quite like some random dude at the gym telling you your form is off. Even if you know he’s right, you immediately hate that guy. (It’s cool, we do, too.) But the bitter truth is he’s usually right. (And if he cares enough to say something, you should probably thank him.) Ignore him and, well, you’re setting yourself up for hurting a lot more than just your pride. Instead, prevent injury—and a wounded ego—and correct the most common workout mistakes that we’ve noticed guys making in the gym.
MISTAKE 1: JERKING THE BAR UP ON DEADLIFTS
The deadlift is an aptly named exercise: You lift “dead” weight off the floor. Because you’re not putting momentum behind each rep (unlike with the bench press or squat, where the stretch reflex kicks in to help you lift the bar), deadlifts make you overcome inertia with brute force. Still, guys try to “wind up” for each rep any way they can, including bending their elbows in the starting position in an effort to yank the bar up. All this does is cause you to bend over more, losing tightness in the upper back and causing youto round your lower back. This is a lower back injury waiting to happen, not to mention a biceps injury (a heavy deadlift will straighten your elbows whether you like it or not). Instead, set up with your chest facing forward and arms extended so you take the slack out of the bar—the bar itself should be flush against the top of the holes in the weight plates you’ve loaded on it, so there’s no extra movement that needs to occur before the weight begins moving off the floor. Keep elbows extended and the bar pulled in tight against your shins. Angle your head down with eyes forward as you lift.
MISTAKE 2: SQUATTING WITH THE WRONG STANCE
The width of squat stance is individual to you. The general prescription is to place your feet shoulder-width apart, but there’s an inch or so of variance that can greatly impact how the exercise feels on your hips and the amount of weight you can move. The placement of the hip sockets in the pelvis is different in everyone, and your foot placement needs to accommodate that. Here’s how to find the right stance for you: Get down on your hands and knees and push your butt back toward your heels. Pay attention to your pelvis—when it begins to tuck under and your lower back loses its arch, stop pushing. Adjust your knees and repeat the test, experimenting until you find the placement that lets you comfortably push your hips back without rounding your spine.
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MISTAKE 3: JUMPING DOWN FROM BOX JUMPS
CrossFit has popularized the box jump, and it’s awesome for building power and athleticism. The problem is not so much how you perform it but rather what you do after each rep. To get off the box more quickly and begin the next rep sooner, some people jump. It may not seem like a big deal, but repeatedly hopping off a surface two or more feet above the floor can up the load on your joints twofold or more, boosting the risk of an Achilles tendon tear. What’s more, most folks don’t land athletically— with their feet flat and hips bent to absorb the force. Instead, they land with their weight shifting to one foot and feet turned out.
The higher the box you jump off of, the higher the risk of getting hurt. Step down off the box after each jump. If it’s very high, set another box next to the one you’re jumping onto so you can step onto it and go back to the floor gradually. Novice box jumpers should keep reps low— around five—and stay with a box that’s no greater than 24 inches high.
MISTAKE 4: HYPEREXTENDING YOUR LOWER BACK DURING OVERHEAD PRESSES
The classic military press, during which you lift a barbell overhead from shoulder level while standing, is a great overall strength and muscle builder. But the heavier the weight gets, the more people lean backward as the bar moves upward. Some extension is unavoidable, but if you find yourself doing a limbo dance midrep, you could be knocking on disaster’s door.
Research published in Clinical Biomechanics states that “sustained bending impairs the normal protective reflex[es], and repetitive bending fatigues the back muscles.” In other words, the more often you bend back, the farther back you’ll bend back over time, until you suffer an injury to the spinal disks or the surrounding musculature. Accept that progress comes more slowly on the overhead press than other exercises because of the coordination involved. Reduce your loads so you can press straightbacked and train your core. One of your abs’ functions is to resist bending the spine, so practice plank variations.
MISTAKE 5: LIFTING YOUR HEAD ON THE BENCH PRESS
Checking to see that the bar touches your chest can cause you to lift your head off the bench at the bottom of the lift. Compressing the disks in between your neck vertebrae actually interrupts the electrical stimulus that travels from your central nervous system down and into your muscles, reducing the amount of force you can produce. It can also lead to neck strain—the last thing you want when you’re balancing hundreds of pounds overhead. Keep your head on the bench and actively try to drive it deeper into the pad when the bar touches down on your chest. Visualize pushing your body away from the bar and backward off the bench to help you press the weight back up. This cue helps you put your whole body into the lift. If you find yourself actually sliding back on the bench and losing position, stretch some bands over it for friction.