As someone who has been around weightlifting my entire life, I’ve always valued proper form and execution of the movement.
Sometimes proper form is absolutely crucial to completing an exercise and avoiding injury.
Think of a one rep max on Squat or Deadlift.
If your technique is off even just a hair you may not be able to get that new PR. If your form deteriorates midway through the rep, chances are you will suffer an injury that will set your training back weeks or even months.
Now something I have noticed with even seasoned lifters who are sticklers about their form on the big 3 compound movements is that they make common technique mistakes on basic exercises.
These technique faults on basic exercises may not put you at risk for injury. People may do them simply because they can get away with it.
This shows either a lack of discipline or a fundamental misunderstanding of which muscles are involved in the movement and the actual purpose of the exercise.
Whatever the case (carelessness or ignorance) it’s time to shore up your form and get the most out of every rep.
Today, I’m going to identify the 5 basic exercises that I see everyone doing incorrectly and identify how to fix them. Along with a breakdown of the proper technique, I will also teach you an advanced version that will help you develop stellar movement and put your strength to the test.
Watch The Video (2:11)
Fault: Improper pulling angle, kipping, too short range of motion.
Man, where to start on this one? Pullups are my favorite upper body exercise and sometimes I’m even guilty of bad form. One of the crucial things to remember is that the main muscle we are trying to work and develop is the lats. So you need to keep your body in a position to utilize them.
Think of your technique on a lat pulldown. You’re seated upright with a good arch in your back as you pull the bar to your collar bone and draw your elbows back.
The pullup needs to look similar. Your chest is up and elbows drawing behind you straight towards the floor. If your elbows are coming forward you are over emphasizing the biceps and your abs.
Another common fault is range of motion. A good pull up range is from your chin over the bar then lowered until your elbows are almost locked out.
Why not extend all the way at the bottom? By going into a complete “unpacked” position you are letting the tiny muscles of your rotator cuff hold your entire bodyweight. Save your shoulders and keep tension on the lats and biceps at the bottom of your pull ups.
How about kipping? My stance on swinging or kicking your legs is if you have to kip a little to get that one last rep then go for it. If you start out kipping just so you can say you did 20 pull ups when in reality you would struggle with 10 strict reps, you are wasting your time. Keep your legs extended and your glutes flexed to keep from swinging.
Fix: Keep chest up, draw elbows back, and pull chin to bar. Extend under control as you lower, but do not “rest” in an unpacked position at the bottom. Keep legs straight and extended with glutes flexed.
Advanced version: Try this time under tension pullup, 3 seconds on the way up, hold for 3 seconds at the top as you squeeze your lats, and lower yourself for a 5 count (TUT 3/3/5 tempo). Even sets of 3-5 pull ups are challenging this way and it will really make you concentrate on your technique.
2. Lateral Raise/Shoulder Fly
Fault: Thumbs rotating up, swinging, “curling” as elbows drop.
Are you one of those people that grabs a set of heavy dumbbells and swings your lateral raises? Stop.
What muscle are you trying to work? The medial (side) deltoids, right? Well by swinging the weight and letting your thumbs rotate up, you are allowing the front delts to take over the movement. Chances are your front delts are already strong from pressing movements.
So it’s important to do your flys perfectly to help those stubborn side delts grow and increase the width of your frame. It is also crucial to keep your elbows locked in a slightly bent position and avoid “curling” with your biceps as you raise the weight.
Fix: Start with dumbbells at your side, elbows slightly bent, and locked into place. Raise the weight slowly (keep your abs tight to avoid rocking back) as your thumbs rotate downward slightly. At the top of the exercise your arms should be parallel to the ground with your hands and elbows at the same height.
Advanced Version: Iso-quarter flys, start with both dumbbells at the top position. Keep one side locked into place as you lower the other dumbbell 1/4 quarter of the way. Pause briefly, go back up, then all the way down and back up to starting position. Alternate sides for 5 reps. You will need to use a weight roughly 1/2 of what you would normally chose for lateral raises.
3. Dumbbell Rows
Fault: Not contracting the scapula at the top, improper angle, twisting torso, lowering the weight to fast.
The dumbbell row is my favorite exercise for adding thickness to the upper and mid back. The problem? The way I see many lifters do rows does not target that area.
If you are pulling the dumbbell straight up, rather than back towards your hip, and allowing your elbow to flare out, the bicep is doing more work than it should. It becomes impossible to squeeze your scapula towards your spine.
Another common mistake is twisting your torso at the top away from the dumbbell. This twisting motion tricks you into thinking you raised the weight higher than you did, and by stressing the erectors, you have put your lower back in a vulnerable position.
As important as it is to row the weight at the right angle with a good contraction at the top, it is equally important to lower the weight eccentrically under control with a good stretch at the bottom.
Fix: Start by bending over (or one knee on the bench) and as you grab a bench or box to brace yourself, look down. You should be able to draw a rough rectangle between your feet and hands. This spacing will ensure that your spine is straight.
Row the dumbbell up and back towards your hip, keeping your elbow tight to your body, and squeezing hard at the top. Lower slowly and feel a good stretch in the mid-back and Lat. Do not twist.
Advanced Version: Add a 1/4 rep at the top of each row to really concentrate on the squeeze. Sets of 5 reps each side.
4. Hanging Leg Raise/Toes to Bar
Fault: Swinging, doing a full range of motion that stresses the psoas
I want to puke in my mouth every time I see someone doing hanging leg raises and swinging their half bent legs up in hopes of touching the bar. Not only does this look ridiculous, but it is barely working the lower abs. Which brings me to my next point, why are you even doing this movement?
Toes to bar used to be one of my favorite “ab” exercises and I did tons of them every week. Little did I know that this movement was doing nothing more than strengthening my psoas, and in the process adding to an existing lower back problem.
The psoas is an incredibly strong hip flexor. It attaches to the top of the femur and then travels through the pelvis to attach to the lower lumbar spine. When the psoas is tight or inflamed, it will pull on the spine and can lead to compression of the discs.
Have you ever notice that your lower back feels tight after riding in a car for a long distance? In a seated position the psoas shortens. When you finally stand up after an extended time, it doesn’t want to relax and tugs on the low back.
The typical hanging leg raise is doing very little to strengthen your abs and is probably contributing to a back pain inducing strength imbalance.
Fix: Quit doing them. Stability based movements such as planks and ab wheels are the most effective way to strengthen your lower abs. If you must continue doing leg raises than I suggest you try the advanced version.
Advanced version: Raise your feet to the bar then slowly lower your legs until they are parallel to the floor. Hold this position and raise them back to the bar by curling your hips up using your lats and abs. At the top of the movement your back should be parallel to the floor. Never let your legs drop below 90 degrees.
The psoas is still being worked here, but in an isometric hold rather than being the prime mover. Start by aiming for sets or 3-5 perfect reps.
5. Heavy "Cheat" Curl
Fault: Not contracting at the top, dropping the bar too fast.
Ok, I know what you are thinking. Coach Myers I thought you cared about form? Isn’t the purpose of cheat curls to swing and cheat the weight up so you can go heavy?
Let me just start by saying that the classic heavy barbell “cheat curl” popularized by Arnold in the 70s is my favorite mass builder for the biceps. A little pop in the hips goes a long way to helping you curl some massive weight.
The problem I see is that most people swing the weight up and don’t concentrate on the contraction at the top. Then, they just let the weight fall back to their thighs.
The lowering, or eccentric, portion of the movement is the most crucial part of any exercise for gaining size and strength. When I curl some big weight, I swing slightly to get it started, then squeeze hard at the top, and fight against gravity on the way down.
Fix: Contract the biceps at the top and do not “rest” in that position. Lower the weight under control, slower than you raised it.
Advanced version: Perform 3 second negatives. Do sets of 5 with as heavy of a weight as possible. Swing to curl the weight up, then fight like hell for a full 3 seconds on the way down.
There you have it folks. Now that I’ve showed you the error of your ways, you have no excuse to commit these common mistakes. If I can leave you with just a few words of wisdom to consider when working out.
Always start by thinking: What is the purpose of this movement? What are the muscles I am trying to target and what is their function? How do I avoid injury?
If you approach each exercise with those 3 questions ahead of your ego, you will be fine. Stay tuned to Muscle & Strength so I can help you continue to improve!