9 Form Tips the Average Trainer Gets Wrong

by Jessica Matthews for SHAPE.com

Instead of helping, these common exercise cues could be setting you up for injury. Follow these tips, and you'll learn how to work out properly once and for all.

The shoulder press

1. The shoulder press:

Common tip: Keep your elbows out to the sides.

Why it's bad: The shoulder is a ball-and-socket joint. During an overhead press, the socket of the shoulder blade must move under the ball of the arm in order to provide optimal support and stability, explains San Diego-based personal trainer and strength coach Pete McCall. However this cannot happen if your arms are out to the sides "goal post" style. Performing the press in that position can also compress a portion of the rotator cuff in the process.

The correct proper form: Stand with feet hip-width part, holding dumbbells in front of shoulders with arms bent. Envision that you're standing on a clock face and position arms so left elbow is pointed between 10 and 11 o'clock and right elbow is pointed between 1 and 2 o'clock. Exhale as you extend right arm, pressing the weight upward. Inhale as you lower the weight, focusing on pulling elbow in toward your body to help stabilize the shoulder. Repeat with left arm. Do 8 to 12 reps on each side.

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2. Pushup:

Common tip: Keep elbows wide and in line with shoulders.

Why it's bad: While your hands should be wide, your elbows shouldn't be. If your elbows are even with your shoulders, you're at a greater risk for shoulder impingement, says Sabrena Merrill, a personal trainer and CrossFit coach in Kansas City, MO. This also decreases the ability for your triceps to lend a hand, meaning you'll have to work harder to push yourself up. Angling your elbows toward your ribcage will allow you to recruit more of your upper-body strength and promote better shoulder mechanics, Merrill says.

The correct proper form: Place hands directly under shoulders as you push into a plank position with legs extended behind you, feet together. Keeping core engaged and head aligned with spine, bend elbows, keeping them close to your body and allowing them to flare out only slightly as you lower down until chest or chin almost touch the ground. Reverse the movement, pushing through the outside surface and heel of palms and straightening elbows as you avoid allowing low back or hips to sag. Do 8 to 12 reps.


3. Stiff-legged dumbbell deadlift:

Common tip: Bend at the waist and keep knees stiff as you lower dumbbells to the floor.

Why it's bad: Although the deadlift is undoubtedly one of the effective exercises for developing functional strength, it has great potential for injury if performed incorrectly. Being told to bend at the waist may cause some to round their backs, which can place excessive strain on the spine, says Riana Rohmann, a combat fitness specialist and National Physique Committee figure competitor. Plus many people do not have the flexibility to lower the dumbbells all the way to the ground without compromising form.

The correct proper form: Stand with feet slightly wider than shoulder-width apart with a 15-pound dumbbell in each hand. To begin the movement, hinge at the hips, maintaining a neutral spine as hips push back. (Since the spine naturally has a slight "S" curve, your lower back will look slightly arched, Rohmann says.) Shift your weight to your heels and slowly lower the dumbbells with control, keeping a very slight bend in the knees, until you feel a stretch in the hamstrings. Engage your glutes and return to standing with control, keeping core engaged, spine stabilized, and dumbbells close to legs throughout the entire movement. Do 10 to 15 reps.

Forearm plank

4. Forearm plank:

Common tip: Pull abs in tight and lift hips, holding for as long as possible.

Why it's bad: Being told to contract your abs and raise your hips often results in too-high hips, throwing your body out of alignment, says Shana Verstegen, master trainer for the American Council on Exercise. Holding the position for longer than 30 seconds can also lead to low back pain and shoulder issues in the long run, she adds.

The correct proper form: Start lying on your stomach with elbows aligned under shoulders and forearms on the ground. Initiate the movement by tucking toes under, activating quads to straighten knees, and tucking butt under. Simultaneously pull belly button toward chin and butt toward heels before lifting yourself, says Jonathan Ross, award-winning personal trainer and author of Abs Revealed. Once up, gently pull elbows and feet toward one another without moving them to keep the body engaged and in alignment.

While the prevalence of plank challenges may have you thinking it's more effective to hold for as long as possible, Verstegen recommends doing 5 really tight planks with proper alignment for 6 to 10 seconds each, resting 2 to 3 seconds between.

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Seated row

5. Seated row:

Common tip: Pinch shoulder blades together.

Why it's bad:
This tip isn't exactly wrong; however it could make the move less effective. In a seated row, the shoulder blades are meant to be relatively stable as the shoulder joint-where the arm meets the body-controls the majority of the movement, explains Chis McGrath, international fitness educator and founder of Movement First in New York City. Making large movements with your shoulder blades can compromise posture and potentially the shoulder joint if this motion is performed often enough. Some movement in your shoulder blades is okay, McGrath adds, but keeping them more neutral allows you to work the lats more.

The correct proper form: Sit on the bench and grasp one handle in each hand with palms facing each other and legs extended with knees slightly bent. Holding shoulder blades relatively neutral and keeping core engaged, exhale as you pull the handles toward you, keeping elbows close to the body as the handles reach your sides just above your waist. As you inhale, slowly straighten elbows, avoiding rounding the back or shoulders as you return to starting position. Do 8 to 12 reps.

Bicycle crunches

6. Bicycle crunches:

Common tip: Cross elbow to opposite knee.

Why it's bad: The bicycle crunch stimulates more muscle activity in both the rectus abdominis and obliques than many other abs exercises, according to an American Council on Exercise study-except when you only work through a partial range of motion, as this tip may cause you to do, says Shannon Fable, director of exercise programming for Anytime Fitness.

The correct proper form: Lie face-up with knees bent and lift both feet until lower legs are parallel with the ground. With fingertips positioned behind ears and elbows wide, lift both shoulder blades off the ground. Exhale as you angle left shoulder toward right knee, keeping left shoulder aligned with left inner thigh as left leg extends. Inhale back to center and exhale to repeat the movement in the opposite direction. Do 12 to 15 reps on each side.

Bulgarian split squat

7. Bulgarian split squat:

Common tip: Don't let knee go over toes.

Why it's bad: You do want to avoid excessive forward movement of your knees-but it's almost impossible to do any lower-body movement without your joint coming over your toes, says Mike Boyle, owner of Mike Boyle Strength and Conditioning in Boston, MA. Depending on your build-and especially if you have long legs-it's highly likely and simply natural that your knee will move slightly forward or just beyond your toes.

The correct proper form: Stand about 3 feet in front of a bench with the top of your left foot on the bench. With arms at sides or crossed in front of chest, slowly lower into a lunge, keeping weight in right heel and right knee tracking in line with the second toe as your torso leans forward slightly. Slowly press back up, keeping core engaged. Do 12 to 15 reps.

Warrior III

8. Warrior III:

Common tip: Keep back flat.

Why it's bad: While the terms "straight" and "flat" are commonly used in mind-body disciplines such as yoga to describe the positioning of the spine, from a literal perspective these cues are anatomically impossible to achieve. Lawrence Biscontini, a mindful movement specialist and fitness author, explains that since the spine has three sections with curves-the cervical, thoracic, and lumbar-the focus should instead be on maintaining a neutral and lengthened back.

The correct proper form: Begin in a split stance with left foot forward. Softly bend left knee and hinge forward at the hips, shifting torso forward with a long, extended spine as you lift right leg parallel to the ground. With shoulders and hips squared to the ground and core engaged to maintain neutral alignment, extend arms overhead until your body forms a "T" shape. Hold this position for 30 seconds and repeat on the opposite side.

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Side jumps

9. Standing side jumps:

Common tip: Jump entire body from side to side.

Why it's bad:
Core Transformer creator Linda LaRue says that this exercise is designed to teach athletes how to independently fully engage their upper body from their lower body or core, helping to significantly improve balance and stability come game time. But most people don't realize that the move is actually two in one-an upper-body twist plus a lower-body hop-and simply jump left to right, failing to activate their core.

The correct proper form: Stand with feet hip-width apart, core engaged. Keeping hands in a ready-position in front of chest and upper body and eyes facing forward, step left foot out 45 degrees. Repeat with right leg and continue alternating sides for 12 reps total. Next reverse the movement: Hold a towel taut in front of you with arms extended. Keeping feet and hips facing forward, independently twist body left and right, alternating sides for 12 reps total. Once both movements have been mastered, bump up the intensity by progressing to a hop. Do 10 to 12 reps total, alternating sides.

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