We are creatures of habit. We each default to our favorite exercises, those bread and butter lifts from programs we love for as long as they keep bringing results. Familiarity just feels right. It wraps you in a secure blanket of warmth, growth, and gains. Unfortunately, that familiarity begets false confidence in your exercise technique, which could cost you even further gains.
"But, Rock Lock, I've improved 10 pounds over the last year!" you cry. That's sweet. But imagine the results you could net with precise exercise form and practice. Unless you or a training buddy have an acute awareness of form, it's possible that you may have been missing key form points. Remember that poor form calls out compensatory mechanisms while still building strength, albeit inefficiently.
Don't fret, young Padawan. Here's how to fix seven key movements that you previously thought you owned.
Exercise 1 Squats
Squats have helped Mr. Olympias, World's Strongest Men, and other athletes launch from so-so athletes to epic gladiators. There's no reason not to reap the benefits of the almighty squat, right? But after weeks of nearly crushing yourself under the bar, your results can still end up lackluster.
Team Cellucor's Jen Jewell explains why.
"I see a lot of 'newbies' just lower their butt down really quick with their knees wobbling all over the place—over the toes or collapsing inward. I've even seen this with bodyweight squats! So, when I instruct new clients or am giving pointers, I tell a client to push her butt back as though she's going to sit down in a chair. This usually helps her get into better position and keep from hobbling forward so much.
"Additionally, I encourage clients to 'push the booty way back—as if you're trying to knock someone out with that thing—lower, go back up, and repeat.' Even though that might be an exaggeration of breaking at the hip, it helps clients picture it and will typically do the trick!
"I typically see people barely start to lower, call it a rep, and bounce back up. That's not low enough! That's not even a proper squat! To benefit from squats, you have go to at least parallel, which is the position at which your hip joint and knee joint are aligned parallel to the ground. This ensures quad burn, but also fires up the hamstrings and glutes as well."
Exercise 2 Dumbbell Lateral Raise
I cringe every time I see someone fling heavy dumbbells as high as they can using their back, and then allow momentum to not only carry the weight up but send it back down with zero control. This makes back and rotator cuff injuries almost inevitable if someone continues on this self-destructive path. Thankfully, that won't be you!
First of all, when you hold the dumbbells, they should rest at your sides instead of in front of you. This way you will be less inclined to harness a back-initiated swing to begin the exercise. Visualize generating force from only your delts as you lift the weights out to your sides with a slight bend in the elbow. Locking out the elbows places strain on the tendons in that area and can make them susceptible to injury.
To avoid unnecessary shoulder strain, stop the movement when your arms become parallel to the floor. At that point, turn the weights so your pinkies point toward the ceiling and pause for one second before slowly lowering the weight to the starting position in a controlled manner. Use a challenging weight you can control throughout the exercise to ensure you don't cheat.
Dumbbell Lateral Raise
Exercise 3 Triceps Rope Pushdown
The triceps rope pushdown should primarily activate your triceps and core, but this exercise is blundered and haunted by our old enemy, the lower back-generated swing monster. Time and time again, I watch people use momentum to press down heavy weights. This only hurts your elbows and yields no benefit for those muscles in the back of your arms. Again, slow, controlled movement reigns supreme here.
Take the rope and step away from the cable stack. The extra distance increases tension on the triceps more than standing next to the pulley. Keep your shoulders squared and back, chest out, and glue your elbows to your sides. By keeping your elbows tucked in, you emphasize triceps contraction rather than elbow destruction.
As you press the weight down, focusing on working the triceps muscles, spread the ends of the rope apart, and squeeze the hell out of your triceps. That squeeze and tension stimulates growth in the target area.
Afterward, let the weight slowly come back up. Right before you feel as if your elbows are about to be yanked out of place, stop, and then do another rep. This constant tension will make your triceps scream bloody murder by the end of your set.
Exercise 4 Deadlifts
A king of the exercise world, deadlifts could well be the most basic movement—in theory. You pick up the weight, hold it, and put it down. What could go wrong? Everything. There are oh-so many instances where a deadlift can go wrong and make lifters vulnerable to injury.
"Deadlifts are often a mess all the way through," Jewell says. "I often see people with their shoulders rolled forward and hunched over as they lower the weight. Then they lose control over their body as a whole. Having your shoulders back, lats tight, core activated, and chest up will help eliminate this hunchback stature that I see all too often in the gym!
"I see another problem with neck alignment. At the beginning of the pull, you might be tempted to look down at the weight. This puts your neck out of neutral spinal alignment, which makes you more prone to hunching your shoulders and keeps you from engaging your core. Keep your neck aligned with the rest of your spine at the start and finish of your pull."
Exercise 5 Hammer Curl
You want perfectly rounded biceps like IFBB Men's Physique Pro Craig Capurso? He's going to let you in on the "secret" to winning the arms race.
"Although dumbbell curls are a great exercise, problems rear their ugly heads when they are performed improperly," Capurso says. "Many people will either pick up a light weight that can be lifted a million times or a weight that's simply too heavy. Either of these prevents people from ever performing a worthy rep. Many people start the exercise with a shoulder swing followed by a fading elbow. This movement pattern doesn't actually involve the biceps. It basically makes the exercise one big cheat.
"The goal is to achieve a well-controlled movement that isn't aided by the aforementioned body swing. You should feel a deep burning sensation in your biceps and a noticeable pump or swell. You should also be able to perform the recommended reps in your program. After four sets of this type of training, you'll feel fatigued, making it difficult to even bend your arms. That's good because you are doing it correctly and have picked proper weights."
To mix things up and really focus on your mind-muscle connection, try hammer curls. "This is when you stand in a neutral position, with your hands at your sides and the palms facing in toward your body," Craig says. "Notice where your elbow rests in reference to your body and actively think about maintaining this position throughout the exercise. Really think about contracting the muscle groups involved as you bring up the weight. If you feel the heat in your shoulder, elbow, or any other muscle group that shouldn't be firing, restart the process or perhaps lower the weight."
Exercise 6 Bench Press
The bench press is an excellent indicator of upper body strength. When performed correctly, it is a money exercise that builds strength, muscle size, and athletic function. Haphazard execution of the bench press can increase the risk of shoulder or pec injuries, but that can usually be rectified by going with lower weight or just doing the damn exercise the right way!
In preparing to pump out your first rep, make sure your shoulder blades are squeezed together. This will protect your shoulders and bring your chest higher so the bar doesn't travel as far. Next, plant your feet firmly on the floor and get yourself in a stable position. Otherwise you increase the chance of getting hurt. Keep everything tight, including your shoulders and butt.
As you perform the lift, lower the bar to your nipple line and keep it there for a one-second pause. Think about pushing your chest away from the bar rather than pushing the bar away from your chest. Remember to drive your feet into the floor for force production, keeping your butt on the bench, and arching your back to transfer force to the bar. Once you press the weight up, focus on squeezing your pecs as if you were trying to crush a walnut sitting between them.
Exercise 7 Crunches
Crunches are a perennial favorite and also one of the most poorly performed exercises in the gym. Even if you think you're a crunch king, you might be doing them wrong and actually jeopardizing your neck health.
The first step to being a crunch master: Don't cross your arms on your chest or clasp your hands together behind your head. Instead, lightly place your hands on the temples of your noggin and focus on keeping your elbows in line with your shoulders. Don't bend your neck; the idea isn't to bang your head against your crotch, but to dig your lower back into the floor and lift your shoulders about 3-4 inches off the floor.
Squeeze your abdominals and forcefully let out a big breath. Slowly drop yourself back to the floor and repeat. Now do 10 reps and let me know the difference this makes. Don't worry, you can catch your breath—I can wait.
Do you see other poorly performed exercises at your own gym? Sound off in the comments below! Let us know if you have any favorite tips or techniques. Share with the community to help improve everyone's form—and results!