No doubt that strength training is a vital part of any exercise routine. Why? Strong muscles help with everyday functions like lifting heavy grocery bags and doing yard work, and improves balance to reduce falls. It supports and protects bones and joints, which prevents or eases painful conditions like arthritis, knee pain and back aches. It stresses and then strengthens bones to stave off osteoporosis, and promotes a healthy weight by increasing your metabolism (“calorie burn”).
But no doubt many folks start lifting weights or using nautilus machines without awareness of proper form, so injuries abound. Or a more subtle but nagging hip or back ache develops. This is why I asked my BIDMC colleague and exercise physiologist Michael Hoey to highlight the most common mistakes he sees with strength training. Michael has a B.S. in Applied Exercise Science and an M.S. in Exercise Science focused on sports psychology and performance counseling. He is a Level 1 Certified Strength Coach and a Level 1 Performance Coach. Check out his awesome tips below with pics of himself (in blue) and Ric, another popular trainer at BIDMC.
By Michael Hoey
As you approach strength training, you should know there are many different mistakes that people make and many different reasons why they make them. One main problem is loading weight onto people with dysfunction in one or another area and worrying more about quantity than quality of movement. Movement quality is crucial as it affects our everyday lives, which is why it is more beneficial to use free weights than machines. There is general consensus within the fitness training community that there are seven movement types in fitness, as well as in everyday life. They are:
- Knee extension
- Hip hinge
- Horizontal push/pull
- Vertical push/pull
- Weighted carries
Many common issues are related to our inability to breathe fully into our diaphragm, and bracing our core properly. The focus for now is going to be on some major exercises and the correct techniques to use for each.
We will not delve into machines because typically the main issues are people not grounding their foot, arching the lower back, and tilting the neck forward. We will look more precisely at the following exercises: goblet squats, deadlifts, military press, dumbbell row, and dead bugs. I chose these exercises specifically because they are the most simple and easy to incorporate into a workout regimen.
Each photo series below demonstrates an exercise progression. The images in red show incorrect form; the green images show correct form.
GOBLET SQUATS: When doing a squat, the main issue is typically knees caving inward, which impedes proper depth and stability of the movement. A cue to use when squatting is to feel your whole foot grounded and to spread the floor keeping knees pushed out. This will help create the correct tension and stability in the lower body.
DEADLIFTS: When doing a proper hip hinge, such as the deadlift, it is important to keep the weight close to the body, allowing the weight to ride up and down as if it were a part of you. This keeps tension off the lower back and allows proper hamstring activation to occur. As with squatting, we want to feel the whole foot on the floor.
MILITARY PRESS: Typically when pressing overhead, the biggest mistakes tend to be going into lower back extension and forward head positions. The proper way to avoid these problems is to pack the neck, keeping the chin down, and to brace the core and glutes hard to prevent low back extension.
DUMBBELL ROW: When doing a row variation, the most common mistakes are allowing the hips and shoulders to turn out and away. During a row variation, we want to keep our shoulders pulled back and down while keeping our hips square, which will make the exercise more effective.
DEAD BUGS: This is what I believe to be the most effective core exercise and there are multiple variations. The dead bug enables us to avoid the main core mistakes, such as neck strain and arching of the lower back.
In reviewing the exercises above, we see a trend. A majority of the mistakes are related to improperly bracing the core to stay out of lower back extension and maintaining a neutral spine, which means shoulders are pulled back and the chin is tucked for optimal positioning.
If you are unsure if you are performing an exercise correctly, don’t hesitate to ask for help! Seek the guidance of a certified personal trainer (CPT) or exercise physiologist. The American Council on Exercise and National Strength and Conditioning Association offer databases of qualified trainers in your area.