The Most Common Exercises You're Probably Doing Wrong and How to Fix Them
by Jeff Tomko
Whether you prefer hitting the gym or live-streaming the latest HIIT routine in your living room, these days there aren’t many excuses left for skipping out on a workout.
However, no matter where you choose to get your sweat on, your top priority should always be to perform each exercise with the best form possible. Sure, there may be the occasional cheat rep here or there (who hasn’t forced a final rep or two of curls?), but what about the exercises you’ve been doing incorrectly all along without even realizing it? Improper form could be hindering your gains, and even setting you up for injury (or, at the very least, some sharp quips in the comments section).
To help you get your form in check, we asked top trainers to tell us about the most common mistakes they routinely see people making, as well as how to quickly fix these flaws and get your workouts back to maximum efficiency.
The Exercise: Bench Press
The Mistake: The bench press is a time-tested staple for strength training and chest development for both athletes and your average gym-goer alike. If you’ve set foot in a gym, chances are high that you’ve performed at least one bench-press variation—whether it be barbell, dumbbell, machine, incline, decline, flat, or otherwise. This compound move hits not only your pecs, but also targets the front deltoids and triceps.
However, there’s more to this iconic exercise than simply pressing the weight off your chest. A common mistake, according to Hollywood-based personal trainer Ridge Davis, N.C.S.F., occurs when lifters allow their elbows to flare too wide—almost perpendicular with their torso when pressing and lowering the bar. Not only can this limit strength gains, the awkward movement pattern can cause undue and damaging stress on your shoulders. “This predominantly overworks the shoulder joint and can cause serious injuries,” Davis says.
The Fix: Instead of rotating your arms wide, bring your elbows in to around 45 degrees from your torso while you’re pressing and lowering the weight. According to Davis, this tweak will take the stress from the shoulders and shift the lift’s focus to the intended primary muscles. “This will put more work and engagement in your chest,” Davis says.
The Exercise: Standing Overhead Press
The Mistake: Few exercises represent pure strength like hoisting a loaded barbell over your head. Another great compound exercise, the overhead press not only blasts your delts, it also targets your core, triceps, and traps, making it a great lift for increasing strength and building mass.
On paper, the overhead press seems pretty straightforward: Hold the bar just above your chest, then press vertically overhead until near lockout. However, a significant issue that many people come across with overhead presses may not be technical but instead physiological, according to Richard King, N.A.S.M., a trainer at Crunch Fitness. If you suffer from limited shoulder mobility, you may be having a hard time pressing vertically, which can lead to shoulder joint irritation and other injuries. “If you can’t bring your arms straight, you’re probably turning the overhead press into a heavy shoulder raise, which you don’t want to do,” King says. “At that point, you probably shouldn’t be overhead pressing.”
The Fix: The first step, King advises, is to self-test your scapular range of motion by performing a scapular wall slide. Stand with your back to a wall, maintaining contact with your upper back and tailbone. Raise your arms into a cactus position, and extend them upward toward your ears.
If your arms can’t reach straight up to form a number ’11,’ or your back begins to arch, King says to work on increasing your scapular strength by incorporating both scapular pushups and the prayer stretch into your routine on a daily basis. Also, as a substitute for overhead presses, you can try the landmine press, a safer version of an overhead press. “It’s an angled move, so they don’t require overhead ability, but still work the shoulders,” King says.
The Exercise: Slider Lunge
The Mistake: No leg day is complete without a few sets of some form of quad-crushing lunges. Whether it be a barbell, dumbbells, or a kettlebell—forward, reverse, or walking—lunges provide a greater range of motion than squats, which allows the move to more effectively hit both the hamstrings and hips.
An increasingly common variation, adding a slider disc to the movement adds an element of instability—ideal for developing core strength and balance. However, the instability, especially if a lunge is performed too quickly, can cause the stabilized knee to rock forward, which can lead to knee pain or even injury. “It’s one of the most common mistakes I see with people using sliders for the first time,” says Sydney Miller, founder of Housework, a Pilates and HIIT-based on-demand and live-streaming app.
The Fix: Don’t rush the movement. This exercise might make you feel like a speed skater, but this isn’t the Winter Olympics. Slow the lunge down to maintain stability in the front leg, which should prevent any unnecessary forward rocking.
The Exercise: Deadlift
The Mistake: Little else in the weight room compares with the feeling of accomplishment that comes with pulling plates off the floor to set a new PR. By no means is the deadlift an exercise just for powerlifters. This full-body compound movement hits nearly all the major muscle groups—legs, core, back, shoulders—and can be beneficial for anyone looking to gain strength, add size to their back, improve their posture, and even lose weight.
That said, oftentimes because of the amount of weight pulled, deadlifts can potentially fast-track you along the path to injury, including lower-back issues, biceps tears, and hamstring pulls—one reason why the lift is often dissected into phases when taught. One of the most common mistake that people make occurs right at the start of the movement—namely, attempting to jerk the weight off the floor at full speed, opening a veritable mystery box of potential physiological issues.
The Fix: According to strength and nutrition coach Jordan Syatt, you’ll want to take a much slower approach to initializing the movement. Known as “pulling the slack out of the bar,” Syatt says to slowly put force into the floor until you feel the bar coming off the ground. “Treat it like you’re merging on the highway,” he says. “Don’t go pedal to the floor. Instead, slowly accelerate until you hit top speed. Once the bar starts to come off the ground, that's when you accelerate.”
The Exercise: Mountain Climber
The Mistake: Mountain climbers make for a great cardio finishing move. With your core engaged, shoulders directly over your hands, and legs firing to and from your chest like pistons in an engine, you’ll begin feeling as though you’re running in place. But, as fatigue sets in, form can slip fast. You may feel your back beginning to arch, or your weight shifting backwards, which Miller says can cause shoulder and wrist alignment to become compromised, potentially leading to injury.
The Fix: Make sure to keep your arms perpendicular to the floor and your weight distributed evenly over the hands, even if that means slowing the movement down to maintain form. “This will also ensure you're maximizing the upper-body work that comes with this exercise,” Miller says. Let it be a finisher for your workout, not your physiology.