Be honest, you don’t know how your car works, do you? And despite spending most of the working day lashed to a QWERTY, if someone asked you how update their modem, you wouldn’t where to start (or what the modem even is).
And that’s fine. Other people do that stuff so you don’t have to. But the same can’t be said for your workout. You need to be okay with the specifics – do you honestly know what that dead lift is doing to your muscles? Or more importantly, the damage you could be doing to yourself if you’re getting it wrong.
Thankfully, experts are on hand. We’ve enlisted the help of Tim Walker, founder London’s Evolve Fitness to settle the form debate on five key exercises, once and for all.
First up, a pre-lift check list.
- Breathing. Oxygen creates energy in the muscles, so don’t hold your breath.
- Technical understanding. Understand which muscles you are about to engage, know the movement you’re about to make, and be deliberate with that movement.
- Mental participation. Make sure you’re in the moment, and don’t think about what’s next. Connect your mind to your muscles, and aim for a full range of motion.
- Load selection. Challenge yourself, but be realistic, your body will thank you in the long run. Go too heavy and you’ll fail to get a range of motion, too light and you won’t stimulate the muscle enough force growth.
1. Bicep Curls
The most common mistake: “Leaning back during the curl and bringing your elbows forward (rather than keeping them at your side).”
The damage it might be doing: You can incur bicep tendon injuries (tears, impingements and dislocations etc.) but the main reason you need to get your form right is so that the exercise actually has an effect. “Leaning too far backwards means that you’re not putting enough pressure on the bicep – you’re using your weight as momentum during the curl, rather than lifting only with the bicep muscles. And by lifting your elbows forwards, you’re shifting the focus of the exercise away from the bicep (you’ll be lifting with your shoulders and using the momentum from your body again), thus you won’t get the development you want.
How to fix it: “Focus on holding your posture more tightly; pull your shoulder blades back and down, and lift your chest up, lean forward slightly and keep your weight in your heels. Contract your abs at all times, too. To keep your elbow position, focus on keeping your elbows in line with your ears, and be forceful with that contraction in your abs when pulling the weight up.”
2. Bench Press
The most common mistake: “Elbow position. Most people have their elbows in line with their shoulders. It’s hampering your progress because it doesn’t target the chest. You’re looking for synergistic movement in the chest, shoulders and triceps.”
The damage it might be doing: The most common injuries are a Glenoid Labrum tear (front of upper arm), rotator cuff tears and shoulder impingement syndrome. Bench pressing is the kind of exercise that you want to keep increasing in weight, because the feeling of nailing that new three-rep max is unbeatable. But it only takes one lift with poor form for something to go wrong, so always think ‘form first, weight second’.
How you should be doing it: “I often ask my clients to lower their arms 20/25 degrees, so they are just above the nipple, and I always find it useful to keep my knuckles pointing to the ceiling, and my wrists straight.”
The most common mistake: “Rounding of the back, rather than keeping a natural arch.”
The damage it might be doing: “A slipped disc in the lower back is the main danger here.” You can also incur sprains and strains (different things), but if there’s any sharp pain at any point, you should stop.
How to fix it: “Try locking the upper body posture by keeping the chest high and arms long (aka fully extended, not bent). Keep your weight into your heels (make sure they don’t leave the ground, and you’re not feeling your full weight in your toes) concentrate on pressing through the legs and keep your core area strong by engaging your stomach muscles.”
The most common mistake: “For squats, there are several: bending forward too much, not squatting deep enough and allowing the knees to turn inwards.”
The damage it might be doing: “That mistake is damaging your body/hampering your progress because… Bending forward too much will put too much pressure on your back, and lead to the same kind of damage as an incorrect deadlift. If you’re not going deep enough you won’t be engaging the hamstrings and glutes as much as you could; if you’re aiming to build the muscles and boost metabolism you’ll be missing the mark. If you allow the knees to turn inwards you’re risking damage to the ligaments such as ACL.”
How to fix it: “For bending forward; this is commonly due to a general tightness in the chest and lats (latissimus dorsi muscles) and/or hip flexors, which is very common among office workers who spend a lot of time sitting. Fix it by stretching these muscles more regularly. For those not going deep enough, you need to man-up and understand the principles if fight-or-flight. Most people fear that when they go down deeper they won’t get back up, but you need to attack the movement with confidence and good technique. The worst that can happen is that the safety catches will stop the bar and you crawl out. For the knees, the best thing is to engage your brain. Think about what you are doing and what your knees are doing, you want your them to be in line with your second and third toes at all times.”
5. Single Arm Rows
The most common mistake: Rounding of the back, rotating too much as you pull the weight, and failing to achieve a full range of motion, i.e. not pulling the weight all the way into the body.
The damage it might be doing: “Rounding the back isn’t particularly dangerous, but it’ll prevent the most optimal development of your back. Over rotation when pulling the weight will mean you’re not working the back muscles as well as you could be, hampering your strength development. The same goes for not having a full range of motion; if you’re not pulling the weight all the way into your body, you’re not getting a full contraction of the muscles, which means you won’t be adequately stimulating them.”
How to fix it: “Stick your butt out and check your position in a mirror – your upper back should be flat, with a gentle/natural arch in your lower back. For over rotation, by more rigid in both your thinking and your positioning. When you hold the position more forcefully you will engage your abs and obliques better. This is one of my favourite back exercises – when done properly – it works and engages your core as well as the back.”
Tim Walker is the founder of Evolve Fitness,13-15 Bouverie Street, London, EC4Y 8DP