Considering how much time, effort, and energy you put into your workouts, you want to feel confident that your hard work is paying off. But even an exercise veteran can fall victim to improper alignment and muscle recruitment when exercising. “It’s challenging to know where your body is in space,” says Katie Mann, San Diego-based club Pilates master trainer. “If we can’t see the error in a mirror or monitor, we have to rely on our mind-body connection to inform us of proper movement patterns.” Without an efficient mind-body connection, our only other roadmap to improper alignment or technique is injury or pain. And certain moves are more likely to be performed incorrectly than others. We asked top trainers to share the fitness moves they often see performed incorrectly—and how to do them right.
Torso Rotation Exercises
Working your obliques and side body, with a Russian twist, for example, is great. Oftentimes, though, people focus too much on their arms, as this is easier than concentrating on your actual abs. “When [doing] standing, kneeling, or seated torso twists, it’s important to rotate from around the sides of the torso, not just move your arms side to side from the shoulders,” Mann says. “Ground force should begin in the feet and go through the hips and torso to exit from the arms and hands.”
To ensure activation of the obliques, Mann recommends exhaling upon exertion as you twist your torso. “Exhaling physiologically contracts the obliques via the connection to the rib cage,” she says.
They look easy enough, but lunges are often performed incorrectly. “In all lunges—front lunges, reverse lunges, lateral lunges, and curtsy lunges—poor knee alignment is typically the culprit when it comes to improper technique and mistakes,” Mann says. “Taking too short of a step in the direction that you are lunging is an easy error that affects the knee alignment.”
She suggests making sure that your knee tracks behind your foot and is in line with your second toe. When front or reverse lunging, place your weight on your heels rather than your toes. This will activate the glutes and keep the weight away from the front of the knees, she adds.
Nearly all ab exercises incorporate the crunch technique in some way or form. The problem is that if you’re not doing them correctly, you won’t reap the benefits and you can injure yourself. “When I see people pulling so hard with their arms to get their neck off the floor, or jamming their chin into their chest and just lifting their head, I worry,” says Hope Pedraza, ACSM-certified personal trainer and founder of inBalance in San Antonio, Texas.
“Instead, keep the elbows out to the side and have light pressure on the back of the head. Keep a small space between the chin and the chest and, instead of leading with the chin or the head, engage the abdominals to get the shoulder blades off of the floor.”
Planks appear simple. But it can be difficult to hold the isometric movement due to weak abs and strain on the lower back. “More often than not, you will see the hips hike, forming a downward-doglike position due to shifting the weight back,” says Brooke Taylor, fitness instructor, and creator of TF IGNITE and Taylored Fitness. “This may be a result of not having the underlying strength to hold their own body weight, not being able to recruit the proper muscles or lack of proprioception in their body.
Taylor recommends starting with your hands placed directly underneath your shoulders and your knees directly underneath your hips. “Activate your core, send both legs back, press firmly into your hands and toes, and work on building up your strength over time,” she says. “If this is too much, regress back to your knees, and focus on holding your abdominals tight with a neutral spine.”
According to Taylor, incorrect push-ups are most commonly caused by narrow hand placement, weak abdominals, and pecs, or not having the strength to sustain your weight. As a result, weight is shifted too far forward, and the pelvis is hiked too high.
“To perform a push-up correctly, first start standing facing a wall with your hands placed slightly wider than shoulder distance,” she says. “Inhale to lower your chest down as one piece, and exhale to press away.” Once this connection is established, she recommends moving to the floor into a kneeling push-up. “Start by lying on your belly, bend your knees in, cross your ankles, and place your hands slightly wider than shoulder distance,” she says. “Activate your glutes, and lift your body up to form a nice long line from head to knee. Lastly, inhale to lower down, fist-distance from the floor, and exhale to press away.”
Squats look easy enough—and they are—but they’re also easy to perform incorrectly. “A traditional squat is done with the heels about hip-width distance apart, knees bent to drop the rear toward the ground, and heels driving through the ground,” Pedraza says. “The problem here is twofold. First, many people jump to the squat rack too quickly. Instead, they should try to master air squats (a bodyweight squat) first, as well as [practice] proper engagement of the posterior chain (the back side).”
When people jump right to the weights, their form and musculature are, in many cases, not strong enough to perform the movement properly. This leads to the next problem of correct muscle engagement. “An incorrect squat can also harm the knees, as the knees can roll in over the big toe rather than staying lined up over the middle toes,” she says. “Correct form here requires strong adductors (inner thighs) as well as glutes and hamstrings.”
The most common curl mistake Kelly Borowiec, CPT, founder of Keebs Fitness, sees is lifting too much weight. “This causes tension in the shoulders and a tendency to lean backward, putting pressure on the lower back,” she says. “You can avoid this by choosing an appropriate amount of weight for your skill level and increasing it slowly.”
Keep your shoulders down and back as you lift, and contract your abs. Also, keep your elbows close to your sides, and raise the dumbbells to the height of your shoulders, Borowiec explains.
Watch out for improper form and mechanics throughout your workouts. Practice in the mirror if you’re unsure about your technique—be careful not to get lazy while performing these fitness moves.