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November 30 2010 4 Basic Exercises that Most People Perform Incorrectly

By MMG8427
Copyright 2009,

Below are 4 common exercises that many people, even knowledgeable lifting enthusiasts often perform incorrectly. How do I know? I used to be one of them. I always assumed I was performing them correctly since I have had great coaches, was getting good results in the gym, and had gone 6+ years without injury despite training for and competing in both Figure and Powerlifting multiple times. Plus, having been an avid reader of articles and books by Tate, Thibadeau, Cressey, Robertson, Wendler, Boyle and Cosgrove for years, I fancied myself quite the savvy lifter. But after getting a little schooling from Mike Robertson last January, I learned that my suboptimal form was keeping me from reaching the next level as well as ensuring my spot on the injured list in the future. I was compensating for weak areas, so no matter how much I lifted those weak areas remained weak, while my stronger areas began to take on a disproportionate amount of load. Since working with MR, I’ve learned that being mindful of correct form may force you to drop some weight off the bar at first, but over time will increase strength and performance as well as prevent injury. And who doesn’t want that? Without further ado, here are the exercises!

Push-Up: The basic push-up. It’s one of the first exercises we learn. You were probably forced to do them in gym class or maybe you did them on your own when you decided you wanted to become the next Hershel Walker. Either way… most of us have been performing push-ups for some time now. They are simple to learn, don’t require any equipment, and you can typically progress quickly when doing them regularly. What if I told you that you have probably been doing them wrong this whole time? Blasphemy, you say! “I keep my elbows tucked at 45 degrees and go all the way to the floor! My form is great!” Well that’s what I thought until I learned how I should really be doing them! I went from doing push-ups with a 45 lb plate on my back for sets of 16, to not even being able to execute 5 correct push-ups on the floor with just my body weight. Talk about humiliation!

Let’s examine how to improve push-up form:
1) Chest out. Beware, this is harder than it seems. Most of us battle with weak scapular stabilizers and tight pecs since we are constantly sitting; sitting at work, sitting in the car, or sitting playing video games. In order to keep your chest out properly you must seat your scapulae, driving them down and together. This puts your scapulae in the correct position to do their job during the push-up, which leads us to our next point.
2) Scapular retraction and protraction during the push-up. When you go into the bottom portion of the push-up, your scapulae should retract or “come together” and when you push yourself up, your scapulae should protract, or “come apart.”
3) Low back neutral. This is one of the biggest issues I see whenever someone is doing a push-up. Everyone thinks that they are staying nice and tight in their core, but the truth is you probably aren’t. Get a video of yourself doing push-ups from the side and you will get a much more objective perspective of what your push-up really looks like! In order to stay neutral, draw your abs in tight toward your spine throughout the entire movement. This will take any unnecessary stress off the lumbar spine and actually turns the push-up into one of the best core strengthening exercises out there.
4) Glutes tight. You should be squeezing your glutes like you are holding a $100 bill in there! Keeping your glutes tight will help stabilize your core and pelvis while performing the push-up. I know it’s not an easy task concentrating on keeping every area of your body tight at once, but you will gain more strength with every tight push-up than you would with 10 mindless push-ups.
5) Elbows at 45 degrees and go through the full range of motion (ROM). OK… this one might be preaching to the choir but just to cover my bases, flaring your elbows out to 90 degrees is hard on the shoulders and should be avoided. And if you aren’t getting full ROM, well then you are just fooling yourself. No one else in the gym is impressed with 100 elbow twitches, or the physique that comes with it.

If you try to implement all of these tips at once, don’t be surprised if you have to do incline push-ups for a while to get your form correct.

Bad Push-up:

Good Push-up:

Lunge: Ahhh the lunge. Revered and feared by many. There are very few exercises that have the ability to leave you as sore as a lunge. There are many variations of the lunge, but they have one thing in common: most people perform them incorrectly!

Here is a checklist of things to think about before you perform a lunge:
1) Railroad track steps. Begin with your feet no more than shoulder width apart. With each step, imagine a straight line going forward (or backward for reverse lunges) from your foot, as if you were walking on railroad tracks. Your foot and knee should stay in line with your imaginary tracks. If you have hip stability issues, you will find that your legs will want to drift inward or outward from the “tracks” to compensate for the weakness and instability. Even if it means dropping the weight, keep your form. This will force the stabilizers of the hip to strengthen, allowing for bigger squat numbers.
2) Square your hips. If you had headlights coming out of your hip bones, they should be facing straight ahead. This will get your pelvis in the proper position for a lunge and also ensure that you are getting proper hip extension and a good hip flexor stretch.
3) Get tall. That means chest up, abs drawn in, spine neutral, and pulling UP with your body. This will ensure good posture during the lunge and engage your abdominals more effectively. Some people tend to arch back or lean forward to get tall, instead of up. To prevent this, make sure that there is a straight line from the hips to the shoulders.
4) Squeeze the glute of the back leg. This ensures you are getting extension from your hip and not your lower back and keeps your pelvis stable and in the correct position throughout the lunge.
5) Drop straight down. Most people have a tendency to lunge forward because they are quad dominant. Your shin should be vertical and perpendicular to the floor. This will force you to engage your glutes and hamstrings more, but it will give you a better hip flexor stretch and take some of the shearing force off of your front knee.
6) Prevent knee cave. You should picture keeping the front knee towards your pinky toe. Forcing the knee out will engage the medial glute during the movement, providing stability and strength during the lunge.

If you didn’t hate lunges before, you will now that you’re attempting these correctly. However, going through this checklist in your mind before you perform lunges will make the movement more effective in building strength and putting some meat on the flattest of asses. You’re welcome.

Bad Lunge:

Good Lunge:

Chin-Up: The elusive chin-up. It’s a fantastic exercise that should be a staple of most weight training programs. It’s also one of the few exercises that can make 140 lb weaklings feel manly, and 300 lb beasts feel weak. It’s also one that, you guessed it, most people are performing incorrectly.

Here are some tips to get the most benefit out of your chin-up:
1. Eliminate any swinging of the body. (Assuming you’re not performing a kipping chin-up). There is definitely an argument for using momentum, getting more reps than normal, blah blah blah. In this instance, to perform a well executed chin-up, you want to eliminate swing and momentum. This ensures that you are maximally engaging and taxing the proper muscles and not relying on momentum to get your reps. If you can’t do a chin-up without swinging, grab some bands from and use them to do assisted chins.
2. Bring your sternum to the bar. Aiming for your sternum rather than your chin encourages you to pull more with your back and less with your biceps. This will also get your scapulae in that nice, seated position, reinforcing scapular stability.
3. Stay as tight and stable as possible during the chin-up. This turns the chin-up into an incredible full body exercise that is fantastic for increasing core stabilization.

So, if you desire a strong back, or you just want to accessorize a nice booty when people are watching you walk away, I suggest you remain mindful of these points as you knock out those chins.

Bad Chin-up:

Good Chin-up:

Step-Ups: I have to be honest; step-ups have always been one of my favorite exercises. I always felt like a pretty big bad-ass doing sets of 8 with 155 lbs on my back on a decently high box. And I always made sure my whole foot was on the box and that I drove through my heel and “pulled” myself up and didn’t jump off my back foot. I thought I had the step-up down pat. Dangit! Foiled again!

Here are a couple subtle tips that will get your legs as strong and stable as oak trees:
1) Drive your knee out over your pinky toe. When performing the step-up, many people have an issue with their knees caving in on the way up or down. This often happens in people with weak glutes. A good way to prevent this is to ensure your glutes are properly activated before performing the step-up. Performing a set of x-band walks, clams or “bad girls” (i.e. seated abductions with a mini-band) are great for waking up the glutes and helping to prevent this knee cave.
2) Seat your glutes. The goal is to keep your hip in line with the rest of your body. Do not let your hip jut out to the side on the way up or down.The best way to describe this is to “suck your hip in toward the middle of your body.” This will ensure maximal glute activation and knee stabilization during the movement.

If you are having problems performing the step-up correctly, start with a much lower box and get very strong doing step-ups on it with good form. Then raise the box slightly, lower the weight a bit and get very strong at that height. Rinse and repeat until you are doing step-ups on a box where your thigh is parallel to the ground at the start of the movement. Then get crazy strong at that height. Then go karate chop your sister in the neck. (OK, not really… but I had to make sure you were still awake).

Bad Step-Up:

Good Step-Up:

There you have it! There are 4 basic exercises that should be staples of your program and tips on how to perform them optimally. Hopefully you learned a little something from this article! And while I totally understand there are times that it’s OK (or even preferred) to not have perfect form, any time you can improve the safety and the effectiveness of a movement, that’s just a good idea in my book! Have fun and let me know how it goes!


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