To get the body you’re after, you’ve got to have all the right moves—and know how to do those moves correctly. But even some of the basics can go haywire if you aren’t focused on good form, which can lead to exercises that are less effective or even a potential risk for injury. Consider the following a PSA on the moves you might be messing up, from Amy Roberts, a National Academy of Sports Medicine Certified personal trainer.
It’s possibly the most botched move I see on the gym floor (well, aside from the deadlift). Typically, the mistakes are twofold: Setting the hands too far apart and leaning too far back (so it basically becomes a row). To place your grip correctly, stand under the bar and make your arms like football goalposts, then shoot your fingers straight up to the bar—that’s where you should grab it.
During the move, you should lean back no more than 10-15 degrees from your hips so you can engage the lats (imagine you’re pulling from your armpits) without compromising your posture or spine. An easy fix is to scooch your butt back a bit on the seat. Finally, as you pull down, think about bringing your chest toward the bar, not your arms to your chest. Pull to just below chin height, then control the weight on the way back, keeping your shoulders from creeping up toward your ears. One more thing: Never pull the bar down behind your head—there is no strengthening benefit and you could throw your neck out.
I know what you’re thinking. You’ve been skipping rope ever since elementary school recess—could you really be doing it wrong? Absolutely, says certified strength and conditioning specialist Brian Durbin, owner of Fitness Together in Mt. Pleasant, SC. Common snafus include hunching over, jutting out your chin, landing on feet flat, jumping by bending the knees, and swinging the rope haphazardly. But don’t hang up your rope; it really is worth it to get it right—we’re talking 700-to-1,000-calories-per-hour worth it.
First, make sure you have the right size rope: Step on the middle of it with one foot—the handles should come up to just above armpit height. Now, step in front of the rope and stand on the balls of your feet, hands turned so the palms face forward. Roll your shoulders back, lengthen your neck, drawyour abs inward, and clench your glutes. Finally, let the wrists drive the motion of the rope rather than the arms or shoulders; keep your hands just in front of your waist and elbows slightly bent. “Think of your body as a tight spring that loads and unloads again and again off the balls of your feet, primarily from the muscles in the calves,” say Durbin.
Side Leg Lifts
A staple from the days of Jane Fonda and jazzercise, the standard side leg lift—in which you lie on a mat on one side and fling the top leg up into the air—is performed under the theory that you can kick those saddlebags to the curb. Unfortunately, when it’s performed flat on the floor, the moving leg has a tendency to turn out in the hip so the muscle that actually gets the work is a deep hip external rotator, the piriformis.
The simple fix: Prop yourself up. The easy way to do this is by resting your elbow on a low platform (like a low bench or box) and using your bottom leg as a kickstand by bending your knee with your foot to the back. If you’re looking for a challenge, come into a forearm side plank instead. From this angle, your top leg will resist gravity (so the outer thighs will get more work) and you’ll be able to drive it up straight with no turnout. Flex your foot and only go as high as you can while keeping its arch parallel to the ground.
An awesome workout for the shoulders, simple front raises—performed by holding dumbbells and lifting them straight up in front of you—are remarkably easy to goof. Too often, folks tend to arch their bodies back and lift the weights too high.
The trick is to set your stance first by slightly bending your knees and sticking your butt out slightly. Then hold your stomach in as you raise the weights—fingers facing in, not down, to protect the rotator cuffs—and stop the movement when your arms are parallel to the floor. If you find yourself arching or leaning back, go down to a lighter set of weights. Resist the urge to fling the weights up with your arms or by rocking back—the move should be slow and controlled throughout the set. It’s better to pause and reset your stance than power through with bad form.
The Stair Climber Machine
It’s an great workout and among the most functional exercises you can do. After all, who doesn’t encounter stairs in her everyday life? The error I see all too often: holding on! More specifically, clinging to the console for dear life. First, it’s terrible for your posture and spine. Second, you’re de-loading the exercise by allowing your upper body to take some weight off your legs, reducing your calorie burn (which is kind of the opposite of the point, right?).
To fix it, take a cue from Adele Dazeem (or, you know, Idina Menzel) and let it go. If needed for balance, rest just two fingers of each hand on the side rails. If the mill is moving too fast and you feel you must grab on, slow it down, or realize it’s a sign that you’ve hit your max on the machine for the day.
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