How to use proper form when exercising

Recently I started noticing some twinges here and there when I exercise. I know that I have weak knees and ankles so I make sure that I pay attention to using the correct form for any exercises using my legs.

But I started noticing this weird feeling in my elbows when I would do pulling exercises like rows with free weights or when I lower myself down after a chin up. Eventually, it started to hurt a little bit. My left shoulder also feels all wrong.

This is embarrassing for me to admit because I am a qualified group fitness trainer and have done some courses including anatomy and exercise science. I know how the body is meant to move and at least the basics about preventing injury while exercising. I haven’t dived in and started teaching yet but part of my job would be to make sure that everyone is using the correct form to minimise the risk of injury.

I have even written a post about having good posture, you can read it here: All about good posture. I think bad posture caused by poor ergonomics (basically, my desk and chair were positioned incorrectly) is part of what caused my shoulder issues.

Much to my surprise, I found out that I was not keeping my wrists straight when doing the pulling exercises and this was what was causing the problem with my elbows. I came across this video on Youtube that explained it very nicely. You can check it out here: Elbow pain from chin ups, curls, and rows.

So let’s get to it. Here is the correct form for the most common types of resistance/strength exercises:

Your knees should never go over your toe.

Think lunges and squats here. When you sink into the squat you are meant to push out your derriere as if you are about to sit down which will keep your toes from going over your knees.

With a lunge your upper body should stay upright, you aren’t meant to be leaning forward or backwards, your legs should form a nice 90° angle or really close to it. Keep this in mind when doing similar exercises or different variations of these exercises.

Your knees should be in line with your toes.

Basically, they should be pointing the same way as your knees. I have noticed that sometimes my feet point straight ahead and then my knees are pointing outwards or vice versa. If I don’t pay attention to my lunges my toes even point inwards while my knees are facing forward. This is a no-no. Your joints don’t like this and it’s not a strong and efficient position either.

Keep Your Knees Out During Squats- No Collapsing Inward.

If your knees are collapsing inward, you likely have weak bum muscles. Not only is this not great for your knees, but your hips are likely suffering too. Make sure that as you squat, your knees are out and in line with your calves so to speak. You should feel squats in your butt. If not, you’re doing them wrong.

Keep your back straight.

No matter which exercises you’re doing your back should be straight unless the exercise specifically calls for a rounded back or shoulders or creating a concave shape. So for exercises like squats, lunges, push-ups, planks, deadlifts, etc, keep your back straight.

To do this you will need to contract your abs (abdominals/stomach muscles), keep your chest upright, and your shoulders down and back. Imagine your shoulder blades being drawn down and towards your spine. Not only will you feel better doing the exercise and prevent injury, but you’ll look sexy too!

Keep your core tight. 

This is going to help you with many of the exercises you do, even some aerobic workouts. Keeping your abs tight will help prevent you from hurting your back, for example, it will help prevent your back from arching during heel taps which is important to keep your back safe and it will keep you from twisting your back too far during stretches or aerobic exercises.

It’s also good to tighten your bottom when doing exercises like planks and hip bridges.

Keep your wrists straight. 

This is true for exercises with weights, when you are punching (e.g. karate) and even when you type on your computer. With the pulling exercises, you strain your forearms which strain your elbow joints if your wrists aren’t straight.

If you punch someone (not that you should go around punching people or things unless you’re into boxing or similar sports or use a punching bag for exercise) with your hand angling up or down you can really hurt your wrist or even break it. When your wrists aren’t as neutral as possible when you type you could end up getting carpal tunnel syndrome. Yikes.

We all want to get sloppy when we feel tired or overdo it when we’re feeling pumped up and motivated in the beginning. Here are a few tips to maintain proper form during exercise:

Lessen the weight.

It’s tempting to want to use really heavy weights at first or if there are people watching. But if you can’t maintain good form because it’s too heavy, rather select a lower weight. This will prevent injuries and you will lessen the strain on your body. As you get stronger you can use heavier weights.

Master the easier form of the exercise first.

A lot of exercises have variations. They will range from easy to hard. If you are new to exercise, have been sick, injured or coming out of a long period of inactivity, rather do the variation of the exercise that is still challenging but that you can do using the correct form all the way through the set.

For example, for push-ups, do them on your knees or on an incline (placing your hands on a bench) before doing them on the floor or decline push-ups. With lower ab exercises like leg raises, do them with your legs bent at a 90° angle until you get strong enough to do them with straight legs. You can also do them one leg at a time as opposed to doing both legs at once.

Take a break between reps if necessary. 

You need to push yourself but you also need to exercise safely. If you really are struggling to manage all the repetitions in a set with good form, rather take a little break. Skip a rep or two. If you are on your hands and knees or facing the floor do a child’s pose for a few seconds (sit back on your knees and lie across your quads (front of your thighs) and stretch your arms and hands forward.

Take your rest between sets.

The amount of rest you have depends on your workout. In Tabata workouts, it can be as short as 10 seconds. When you do strength or resistance workouts it can be anything from 30 seconds to 5 minutes. Whatever the amount of rest is for your workout, take it. If you don’t you will struggle to do the next set properly and effectively.

Make sure you know how to do the exercise correctly. 

Sometimes you might just not be aware of what you are doing wrong. There is a lot of good information out there from reputable sites on the internet or in books. If you use DVDs, listen to the safety advice given by the instructor.

This is helpful if you prefer to train at home or alone. If you are at the gym ask one of the fitness instructors to help you out. If you have a personal trainer they should be correcting your form if you are doing it wrong without you having to ask.

As for myself, I think I am going to rest my arms and shoulders for a few days. I have used pillows to make sure I am sitting at the right height in relation to the desk and I am working on not being so stressed out that my shoulders become full of knots. Now that I know what I was doing wrong in my workouts I’ll be paying attention to my form when I start up again.

I hope you guys found these tips and guidelines useful. Remember that you should always be working out safely. Using a lower weight when there are a bunch of muscled guys or fit women around can be embarrassing, or you might want to rush through a workout or just get it done because you don’t have much time or because you don’t actually feel like it.

But you are exercising to become healthy and strong, not injured. It takes effort and you need to listen to your body. So have fun, enjoy your workouts, and above all, do it right 🙂

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