Never Do These 5 Things With Your Body
No manual says “never do these things to your body,” because humans are resilient. Throughout the course of a day, we might lift, walk, run, balance, carry heavy objects, navigate odd-shaped spaces — and emerge unscathed.
But then there are those moments we’re reminded we’re more vulnerable than we think. We knock our heads getting out of the car. We twist our ankle on that last step. We miss the cucumber and slice our thumb.
It’s the same story when we exercise: Most of the time, we’re fine. Then we do something just a little bit careless — whether rounding our back while lifting a barbell or stretching our shoulders the wrong way — and whammo, we’re out for six weeks.
While there’s no way to prevent every mishap, you can avoid most exercise-related tweaks by obeying few general rules of proper form. Not only will you reduce your chances of taking a trip to the ER, but you’ll also improve your posture, learn to move with greater efficiency, and make better progress in the long term.
Ready to up your form-game? Read on to learn the foundation of proper workout form as well as the things you should never do to your body.
First Things First: Learn Neutral Position
Proper form is all about aligning your joints, so they incur minimal stress while you exercise. Good posture not only keeps your joints safe but also directs the stress of each movement to the muscles, where it does the most good. It also looks and feels way better than slouching.
But that doesn’t mean standing like a marine — feet together, chest out, and jaw thrust forward. Building up from the floor, good posture means:
- Your feet are hip- to shoulder-width apart and roughly parallel, and your weight is evenly distributed between them.
- Your ankles are neither rolled in or out.
- Your knees are right over your ankles, neither bowed out nor collapsed in.
- Your hips are right over your ankles, neither thrust forward, pushed back, or shifted left or right.
- Your back is “flat” (i.e., neutral, neither arched nor rounded excessively).
- Your shoulders are level and relaxed, and your arms are relaxed by your sides.
- Your head is aligned with your spine, neither thrust forward, pulled back, tilted left or right, or rotated in either direction.
- Your breath is easy and unimpeded.
Your own ‘neutral state’ may deviate slightly from the outline above. Not everyone’s feet remain comfortably parallel at rest; not everyone’s shoulders are perfectly level, either. So start by approximating the points above, then allow your body to find natural adjustments based on your unique structure and alignment.
Once you find your version of neutral — think supple rather than rigid — it should feel comfortable and familiar. Return to this neutral posture often (as you brush your teeth, wait for your toast to pop up, or stand in line at the grocery store, for instance).
Every exercise — and, in fact, every movement you do — is a slight variation on this neutral position. No, you can’t follow every rule listed above when you press overhead, for example, because your arms and shoulders (and possibly your feet) move from this neutral position. But try to keep everything else — your back, head, hips, breath — as close to neutral as you can.
That’s the big picture rule. Beyond that, avoid the following common form mistakes.
1. Don’t Do It if It Hurts
You might have fantastic posture. Your form might make a kinesiologist weep with joy. But if any exercise you do causes pain in your joints, stop doing it immediately.
Muscle pain — that burning sensation in the working sinews that increases as a set goes on — is fine. If you’re seeking more muscle and strength, it’s desirable. Joint pain — either sharp and sudden or twinge-y and subtle — is another matter altogether. Feel anything like that, and it’s time to stop whatever you’re doing. Move the joint around. Assess what’s going on to the best of your ability. And then make up your mind whether to resume the exercise, move onto something else, or stop your workout entirely.
You may be fine, but why risk it? In a consistent, long-term exercise program — the kind you should be doing — those extra reps you get will be meaningless. Far better to quit now and lift another day than risk serious injury and end up on the sidelines. Many high-level athletes regret missing a game — or a season — because they did something foolish in the gym.
Remember: Exercise should help you feel better. If it makes you feel worse — or injures you — you’re doing something wrong. And if a muscle or joint pain lasts longer than a few days — or if your gut tells you that something’s just not right — see a doctor immediately.
2. Don’t Let Your Knees Collapse in
When you squat, lunge, deadlift, or perform any exercise where you flex your knees under load, watch your knees carefully. At no point should they buckle inward towards your center line. This action is very hard on the knee joints, and if you do it frequently while using big weights, your knees will start complaining — loudly.
In some cases, thoroughly warming up your glutes, hips, and legs before heavy lower-body moves will help prevent this. But if your knees collapse inward, even after you take these precautions, use less weight — or choose a different exercise altogether.
3. Don’t Round Your Back Under Load
Your spine evolved to bend, flex, and rotate in all directions. And when you warm up, stretch, and live your life, your spine is very happy doing its sinuous, snake-like thing. But when it’s loaded — when you perform deadlifts, lunges, rows, and weighted squats, for example — it’s a different story.
Bending and twisting under load make your back exponentially more vulnerable to injury. So when you’re carrying weight of any kind — a barbell, a kettlebell, a sandbag, or a two-year-old — keep your lower back in a natural arch. You’ll protect your discs and keep your spine healthy for decades to come.
4. Don’t Jut Your Head Forward
It’s a common sight in the gym: People curling, pressing, rowing, or lateral raising while pushing their head forward like they’re trying to read the license plate on a distant bumper. Don’t let this be you. Keep your head and neck aligned with your spine — even when you’re working at close to your limit.
One cue for this is to make a double chin, that action retracts your head into a neutral position on top of your spine.
5. Don’t Place Undue Strain on Your Shoulders
Your shoulders are your most mobile joints — which is useful for reaching into the back seat of your car. That mobility, however, also makes them vulnerable to injury.
In general, the closer your elbows stay to your sides as you move, the safer your shoulders will be. Think of raising your arms forward in parallel arcs. That’s the safest angle.
- So when you bench press with a barbell or perform pushups, your upper arms should form about a 45-degree angle to your torso.
- When you overhead press with a barbell, keep your grip just outside shoulder width, and press with your elbows moving forward, not out to the side.
- Same with performing rows or pulldowns: A narrower underhand or parallel grip works best for shoulder health.
In general, dumbbells, which allow your shoulders to find their own comfortable path, are preferable to barbells, which lock your arms into moving symmetrically.
Shoulders feel fine in other positions and you like barbells and feel fine when you lift them? Go ahead and experiment. But when something starts to bother your shoulders, default back to that arms-in, narrow-grip position — ideally with dumbbells.
Lastly, a reminder: Listen to your body. Some exercise variations explicitly ask you to violate one or more of these rules: weighted sit-ups, upright rows, and wide-grip pulldowns are just a few examples. With those moves, be particularly sensitive to any joint discomfort that may crop up.
And remember, it’s your workout. No trainer knows exactly what you’re feeling when you exercise. So listen to your body. And if it hurts, skip it.