Joel Harper, celebrity fitness trainer based in New York City. He is creator of the workout DVD series Fit Pack, the PBS programs Slim & Fit and Firming After 50 and of the workout chapters in The New York Times best-selling YOU book series and accompanying DVDs. He is author of Mind Your Body. JoelHarperFitness.com
Get the best of Bottom Line delivered right to your in-box
Thank you! Your submission has been received!
Oops! Something went wrong while submitting the form.
“Just do it” is a prudent exercise philosophy…but only if you’re doing it right. Execute an exercise improperly, and not only will your efforts fail to produce optimal fitness benefits, it could lead to back, neck and leg injury.
When we experience post-exercise discomfort, we often conclude that exercising just isn’t for us or that our bodies are too old for this much exertion. Not so, says celebrity trainer Joel Harper. A few minor modifications to the way we perform these exercises could result in pain-free fitness gains.
Here are the seven most common exercise mistakes—and how to do them correctly…
Mistake #1:Uneven feet during standing exercises. If you’re doing any standing exercise where your feet are supposed to be even with each other, such as squats, then your feet must be precisely even—equally far forward and at matching angles. Example: If one foot is pointed 20 degrees outward, the other should be angled 20 degrees outward, too. Subtle differences in foot positioning during standing exercises can throw the knees, hips and/or back out of alignment, which can lead to injury in those body parts, especially if this foot positioning becomes a habit.
To do it right: Before starting each set of standing exercises, visually confirm that your toes are equally far forward and that your feet are at comparable angles. It’s fine to point the feet either directly forward or slightly outward when doing squats and many other standing exercises, as long as both feet are doing the same thing.
Mistake #2:Uneven shoulder tension during pushups and other upper-body exercises. Many of us carry a substantially different amount of tension in one shoulder than the other, likely because we use our dominant arm more often or we sleep on our side. But just as improperly aligned feet can lead to back and lower-body pain following standing exercises, uneven shoulder tension can lead to unnecessary neck tension following upper-body exercises.
To do it right: Before beginning any upper-body exercise, use “elbow circling” to balance the tension in your shoulders. Touch your fingertips to your shoulders, then rotate your elbows in five large circles—large enough that your elbows briefly touch in front of your chest during each circle. Then reverse the circles, and do five in the other direction as well. Look straight ahead, and keep your head in alignment the entire time.
Mistake #3:Failing to stretch your feet before standing exercises. Even people who always stretch before workouts neglect to stretch the muscles of their feet. But those forgotten foot muscles play a role in any standing exercise, and overlooking them can lead to pain not only in the feet but also in the Achilles tendon, calves, knees or elsewhere in the lower body.
To do it right: Here’s a great foot-muscle stretch to use before lower-body exercises—while barefoot and with your knees and feet together, come onto your knees and curl your toes under, with the soles of your feet facing backward. Make sure your heels remain straight up. Slowly sit back onto your airborne heels until you feel a stretch in your toes and the arches of your feet. For a deeper stretch, gently inch your knees closer to your toes causing a deeper bend in your toes. Place your fingertips on the floor in front of you to help with balance. Ultimately with time, you want your heels above the joints of your toes and your shoulders above your hips. Hold for five deep inhales.
Mistake #4:Locking your elbows at the top of pushups. Some people think it’s cheating to stop a pushup before your arms are fully extended to where the elbows lock. But the goal of exercise is to put stress on muscles, and locking the elbows during pushups actually takes stress off the muscles and puts it on the elbow joints. Result: A less effective workout and potential joint pain.
To do it right: End each pushup just short of locking your elbows. That way the muscles must work throughout the exercise, and the joints are never under significant strain. In fact, it’s a good policy to stop just short of locking your elbows or knees with most exercises.
Mistake #5:Straining your neck muscles while doing abdominal exercises. The goal of crunches—those challenging cousins of sit-ups—is to exercise the abdominal muscles. But because the head is held at awkward angles during crunches, it’s easy to stress the neck muscles, potentially resulting in neck pain.
To do it right: As you lie on your back preparing to do a set of crunches, cross your wrists to form an X behind your head. Set your head onto this X—think of the wrist X as a plate to support your head’s weight, removing that responsibility from your neck muscles. Also: Resist the urge to tuck your chin against your chest during crunches—imagine there’s a tennis ball between your chin and chest.
Alternative: Skip the crunches entirely, and choose a different ab exercise that doesn’t risk neck strain. One good option: Lie on your back with your knees bent and above your hips, lower legs parallel to the floor. Use your hands to push against your upper legs/quads…but offset this by using your legs to push back against your hands. The net result should be that your legs don’t move. While you’re doing this, imagine that you’re pulling your belly button down through your back and into the floor so that your back does not arch. This exercise works the abs, the quads and the arms, all without risk of neck strain.
Mistake #6:Arching your back while doing squats. Many people lean slightly forward and arch their backs as they do squats, that well-known knee bend exercise. This subtle curve can feel like a natural way to balance the body’s weight…but it also tightens the back muscles in a way that can lead to back discomfort.
To do it right: When doing squats, cross your arms in front of your body with your elbows up at approximately shoulder height. Also keep your chin up and eyes aimed forward. This arm and head position keeps both your spine perfectly straight and body weight properly positioned.
Mistake #7:Grabbing the foot with the wrong hand when doing single-leg stretches. It’s among the most well-known and seemingly simplest of stretches—you sit with one leg extended and grab the extended foot with a hand. But many people—even some professional athletes—get it wrong. They use their right hand to reach for their right foot and vice versa. That puts the spine out of alignment and risks back pain, especially if one side is tighter than the other.
To do it right: Reach toward the toes with the opposite hand when doing single-leg stretches. If you cannot reach the toe, use the other hand behind you as leverage to gently push yourself forward. Think elongating your back, not just bending forward. The only time to reach with the same-side hand is when doing “ballet stretches,” which are uncommon.