July 15, 2013
If you hit the gym regularly—and have friends that do, too—you’ve probably heard a number of tips about how to perform certain exercises to maximize safety and effectiveness—but have you been given the right info? Find out which common cues might not be quite entirely accurate, and learn what tweaks you can make to enhance your fitness experience.
Common Cue: “Keep the back straight.”
Enhance Your Form: Allow your torso to lean just slightly forward.
Why: A rigid, upright torso during this movement can inadvertently create undue stress in the low back, especially for those of us who spend most of our day in a seated position. Keeping the torso completely vertical causes excessive arching in the back—also referred to as increased lumbar lordosis—especially if you have tight hip flexors. Allowing the torso to learn forward just slightly—similar to your body position as you climb up a flight of stairs—protects your back and better engages your core when performing lunges.
Common Cue: “Hold as long as you can to challenge your core.”
Enhance Your Form: Hold the extended position for only seven to eight seconds.
Why: This movement is designed to build endurance and effectively train the body how to stabilize the low back during movement, while also providing a great challenge to the abdominal muscles. For this reason, researchers such as Dr. Stuart McGill of the University of Waterloo recommend limiting the hold time in bird-dog to no more than seven to eight seconds and focusing on increasing the number of repetitions to build endurance as opposed to increasing the amount of time you hold the fully extended position.
Common Cue: “Open the arms with palms facing the floor.”
Enhance Your Form: Turn your thumbs up just slightly.
Why: As your arms draw near shoulder level, turning your thumbs slightly upward and slightly externally rotating the shoulders helps reduce the risk for impingement in the shoulder joint. Also, make it a point during lateral raises to keep the wrists in a neural position as you rotate the hand.
Common Cue: “Don’t let the knees go past the toes.”
Enhance Your Form: Keep the knees aligned with the second toe.
Why: While it is true that you want to avoid excessive forward movement of the knees, depending on your exact build, especially if you have long limbs, it’s very likely—and natural—that your knees may move slightly forward or just beyond the toes. The key to safety and effectiveness when squatting is to aim to keep the knees aligned over your second toe so that the knee is moving in the same direction as the ankle joint. Pair this with initiating the squatting movement by pushing your hips back—what is commonly referred to as a hip hinge—before lowering the body toward the floor, and you’ll reduce the stress on your knees as well.
For more insight on exercise form, consider enlisting the services of a certified personal trainer to help you make the most of your time in the gym.
Jessica Matthews, MS, E-RYTContributor
Jessica Matthews, M.S., E-RYT is assistant professor of exercise science at Miramar College. As a leading fitness expert, writer and educator Jessica is a regular contributor to numerous publications, including Shape and Oprah.com. She holds a B.S. in physical education teacher education from Coastal Carolina University and M.S. in physical education from Canisius College. She is a certified Personal Trainer, Group Fitness Instructor and Health Coach through the American Council on Exercise (ACE) as well as an Experienced Registered Yoga Teacher (E-RYT) through Yoga Alliance and trained stand-up paddleboard (SUP) yoga instructor. Prior to teaching at Miramar, Jessica worked full-time ACE, serving in a number of key roles including exercise physiologist, certification director and senior health and fitness editor. Her past work also includes serving as aquatics director at Conway Medical Wellness and Fitness Center and designing health and physical education curriculum for grades K-12. Full Bio Jessica Matthews »