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Fix Your Exercise Form for Better Results

Dangerous Workout Mistakes

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Watching people do crazy things is one of the best and the worst things about working out in a gym, and trainers get to see more than their fair share of what-on-earth-is-she-doing? moments. To help you stay injury-free (and avoid being the topic of trainer trash talk), we asked Steve Toms, NCEP certified exercise therapist and corrective exercise specialist for Lifetime Fitness, and Jessica Matthews, the American Council on Exercise's (ACE) exercise physiologist, to share the most common mistakes they see women make at the gym and easy ways to fix them.

Bad Posture on Cardio Machines

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Nix it: The temptation to hunch over the StepMill, Stair Climber, treadmill, or bike is strong, especially when you're fighting fatigue. But resist the temptation, as you could be hurting much more than your cardio endurance. According to Toms, "cheating" with your posture not only causes back and neck pain, but it also promotes bad habits that can cause lifelong functionality issues.

Fix it: Don't turn your hands inward on the rails so that your elbows bow out and your shoulders hunch, Toms says. Even better, don't use the rails at all unless you need them for balance. Keep a straight, relaxed posture with your core tight and your eyes looking straight ahead. If you get too tired to maintain good posture, then you're too tired to keep going.

Behind-the-Neck Lat Pull Downs

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Nix it: Behind-the-neck lat pulldowns and other moves that require you to push or pull a weight behind your head used to be wildly popular—until people started getting neck and back injuries from the unnatural motion. "There isn't any functional reason why you need to do that," Toms says. "In real life you would never yank something down behind your neck like that." And if you've ever pulled a neck muscle, you know how not being able to check your blind spot while driving impacts your life.

Fix it: Just skip these moves. Period. According to Toms, there are much more efficient ways to work your shoulders that don't carry the risk of a pulled neck. Try doing presses and pulldowns in front of your body.

Toms adds that it's fine to rest a barbell across your shoulders for weighted squats and lunges, but be very cautious when lifting it on and off. Use a squat rack if possible and don't ever jerk the weight over your head.

Rock 'N Roll Abs

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Nix it: We've all seen it: The person doing an abs workout on the floor and flailing so much that you're not sure if they're break dancing or just about to break something. While they can certainly look painful, the real problem with using momentum to complete the motion is that you're not using the muscles you were trying to work in the first place, thereby making your "abs" workout pointless.

Fix it: Abs exercises do not have to use a lot of motion. Done right, a very concentrated contraction can work your core much better than dozens of rock-n-roll sit-ups. Don't pull on your neck, don't use momentum, and as soon as you start feeling the tightness in your hip flexors or back, you're done. Toms coaches his clients to do more static moves like planks and yoga boat pose to strengthen their entire core. But if sit-ups are your thing, he advises holding an exercise ball to add difficulty and range of motion without the temptation to rock up.

Looking Up at the Ceiling

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Nix it: Chances are you were taught to lift your chin and look up at the ceiling during moves like Romanian deadlifts and back squats. Unfortunately, we were all taught wrong, Toms says. "Any time you crane your neck back like that you are closing the neural transmission along your spine and impeding the ability of the brain to communicate with your muscles."

Fix it: Whether you are looking up at the ceiling during a deadlift or dropping your head towards the floor during a pushup, the problem is the same. The way to fix this, Toms says, is "to pretend like you always have an apple between your chin and your chest. Try to keep your neck straight and your eyes looking forward." If looking upwards helps you in your lift (praying, perhaps?) Toms says it's fine to look up with your eyes, just don't let your chin follow.

Crossing Your Legs

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Nix it: You're doing this right now, aren't you? (You're not alone…) According to Toms, repeatedly crossing your legs causes a lumbo-pelvic imbalance that throws off alignment in everything from your knees to your neck and can eventually lead to injury. While this isn't technically a workout move, it's something that women do so often that Toms repeatedly sees the ill effects in the gym. When you do, say, a squat with unbalanced hips, you're setting yourself up for chronic injuries.

Fix it: This is about fitness, not etiquette, but learning to keep your knees together is a good life skill and a good strengthening move.

Weak Core

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Nix it: Throwing out your back is one of the most painful experiences you can have. And whether you're actually working out when it happens or not, a thrown back can often be traced to one main problem: a weak core. "It sounds cliche, but your core is essential in everything you do. Ideally when you move, your inner unit stabilizes you so that your movers—your bigger muscles like your legs and back—can do their job. But when your stabilizers are weak, your movers have to act like stabilizers. And how do they do that? By locking up."

Fix it: "A thrown back is really your body trying to protect itself," Toms says. So to prevent back problems, make sure you are strengthening your entire core by doing a wide range of movements that work both your front and your back like planks alternated with supermans. In addition, Toms adds, "You should be using your core in every move you do. Pushups? Keep those abs in tight and don't sag through your back. Rows? Engage your core before you even start the motion."

Unstable Surface Training

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Nix it: "BOSU balls, airex pads, and other 'unstable surface' training devices are hugely popular for one reason: because they're sexy," Toms laughs. "Trainers and clients like them because they're fun and they look cool, but the vast majority of people standing on them probably shouldn't be." If you can't perform a move perfectly on solid ground then adding instability is just asking for an injury.

Fix it: Toms recommends working up in a progression. Once you've perfected your shoulder press form, try doing the same move standing on one foot. Once you're a pro at that, make it a compound move involving balance, like a lunge to a knee lift with a shoulder press.

Toms adds that this is only a problem when you're standing on the unstable surface. Sitting or laying on them to do core work or chest presses is just fine.

Overstretched Hamstrings

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Nix it: According to a 2005 Harvard study, 50 percent of runners—both male and female—get an injury of some type every year. Tight hamstrings are one of the main sources of running injuries that Toms sees, but the real problem isn't that runners' hams are tight; it's how they try to fix it.

"What do you do when your hams are tight? You bend forward and stretch them. Unfortunately, this only makes the problem worse." It may seem counterintuitive, but Toms explains that many people have an anterior pelvic tilt (where your pelvis tips forward, causing your back to arch and your hips to sway), which stretches your hamstrings tight to begin with. "You can't stretch something further that's already stretched to its max!"

Fix it: Work on loosening up and stretching tight hip flexors by doing deep lunging stretches, yoga pigeon pose, or other front hip openers. This will help your pelvis come back into alignment and naturally give your tight hamstrings a rest.

Toms also recommends strengthening your glutes. "Runners are often very quad-dominant," he says, "but the gluteus maximus is the largest muscle in the human body."

Plyometric Problems

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Nix it: Plyometrics (exercises that involve both feet leaving the ground at the same time) are hugely popular right now—and for good reason. Moves like tuck jumps, box jumps, and jumping lunges (seeing a theme here?) give you a killer strength and cardio workout. Unfortunately, they can also cause injury. Matthews says the real problem isn't in the jump, but the landing. "Incorrectly landing on your heel or the ball of your foot can increase impacting forces and make you prone to injury."

Fix it: Learn how to land the right way, and do it before you jump (!) into a plyo workout. Matthews advises to "focus on landing softly on the mid-foot, and then roll forward to push off the ball of the foot, avoiding excessive side-to-side motion at the knee in the process. To further reduce the risk of injury, be sure to complete a dynamic warm-up before performing plyometric exercises."

Bad Form with Kettlebells

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Nix it: Contrary to gym lore, the real risk with swinging a kettlebell isn't throwing it through the nearest mirror but rather throwing out your back. "The problem lies in that many people who do them don't understand the proper mechanics for the exercises," Matthews says. "For example, many incorrectly perceive the kettlebell single-arm swing as a shoulder exercise when it should be working the core."

Fix it: It's a good idea to take at least one kettlebell lesson so you know what it feels like to use proper technique. "When performing the kettlebell single-arm swing, avoid lifting with your back or your shoulders. Like in many kettlebell exercises, the hips (snapping them up and forward) should always drive the movement," Matthews says.

Cutting Rest Periods Short

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Nix it: Are you a speed demon in the gym? Completing your workouts efficiently and getting a good burn is important, but if rushing is making you ditch or shorten your rest periods, then you need to put on the brakes. "These recovery intervals are when the body produces more energy for the next bout of high-intensity exercise and also removes metabolic waste from the muscles," Matthews says. "Active recovery periods should always be as long as (if not longer than) the high-intensity intervals."

Fix it: Relax. Chill out. Get a drink of water. There's no shame in taking a brief rest, and this will allow you to push harder during your next set. "Avoid the temptation to shorten the recovery intervals or to let the recovery periods be less than active," Matthews says. She advises a 1:2 or 1:3 ratio of speed to active-recovery intervals.

Only Working Muscles You Can See

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Nix it: Everyone has a body part they just don't enjoy working (Hello, calves). But just because you can't see it or don't like it doesn't mean it isn't there. We love seeing the definition in our legs, but if you're only working the parts that you can see, then you're missing all the small stabilizing muscles and setting yourself up for muscular imbalances and injury.

Fix it: Make sure your workout is well rounded, even if you have to grit your teeth and do moves you don't love. Even better, Toms says, is to focus on functional movements rather than isolating muscles. Incorporate pushing, pulling, rotating, and other everyday motions into your workout. This will ensure that you're engaging all of your muscles.