Injuries from straightforward exercises like planks and squats are all too common—use these tips to perfect your form and prevent pain
Burpees, pushups, treadmill sprints: they're all famous for being go-to exercises in the gym. But some of these staples are well-known for another reason—their likelihood to cause injury. Done right, these moves can increase your strength and confidence, but do them with poor form and you could be looking at pain and overuse injuries. So to keep you at the top of your game, we asked fitness experts to share the exercises they see the most injuries from—plus, tips for how to do them safely and effectively. Here's your guide to working out smarter! (And don't miss these 5 Disclaimers for Popular Fitness Programs.)
Mistake: Done correctly, pushups can be one of the most effective exercises for strengthening your arms, shoulders, chest, and core. Done incorrectly, they're a recipe for pain and injury, according to Kevin Messey, an athletic trainer for the University of California, San Diego. "On average, women have poor upper body strength compared to that of their lower bodies, and this makes them more susceptible to injury—especially if they are doing too many in a row," he says. Allowing your head to drop and your back to arch can injure your neck, shoulders, and back.
Fix: Instead of looking at your belly button, focus your gaze a few inches in front of your hands to keep your spine straight. Note: It's important to stop if muscle burn ever turns to sharp pain, he says. (Ready to take your pushup to the next level? Try one or more of 13 Ways to Amp Up Your Pushup.)
Mistake: Hands down, squats are one of the best exercises you can do—as long as you're doing them correctly. But squats—especially with weights—also put large amounts of pressure on the lumbar spine, and that can lead to different spinal injuries and back pain, says Joel K. Jezequel, a physical therapist at New York Sports Medicine. But he says the most common mistake he sees is letting the knees "fall inward," which destabilizes your whole body and can actually injure your knees—an issue particular to women, as our wider hips make us more prone to going knock-kneed (that's when your legs curved inward abnormally, so your knees touch).
Fix: Check your ego at the door and drop the weights, at least until you've got your form perfected, says Jezequel. He adds that strengthening your core and hip muscles can help keep your knees in line with your hips when performing a squat.
Mistake: Anyone who has tried a yoga class is familiar with the flow from downward dog to upward dog. But despite it's popularity, it can be a risky move for your back, wrists, and hamstrings, says Matthew Carney, a kinesiologist and trainer at Austin-based Mecca Gym and Spa. "While this move is excellent for flexible people, most have limitations in the wrist, shoulder, thoracic spine, low back, or hamstrings that restrict them from doing the move properly." This manifests in overarching your back, scrunching your shoulders up to your ears, and bending your knees, all of which can put too much pressure on your joints and cause pain, pinched nerves, and weakness in your wrists.
Fix: Instead of trying to imitate the woman next to you, Carney recommends making adjustments like placing your hands on yoga blocks—the extra height will help you modify the motion and allow you to flatten your back and straighten your legs by not forcing your body into such an intense shape. Also, be sure to keep your thighs off the ground when you flow into upward dog, as it will help you keep from overarching your back! (Plus, this guide will help you Transition Between Yoga Poses with Grace.)
Mistake: Deadlifts can be a recipe for disk herniation when you allow your back to take all the weight, says Alice Holland, a physical therapist and director of Stride Strong Physical Therapy. The most common errors she sees people making are hinging from their hips, moving too quickly, and using too much weight.
Fix: Proper form is everything when it comes to deadlifts, Holland says. Allow a slight bend in your knees and use your legs, butt, hamstrings, and core to stabilize your back, helping with the lift. And never lift more weight than you're comfortable handling.
Mistake: Nothing pumps up your ego like being able to press a heavy bar over your head, but your power move may be hurting your back. "I see people throwing the bar over their head in a quick motion, which ultimately pops their ribs open. An open rib cage puts a slight extension in the spine and condenses the lower vertebrae, which can cause pain and injury," says Jennifer McCamish, a personal trainer, former Radio City Rockette, and owner of Dancer's Shape studio in Austin, TX.
Fix: In order to correct this common mistake, McCamish says to take all the momentum out of the lift. Instead of trying to "throw" the bar or bells, focus on keeping your core tight and raising the weights in a slow, controlled movement. (And, yes, that means you'll probably have to lower your weight, she says, but it's worth it to stay injury-free!)
Mistake: Burpees are a bootcamp staple, but they have the potential to injure almost every joint in the body when done incorrectly, says Brian Durbin, an exercise scientist at Winning Health. "The primary cause of injury in a burpee is the inability to properly stabilize the core. Instead of the body looking like a tightly coiled spring throughout the exercise, it sags like an old couch," he explains.
Fix: Make "tight butt, tight gut" your new mantra. Focus on keeping your arms from flaring out, your back straight (no hump between your shoulders and no arch in your low back), and your glutes tight throughout the move.
Mistake: Stress fractures are something that Wenjay Sung, consulting podiatrist for the Los Angeles Dodgers and a SOLS Medical Advisory Board Member, attributes to repetitive box jumping—a staple in CrossFit and bootcamp workouts. "The repetitive impact causes major stress to the bones in their feet," he says. In addition, the common practice of jumping quickly on and off often leads people to compromise foot placement, only landing partially on the box. Not only is this dangerous for slips and banged-up shins, but it increases the pressure on the delicate bones and ligaments in your feet and ankles.
Fix: "You need to know your limits. If your body is experiencing pain, believe and listen to it," he says, adding that the most important thing is to resist the urge to do these jumps barefoot. In addition, make sure you land with both feet entirely on the box, and don't allow your heels to hang off the edge.
Mistake: Planks are a huge part of core strengthening, but when done to exhaustion they can cause significant shoulder problems, says Noah Raizman, M.D., an orthopedic surgeon and expert in sports medicine at The Centers for Advanced Orthopaedics in Maryland. He says holding a plank for too long is responsible for bicipital tendinitis, one of the most common conditions that sends people to his office.
Fix: The second you feel pain in your shoulders, you need to stop, Raizman says, especially if you feel the pain in the front of your shoulders along with clicking or a feeling of instability. These signs could indicate that your shoulder is ready to give out.
Mistake: "I can't tell you how many people I see at the gym lying on their backs and holding weights while trying to work their abdominals," says Deanndria Seavers Mujahid, owner and certified Pilates instructor at Conscious Movement in Coral Gables, FL. "Meanwhile, their pelvis is tilted, their back is arched, which takes the work out of the core and into their back and hip flexors."
Fix: You don't need to add weights to get a killer core workout, Mujahid says. It's more important to make sure you tuck your pelvis under, so your lower back is flat on the floor, and your core is activated, by squeezing your belly buttom toward your spine, before you start the movement—both of which will protect your back.
Mistake: Many women, especially those new to lifting weights, prefer to use a machine, thinking it's simpler and less risky than dumbbells. But because of the way most machines lock you into a fixed position, they can be a recipe for injury—even more so for women, as the machines are often designed to a man's body, says Scott R. Pensivy, a physical therapist and owner of Fyzical SPORTS in Las Vegas, NV. And nowhere is that worse than with the seated leg extension machine. Not only does the machine put painful pressure on your knee joint, but Pensivy says it's not even building functional muscle.
Fix: Since most people who use the machine are trying to build strength in their quads, he recommends doing weighted squats or lunges instead.
Mistake: Despite its ubiquity, the adductor/abductor machine shouldn't even exist, says Mujahid. "Most individuals load the machine with too much weight, placing unneeded pressure on the hip capsules and spine, and can end up tightening the IT band," she explains, a common source of pain in women that can affect everyhting from how they walk and run, and sets them up for future injury.
Fix: Stand up! "Using a band, the adductors and abductors can be activated more effectively in many standing leg exercises. Plus, you'll also work your core and balance, making it a whole-body functional movement," she says. Even better: you can do these 8 Resistance Band Exercises Anywhere.