Written by Student Kinesiologist Janice Leung
Hitting the gym, figuring what to do and how to do it safely can be a daunting combination. Sometimes the easiest solution beyond googling and searching on YouTube is just taking a peek at what others are doing in the gym. Unfortunately, “monkey see, monkey do” is not always the brightest. Even when the person next to you is doing something that is safe, it might not necessarily be a suitable exercise for your body mechanics, injury history, etc. So here are 5 common exercise mistakes that I see in the gym all the time.
1. Rotator Cuff Exercises
I’ve seen countless iterations of exercises intended to strengthen the rotator cuff muscles of the shoulders. Unfortunately, rarely any of them are done correctly. One gut wrencher that I’ve seen is wild arm circles with 5lb plates. I’ve seen a powerlifter, who I highly respect, perform the movement. Perhaps there is merit and a reason behind it. But as mentioned before, the common fault is when people copy what others do without proper consideration of what the exercise is trying to accomplish and whether it is appropriate for them. The other very popular “go-to” warm up exercise is grabbing dumbbells or weight plates and externally rotating (as pictured above). This is all fine and dandy, but the truth is, it’s not accomplishing what most think that it’s accomplishing. Yes, you are externally rotating your shoulder, but think about how you’re working against gravity. You’re just using your bicep muscles to hold the weight up and taking the weight through a range of motion of external rotation. Simply bringing your elbow up to shoulder height and doing the same movement will target the external rotators more efficiently.
Alternatively, grab a resistance band or use a functional trainer cable machine and do the same. Take note that this changes the resistance that you’re working against. Now you’re working against a horizontal force that is actually resisting external rotation, i.e., your external rotators will be the primary muscles targeted.
2. Foam Rolling
Let’s be real here. Foam rolling tight, sore muscles is never fun and can be down right painful. There’s no easy way around it. This is why it’s common to see people, myself included, to be rolling too quickly. Unless you’re a proud masochist, it’s almost natural to roll muscles too fast because it’s just not comfortable. But think of it this way. When you get a massage, does your massage therapist quickly reef on your muscle a couple of times and then move on? No. In the same way, roll slowly. Thomas Myers, the author of Anatomy Trains, says, “Your muscles need time to get used to this sensation to allow the nervous system to actually relax and reduce tension.” If you simply can’t tolerate the pain, try releasing specific points or very small areas while taking in a couple of deep, slow breaths.
Watch Physiotherapist Dr. Erson Religioso’s video about breathing to release trigger points:
3. Leg Swings
As a former competitive track athlete and assistant high school track coach, I’ve seen many different leg swing variations as part of warm-ups and/or cool-downs. I never really realized the issue until I attended a weekend course from The Running Clinic. Then I saw Dr. Ryan DeBell of The Movement Fix post a great video on the same issue. Leg swings seem harmless because it’s a dynamic movement and the absence of pain tells an athlete that they’re doing it right, along with sensation of stretch through the groin, hamstring and hips. However, as Dr. DeBell discusses, this movement should in fact, be solely isolated to the hip joint. What often happens is that the lower back becomes involved and may have too much flexion and extension, especially as athletes involve the swinging of the opposite arm to reach their toes. I’ve been guilty of this as well. When we try to increase the range of motion of our swing, we often compensate by introducing too much movement through the lower back. Dr. DeBell gives a great tip: you can simply put your hand on the small of you back while you swing, so you can make sure that there’s minimal to zero movement through your back.
Watch Chiropractor Dr. Ryan DeBell explain and demonstrate how to perform leg swings properly:
4. Scapular Movement in Push Ups
A lot can go wrong with the push up, but I’ve chosen to specifically talk about the scapular movement. It’s not necessarily wrong, but what a lot of people do is that they lock down their shoulder blades or scapulae in retraction, i.e., squeezing the shoulder blades together. When people do this, they’re missing out on scapular protraction, i.e., shoulder blades moving away from each other, and using a muscle called the serratus anterior. In general, scapulothoracic rhythm is coordinated movement between the scapula and humerus (Blanton, 2012). If the scapulae are locked down in retraction, then you are likely missing out on that. As Eric Cressey of Cressey Sports Performance explains, this could lead to problems in the long run.
Watch Strength and Conditioning Coach Eric Cressey explain further about scapular movement during the push up:
5. The Eccentric Phase
Generally speaking, it’s a common mistake to speed through the eccentric phase of exercises. There may be exceptions if you’re training according to a specific protocol or specific goals. But for those that aren’t familiar with what the eccentric phase is, think of any exercise working in 2 phases: 1. contracting and shortening muscles generally against gravity, i.e., concentric phase, 2. contracting and lengthening muscles in the same direction that gravity works, i.e., eccentric phase. In the squat, the eccentric phase is when you bend your knees and lower your hips down. In a standing cable triceps extension, the eccentric phase is when you’re bending your elbows to return to the starting position. (You’re working in the same direction that gravity works because the weight stack is being lowered down).
I have clients that speed through their repetitions because they simply want to get it over with and reduce the discomfort they feel as their muscles fatigue. As much as that makes sense, not only can rushing through the eccentric phase prevent you from getting the most bang for your buck, in time and effort spent exercising, it could potentially increase risk of injury. Eccentric contractions lead to more muscle damage and hypertrophy, i.e., muscle growth (Poliquin Group™ Editorial Staff, 2012), which is a good thing. It might be hard to keep your tempo slow, but it ensures better technique and strength gains!
If you are unsure of whether you are doing exercises right, always consult your health professional first. With that being said, hopefully you may have learned something new within those 5 exercises discussed to prevent injury and improve performance.
Written by Student Kinesiologist Janice Leung
This probably isn’t the first time that you’ve heard that statement. It’s been a recent growing message in the health industry. Even with the rise of standing desks that are becoming more and more popular for office workers, a big barrier is the hefty price. Matt Gereghty of areyouergo.com runs a blog all about ergonomics and sitting. He has a blog post that shows some innovative ways to use home furniture to create a makeshift standing desk. But if you don’t work at home, and you’re looking for other ways to combat bad sitting posture, keep reading.
It’s unfortunate, but the reality is that for some of us, whether we are students or employees whose jobs involve seated work for long hours, we sit. A lot. Add in the time spent sitting in the car, on the bus, at meals, at home, and the truth is there. We sit. A lot.
Even though I work in the healthcare industry and know fully well how sitting posture can have negative impact on health, whether it’s metabolic, cardiovascular or musculoskeletal, I too, sit in terrible postures. Sadly, I confess that I’ve done many marathon study sessions with friends and we all turn into different variations of the Hunchback of Notre Dame. I’ve seen my friends, hour by hour, cringe closer and closer to their laptop screen until they’ve become the Hunchback. Their upper back is rounded and their neck is stuck far more forward than it ever should be. If you spend long hours sitting and working at the desk where stress builds up and fatigue sets in, it gets easy to throw proper posture out the window because getting your work done is all that matters. But over time, this can lead to chronic pain and quite disabling injuries.
So the question remains, what can you do?
The answer is simple. The 5 exercises below can relieve chest tightness, strengthen muscles to improve posture and help you look more like a superhero and less like the Hunchback of Notre Dame.
1. Towel Lying
Why: After trying this for the first time, it’s more like, why not? Sitting and working at the desk for hours easily tightens muscles through the chest and shoulders. This simple exercise is the antidote for reversing all the wound up muscles.
2. Chin Tucks
Why: Yes, you’re making a double chin. But if reducing neck pain is a priority of yours, I guarantee that it’ll be worth it. Performing this exercise activates the deep neck flexors at the front of your neck, while decreasing the tension in your suboccipitals and other muscles behind your neck, which get overstretched when your neck is protruding towards the computer screen. This is a monumental basic exercise that can be incorporated into many other exercises because it helps to keep the cervical spine in check to complete your neutral spine. If you’ve ever heard of “packing the neck” in a deadlift, this is how you do it.
3. Brugger’s Relief Position
Why: It teaches you to engage the shoulder blades and pull the shoulders back instead of rounding forwards. Having your arms by your side also helps to open the chest up.
4. Dowel Hip Hinge
Why: Call me a mad scientist, but even though you’re not deadlifting a heavy barbell at your desk, I believe that there’s merit to practicing your hip hinge for improving desk posture. If you watch Dr. Kelly Starrett, the creator of MobilityWod, he talks about setting up for desk work or even texting just like you would for a deadlift. You definitely (or hopefully) won’t be bent over your work space as in the ending position picture. But the idea is that when you have to lean forward while sitting at the desk, e.g., for writing, you lean from the hips while maintaining a neutral spine and not from the upper back or neck. This exercise will give you more awareness of your posture from the waist up.
5. Shoulder W
Why: When you’re sitting at the desk, it’s very easy to hike up your shoulders and overuse the upper trapezius muscles in addition to rounding the upper back. This exercise strengthens the external rotators of the rotator cuff muscles in addition to activating more of the lower trapezius muscles rather than the dominant upper trapezius muscles. This exercise also reinforces good shoulder blade positioning. You can watch Physiotherapist Mike Reinold demonstrate this exercise.
Take very short active breaks!
One of my favourite professors is the only professor in the Biomedical Physiology and Kinesiology department to get the class up for stretch breaks every half hour during our lectures. He encourages it even when we write our 3 hour final exams. If you decide to do this, the stretch breaks don’t have to be long. They can be as short as 30 seconds to 1-2 minutes just to shake things out and get blood flowing through stagnant muscles. If you want to get fancy, you can check out Bret Contreras’ article and slyly incorporate the glute squeeze or crucifix stretch without attracting too much unwanted attention. Recent research has actually showed that taking brief 2 minute walks every hour decreases the risk of premature death by 33%!
Make a to-do list!
Like most busy people, I find excuses not to put effort in doing extra postural exercises when working for long hours at the desk is already taxing enough. But it might help to keep a note posted somewhere visible in your work area with a short list of some of these exercises or other stretches. When you see the list, you’ll be cued to remember that you should do these things. Once you start doing them more often, they’ll become routine. And once you reap the benefits from them, it’ll be easy to turn them into habits.
If you can begin incorporating these exercises into your daily routine, you’ll be able to decrease any aches or pain from sitting at the desk for too long. Remember, before starting any exercise program, always make sure to consult with your healthcare professional.