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.