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Some people have a love-hate relationship with mirrors. This is particularly evident at the gym. Some will make sure they always look at their best muscle feature while pumping iron, while others avoid their reflection at all costs. However, mirrors are important exercise tool as it brings more awareness to your movements.

Have you looked at your hip, knees, and ankles when performing a squat? Is your back bending too far forward? Are your knees behind your toes? What about your ankles—are you lifting the heels off the ground? You were probably just focused on the burn in your thighs and glutes, but you have to monitor your form to ensure you perform the move safely and effectively. This applies to all of the “gold standard resistance” exercises.

Look at the squat more closely. When you perform a squat, experts study the movement pattern rather than focus on an isolated aspect of the movement. “For example, you can have a person who does terrible on the deep squat test, and now you look at another test to give you a better idea of what may be causing the problem,” explains Lee Burton, program director for Athletic Training at Averett University and president of Functional Movement Systems.

“Did they perform well on the lunge? If they did you may be able to rule out ankle mobility restrictions as a problem in the squat pattern. If you go farther down and look at shoulder mobility—if they have a significant restriction in this pattern—then you may determine upper back and shoulder mobility may be a limiting factor in the squat.”

More often than not, the problem when assessing some erratic movement patterns is not just one issue, but several. “It is difficult to cite one ‘most common’ problem for many of the common exercises as it’s often multifactorial,” says Brad Schoenfeld, MSc, CSCS, CSPS, NSCA-CPT, author of The MAX Muscle Plan

When you perform an exercise and do not pay attention to some movement dysfunctions, not only will you not get the full benefits of the move, but you also increase your risk of injury. “You also have to examine certain activities that may create some of the problems,” says Burton. For instance, you may have a shoulder mobility issue and performing a shoulder press can make the situation worse.

What to Look For and How to Fix

It is quite ambitious to address all movement dysfunctions, but experts are aware of the most common issues people face when performing some popular exercises. Here is what you should pay close attention to and how to correct any erratic movement pattern. (Note: these are general guidelines and are not a substitute for a professional assessment).

SQUAT: Common problems are weak lumbar spinal erectors; tight hip flexors (the muscles that are situated in the front of your hips and thighs; and poor ankle flexibility (if you raise your heels off the floor). However, the most important factor in squats is to protect the back, says Shawn Simonson, Ed.D., C.SC.S., ACSM H/FI, associate professor at Boise State University. You should follow these guidelines:

–        The spine should be kept neutral or slightly hyperextended. You should feel like you are pinching the shoulder blades together.

–        Keeping the knees behind the toes—vertical line—is also beneficial as it helps maintain a neutral spine.

–        Push your glutes back and lower them first

–        The whole foot should be planted on the floor

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Fix It: The best way to counteract weakness of the lumbar spinal erector muscles, says Schoenfeld, is to perform an exercise like good mornings (below). This exercise should be done with care. You must resist the weight with your hamstrings and lift up your body using the same muscles—not the back muscles.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

LUNGE: Some of the problems for the squat apply to the lunge. However, Simonson addresses that hip flexor flexibility gets more attention during lunges. “Many people under step the length—ending up with the knee beyond the toes—or take too long a step, which reduces the efficiency of the movement,” says Simonson.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Fix It: Your rear leg should be in line with the trunk and end up at 90 degrees to the floor at the lowest position of the lunge, says Simonson. To improve the hip range of motion, experts like to use the four-way hip machine.

Another issue when lunging is to keep good balance. This is why Schoenfeld recommends the single leg Romanian deadlift (below) as an ideal exercise to enhance balance outside your base of support as well as target the glutes/hamstring muscles that also are important when doing the lunge. Lower the bar close to your knees while you take the hips backward. Your back should be straight, your chest out, and the core tight. Lower the bar until you can keep good form. Bring the leg in using the glutes and the hips muscles, not your back.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

SHOULDER PRESS:  A perfect dumbbells shoulder press should have your elbow flexed at a 90-degree angle parallel to the shoulders. The dumbbells should be in the same plane as the head and body, and travel above the shoulders the whole time, says Simonson.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Fix It: “The big problem here is that most people are internally rotated at the shoulder joint and thus have difficulty training in the frontal plane,” explains Schoenfeld. “The solution is to focus on the external rotators—back of the shoulder muscles and other upper back muscles—with exercises, such as wide-grip rows and bent lateral raises, as well as stretching the internal rotators (i.e. pecs, front delts).”

Equally important is not to overwork the front part of the shoulders by doing front shoulder raises. Usually, people over-emphasize the anterior part of the shoulder, leaving out the middle and the posterior part. This is why Simonson recommends working on lateral and posterior shoulder raises rather than front raises. This can be performed with dumbbells, tubing, or a pulley machine (below). Focus on fully contracting the muscles that surround the scapula. Imagine you have a pen between the shoulder blades and you need to squeeze it.  Keep the back straight and chest up. Do not round your back.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

PUSH-UPS: The head, spine, hips, and legs should all be in line. Think of your body as a board with no movement in any joints other than the arms and feet. Generally the elbows should be kept out and the humerus at a 90-degree angle to the body with the hands under the elbows in the down position, says Simonson.

Fix It: Experts attribute problems with this exercise to either poor shoulder flexibility and/or lack of strength. Beyond stretching the chest and the anterior part of the shoulder, Schoenfeld says bench presses (below) will allow targeted loading of the musculature that directly transfers to push up performance.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

PLANKS: Lack of spinal stabilization and hip strength are issues when trying to hold the body position—head, spine, hips, and legs—in line for a period of time.

Fix It: “Any movement that works isometric contraction—meaning to hold the muscle contraction without any movement—of the trunk flexors and extensors would help improve this movement. Back/hip extensions would be of particular benefit,” says Simonson. The corrective squat and lunge exercises above can translate to a better plank. Both emphasize the hip extension strength.

Another recommended exercise to strengthen the hips, and particularly the glutes, is the hip thruster (below). This exercise should focus on lifting the weight using your glutes while keeping the hips stable. The glutes should not rest on the floor. Constant tension should be applied. Raise the hips as high as you can while keeping proper form. Squeeze the glutes and lower the hips in a control manner. You should not feel any pressure on the back.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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