This column has covered an awful lot of ground over the years but there’s always room for a quick refresher course in proper form. In this particular case, it’s all about avoiding a few simple exercise errors and, in the process, steering clear of some very avoidable aches and pains. To follow are some reminders designed to keep you pumped and protected.
Choose front for your back
When using the popular “lat pulldown” machine, never pull the bar down behind your neck. Choosing to pull down in front enables you to better activate the latissimus dorsi (or “lat”) muscles while avoiding potential—and dangerous—stress on your rotator cuffs (the group of muscles and their tendons that act to stabilize the shoulder). Maintain a loose grip (see below), pull down slowly and smoothly until the bar is level with your chin, and then allow the bar to rise just as slowly and smoothly back up to the starting position. No herky-jerky body movements.
Protect your neck
Do not place your hands clasped behind your head when executing those abdominal crunches. Doing so not only puts your neck at risk of injury, it also does not allow your neck to strengthen. If your neck aches while doing crunches in this manner, it is most likely because your neck muscles are weak. So, start slowly. The more crunches you work up to, the stronger your neck will become. Reminder: The movement is a “crunching” of your ribs towards your hips and I recommend keeping your hands on your abs to better experience the movement and contraction.
Find the right angle
When performing a bench press (or push-up, which is essentially an inverted bench press), only bring the barbell or dumbbells down until your elbows reach a right angle (read: 90 degrees). Anything below that level is a hazardous stress on your shoulders. The 90-degree-angle rule also applies for a barbell or dumbbell shoulder press. For both movements—bench press and shoulder press—maintain a controlled pace in both directions, a loose grip and, of course, don’t forget to breathe.
Get a grip (just not a tight one)
A common gym complaint is that of sore, achy forearms and more often than not, this is a result of squeezing too tightly when holding weights or machine parts. The forearm muscles are usually the weakest link in any exercise movement chain. Therefore, adding to their workload by gripping too tightly will burn them out even faster. This will reduce the number of reps you can perform without fully fatiguing the larger muscles and, as mentioned, it can also lead to chronic pain.