Updated 15 January 2015

5 exercises you could be doing wrong

If you don’t do the following exercises correctly, you won’t get the full benefit of your fitness programme and might actually end up injuring yourself.


The current emphasis on fitness and health has placed a large number of inexperienced people in the gym.

“While these gyms are filled with the tools to assist people in reshaping their bodies and maintaining good health, they quite often do more harm than good when individuals don’t know what they’re doing,” says Rogan Heyns, a biokineticist who works with the Life Healthcare Sharks Medical Centre in Durban, South Africa.

This is why Rob Rayner, Wellness Administration Manager for the Sports Science Institute of South Africa (SSISA), recommends that novices work with an expert trainer.

“The most obvious reason for enlisting the service of an expert trainer is to ensure that you’re using proper form,” says Rayner, adding that even when exercising in front of a mirror and knowing what to look out for, it is still impossible to notice all the different angles involved in complex exercises.

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He says that, occasionally, some people do get it wrong. “Often the problem is not that someone is doing an exercise incorrectly, but that it’s the wrong exercise for them and their limitations.”

Sharing these sentiments, Heyns stresses that education regarding training loads and exercises is very important when starting out.

“Make sure that you choose a trainer who has the relevant qualifications, such as a diploma or certificate from a recognised institution. They should be knowledgeable regarding current evidence based training guidelines and exercise prescription and up to date with their credits.”

Globally, gym injuries are on the rise. “This is possibly due to gym-goers not always having an in-depth understanding of certain situations that’s gained through years of studying and experience.”

Get it right!

“Doing a movement or exercise you’ve seen on the internet is great in theory, but doing it correctly in practice is a lot more challenging and very difficult to get right,” says Heyns.

To ensure you get the most out of your exercise regimen, and stay safe while working out, Heyns has the following advice on a few of the more popular training techniques:

1.) Squats

Problems may occur when your foot position is incorrect. People tend to stand with their feet too wide apart, leaving no room for glute (the muscles that make up the buttocks) activation, Heyns says. They also stand with turned-out feet, which results in external rotation at the hip without activation of the all-important glutes.

“Another major fault is the movement pattern performed,” says Heyns, pointing out that, often, the transfer of weight onto the forefoot causes the knee to push past the toes, resulting in excessive sheer forces through the joint.

This is followed closely by the dipping in of one or both knees. Bending or rounding of the back usually follows as a result.

Injury factor: Squatting repeatedly with these mechanical faults can lead to a variety of problems. Anterior knee pain (pain that occurs at the front and centre of the knee) and patella tendon injury (a result of inflammation or micro-tears in the tendon that connects the kneecap to the shinbone) are two of the more common injuries associated with poor squatting technique, while lower back pain can arise from additional loading (weight).

Simple corrections

-    Stand with your feet just wider than shoulder-width apart.
-    Keep your feet in neutral or slightly turned out (approximately 5 degrees).
-    Keep your big toe, little toe and heels planted firmly on the ground.
-    Transfer your weight off your forefoot to just behind your mid-foot.
-    In this stance, tighten your core and glutes.
-    Without moving at your ankles, drive your knees outwards.
-    Fold at your hips, loading your hamstrings as you sit down. Your torso should remain parallel to your tibia (shin bone). The movement should resemble sitting down on a chair.
-    Stand up, driving your knees out and activating your glutes until you’re in the upright position.

2.) Lunges

The lunge has similar set-up errors to the squat, resulting in similar injury risks. Most people start in a split squat with their feet too close together and their hips internally or externally rotated.

This foot position again inhibits glute activation and results in an inefficient movement pattern. The end of the movement is followed by a rotation of the hips inwards and rounding of the back.

Injury factor: Patellofemoral knee pain (when pain occurs at the front of the knee, around the kneecap) and tendonosis (pain and inflammation in the tendon that connects the kneecap to the shinbone) are common. Both injuries occur through repetitive, incorrect loading through the knee joint when performing a lunge. “Lower back pain and stiffness are also common, especially when external loads (weights) are incorporated with the movement,” warns Heyns.

Simple corrections

-    Start off by taking a large step back into a split stance. You should be able to stand comfortably with both heels on the ground.
-    Keep your big toe, little toe and heels planted firmly on the ground. Line the centre of your knee over your middle toe.
-    Transfer your weight off your forefoot to just behind your mid-foot. In this stance, tighten your core and your glutes.
-    Keep your torso upright and drop the knee of your back leg straight down. This movement prevents you from pushing the front knee forward over your toes.
-    Keep the front and back knee from dipping inwards throughout the movement.

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3.) Lat pull-down

One of the most common mistakes seen in a lat pull-down is the “pulling-the-bar-behind-the-head-poking-the-chin-out” method. People do this by poking their chin forward, rounding their shoulders and pulling the bar down behind their head to their shoulders.

Injury factor: “Doing this movement with heavy loads has the potential to wreak havoc on your shoulders. This position places your shoulders in their most vulnerable position of extension and external rotation. This puts tremendous strain through the joint and joint cartilage (labrum), creating damage and pain,” says Heyns.

Simple corrections

-    Sit up tall at the lat pull-down machine.
-    Tighten up your core and brace.
-    Grip the bar slightly wider than shoulder-width apart. Lean slightly backwards, keeping your core active and braced without hyper-extending the spine.
-    Set your shoulder blades together by pulling them back and down.
-    As you pull the bar towards your chest, activate your lats by trying to snap the bar in half.

The movement of the bar up and down should be smooth and controlled. If your back arches or your torso swings, the weight is probably too heavy.

4.) Front pillar bridge (aka ‘The Plank’)
One of the most common problems occurs when a person has no tension in the hold and their hips sag. The opposite is seen when they push their hips into the air creating a round mound with their backs.

A common set-up error is when the individual’s elbows are not directly under the shoulder joint.  Holding one’s breath is another common fault.

Injury factor: Being in this position places your hips into an anterior tilt and increases the load and strain into the lumbar vertebrae (the five vertebrae between the rib cage and the pelvis). This can lead to muscle spasms, facet joint pain (one of the most common causes of neck and back pain) and disc problems. By not having your elbows directly under your shoulders, you increase the forces through the joint. This will increase shoulder wear and tear and potential rotator cuff impingement (difficulty reaching up behind the back).

Simple corrections

-    Get into a good start position.
-    Set your elbows directly under your shoulders with your forearms parallel to each other.
-    Set your scapula back and down. Tighten your core brace and push up into a straight front pillar bridge.
-    Once in the position, create tension throughout your body.
-    Clench your fists and activate your lats by attempting to tear open the floor beneath you.
-    Keep your tight core brace and squeeze your glutes as tight as you can.
-    Most importantly, don’t forget to breathe!

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5.) Sit-ups and crunches

Heyns advises against these. Period! He cautions that these exercises, although still popular, places an enormous amount of stress on the spine, which can eventually lead to disc problems.

Sources: Australian Department of HealthAustralian Bureau of Statistics

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Have you tried exercise for your knee pain?
Overcoming exercise excuses

Image: A woman doing squats from Shutterstock


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