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The Top 5 Exercises You're Doing Wrong

By , Jessica Smith, Certified Personal Trainer
For some people, safety and form during a workout is a huge priority. For others, it's an afterthought. If you work out without the careful eyes of a trainer or instructor watching your every move, it can be difficult to know if you are exercising with proper form—even when you're really trying to.
Learning how to move with correct alignment isn't just about looking good; it can mean the difference between muscle activation and joint strain—or even injury.
Here are five exercises that are common—and may even seem simple—but are most often performed incorrectly by people of all fitness levels.
(For detailed instructions on each move, continue reading below this graphic.)

#1: Plank
What You're Doing Wrong
  • Placing your hands on the floor too far in front (or behind) of your shoulders
  • Sinking into your arms (causing your shoulder blades to "wing" out across your upper back)
  • Letting your hips sag and/or your abs relax
  • Jutting your chin forward

Fix Your Form: Line up your palms on the floor directly under your shoulders and brace your abs into your spine as you extend into plank. Press your arms into the floor and imagine you are lightly gripping the ground with your fingertips to engage your wrists.

Your body should be in one straight line (diagonal with the floor) from your heels to your hips to your head. TIP: Imagine you are holding a grapefruit between your chin and your chest to help keep your neck neutral.
#2: Lunges

What You're Doing Wrong

  • Stepping too wide (or narrow) with your feet (so that knees don't bent at 90 degrees)
  • Shifting your weight and/or torso forward as you bend your knees
  • Leaning back with your torso as you bend your knees (pushing your hips in front of your shoulders)
  • Bending front knee past your toes

Fix Your Form: Begin in a wide split stance (one foot in front of the other) with your bodyweight centered between your legs and your back heel lifted (not pictured).

Bend both knees about 90 degrees and lower your body straight down, keeping your spine neutral (shoulders stacked over your hips) and back knee underneath your torso as it bends.

#3: Crunches

What You're Doing Wrong
  • Pulling on your head as you crunch (using your arms to lift)
  • Closing your elbows in toward the sides of your head
  • Pushing with your leg, squeezing with your glutes
  • Pressing your belly out as you lift your upper body off the floor
  • Gazing at the ceiling
Fix Your Form: Clasp your hands behind your head lightly and relax your head into your hands to keep your neck lengthened. Open your elbows wide to the sides and curl up over the top of your ribcage, looking forward with your eyes so that your chin comes slightly to your chest.

Relax your legs and glutes and keep your pelvis parallel to the floor (envision trying to balance a wine glass on top of your belly as you crunch).
#4: Squats
What You're Doing Wrong
  • Using a slouched, rounded posture (sinking the chest and tucking your tailbone under)
  • Bending your knees and lowering straight down with the hips (so that your knees extend past your toes and your hips stay underneath you)
  • Allowing knees and/or toes buckle (roll inward)

Fix Your Form: Keep your back neutral (there should be a slight natural curve in your lower back), chest lifted.

When you bend your knees, press your hips behind you (as if you were going to sit back into a chair), tracking your knees over (but not past) your toes, with your feet and knees pointed forward.

#5: Push Ups

What You're Doing Wrong
  • Placing your hands on the floor too far in front of your shoulders
  • Bringing palms too close together (for a traditional push up)
  • Pushing hips up in the air
  • Pressing chin forward and looking up as you lower, or (not pictured) letting your head drop down toward the floor as you lower
  • Lowering further than you are able to with proper alignment of the body (as listed above).
Fix Your Form: For a traditional push-up, try to line up the midline of your chest with your thumbs, keeping your hands under your body and wide enough that you can lower your chest straight down in between your hands. Keep your hips in line with your spine (similar to the plank, your torso should form a straight line from your shoulders to your hips to whatever point, knees or toes, is in contact with the floor). Look down to the floor with your eyes—not by bending your neck—to avoid neck strain, keeping neck in line with the spine at all times. Only lower down as far as you can with proper alignment.
If you noticed that you're guilty of even a few of these form guidelines, don't beat yourself up over it. The key is to continue to improve and focus on that form. Proper form is essential to target the muscles you're trying to train while also avoiding injury. So enlist the help of a friend, use a mirror when you can, or consider getting help from a personal trainer for even more insight.

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Thanks for the info Report
Always good to check form. Report
Right or wrong--I think the important thing is just to MOVE! Any exercise at all beats sitting on the couch... Report
I can do a few squats with my bad knees,but that's all I can do from this list of exercises... Report
Thanks...I have always felt I was doing squats incorrectly, apparently I have been doing them correctly. Yippee! Report
Jessica's 'bad form' on the push-up is hilarious! Report
great info. i nowq understand why my gym class always laughed at me when itried to do the pushups, thanks for the info Report
Good article! I know that lunges are my challenge because I can feel that I'm doing something wrong but I will master them one day :) Report
So, can we have a view of regular push ups too?
Also, if part of the problem is how spread your arms are, can we have a front view of the push ups and planks as well? Report
I know my form is correct when push ups are hard. When my form is sloppy, I can knock out twice as many. Report
Good tips. I learned a few things. Report
Ha! My friends tease me for sticking out my booty when I do squats, but I've been right all along. ;) Report
awesome info, a great help~thank you! Report
Great blog post! I always have had trouble with my form in plank and push-ups, this will help! Report
Very helpful. Loved the article. Report
Lol, I'm so sure, I hope nobody does the exercises that way! I've been exercising for years and know form is very important. Report
Thanks... I actually know this stuff, but without a trainer in the room, the reminder is an excellent thing. I've marked this a favorite so I can come back to it. Report
I learned about good form many years ago. I know a lot of people who hurt themselves due to incorrect positions. Report
I have such a hard time with lunges. It always looks to me that no matter how far apart my feet are that my front knee is beyone my toes. I need to have someone watch me do this until I know what it feels like to do them right. Otherwise I spend the entire time I'm supposed to be doing them along to a DVD trying to make sure my form is correct when it feels all wrong. UGH! Thank you for the wonderful info!!! Report
Thanks for showing us the proper forms to reduce or eliminate injuries. Report
Lunges and squats done wrong will TEAR up your knees! I injured mine (left, age 13; right, age 15) and have to be VERY careful. I freak out when I see people doing them wrong cos I *know* that pain. You do not want it and it'll never go away once injured. Report
Interesting. Report
Thank you very much for showing me the right way. Report
Good information both in the blog and the comments. Report
This is very helpful! Thanks! Report
On the plank she's still doing it wrong - hips too high (though not as bad as when they were too low), and the shoulders should be rolled back. She's putting all the weight in her hands and neck, and the posterior pelvic tilt being too pronounced she's most likely getting no core work at all. It's important to protect the back by keeping the spine neutral, but tucking under too far won't allow the TVA to work properly, either. The plank is one of the best core exercises out there, but it's far more complex than it looks! Also on the "pushup", she's got an Anterior Pelvic tilt that's just a little too extreme. Ideally on a modified pushup like that, the line from the shoulders to the knees should be just as straight as in a real pushup. Report
Very helpful. Good to know if you're doing it correctly to get the most out of it AND to avoid injury. Report
this is really good information, I always wonder if I'm doing certain exercises right. Report
Very helpful blog. Report
That plank is my greatest challenge!!!! One day I will be plank MASTER. Report
great n helpful article! about the crunches, i naturally do it by looking ahead, not at the ceiling, it felt tougher n weird to gaze at the ceiling while my head moving back n forth n slightly bend.. Report
I am a instructor and i tell my class to look up at the ceiling to do a proper crunch..that way you are not bending your neck or putting a strand on it.. i guess you have to be advanced to do the kind of crunch you advised... Report
When I started going to the gym at 64 1/2 years old, I hired a trainer and continued with one for 2 years. It was expensive, but so worth it. I will start my 7th year in January. It is never to late to become the person you always wanted to be. Report
The plank is something I struggle with but this will hopefully make me more a where! Report
I've never been able to do these.... the instructions are very helpful. Thanks! Report
Very helpful, thank you! Report
Thanks for posting this article, and for the clear, brief descriptions of how to do the exercises properly. I'm going to print this and post it where it'll be visible as I exercise. Report
Thanks. I have good form except on push-ups. They always give me trouble. Report
Ah, thanks so much. Especially for the lunges--I always do them wrong and end up with tremendous knee pain. Report
That was very helpful. Thanks. Report
Great article. I think I should probably get a personal trainer!!! Report
For crunches, I've learned if I put my hands behind my neck, layer my fingers like a zipper, then put my thumbs on my collarbone, I'll know quickly if I'm curling my shoulders or bending my head too far - my thumbs press on my collarbone and remind me! Report
Helpful information. Report
My form is pretty excellent, except on lunges. Turns out, I need to step wider. Thanks for reminding me that even a 5-year veteran of fitness can make improvements! Report
This was a great article, I love the graphics. Pictures speak volumes!!!
Regarding the pushup, I have a sure fire way to make sure that you are doing it right. If you have a hand weight, place it vertically under you so that the base is at your waist and the top at your chest. When you go down you should be touching the weight w/both your chest and waist and that way you know you are in a straight line. And let me tell you that is hard to do after about 30. The 1st 15 ok, then the second 15 ok but can I stop now? :) And the last 15, please pray that I can get thru them all. :D Report
As always, Jessica presents the information in a clear and concise manner. Thanks Jessica and Sparkpeople for this information. Report
Love the article. I just have one question about crunches. It seems our aerobics teacher is telling me just the opposit of what is written here - you should look at the ceiling and not do toward your chest. And as crunches are one of the exercises I hate the most I would really love to know how to do it right. It's really confusing when you get different informations. Report
see all those and more on a daily basis *sigh* Report
What I liked about the article is the explanation of why something is wrong and the possible consequences. Minor adjustments can make a big difference. Thanks. Report
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