Perfect Your Form When Performing These 5 Common Exercises
The mirrors on gym walls are there so you can perfect your form. Use these tips to ensure you're doing these common exercises correctly.

July 24, 2014

bench press

It’s a killer perk to be sure, but the wall-to-wall mirrors in your gym aren’t there so you can sneak glimpses at the fine fitness strutting out of the 17:30 Pilates class. Those mirrors are there to help you train more effectively, by doing the moves you do, right. “Muscle fibres are recruited in a specific order during the execution of a particular exercise,” says Dr Gerhard Jordaan, a sport science lecturer at the University of the Western Cape and conditioning specialist with Boland Rugby. “Bad form effects this recruitment pattern and results are compromised, or not achieved at all.” With over 32 years experience as a biokineticist, he’s seen a lot of bad knee-bending and back arching.

Aside from getting the most out of the moves in your routine, Jordaan also highlights “specificity” and “injury prevention” as two reasons why you should be looking at yourself in those gym mirrors and tuning your form to perfection. “Precise movement and posture ensure that the targeted muscles benefit optimally and, that the joint structures are not overloaded,” he says. “Most free-standing resistance exercises involve muscles attached to the spine to ensure a good posture. Poor form overloads the spinal muscles involved in stabilising the back.”

Related: Start Your Comeback With These Transformation Tips From A Hollywood Trainer

By getting that dead lift or squat wrong then, you risk far more than just looking like a dork for everyone in mirror view. You could be building serious muscles imbalances or much worse, be on the fast track to serious injury. Jordaan lays down the must do’s and don’ts for five of the best gym moves so you can perfect your form.

1. Perfect Your Form: Squat

squat perfect form

Most Common Mistakes

  • Positioning the bar too high on the back, almost on the neck.
  • Feet too close together.
  • Hips not pushed back.

Perfect It Like This

  • Position your feet just wider than your shoulders and turned slightly outwards (10-15 degrees) to ensure that during flexion the knees stay in line with the feet. Focus on putting firm pressure through your heels into the ground, poor pressure will cause the body to move forward and not in a vertical plane up and down.
  • Now place the bar over your trapezius muscle, across the back of your shoulders and not over your neck (find the prominent bony process of the shoulder blade about the length of your extended hand from the base of the skull).
  • Make sure you have a wide grip on the bar, so your elbows are flexed between 70 and 90 degrees. Keep the descent well controlled. It should take you longer than four seconds to get down, (but rise quickly). Gold standard for the flexed position is the knee bisecting the foot with the tip of the knee plum over the toes. Your back must be straight. Keeping your head up and looking straight ahead (into that mirror) will aid this.
  • As with the dead lift, make sure you have filled your lungs for the full for the squat and lift back up.

Top tip: Deep knee bending with a heavy load risks knee cartilage injury. The trick is to keep your heels flat and thighs parallel to the floor.

Related: Shoot For Total-Body Strength With The Rolling Pistol Squat

2.Perfect Your Form: Bench Press

bench press perfect form

Most Common Mistakes

  • No spotter
  • Lifting too heavy too soon
  • Not using the bench for proper support
  • Hips lower than knees

Perfect It Like This

  • It’s called a “bench” press for a reason. Lie flat on the bench with your body neutral and relaxed. Keep your back flat all times to ensure it remains fully supported. Often when guys try to lift too heavy they lift their lower backs off the bench – this is risky!
  • Place your feet firmly on the floor, ensuring that the heels are pushed firmly to the ground. Never place your feet on the bench, you’ll have no stability and when one arm struggles to push and you’re pretty much guaranteed to end up on the floor fall with the weights on top of you.
  • Position your hands so that half way on the descend the elbows are flexed 90 degrees.
  • Breathe in as you lower the weight and out when pushing up. Set the pace with your breathing. Benching is not a sprint.
  • Just touch your chest, before pushing back up. Avoid bouncing off of it.

Tip:  Always have a spotter. If your gym buddy couldn’t make it, use the seated chest machine.

Related: Push Your Limits With This Upside-Down Bench Press

3.Perfect Your Form: Push Up

Perfect your form: push up

Most common mistakes
– Dropping your head forward.
– Hyperextending the neck and trying to look up.
– Dropping (or arching) of lower back.
– Bum in the air.

Perfect it like this

  • Don’t try do too many. Posture is usually compromised when this happens and it’s far more effective to do 20 good push-ups than 50 bad ones.
  • When lying on the floor your body position should be the same as standing arms length in front of a wall and looking straight at the wall.
  • The best hand position is slightly wider than shoulder-width.
  • Imagine a plumb line from your ears through your shoulders to the hips, knees and ankles. Tuck in your gut and keep it tight activated as you push up and drop down with your arms at 90 degrees.

Top tip: Take it to the next level by involving the shoulder stabilisers. Position yourself at 45 degrees, with hands on a stability ball (slightly wider than shoulder-width) and fingers pointing downwards to the floor.

Related: Will Doing 25 Pushups A Day Give You Gains? An Expert Weighs In

4.Perfect Your Form: Deadlift

someone doing a deadlift

Most Common Mistakes

  • Feet too close together with toes pointing too far out; or in (thereby loading the knee).
  • Knees too far forward.
  • Knees and hips not flexed enough (at less than 90 degrees).
  • Shoulders dropped forward.
  • Head down

Perfect It Like This

  • Place your feet shoulder-width or slightly wider apart. Get a solid foundation by making sure your heels are planted firmly, with your feet flat so that you’re able to lift your toes.
  • Squat down to grab the bar by keeping our back straight and bending your knees past 90 degrees. If you don’t go low enough your bum will be too high and if you lift from that position you’ll over-extend your back muscles (they should act as stabilisers during the movement to prevent bending forward and arching backwards. But don’t let your knees go over your feet, you should always be able to draw plumb line from the front of the knee downwards to touch your feet.
  • Take hold of the bar outside of your knees. Eyes front, if you look down your bum will come up first during the lift. Keep your shoulders back, locked and activated. If they roll forward it will round your back, leading to poor stability Inhale before pushing up as air-filled lungs are a great stabiliser for the spine.
  • Perform the perfect dead lift by pushing your head up towards the ceiling leading the rest of your body. Exhale once in the standing position.
  • Get the weight back down quickly, as a slow movement risks forward dropping of shoulders and bending of the spine.

Top Tip: Technique training is a slow and detailed process. Do four reps with light weights and perform each individually. Once you’ve done a rep stand back, regain focus, bend down, settle and stabilise. This is not a fitness or endurance exercise but aimed at building strength in large number of the muscles.

Related: How To Find Out If You Are One Of The 20% Who Should NEVER Deadlift

5. Perfect Your Form: Rowing Machine

rowing form

Most common mistakes
– Keeping you back straight, upright and inactive
– Lazy legs
– Getting the ‘1:2:3 – 3:2:1’ coordination of legs, truck and arms wrong

Perfect it like this

  • The rowing stroke is around 50% leg and hip drive, 30% trunk extension and 20% arm and shoulder work. This means around 80% of the power is generated from the coordinated work of knees, hips and lower back.
  • Slide forward to a knee flex of 90 degrees. Reach forward, extending your arms straight ahead. Bend your back slightly forward, with your head equally bent. By keeping your back upright you cause the hips to slide too far forward with the knees forcefully flexing almost fully (same as standing and doing 100 full squats as quick as possible).
  • This crunch is the start position or bottom of the stroke. The stroke should now follow – legs, trunk, arms.
  • When pushing backwards with the legs, extend the spine and push shoulders back (focus on pushing shoulder blades together) while pulling straight to the sternum (lower part of the chest bone). Breath in with the stroke and exhale as you go back to the start position. This should happen in reverse order – arms, trunk then legs.

Top tip: This is a cardiovascular exercise with one of the highest energy expenditure ratio and fat burning per minute ratio. Doing it incorrectly is a waste of time and a recipe for tennis elbow. Row 500-metres as fast as you can with correct technique, rest and repeat for a total of four sets (two kilometres). Work to your time down for the 500m.