Simple Changes Could Relieve Pain or Improve Performance
We know about the benefits of weight training: improved body composition, muscular strength and endurance, increased metabolism, etc. The list goes on. Weight training also comes with inherent risks, just like any physical activity.
As a personal trainer, I spend a lot of hours at the gym. I see many people working with great form, but I see many more working with bad form. Those same people are the ones who leave the gym plagued by low-back pain, a stiff neck or achy knees. Exercisers with improper form are also prone to hit plateaus sooner or more often than those with good form.
It’s easy to get caught in the hype of hitting a personal record or burning your muscles out on drop sets. But if you’re hurting in places you probably shouldn’t be hurting, or you can’t seem to push past a plateau, take a step back and analyze your own form. What could you do better?
Brett Davis, a weightlifting instructor and doctoral candidate for exercise physiology at Louisiana State University, told Hungry Girl Runs what mistakes he sees most often and how to remedy them.
A Lack of Muscle Engagement
The human body will always take the path of least resistance, Davis said. In other words, your body will attempt to get more done with less energy. For example, a proper deadlift will use power from the hamstrings, glutes, and hips to lift the weight. But in the start position (flexed at the hips), your body recognizes that your lower back is in a prime recruiting position. This leads people to pull too much with their back and neglect their legs -- which are much more powerful than your lumbar muscles.
The fix: Cue the muscles you want or need to use for an exercise, Davis said. For a deadlift, that might look like a warm-up of hip thrusters, good-mornings, or light-weight straight-leg deadlifts to engage the glutes and hamstrings.
Forgetting About the Eccentric Contraction
Our bodies are made to absorb energy, not expel it. “I could stand up, let myself fall to the ground, and catch myself in a push-up position just fine,” Davis said. “The real energy expenditure would then come from pushing myself back up.”
Being able to control the eccentric contraction (the lowering phase of a movement) is critical to generating power in the concentric contraction (the lifting phase), Davis said. Failure to control the eccentric portion of an exercise can also lead to ballistic movements, which increase the risk of injury.
The fix: Follow the rule of thumb for lowering and lifting. Your eccentric contraction should be double your concentric contraction. In a squat, that might look like a 4-second lowering phase and a 2-second lifting phase.
Ignoring Range of Motion
Contrary to popular belief, there is no one “perfect” or “full” range of motion. Rather, there is an optimal ROM for every individual, Davis said. There are situations in which a person may not reach their optimal ROM, but those usually involve surgery and scar-tissue buildup. And you can definitely work on your own optimal ROM by stretching and foam-rolling. But don’t get discouraged if you can’t drop into the bottom of a squat. For some people, that’s a matter of bone and joint structure -- things you can’t change.
The fix: Listen to your body. It will always tell you when to stop, Davis said. We’ll continue with our squat example: Only lower as far as you can without arching your back, lifting your heels, or caving at the knees. If any of those faulty movement patterns apply to you, you’re trying to surpass your current ROM and subjecting yourself to back pain or injury. Take a few moments after each workout to improve your ROM, but remember that your optimal ROM won’t be the same as the next person’s.
A Weak Core
Core strength -- or a lack thereof -- is the main culprit behind back pain and a host of other issues. As it relates to weightlifting, a weak core could be the reason you’ve hit a wall on many compound lifts, such as deadlift, squat, or strict press. People underestimate the amount of core dominance in such lifts, Davis said.
The fix: Activate your core before workouts. Add in a little ab work as part of your warm-up. You might be surprised at how much it helps.
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About the F-Word
"Food" is the F-word. And the F-Word blog is all about helping you find your food-life balance. After battling an unhealthy relationship with food and body image for years, I'm dedicated to helping others avoid those misfortunes. Read on for nutrition guidance, lifestyle tips and stories from other bad-ass people who also overcame disordered eating.