If you read up a bit about proper strength training, you will quickly find that exercises like “the big 3” (the squat, deadlift and bench press, to which I will add the overhead press in this article) serve a wide variety of goals. I prescribe these exercises to most of the people I train since they can help in adding muscle, preserving muscle when trying to lose fat, getting stronger or keeping joints healthy.
Now if you look around in the average, commercial gym, you will find a few very common mistakes when people do these exercises. I want to go over a few of these in this post. Keep in mind that certain variations of the basic exercises might have technical differences, to which these errors do not apply. Also keep in mind that there are many other errors you can make in these exercises, I just want to point out a few big ones that are not always obvious.
- You don’t go deep enough. The minimum depth is for the crease of the hip to go past the top of the kneecap. Just by half an inch or something, that’s it. Any deeper than that is fine if flexibility allows it, but for most people not necessary.
- You don’t squat. A smith machine squat cannot fully substitute for a squat. A leg press cannot fully substitute for a squat. Combining the leg extension, leg curl, adductor and abductor machine… You get the point. I remember during my first months in the gym, I read something about squats on the internet and enthusiastically asked the instructor about about them. He told me that they didn’t have a squat rack but that the leg press was the same thing, completely ignoring the fact that… You know. A squat is a movement pattern performed standing on two feet, balancing a heavy weight on your back and tensing every fiber in your body as you squat up and down. It is an exercise that makes your body stronger as a whole. A leg press is… A nice additional tool to build bigger legs after you’ve done your squats I guess, but it’s still not a squat.
- You’re trying to squat. Repeat after me: The squat is a squatting movement, the deadlift is a hip hinge movement. I see way too many people trying to sit down behind the barbell. This does not work because the barbell is held by your hands, your hands are attached to your arms and your arms are attached to your shoulder blades. This means that if you try to deadlift while sitting behind the bar, you will be pulling the bar right through your shins. All sorts of weird stuff tends to happen this way, from having the hips shoot up instead of your whole torso, to moving the barbell around your knee (How the fuck does that even-) or even rounding your upper back. You will not properly manage this if the weight is even remotely heavy, and it should be, if you want to get stronger. The solution is simple: In your starting position, keep the barbell over your midfoot and the shoulderblades over the barbell. That’s it, and hanging over the barbell (like you should in a deadlift) looks very different from squatting down behind the barbell.
- You don’t extend your back. You should ‘flatten’ your spine as hard as you can during a deadlift. If your upper back rounds a bit… Well, I don’t teach that to beginners. A rounding MOVEMENT in the back during a deadlift can be harmful to the spine, especially if it concerns the lower back. If you can keep the spine RIGID however, with the upper back in a slightly rounded position, you can get away with it. Actually, you might even lift more like that, world records have been pulled that way. I recommend you save this for advanced athletes who know what they’re doing though.
- You’re not stable. A lot of guys sorta flop onto the bench and start pushing the barbell away. Their feet move into every direction, their ass goes into the air and they’re shaking on that bench. Remember what I said about arms being attached to shoulder blades? That means that your shoulder blades need to be TIGHT and pushed into the bench to properly push a heavy weight away from you. If your shoulderblades are sorta hanging on the edges of the bench, you don’t have a good base of support to push from. A good thing to keep in mind is to squeeze your shoulder blades together as you lie on the bench, this solves a big part of the problem really quickly.
- Your elbows are everywhere. The barbell, your wrist and your elbow should all be perpendicular to the floor during the whole movement. If that means the barbell has to hit your chest a little higher or lower – Fine. This principle + your grip width will decide where the barbell hits the chest.
- You’re doing half reps. Touch the chest on every rep but don’t bounce.
- Your buddy is doing upright rows. Unless your training plan asks for forced reps or negatives or something (which is fine), your spotter is there to help rack the weight when you’re unable to, nothing else. If the training plan tells you to do 5 reps of a certain weight: Do 5 reps with that weight. It doesn’t count if your buddy grabs the barbell. A SPOTTER SHOULD NOT TOUCH THE BARBELL AT ALL UNLESS HE IS INSTRUCTED TO DO SO. I remember once telling a spotter I wanted to do 5 reps. I was ready to rack the weight and the spotter stops me with his hands.
“Come on, you can do two more!”
FOR FUCK’S SAKE WHAT IS IT ABOUT THE NUMBER 5 THAT YOU DO NOT UNDERSTAND?!
- Your elbows are everywhere. People have the tendency to let their backs and shoulderblades relax during an overhead press. Your elbows should be under the barbell (or even slightly in front of it) to effectively push the weight overhead. If, like many people, you let your elbows drop at the bottom of the movement, there’s a bigger chance that you’ll push the weight forward too much. The weight needs to go up, not forward.
- You don’t lock out properly. A proper lock out means that you finish the movement by pressing the shoulder blades upwards. You sorta shrug up with extended arms overhead. That engages the upper back and all other relevant muscles properly.
So there you have it. Most advanced athletes will know these things, but they can be hard to grasp as a novice, or even as an intermediate. Try the things I mentioned for a while and let me know how it goes. Remember, proper strength training requires skill practice and every rep you perform is part of that practice.
“I fear not the man who has practiced 10,000 kicks once, but I fear the man who has practiced one kick 10,000 times.” – Bruce Lee