Exercise

Common exercise mistakes

Get the most out of your workouts and avoid injury with these tips to correct common exercise mistakes.

From lifting too much weight to poor technique, an exercise performed incorrectly can mean you're not getting the benefits you're looking for, and can even cause pain and injury.

To maximise the benefits of these exercises, aim to perform them in a slow and controlled manner, going through the full range of motion and lifting within your comfort zone.

Bicep curls

Target: front of the upper arm

Side-by-side comparison of a person lifting too much weight so leaning back, and someone lifting the correct amount of weight with a straight back

The most commonly reported error is people simply trying to lift too much weight, which engages the shoulders and reduces the effort on the biceps.

If the weight is too heavy, you'll be working the shoulders and not properly targeting your biceps.

Your shoulders will hunch forward instead of staying back as you lift the weight, which can cause injury.

Leaning backwards when lifting too much weight puts a lot of pressure on the lower back, which can also lead to injury.

To maximise the efficiency of the bicep curl, lift within your comfort zone, keep your back still and straight, and focus the effort on the biceps only.

If you can't do the exercise with the correct technique, it means the weight may be too heavy.

How to do a bicep curl correctly:

  • Stand tall with your shoulder blades back and down, and contract your abs.
  • Keep your back, elbows and shoulders still.
  • Curl your arms up until they're in front of your shoulders.

The plank

Target: stomach and back muscles

Top-to-bottom comparison of someone planking with their head up and waist dipped, with someone planking correctly with the head down and waist in a straight line

The plank is an effective exercise for developing your core strength around the spine, but bad form can hurt your shoulders and back.

The common mistake here is sagging at the hips or raising the bottom too high. Raised buttocks or collapsing back are a sign of a weak core. 

A collapsing back also puts too much pressure on your lower back, which can lead to back pain.

To get the best results, always maintain perfect form. If you lose form during the exercise, it means your muscles are tiring. Stop and have a rest.

You can build up how long you do the plank gradually.

How to do the plank correctly:

  • Keep your legs straight and hips raised to create a straight and rigid line from head to toe.
  • Your shoulders should be directly above your elbows.
  • Keep your abs contracted during the exercise.
  • Don't allow your lower back to sink.
  • Look down at the floor.

Bent over row

Target: back muscles and biceps

Side-by-side comparison of someone hunching their back during a bent over row, and someone maintaining a straight back

A hunched back is the most common error reported among people doing bent over rows.

Having a curved spine when doing this exercise puts a lot of pressure on your back and can cause injury.

You should maintain a neutral spine throughout the exercise.

To correct this mistake, pull in your core muscles, look ahead of yourself and keep the chest high. Pull the bar up towards the waist, not the chest.

Pinch your shoulder blades together as you pull the bar towards your waist.

To get the full benefits from this move, pull the bar all the way up to the waist just above the belly button, keeping your elbows tucked in. Lower the bar by straightening the arms completely.

How to do a bent over row correctly:

  • Bend forward at the waist, keeping your chest high.
  • Bend your knees slightly and keep your back straight.
  • Keep your shoulders back and down.
  • Pull the bar towards your waist, just above the belly button.

Leg lifts

Target: abs, hip flexors

Top-to-bottom comparison of someone arching their back and bending their knees during a leg lift, and someone correctly keeping their back low and legs straight

The most common mistake seen with leg lifts is allowing the lower back to arch too much. This strains the back and makes the move much less effective as an abdominal exercise.

If you don't keep your back muscles and abs contracted, you're only working your hip flexors.

If you're just starting out with this exercise, focus on doing a few while focusing on proper technique. You can increase the number of repetitions gradually.

To get the most out of this exercise, lower and lift the legs slowly, while keeping the abs under constant contraction and without letting your heels touch the ground.

When you feel your lower back starting to arch, it's time to stop. 

How to do leg lifts correctly:

  • Don't flatten your lower back against the surface – maintain its natural curve.
  • Keep your head and shoulders pressed against the floor.
  • Your neck should be relaxed.
  • Keep your abs contracted throughout the exercise.

Lunges

Target: thighs and buttocks

Side-by-side comparison of someone stepping forward too far for a lunge with the knee further forward than the toes and upper body leaning forward, and someone correctly having their knee behind the toes and upper body straight

Done properly, lunges are a great exercise to improve your core strength, but all too often people are risking injury because of poor technique.

One of the most commonly reported errors with lunges is stepping into the lunge and allowing the front knee to lean over the toes, which puts a lot of stress on the knee.

Other common mistakes include leaning the upper body forward or to one side instead of staying upright, and looking down, which can strain the neck.

Using improper form not only has less benefit for the thighs and buttocks, but it can result in injury, especially to the knees and back.

How to do a lunge correctly:

  • Step forward with one leg, lowering your hips until both knees are bent at about 90 degrees.
  • Don't let your front knee lean over the toes as you lunge. 
  • Keep your upper body upright at all times and look straight ahead.

Page last reviewed: 19/03/2018
Next review due: 19/03/2021