These are the most common weightlifting mistakes, and you’re probably making them.
I’ve spent many hours in the gym, both as a trainee and a trainer. When I became a trainer, I started to notice something: I’d see some people working out with great technique, but I’d see many (many) more working out with bad — no, abhorrent — form. I’d watch people squat in fashions that made me wince. I’d see people deadlift and say a little prayer for their lower backs.
Those same people are the ones who leave the gym plagued by low-back pain, a stiff neck or achy knees. In a best-case scenario, lifting with bad form gives you some annoying aches and pains. In a worst-case scenario, you wind up injured and out of the gym for weeks.
Exercisers with improper form are also prone to hit plateaus sooner or more often than those with good form. Your body is smarter than you give it credit for. If you feel like you just can’t break past a certain number on a given lift, perhaps it’s your body’s way of saying, “Nope. If we go heavier with this technique, we’ll herniate a disc.” Look at persistent plateaus as an opportunity to analyze your lifting form and identify areas for improvement.
If injuries and plateaus weren’t enough to convince you to fix your weightlifting form, what if I told you that timing and positioning (AKA, technique) is the difference between successful and unsuccessful lifts? Science proves this.
In any case, here are the top four weightlifting mistakes (that you might be making every time you hit the gym).
Lack of Proper Muscle Engagement
Our bodies will always take the path of least resistance. Your body knows how physically taxing movement is, so it 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 is unfortunate, because your legs provide much more power than your lumbar muscles.
The fix: Before working out, prime the muscles you need to use. During your workout, cue those muscles. 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 (and spare your lower back). In the starting position for each rep, squeeze your glutes and hamstrings before you pull, as if you’re giving your legs a reminder that says, “Hey, I need you.”
Forgetting About the Eccentric Contraction
If you’ve read literally anything else we’ve published at Smarter Sweat, you know we love tempos. We are obsessed with tempos, actually, because we know that weightlifting tempos are the key to increasing your strength and improving your fitness (again, science proves this).
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), and control of the eccentric phase leads to more long-term gains. 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.
A Weak Core
Core strength -- or a lack thereof -- is a common 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.
The fix: Activate your core before workouts by adding in a little ab work as part of your warm-up, especially isometric work such as hollow body holds and Supermans. Also, practice actively engaging your core during your workouts. And stop relying on belts! Don’t wear a weightlifting belt unless you’re lifting at 90 percent of your one-rep max or higher.
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. Don’t get discouraged if you can’t drop into an ass-to-grass squat. For some people, “ideal” (as defined by the fitness industry) ranges of motion aren’t accessible because of bone and joint structure — things you can’t change. Your optimal range of motion might be a parallel squat or a slightly above parallel squat. Hint: Your optimal squat ROM is one where your spine remains neutral, your knees push outward, and your feet lie flat.
There are situations in which a person may not reach their optimal ROM, but those usually involve injury, surgery and scar-tissue buildup. If those don’t apply to you, you should be able to reach your optimal range of motion, which you can do by implementing various recovery tactics and mobility work.
The fix: Listen to your body. It will always tell you when to stop. 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.
Smarter Sweat takeaways
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. Ask yourself what you could do better and answer yourself honestly.
If you want a done-for-you workout program that takes weightlifting form into account, sign up to get notified when we release our first two Smarter Sweat programs. Coming December 2020.
By Amanda Capritto
Amanda is the cofounder of Smarter Sweat. She's a certified personal trainer, health coach, and functional fitness coach. She also owns another business, where she writes about all things fitness, nutrition, travel and lifestyle.
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About Smarter Sweat
Smarter Sweat is a fitness company built from the ground up by fitness experts Amanda Capritto and Ashley Phantz. Amanda and Ashley are both dead-set on cutting through the clutter of the fitness industry and providing raw, real, utterly honest information about fitness and wellness.