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You train hard, rest well and fuel your body to a tee. Yet suddenly your results stall, regardless of your tenacity and dedication. Since you’re doing everything correctly in terms of scheduling and periodization, you’re most likely not overtraining. However, when it comes to form or function, the training that you are doing may be imperfect. Time for some quality control to make sure you’re not self-sabotaging with these common training mistakes.
Here are a number of common mistakes that can plague the overzealous gym-goer in four distinct zones: core, hips, back and chest. Take a look at each of the areas listed here, make a few tweaks as needed to your programming and you’ll be back on track in no time.
Problem: You’re overworking your trunk in flexion, logging hundreds of crunches per week. This approach can promote poor posture and increase the damaging forces on your lower back. For example, a typical slow-speed sit-up can impose up to 730 pounds of compression on the spine, according to Stuart McGill, Ph.D. To put that in perspective: It only takes 500 pounds of force to completely blow out your knee.
Solution: Incorporate compound moves that include your hips, lower back and glutes, as well as your abs, to train your core as a single unit and create a well-rounded physique inside and out.
Muscles Worked: Rectus abdominis, obliques, quadratus lumborum, erector spinae, shoulders, glutes and chest.
Why It Works: This move trains the core to resist rotational forces and stabilize your spine.
Setup: Stack five small plates (2.5 or 5 pounds) in a pile on the floor, then get into a plank on your elbows with the plate pile just outside your right elbow.
Move: Hold your plank as you reach across your body with your left hand and, one by one, bring the plates over to the left side, stacking them one on top of the other. Next, repeat the process with the right hand, stacking them from left to right, to complete one rep. Do four sets of three reps, resting one minute between sets.
Tip: Don’t twist or rotate your hips as you move the plates from one side to the other; your body should look like a flat table the entire time. If you’re having trouble balancing, spread your feet a little wider apart.
Muscles Worked: Rectus abdominis, obliques, quadratus lumborum, anterior delts, chest.
Why It Works: Your core has to resist the draw of the cable as it pulls you to one side, again training in anti-rotation and stabilizing your spine and lower back.
Setup: Set a cable pulley at waist level, using a single handle. Stand sideways to the pulley and hold the handle in front of your bellybutton with both hands, hips and shoulders square, elbows bent and tucked into your sides. Take a step forward to create some tension on the cable.
Move: Slowly press the handle straight out, moving directly forward and resisting the sideways pull of the cable. Once you reach full extension, reverse the move and slowly return to the start. Do three sets of 12 to 15 reps on each side. Rest 45 to 60 seconds per set.
Tip: It doesn’t take much weight for this exercise to be effective. If you feel it excessively in your arms and shoulders, or if your hips twist to the side, chances are the weight is too heavy.
Problem: Doing a lot of squats? If so, you may be overloading your quads and lower back and your hips may be stiff and inflexible, affecting posterior chain mobility and tilting your pelvis anteriorly or toward the front. And while squats are a must-do move for everyone, there is such a thing as squatting too much, especially if your mechanics are imperfect to begin with.
Solution: Add glute-dominant exercises to your program to reduce stress on your lower back and help correct pelvic posture, alleviating tightness by tilting it posteriorly. In addition, use split-stance exercises (in which one leg is forward and the other is back) to actively stretch the hip flexors.
Muscles Worked: Glutes, hamstrings, erector spinae.
Why It Works: Placing the bar across your hips directly hits the glutes, while the upward thrust helps stretch the hip flexors.
Setup: Sit with your upper back against the broad side of a bench and place a barbell across your hips. Place your feet a bit more than hip-width apart with your knees bent, and hold the barbell with your hands on either side of your hips.
Move: Press your upper back into the bench and drive through your heels to lift your hips upward to come in line with your knees and shoulders, like a table. Squeeze your glutes at the top, then slowly lower to the start. Do three sets of 10 to 15 reps, resting 45 to 60 seconds between sets.
Tip: Before each rep, tuck your pelvis underneath first, then raise your hips. This prevents your lower back from arching and saves your spine from strain.
Muscles Worked: Quadriceps, glutes, hamstrings.
Why It Works: Splitting your stance and holding dumbbells at your sides can significantly lower the amount of spinal compression while encouraging greater gluteal activity.
Setup: Hold a pair of dumbbells at your sides and stand in front of a flat bench. Extend one leg behind you and place your foot, laces down, on top of the bench.
Move: Bend both knees and lower yourself until your front leg makes a 90-degree angle. Keep your torso upright and your shoulders back — avoid leaning forward as you fatigue. Extend your legs to return to the start. Do all reps on one side before switching. Do three sets of eight to 10 reps per side. Rest one minute between sets.
Tip: If your hips are tight, descend just until you feel a pull, then hold at that point for two counts before rising to the start. With each rep, try to go a little lower.
Problem: Though back exercises look simple, they’re among the most commonly botched moves in the gym, and if your coordination is off, your arms will initiate the move and take it over while your back has a snooze. Using your arms too much limits the amount of back muscle tissue you train.
Solution: Practice the “set your shoulders” technique to prepare yourself for perfect form. Once in the “set” position, you’re all but guaranteed to give your back a rude awakening while saving your shoulders and elbows from strain.
Sit in a pulldown machine and take a wide overhand grip on the bar. Allow your arms to fully extend by relaxing your shoulders and back. Now, pull just your shoulder blades — not the bar or your elbows — downward and inward along your back while keeping your neck long. Pretend you’re squeezing a pencil between your shoulder blades as you lift your clavicle upward. This position should be the starting point for every rep of every back move you do in order to fully engage the back muscles and prevent overuse of your arms. Practice this until it becomes automatic.
Muscles Worked: Rhomboids, rear delts, trapezius, rotator cuffs, latissimus dorsi.
Why It Works: The tension changes as the band stretches and contracts, requiring strong muscular contractions and sharp mental focus.
Setup: Wrap a light or medium weight resistance band around an immobile object at chest level. Hold it with both hands and step back until there’s ample tension. Assume a half-squat position, facing the anchor with your arms outstretched at chest level, back straight. Now “set your shoulders.”
Move: Pull the band into your chest, driving your elbows rearward (not out to the sides) and keeping your chest lifted. Pause at the peak contraction, then squeeze your back muscles hard. Slowly return to the start. Do four sets of 15 reps. Rest 45 to 60 seconds between sets.
Tip: Avoid leaning back. Stabilize your core, assume a powerful stance and perform the reps in a controlled manner.
Problem: Your chest is not responding well, considering the amount of training you’re delivering to it. It may be the result of faulty training angles. This is a very common problem, wherein you may be lifting with your chest collapsed, your shoulders protracted and your back flat. Ultimately, you’re pressing with your shoulders rather than your chest. All these incorrect angles easily translate to a thrashing of your front delts and a vacation for your pecs.
Solution: Properly target your pecs and save your shoulders by following the “better your bench” tips below to avoid training mistakes. Altering your benching will cause the bar to travel a shorter distance, effectively targeting the chest and sidelining your shoulders.
Lie on a bench with your feet flat on the floor. Hold a light barbell straight up over your chest, arms shoulder width, then pull your shoulder blades down and toward each other, just like you did with the “set your shoulders” exercise. Lift your rib cage and allow your back to arch just high enough so you could fit your forearm underneath. This is the position you should maintain throughout the move to best target your chest and preserve the integrity of your shoulders.
Tip: Brace your feet on the floor during this move and drive through them on each rep to increase body tension and improve power.
Muscles Worked: Pecs, anterior delts, triceps.
Why It Works: Using dumbbells allows for more play at the elbows, making it possible to find the right arm angle to reduce pressure on your shoulders.
Setup: Set an incline bench to 45 degrees and hold a set of dumbbells at your shoulders, palms facing inward. Assume the “better your bench” position.
Move: Press the dumbbells straight up over your upper chest, turning your wrists as you extend so that at the top your palms are facing forward. Slowly lower to the start with your elbows tucked in close.