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Proper Exercise Technique

Work out safely in the gym and at home


Proper Exercise Technique

If you don't use proper exercise technique when working out, you run the risk of injury. Our safety tips will ensure you have a fun - and a safe - workout.

Loud grunting. Sweat left on benches. Chatting on a cellphone. Likely, one of these actions makes your list of irritating things people do at the gym. What grinds my gears? When people put their health and safety at risk by doing exercises improperly or without attention to form.

Daily, without fail, I see people in the gym doing exercises that are dangerous and more harmful than good. Fitness can be a minefield at the best of times. There’s a vast array of information out there on how to tone your buns, sculpt your arms, or (my personal favourite) blast your belly fat.

There are thousands of exercises to tighten and tone your body, but how is one to know which ones are truly beneficial and which ones can ruin your body? Believe it or not, it is actually quite simple.

Proceed with caution

First and foremost, I believe there are no bad exercises, only bad exercisers. Any movement can be beneficial when done with form, focus, and appropriate resistance. Many of the issues associated with bad form are a result of the exerciser using resistance that is beyond their abilities.

The following are four popular exercises for shoulders, lats, abdominals, and legs that hold high correspondence with bad form and put you at risk every time you do them. But fear not, for in their place I will provide alternative exercises that target the same muscles, but will give you better results!


Don’t do this: Barbell high row

This exercise for your shoulders puts the rotator cuff in a position of weakness while under a load and has been known to shear the ends of the clavicle where it meets the humerus. The exercise is done standing upright and holding a barbell with hands hip-width apart. You then slide the bar up along your body up to shoulder height while raising your elbows out to the sides. Many do it with momentum and a back sway. Just don’t do it.

Do this: Single arm lateral dumbbell raise

Single arm lateral dumbbell raise

  • Stand with a dumbbell in hand, feet shoulder-width apart with head, hips, and spine in neutral position.
  • With a slight bend in your elbow, raise your arm out to the side so that your elbow and wrist raise up to shoulder height at the same time (your palm should be down).
  • After a slight pause, slowly return your arm to starting position. Avoid any extracurricular body movement or leaning to either side.

Latissimus dorsi muscle (lats)

Don’t do this: Lat pulldown behind the head

Exercisers on the pulldown machine crane their neck forward. With an almost abdominal crunch sway, they yank the bar down to the back of their neck. It may target the lats, but it immediately puts the cervical vertebrae at risk as well as creating a risk for strained trapezius muscles and various rotator cuff injuries.

Do this: Laying resistance band pulldown

Laying resistance band pulldown

  • Lie on your back with your head pointing toward a resistance band fastened at floor level.
  • With the back side of your body resting against the floor, grasp the handles behind your head and proceed to pull your elbows down to your sides while keeping your arms and the backs of your hands touching the ground.
  • Slowly return to starting position.

Abdominal muscles

Don’t do this: Straight leg abdominal lifts

Lying on their back, as if in bed, exercisers arch their lower back until it looks like an alien is going to burst out of their tummy. They lift their straightened legs into the air above them, whereupon they let their legs come crashing back to the ground. That is one ... one ugly exercise, that is.

Hip flexors are easily strained from this position. The lower back muscles, as well as lumbar vertebrae, are at serious risk. The worst part? This is a really ineffective exercise for abdominals. The movement contracts the muscles but doesn’t lengthen or shorten them, and so optimal activation is minimal.

Do this: Reverse crunches

Reverse crunches

  • Lie on your back with your hands underneath the lower edge of your pelvis (edge of your butt), palms flat on the floor.
  • With a slight bend in your knees, raise your legs above your hips so that your lower body bends at the waist at a 90-degree angle.
  • Shift your body weight into your upper back, lifting your tailbone off the ground.
  • At the same time, push your hips forward in the direction of your head, extending your legs straight into the air as high as you can.
  • Bring your legs back into a bent position as you lower your tailbone back to the ground and to starting position.


Don’t do it like this: Barbell deadlift

Barbell deadlifts are intended to be a leg exercise, namely for the hamstrings. End of story. They are not designed to be a back exercise, and if that is where you feel it, you are doing it wrong and risk injuring your lumbar spine, slipping a disc, or getting a hernia.

Do it like this: Barbell deadlift

The ideal deadlift is done from the floor.

  • Stand with feet hip-width apart and toes facing forward.
  • Place hands hip-width apart on the barbell, either with palms offset or facing you.
  • Do not bend your spine during the entire lift; bend your legs to accommodate the depth of the lift.
  • Keep your head neutral and your shoulders relaxed.
  • Push through your heels and ensure your knees stay over your toes; push your hips forward and stand up, finishing straight up and down and squeezing your glute muscles.
  • Lower the bar in the same manner with control, ensuring the bar stays right along your body.

Born free

As a personal trainer, I am often asked what machines I recommend most to someone trying to lose weight and gain strength. My answer is always: none. Whenever possible (it is always possible), choose to do free weight or body weight exercises. More often than not, these kinds of exercises force you to work your core while you work other muscles.

Machines allow you to sit. They support you and basically teach you laziness and dysfunction. Ask a certified personal trainer to show you some free weight exercises, and consult your local nutrition or health food store to get the most out of your workouts.

Head-to-toe tips for proper form

Always pay special attention to form throughout the duration of an exercise. This will not only prevent injury, but also promote good posture, and you’ll achieve better results.

  • Keep head positioning neutral and your jaw relaxed.
  • Keep shoulder blades down and back.
  • Hold the spine in a neutral position, and regardless of the exercise, consciously and actively engage your core muscles.
  • Maintain hips in a neutral position.
  • Focus on having slightly bent “soft” knees that track overtop the toes when bending and squatting for most exercises.
  • Point toes straight forward.

Reps and sets for beginners

For strength

  • perform at least 1 set of 8 to 12 reps
  • increase gradually to 2 to 3 sets

For endurance

  • perform at least 1 set of 10 to 15 reps
  • increase gradually to 2 to 3 sets


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