10 Common Weight-Lifting Mistakes to Avoid

By LaReine Chabut

You can really hurt your body while lifting weights if you don’t pay attention to what you’re doing. Here are ten common weight-lifting mistakes to avoid:

  • Yanking your head and neck when you do crunches: Many people complain that crunches cause neck pain. They do — but only if you yank your head and neck instead of lifting your torso by the power of your abdominals.

    To avoid jerking your neck, place your fingertips and thumbs behind your head, and don’t lace your fingers together. Hold your elbows out wide and keep your shoulders relaxed. Your arm placement is correct if you can barely see your elbows out of the corners of your eyes. As you curl, keep your head, neck, and arms frozen in position. When you curl the right way, your head, neck, and lower back feel nearly weightless. Finally, as you lift your torso, exhale forcefully through your mouth; as you lower your torso, inhale through your nose.

  • Leaning too far forward when you do squats: If you let your knees shoot out past your toes when you do squats, you’re putting incredible pressure on the delicate tendons, ligaments, and cartilage that hold the knees in place, and you could end up with a knee injury.

    To squat properly, start with your feet hip width apart and point your toes straight ahead or angled slightly outward. As you squat down, your knees should travel in a straight line, in the direction that your toes are pointed. You should be sitting through your heels in the squat position; try wiggling your toes while you’re down. Never squat so low that your thighs are lower than parallel to the ground. When you stand up, press through your heels, and finish with your legs straight but relaxed. Snapping your knees places pressure on them and sends your lower back into an extreme arch.

  • Arching your back when you do a bench press: Some weight lifters think that anything they do to pile on poundage — including arching their backs and squirming around — is fair game. In reality, how much weight you hoist above your chest isn’t necessarily related to how strong your chest muscles are. When you arch your back, you simply increase your mechanical advantage (and your injury risk); more muscles pitch in to move the bar upward.

    To do a bench press the right way, keep your back in contact with the bench throughout the exercise. You don’t need to force your back into an unnaturally flat position — it’s okay to have a small, natural arch under your lower back. If you can’t plant your feet flat on the floor because the bench is too high, place your feet on the bench.

  • Lowering your arms too far when doing chest exercises: When doing chest exercises, some people drop their elbows so low that they practically touch the floor. The resulting stretch in your chest muscles may feel good, but at this point, your chest muscles and your shoulder ligaments are in danger of snapping, like a rubber band that’s been pulled too far. Also, when you lower your arms too far, you shove the head of your big arm bone — the humerus — way up into your shoulder socket. The rotator-cuff muscles and nearby ligaments and tendons must twist themselves in unspeakable ways to accommodate this unnatural position. You may not feel pain immediately, but sooner or later, all this twisting may catch up to you and result in shoulder pain and injury to your shoulder joints.

    When you perform a dumbbell chest press, bench press, or chest fly, stop lowering your arms when your elbows are slightly below chest level. Depending on the build of your body, the bar may touch your chest on the bench press.

  • Pulling a lat pull-down bar down the wrong way: One common mistake — a mistake that places your shoulder joints and muscles in jeopardy — is pulling the bar straight down toward your lap rather than toward your chest. A second error occurs when you pull the bar down unevenly — one end of the bar may be 6 inches lower than the other. Leaning way back as you pull the bar down and then rocking forward as the bar travels upward is another big error. Generating this type of momentum helps you move a lot of weight, because you’re using your body weight instead of your muscles to help you pull down the bar. Because you’re not using your muscles to move the bar, this “trick” doesn’t improve your back strength. The worst mistake, however, is pulling the bar behind your neck. Never pull down the bar behind you. This is an older technique that you may still see people doing at the gym, but it has been shown to put the shoulders at risk of injury.

    Here are tips for performing a perfect lat pull-down:

    • Choose a weight that’s challenging but not so heavy that you feel like you’re dangling off the end of a helicopter ladder.

    • Sit down — taking the bar with you — and wedge your thighs under the thigh bar.

    • Lean just a few inches backward and keep your abdominal muscles pulled in to support your lower back. Pull the bar toward the top of your chest, lifting your chest to meet the bar.

    • Take your time so that the bar remains level throughout the movement. Don’t sway back and forth.

    • When you’ve completed your set, stand up and gently deposit the bar back where it belongs. If you open your hands and let the weight plates come crashing down, you’ll startle everyone else in the weight room and you may damage the equipment. The exercise isn’t finished until you’ve completely lowered the weight stack with control.

  • Lifting your hips off the support pad when doing leg curls: Watch people use the leg-curl machine and you’ll see that as they kick their legs toward their butts, their hips lift off the support pads, and their butts stick up about 2 inches. This mistake is subtle, but it’s a sneaky way of taking work away from your hamstrings and transferring the effort to your hip muscles, allowing the hamstrings to avoid doing the work that they need to do to get stronger.

    To prevent your hips from popping up off the pad, raise your upper thighs just a hair off the pad before you bend your knees for the kick upward. In this position, you feel your hamstrings working a lot harder.

  • Rowing with bad posture: One common mistake found in rowing is rounding your back or allowing your shoulders and neck to droop forward. This slumped posture puts your neck and lower back in a pressure cooker. Another problem: leaning way back like someone involved in a game of tug-of-war. Rowing with poor posture reinforces bad postural habits. Rather than becoming more fit, you’re risking back injury and practicing bad posture. What you train is what you get, according to specificity of training. Train with good posture to develop good posture.

    To row properly, sit up tall with your abdominals pulled in. Your upper body, from the top of your head to your belly button, should be perpendicular to the floor. Bend your knees as much as you need to in order to maintain this posture. Allow your arms to stretch fully out in front of you without losing that perpendicular posture. Then when you pull the bar toward your chest, sit up even taller and bring your hands into your body, just below your chest. Squeeze your shoulder blades together as you pull, and drive your elbows straight back behind you.

  • Sitting up too quickly: When you sit up after doing exercises on a bench or the floor, don’t jerk straight back up into a sitting position, especially if you’re holding weights. When you get up suddenly, you can adversely impact your blood pressure and experience a moment of dizziness. You want to avoid any type of sudden or jerky movement when you’re holding weight because the weight can create momentum and cause you to lose control over your movements.

    To protect your lower back when you get up off the floor, roll to the side and then use both arms to push up into a sitting position. Or you can hug one knee into your chest and gently rock yourself up. After performing an exercise involving dumbbells, such as the chest fly, bring the weights down into your chest, and then roll up. (When you begin the exercise, do the opposite: Bring the weights into your chest and rock yourself back on the bench.)

  • Dropping weights: You never want to drop weights. You always want to put weights down slowly and with control to avoid hurting yourself and others.

  • Zoning out when you’re spotting a partner: Don’t zone out while you’re spotting someone. If your buddy poops out in the middle of a set and you’re even a split second too late to grab the weight, he may get clunked on the head, chest, or some other body part. He may also tear a muscle or ligament while trying to do your job for you (that is, to save the weight from crashing). Pay attention. You’d want the same courtesy paid to you.

    Tune out everything in the universe other than your partner. Put your hands in the right place and watch your buddy like a soldier guarding Buckingham Palace. Don’t wait for him to scream, “Dude! Where are you?!”