Your legs aren’t growing. You’ve tried everything: squats, deadlifts, Olympic lifts, lunges, low reps, high reps, two-a-days, protein powders, and blood flow restriction.
You name it, you’ve tried it and it didn’t work. Your legs bring new meaning to the expression “hardgainer.”
The one aspect of training that you may (perhaps unknowingly) have failed to master, though, is proper form. And without it, don’t even think about making serious gains in strength or mass.
Poor form has become nothing short of an epidemic in gyms around the world. It’s an afterthought in a culture seemingly rooted in throwing inappropriately heavy weights around and then posting on social media about it.
In fact, last month I wrote about the 4 technique mistakes you may be making without realizing it for the upper body.
Blame this widespread sloppy form on ignorance, ego, structural limitations, or all of the above. Regardless, these days exercise technique often takes a backseat to heavy weights and lifting to soul-crushing failure, form be damned.
Instead of mastering the finer points of squatting, hip hinging, lunging, and jumping, many lifters skip right to heavy loaded back squats, deadlifts, and “swings” (if you can even call them that).
With complete disregard for proper mechanics, these self-proclaimed hardgainers set themselves up for failure. As they continue to add more plates, passive joint structures like tendons, ligaments, and bone take more and more of a beating.
At best, these lifters’ progress plateaus. At worst, they get hurt and are forced to take time off from training.
The 5 Most Commonly Butchered Lower Body Exercises
Clearly, being aware of the most prevalent technique mistakes in basic lower body movements is paramount. After all, you can’t fix something if you don’t know it’s broken.
Below are five side-by-side comparisons of proper form (left of each video) and improper form (right of each video). See if you can pick out all of the mistakes prior to reading the descriptions. If you’re guilty of any of them, for the sake of continued progress strive to fix them right away.
1. Barbell Back Squat
Because of individual variation in limb and torso lengths and hip anatomy, not everyone is able to squat down “ATG” with a perfectly upright torso like a Chinese Olympic weightlifter.
With that being said, lifters should still strive for a fairly upright position (torso parallel to shins) while squatting as deeply as possible without rounding their upper or lower back (as shown on the left of the video). In contrast, on the right of the video, excessive range of motion for this particular lifter results in the torso tipping forward, the upper back rounding, and the hips tucking underneath him.
Moreover, note how the heels maintain contact with the ground on the left, whereas they lift off on the right. This reduces his ability to recruit the muscles of his posterior chain. (If ankle mobility is an issue, you can elevate your heels on five-pound plates.) Finally, avoid the excessive hyperextension of the neck and backward flare of the elbows exhibited on the right.
For the record, your knees will not explode if they go past your toes. In fact, in order to maintain an upright torso, it’s actually necessary for the knees to do so. Granted, in the presence of knee pain, a more vertical shin (via a box squat) is likely more appropriate.
Cues to remember for the barbell back squat:
- Keep chest up and back flat
- Look straight ahead (not up)
- Keep elbows tight to sides
- Glue heels to floor
- Sink as low as possible while maintaining perfect positioning of the pelvis and spine
2. Conventional Barbell Deadlift
Just as no two people will look exactly the same in a squat, no two deadlifters will possess identical hip hinges. However, there are a few commonalities that every good deadlift will share.
Beginning with the left of the video, at setup the bar is correctly positioned directly over the shoelaces and barely touching the front of the shins. In this bottom position, the elbows are locked out and the lats are tight. You could draw a straight line from the head down to the hips. At lockout the entire body is straight up and down, with the abs and glutes fully engaged.
Conversely, on the right of the video the bar is too far from the body, there’s slack in the elbows, the neck is overextended, and both the upper and lower back are round. At lockout, excessive lean-back occurs as the spinal erectors substitute low back hyperextension for full hip extension.
Clearly, the right of the video shows that this lifter lacks the requisite hip mobility for deadlifting from the floor (which, by the way, is a completely arbitrary height). It is for this reason that he elevates the plates on the aerobic steps on the left. Elevate the bar as as high as you need to in order to keep a flat back through the entire range of motion.
Note, too, that if your gym allows you to remove your shoes (and your feet don’t stink), then do so. Deadlifting barefoot increases proprioception and puts the posterior chain in a more optimal position to pull.
Cues to remember for the barbell deadlift:
- Set up with bar over shoelaces (or middle of bare feet)
- Push hips back, keeping chest up
- Engage lats and “take the slack out of the bar”
- Maintain a flat back and neutral neck
- If needed, elevate bar with blocks, mats, plates, aerobic steps, or power rack pins
3. Dumbbell Reverse Lunge
Like the squat, the front heel must stay glued to the floor in the reverse lunge through the entire range of motion (back knee touches or nearly touches floor), as shown on the left. Failure to use full range of motion and maintain heel contact (right of video) will result in reduced engagement of the hamstrings and glutes of the leading leg and, consequently, poorer results.
The most common culprit for the heel coming off is too short of a step back into the lunge (right). Ideally, the bottom position should serve as a subtle hip flexor stretch on the trailing leg (left).
A coinciding sign that force isn’t being exerted through the front heel is excessive forward translation of the knee past the toes (right). Again, for lifters with a history of knee pain, it’s preferable to keep a more vertical shin in this exercise.
Cues to remember for the dumbbell reverse lunge:
- Take a big step backwards
- “Kiss the floor” with back knee
- Drive up through front heel
4. Kettlebell Swing
The kettlebell swing is essentially a ballistic hip hinge. Although, you certainly wouldn’t know it by the way the majority of lifters attempt to perform them. Because it’s a hip hinge, many of the same cues from the deadlift apply in terms of a flat back, neutral neck, tight lats, and engaged core, as demonstrated on the left of the video.
Flaws abound on the right of the video. In the bottom position, the head is up, the back is round, and the lats are loose. During the concentric phase of the movement, the knees fail to lock out fully, leading to incomplete hip extension and a swayback posture with poor ab and glute engagement.
Cues to remember for the kettlebell swing:
- Push hips back, keeping chest up
- Maintain a flat back and neutral neck
- Engage lats
- Lock knees out fast to get tall at the top
- Tighten abs and glutes in top position
5. Box Jump
This one’s actually pretty simple. A box jump should be just that – a jump onto a box (left) – not a bunny hop followed by a rapid knees-to-chest action to allow the feet to clear the box (right).
Land with the entire foot on the box, not with the heels hanging off. After jumping up and landing softly, step down; don’t jump. The benefits of jumping down backwards are far outweighed by the risk of a blown Achilles. Nobody wants that. Lastly, use your arms for momentum.
Cues to remember for the box jump:
- Use arms for momentum
- Jump up as high as you can
- Land quietly with entire foot on box
- Step down