Is Bad Form Stealing Your Gains? Here's How to Prevent it

Travis Pollen
Written By: Travis Pollen
April 20th, 2016
Updated: June 13th, 2020
Categories: Articles Training
18K Reads
Is Bad Form Stealing Your Gains? Here's How to Prevent it
Do you have bad form? You may be performing exercises incorrectly without even knowing it! Check out the proper and improper way to do these 4 exercises.

Look around any commercial gym, and you’ll immediately notice they all have one common characteristic, sloppy exercise form.

It doesn’t take the eye of a seasoned coach to notice the epidemic.

Insufficient range of motion, careless lifting tempo, and contorted anatomy, these are just a few of the more pervasive errors you’ll spot.

But, if nearly everyone is using sloppy form, then what’s the big deal? Well, it might be the reason all of those people look exactly the same month after month and year after year.

You see, when you use sloppy form, the exercises aren’t really doing what you think. That is, sloppy form shifts the emphasis away from the prime movers (target muscles) and onto either smaller synergistic muscles or worse, passive joint structures like tendons, ligaments, or even bone.

What’s more, the reduction in prime mover contribution also significantly decreases strength in the lift.

Related: Coach Myers' 5 Exercises You're Doing Wrong

How Does Bad Form Affect Prime Mover Contribution?

Do you ever wonder why your lat development is lagging? It could be that you’re doing back exercises like pull-ups, pull-downs, and rows with an “elbow-dominant” strategy.

Bad Form Pulldown

Instead of initiating the pull by squeezing your shoulder blades down and back, you’re just cranking on your elbows with your biceps. This shifts the focus from the prime mover lats onto the synergistic biceps, which is fine for building biceps, but it also prevents your lats from ever reaching their muscular potential.

In terms of the above-mentioned reliance on passive structures, take an exercise like a front plank. Seems harmless enough, until you notice that many people actually perform it with reckless abandonment. Rather than utilizing their abs and glutes, they allow their lower back to arch and they begin to rely on bone-to-bone contact of the vertebrae within their spine.

It’s not just front planks, either. The function of the core in pushups, military presses, and even pull-ups all mimic a plank, just with additional moving parts. Over time, it’s mistakes like these that can also result in pain and injury, which will obviously limit one’s subsequent ability to lift and grow.

So why does lousy technique plague so many lifters? The most obvious answer, of course, is ego. Many lifters are more concerned with putting plates on the bar than performing exercises correctly, with full range of motion, slow and controlled tempo, and stacked joints. Of course, there could be other factors at play, as well.

Bad Form Ego Lifting

A lifter may be physically incapable of doing the exercise right, even if they know what “right” is. The problem could be out of their control, too. For instance, their anatomy may actually prevent them from getting into the necessary positions. Or it could simply be a result of weakness. Either way, a regression to an easier (or at least different) version of the exercise is warranted.

In other cases, though, it’s just plain ignorance – ignorance that, in this day and age, should be inexcusable, right? Well, taking to the Internet isn’t always much help, as nowadays any genetically gifted meathead with big biceps and a computer can disseminate subpar information via a blog or YouTube channel.

Related: 7 Ways You're Wasting Your Time in the Gym

Fortunately, there are, in fact, a few trustworthy web resources available to the conscientious lifter, namely sites like Muscle & Strength and articles like this one to set the record straight on proper exercise technique.

Which Exercises are Commonly Done Incorrectly?

Below are side-by-side videos of four routine, but commonly butchered, upper body exercises. On one half of the video, the exercise is performed correctly. On the other, several errors are committed.

Prior to reading the explanations underneath the videos, see if you can spot the faulty mechanics. Most importantly, ask yourself if you’re guilty of any of the blunders. If so, figure out why and strive to correct them. After all, proper form is the key to building muscle and strength.

Also note that all of the demonstrations depict a 2/0/2/0 tempo (two seconds to lower the weight, two seconds to lift the weight). Although this tempo might appear slow, it’s actually ideal for muscle hypertrophy. Be advised that another extremely common mistake is to lift with a significantly faster tempo than that shown.

1. Pushup

As alluded to above, the pushup is essentially a dynamic plank. Thus, you should be able to trace a straight line from the head all the way down to the heels, as shown at the top of the video. Also take note of the tucked elbows and full range of motion.

Contrast that technique with the bottom of the video, where failure to engage the abs and glutes results in a sagging lower back and protruding hips. Also observe the forward head and hyperextended neck, flared elbows, and reduced range of motion.

Cues to remember:

  • Tighten the abs and glutes to maintain a flat back
  • Look down for a neutral neck
  • Tuck the elbows to the sides at a 45° angle
  • Lower the chest all the way to the floor at the bottom
  • Lock the elbows out at the top

2. Lat Pulldown

As the name implies, the lat pulldown should be characterized by a downward pull (left of video) – not a downward-and-back pull (right of video) – with a brief pause and hard squeeze of the lats when the bar gets to the collarbone.

Many lifters incorrectly use a combination of lean-back and momentum to lift heavier weight. In doing so, they turn the exercise into a hybrid pull-down/row, which shifts the emphasis from the lats onto the rhomboids and traps. Though well-intentioned, they also have a tendency to pull too far down, which places the shoulders in a dangerous position of internal rotation.

Related: Boyce's Choices - Top 3 Exercises for Back Development

Cues to remember:

  • Stay tall, and pull the elbows straight down
  • “Shave the chin” with the bar
  • Reverse directions at the collarbone

3. Military Press

As in the push-up, the core must hold a tight plank during the military press. From a side view, with the barbell overhead you should be able to draw a line straight down from the bar that intersects the wrist, ear (hidden by the upper arm), elbow, shoulder, hip, knee, and ankle. This technique is demonstrated on the left of the video.

Conversely, on the right, the wrists are bent backward from the beginning. As the weight is pressed overhead, the ribs flare up, the lower back overextends, and the head comes forward excessively.

Cues to remember:

  • Exhale the ribs down
  • Tighten the abs and glutes to maintain a flat back
  • Feel the entire foot on the ground, and keep the weight distributed equally between the heel and forefoot
  • Squeeze the bar to keep the wrists stacked on top of the elbows

4. Dumbbell Row

On the left, the proper dumbbell row begins with a flat back, a neutral neck, and the hand slightly in front of the shoulder. The pull is initiated from the shoulder blade and comes back in a slight arc towards the hip, with the elbow tucked loosely at the side of the body.

On the right, the back is slightly rounded, the neck is hyperextended (head up), the shoulder is shrugged, and the hand is directly below the shoulder. The pull is initiated from the elbow, not the shoulder blade, and the elbow tracks straight up, instead of towards the hip. Note how the elbow is slightly flared and the front of the shoulder protrudes forward in the top position.

Cues to remember:

  • Maintain a flat back with the chest up
  • Look off at a 45° angle for a neutral neck
  • Initiate the row by pulling the shoulder blade down and back
  • Pull in towards the hip with the elbow tight to the side
  • Pause briefly in the top position, continuing to squeeze the shoulder blade down and back