I know that every fitness writer does an article like where they discuss some mistakes people make in the gym. Overtraining, not warming up, incorrect breathing, nutrition mistakes, etc. I’m going to focus on the stuff here that as a chiropractor and fitness expert, I just can’t deal with watching happen anymore. There are some exercises and more specifically forms of exercise that I see in the gym that make me want to gouge my eyes out. Some are because they are HORRIBLE for the spine, and others, because they simply DON’T do what the person doing them thinks. If you’re an offender, please stop. If you witness these in your gym, help stop the insanity and say something to the poor sap doing it.
1. Weighted Side Bends
Ladies (and men, too), let me explain how muscle works. When you add excess resistance and move a muscle through its range of motion, it breaks the tissue down, causing a small bit of inflammation signaling satellite cell activity and a process of repair to begin. This repair ends up with muscle growth in the presence of any sort of positive nitrogen balance in the system. The low-science diet version? You’re making your waist wider by doing these. Something tells me that’s not your goal. (Oh, and P.S., you can’t spot reduce your love handle fat anyway.)
The Fix: Do your side bends, skip the weight, and work on the diet and cardio to control the love handles.
2. The Full Body Bicep Curl
You’ve seen this guy… He’s either 150 curling his body weight to show off, or he’s about 350 and would rather be lifting Taco Bell than a barbell, but his doctor told him to go to the gym. From rep number one, there is complete body english put into hoisting this weight from a straight arm position to a flexed one. The spine is subjected to an extreme amount of shearing forces, especially at the joint between your low back bones and your tailbone. This just happens to be the most common joint to wear out in your back anyway, so why give it help?
The Fix: Use a weight you can handle for 80% of your reps. If you need a little help on the last rep or two, go for a little beat of cheating with momentum, or use a spotter to get you through. Remember, no one cares how big your biceps are when you’re lying on the floor of the gym crying in pain.
3. The Pigeon Bench Press
When lifting heavy weight, one of the most common natural reactions is to push your head and neck down or out (looks like a pigeon). It is done to increase intra-thoracic (chest cavity) pressure, which is associated with a slight increase in strength. So why is this a bad thing then? Because the muscle that is used to jut the chin out is called the sternocleidomastoid or SCM. It runs from your sternum (sterno-) and collar bone (cleido) up to the base of the back of your skull (mastoid). When over developed, it puts your head in a postural position where the ears are far in front of the shoulders, reducing the normal (good) curve in the neck. Imagine holding a bowling ball with your arm straight up over your shoulder. You could hold it up for a while. Now, move it just 10% out in front of your shoulder. How long do you think this would last? Not very long. Your shoulder would fatigue because of the leverage the ball is putting on it. The same thing happens with your head. If it is far in front of your center of gravity, it creates a bad leverage on your low neck and upper back that causes premature wear and tear of the discs and joints. Then, since your eyes have to see straight in front of you, you pick up the upper part of the head with the small muscles in the back of the neck, causing a pinching at the neck/skull junction. This usually leads to headaches. In case you care about the scientific terms, this is a syndrome called upper-crossed syndrome.
The Fix: Bury your head straight back into the headrest of whatever machine you’re using. Give yourself a slight double chin and focus on breathing normal rather than in with the negative and out with the positive part of the rep. You’ll develop stability the deep neck flexors and add years of health to spine in the process.
4. Is That A Squat Or Are You Bowing For A Karate Match?
Pretty self-explanatory here. Again, it all comes down to shear forces on the low back. If the weight is that far in front of your center of gravity, you are tearing yourself up. There is a movement called the “Good Morning” which is meant to work the hamstrings and, to a lesser extent, the low back extensors. However, the weight used should be far less on this. When I see someone with 315 pounds on the bar across the shoulders and they do a rep that resembles 1980’s Daniel LaRusso preparing to go against Johnny in Cobra Kai, I just politely hand them a card and tell them to call me soon.
The Fix: The squat needs to be initiated by pushing the butt and hips back as you lower the weight. Bend the knees, trying to keep them from traveling past the tip of your toes (if you were looking from the side), and sink the butt into a full squat. If you can’t complete this fully, then drop the weight and work on form until you can. Maintaining the low back curve is extremely important to avoid injury. When it tucks back under, it’s called a “butt wink” and we want to avoid it. A trick to learn proper hip movement for initiation is to stand about 10 inches from the wall and try to sink down and put a “butt print” on the wall without losing balance. Full crack here, not just low back. Get it?
5. Starting The Lawnmower? Oh, Those Are Dumbbell Rows? Ouch…
Tony Horton (P90X), I can’t blame it on you, but I do fault you for perpetuating it back in the day. Rowing a dumbbell should not look like a horrible dance club move. One thing has been shown to tear the outer layers of a spinal disc (called the annulus). It is flexion (bent at waist) coupled with rotation (twisting) under weight bearing load. This is HIGH risk for injury. I don’t just mean wear and tear, but actual injury.
The Fix: Secure the knee on a bench and sit as far back on your leg as your knee flexibility will let you. Draw the weight low into the waist without any twisting or momentum. Squeeze the lats, and only use weight you can handle. My trainer pushes me very hard on these, and while I lift a ton with them, you can bet I do not twist my spine at all during the move. When you start, you may need a lighter weight, but trust me. You can get up to super human weights faster if you don’t have to take a break to have back surgery.
Oh, there’s so many more, but this is good for now. I’m probably shooting myself in the foot by teaching people how to stay out of my office, but just call me a nice guy, I guess. (My ex won’t agree with you, though.)
Dr. Craig Banks
Dr. Craig Banks is a chiropractic sports physician, health and fitness expert, author, speaker and philanthropist. He is the owner of Pinnacle Chiropractic Health & Wellness Center, a multidisciplinary clinic that focuses on sports injuries. He is also the CEO of Phoenix Bioperformance, makers of KinetiCream, a powerful topical anti-inflammatory cream. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or on social media.