5 Common Breakdowns In Form with Troubleshooting Tips
When it comes to achieving most performance, health, and aesthetic oriented goals, performing all of the exercises in your training program with your best form will absolutely make or break your results. Don’t get me wrong, any movement is fantastic, but moving properly and mindfully will best lead you to your desired goals, and will help keep your body feeling good. And if your body doesn’t already feel good, proper movement might just be the tonic your body needs. As I like to say, proper movement is medicine. To be clear, I intentionally said: “your best form” as optimal form varies from person to person, and no two people will look identical while performing the same exercise. That being said, while optimal form does depend on many different factors, there are some common breakdowns in form that should be avoided as they can lead to inferior results and a greater risk of injury.
In this article, I discuss some common breakdowns in form that plague many trainees, and I provide some different solutions. Again, there is no one-size-fits-all approach, so I am not speaking in black and white terms, but many of these troubleshooting tips have worked wonders for me, and the many people I’ve worked with in my 15+ years of being a strength coach.
1a) Push-Up Problems: Head and neck collapsing
When a lot of people perform push-ups, they struggle to keep their head and neck in the correct position, and allow their head and neck to collapse towards the floor. Ideally, your body should form a straight line from your head to heels, and should remain in this position for the duration of the exercise.
Possible Solution: When you get into the starting position of the push-up, and this applies to all push-up variations, lightly tuck your chin down (try to make a double chin). To clarify, I do not mean to look down. Your head and neck should remain in the same position but your chin should tuck down ever so slightly. When you do this, you should notice the muscles in the front of your neck a lot more. Once you have performed this chin-tuck, press your tongue against the roof of your mouth (just behind your teeth) as this can help activate the deep neck flexors and help keep your head and neck from dropping, or help prevent the muscles on the lateral and posterior aspects of the neck from over-working. Some people complain that these parts of their neck hurt during push-ups, and these troubleshooting tips can help.
As for your eyes, look straight down and gaze at the same spot on the ground for 100% of your set. If your head and neck collapse, your eyes will likely shift to a spot that is closer to your feet. Many people make this error. But if you hyperextend your neck and lift your chin (versus keeping it tucked), your eyes will likely shift to a spot that is higher up.
1b) Push-Up Problem: Elbows flaring in the bottom position
In the bottom position of the push-up, your body and arms should resemble an “arrow.” However, when many people perform push-ups their elbows flare so their body and arms resemble a “t.” This is not ideal and can sometimes contribute to unhappy shoulders and elbows. When a lot of people perform the lowering component of the push-up, they disregard what is going on with the muscles that control the movement of their shoulders and shoulder blades, and allow their body to free-fall to the bottom position. This lack of control around the shoulders and shoulder blades can cause the elbows to flare. Other people do not press through their full hands and fingers, and instead press solely through the base of the hands below the wrists, or purely through their fingers. This often overlooked error can hinder your ability to perform your best push-ups.
Possible Solution: Imagine that you are “rowing” your body down to the bottom position, and be extremely mindful of the movement of your shoulder blades, versus simply mindlessly dropping down and catching yourself. This cue often reminds people to engage these ever-important but often forgotten muscles, and can be a total game-changer. Another tip I find to be very helpful is to spread your fingers, and imagine that you are suctioning your hands and fingers to the floor (or bench if you are performing a hands elevated variation). I talk a lot about the importance of the tripod foot base, and this cue almost accomplishes the same thing, but with the hands. Having sturdier hands and a wider base can give you more control over what your arms are doing, and can help you execute each rep with authority.
In the full Glutes, Core, And Pelvic Floor workout and education system, I provide an extremely comprehensive 12 minute video tutorial on push-ups.
2) Foot Problem: Insufficient base of support
When it comes to performing any exercise where you are in a standing position, and you can even include exercises where you are in a half-kneeling position, having a strong and sturdy base of support will translate to more stability in your feet and your entire body. Do not underestimate the importance of your feet. They can have a huge impact on your performance, both during bilateral and unilateral exercises, and can make your body more resilient. In order to have feet that are as sturdy and stable as possible, it is extremely important that you are able to create and then maintain a tripod base.
Many people struggle to achieve their best tripod foot base as they have been falsely led to believe that pressing through the back of their feet and lifting their toes off the ground is the way to go. It is not, and will result in a much less stable base of support. One example is that you will commonly see people squatting and falling backwards as their weight is primarily on their heels, and their base of support is extremely small. Other people allow their weight to shift to their toes, and this can cause them to tip forward, or sometimes experience discomfort in their knees. A few other errors that can jeopardize the integrity of the ever-important tripod base include allowing the big or baby toes to lift, or clenching the toes, versus spreading the toes and suctioning the full foot to the floor.
Possible Solution: Establishing a tripod base, something I talk about the importance of a lot, can make a tremendous difference. To explain what I mean by the term tripod base, your weight should be on the mid to back of your feet (or foot if it’s a unilateral exercise), and all of your toes should remain in contact with the floor for the duration of the exercise, but particularly your big and baby toes. Having these three parts of your feet in contact with the floor will dramatically improve your overall stability and the amount of force you should be able to generate. This will likely translate to better form, being able to move more resistance and even adding more muscle (if this is a goal). Pretend that you are suctioning or are screwing your feet into the ground. So, avoid pressing solely through the heels, and be extremely mindful that you do not allow your big or baby toes to leave the floor. Trust me, master the tripod foot base and you should notice a significant difference.
In the full Glutes, Core, And Pelvic Floor workout and education system, I provide an extremely comprehensive 6+ minute video tutorial on the tripod foot.
3) Hip Thrust/Glute Bridge Problem: Feeling your hamstrings or quads more than your glutes
When many people perform any hip thrust or glute bridge variation, they feel their hamstrings working more than their glutes. Unless you are performing a hamstring specific bridge where your main objective is to target your hamstrings, your glutes should be doing the majority of the work. Other people notice their quads working more than their glutes.
Possible Solution: If you are noticing your hamstrings working more than your glutes and are possibly even experiencing hamstring cramps, take a good look at the position of your shins, and how far ahead of your knees your feet are. In a lot of cases, positioning the feet so they are too far forward, and thus having a knee angle that is greater, can cause the hamstrings to work more than they should. In most cases, adopting a vertical shin position, or close to it, best allows the glutes to do the majority of the work, and helps prevent the hamstrings from taking over.
Other people mention that they feel their quads kicking in more than their glutes. This pitfall can arise if you are pressing through your forefoot, or even your full foot, more than the mid to back portion of your foot. Hip thrusts and glute bridges are two exercises where the tripod foot base might not be the most beneficial. Focus on pressing through the mid to back portion of your feet (or foot depending on the variation), and even lifting your toes from the ground. This can help remove your quads from the equation, and can bring the focus back to your glutes. Definitely experiment and figure out what works and feels best for you.
In the full Glutes, Core, And Pelvic Floor workout and education system, we provide exercise video tutorials on different glute bridge and hip thrust variations, as they are key components of the workout modules.
4) Hip Hinging Problem: Hinging by rounding the spine, lowering the chest, squatting, or a combination.
Hip hinging is a basic movement that everybody should be able to perform, yet very few people are able to execute this movement correctly. While many people only associate hip hinging with deadlifting, thus feel it isn’t relevant to them, make no mistake, hip hinging is a fundamental movement that virtually all people are required to perform on a daily basis. When you are performing hip hinging movements, as the name implies, the movement needs to be coming from your hips. Many people hinge incorrectly by moving through their spine, squatting down, dropping their chest to the ground (even if their back looks ‘’flat’’), or a combination. These improper hinging mechanics can contribute to back pain, decreased performance, and a lack of posterior chain muscle strength and development.
Possible Solution: When you are performing any hip hinging movement, you want to initiate the movement with your hips and push them posteriorly. Imagining that a rope is wrapped around your hips and is pulling them backwards, or pretending that you are trying to push your hips into a wall that is behind you, are several cues that I find work wonders with many people. With any hip hinging movement, lower does not necessarily mean better. Choose a range of motion where YOU can maintain proper form.
Feeling a slight stretch in your hamstrings is often a good indicator that you’ve hit your optimal range and should return to the top position. However, some people might not feel a “stretch” and thus go past a range of motion where they are able to maintain optimal form. Some of many possible reasons why you might not feel this “stretch” include being hypermobile in some or all of your joints, having extremely flexible hamstrings, or even lacking body awareness. You absolutely need to stop before you feel yourself compensating. If you are unsure, have somebody knowledgeable assess your form, or you can even film yourself and gauge your own form. Videoing can be an extremely useful tool.
In the full Glutes, Core, And Pelvic Floor workout and education system, I provide an extremely comprehensive 11+ minute video tutorial on hip hinging, and share a handful of my favorite exercises.
5) Dead Bug/Hollow Body Hold Problem: Not feeling your anterior core musculature while performing these exercises, or at least not engaging this muscle group to your full potential
When a lot of people perform exercises like dead bugs and hollow body holds, they do not use the muscles in their anterior core anywhere near as much as they could. Compensating with the muscles in the neck and/or upper body, improper breathing, or overusing the muscles in the legs could be contributing factors. Making sure that your head and neck are in the optimal position, that you are breathing properly, and that you are relaxing the muscles in your legs are all extremely important, and can have a tremendous impact.
During exercises like hollow body holds and dead bugs, many people compensate by overusing the muscles in their neck, or even their upper body. As a result, the muscles in the anterior core will not be working to their full potential. You will commonly see people lifting their head and/or shoulders way off the ground, and essentially doing the work with these muscles instead of the muscles of the anterior core. When I’m working with clients, the second I correct them they mention how much tougher the exercise automatically becomes.
Before you initiate the rep and lift your head and shoulders off the ground, lightly tuck your chin down and aim to make a slight double chin. As I like to say, we can all make a double chin. Once you do this, you should feel the muscles in the front of your neck. Now depending on what variation you choose to perform, tuck your ribcage towards your hips, brace your core muscles, and lift your head and shoulders off the ground, but only an inch or so. Resist the urge to lift any higher as this will help prevent you from compensating with the muscles in your neck (often lateral and posterior muscles), or your upper body. Make sure to maintain your chin-tuck. If you are able to achieve this, you should notice the muscles in your anterior core significantly more, and should not feel like the exercise is “too easy,” as it is not. I put “too easy” in quotations as many people make this statement, but they only feel this way as they are not performing the exercise correctly. If this exercise is being performed with proper form, and this applies to people of all fitness levels and abilities, the exercise should feel extremely challenging.
As I talk about all the time, and as Sarah covers in great detail in Glutes, Core, and Pelvic Floor, breathing is extremely important yet is a vital piece of proper form that is overlooked by many. Proper breathing accomplishes so much more than simply bringing air into and out of the lungs. When you are performing the leg lowering component of dead bugs and are lowering your leg to a range where YOU can maintain proper form, exhale for the duration of this movement. A proper exhalation will really help you engage the transverse abdominals. A lot of people underestimate the importance of proper breathing, but the second you sort out your breathing you will notice a dramatic difference.
Lastly, during both dead bugs and hollow body holds, many people really overuse the muscles in their legs, often the quads or tfl’s, and allow them to work in place of the muscles of the anterior core. Aim to keep the muscles in your legs as “soft” as possible. Start out by keeping your knees bent at a 90 degree angle as this will help remove more of your legs from the equation. Once you have mastered this exercise using the 90 degree knee angle, you can attempt to perform the exercise with straighter knees and see how it feels. As always, do what works and feels best for you.
In the full Glutes, Core, And Pelvic Floor workout and education system, we provide video tutorials on different dead bug variations, as they are key components of the workout modules.