You’ve Been Doing Squats Wrong (& 3 Other Exercise Move Mistakes)

Fitness experts share how to exercise with ease.

By Victoria Giardina
people squatting

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If you’ve ever done a squat, you know how awkward they can be. You stand there, with your knees bent, your butt out, trying to ignore the tension in your legs as you repeat the up and down motion. If you’re like me and find squats kind of painful, there might be a reason for that. I just recently found out that I’ve been doing squats wrong my whole life, and needless to say, my mind is blown.

But apparently I’m not the only one feeling pain. According to a 2014 study from the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, about 8.6 million cases of exercise-related injuries occurred in the country. If any of those 8.6 million people are like me, they probably got injured because they didn’t know how to properly do common exercise moves like squats, crunches, push-ups, and planks. And more than that, they probably didn’t even know they were doing it wrong — who has time to scour the Internet for how-to videos, especially when squeezing workout time into a busy day is hard enough?

There are times when I wish I had a personal trainer at my side, coaching me through these basic moves. The moves may seem simple but, if not performed with the perfect positioning, can lead to injury.

Not everyone can afford a personal trainer, but luckily Cassey Ho, owner of Blogilates — rated the best female fitness channel on YouTube — and Certified Personal Trainer Katie Dunlop, group fitness instructor and owner of Love Sweat Fitness, have the ultimate guide for fixing these common workout blunders.

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Squats

Dunlop says that squats are the most common exercise move done wrong (which made me feel a little bit better about myself). Though squats are a go-to option to strengthen your leg muscles, improper form — such as incorrect foot positioning, buckling your knees buckling, not going deep enough, and rounding your spine — can lead to both knee injury and chronic pain. “Inflammation in the knees and hips causes pain that can lead to one needing anti-inflammatories and extensive rest time [or even] physical therapy and rehabilitation,” Dunlap notes.

So, what’s the common mistake when squatting? Ho says that it’s all in the hips. “People often complain about knee pain [after squatting]. [This is] because they aren’t pushing back through their hips as they lower into the squat position,” she explains. “[Your] hips should be the hinge as the butt shifts back and down. When the knees go in front of the toes, that puts pressure into the knee — which can lead to pain.”

To prevent this pain, practice correct form. The best way for beginner’s to do that, according to Dunlop, is to use a chair: “With chest lifted, seated tall, hinge forward slightly to allow yourself to lift your booty off the chair an inch. Hold here, slowly lower, and repeat.”

How to Correctly Do a Squat

Dunlop shares her step-by-step guide to squatting like a pro:

  1. Stand with your feet hip-width apart (or slightly wider), with toes slightly pointed out.
  2. Engage your core and glutes as you lower your booty back and down like you’re trying to sit on the edge of a chair.
  3. Keep your weight in your heels and imagine pushing the ground apart with your feet. Press your knees slightly open to engage your abductors (outside of your thighs).
  4. Sit to your lowest point (ideally, your booty in line with your knees).
  5. Keep your spine straight and chest lifted.
  6. Press through your heels and actively engage your glutes, then return to a standing position.

For a fun twist, Ho suggests adding dumbbells to maximize the move to build up strength. If you’re looking to increase intensity try jump squats (or any of Ho’s easy-to-follow squat variations).

Crunches

Ho says she witnesses a lot of improper crunches during her workout classes. “People tend to pull on their head and neck instead of using their abdominal muscles,” she says. This improper tugging can cause back pain while exercising. Getting the crunch right is easy, she says — all you have to remember is to engage your abdominals and lift your ribs toward your hips.

For another hack to crunch better, Ho says to keep your fingertips by your temples instead of the nape of your neck. This can help to prevent pulling on your head, which can lead to neck and back strain.

How to Correctly Do a Crunch

Here are Ho’s instructions on how to prevent pain with correct crunch form:

  1. Lie on your back with your feet hip-width apart and your knees bent.
  2. Lift your head and neck off the floor and lift your ribs toward your hips (this will bring your shoulder blades off the floor).
  3. Exhale as you squeeze your abs to lift your torso higher, then lower back to the start position.

Push-Ups

For those who identify as workout beginners, push-ups can certainly be a challenge, according to Ho. “Focusing on proper alignment is key because people are often looking up or tucking their chin into their chest which can lead to neck pain,” Ho adds. “Improper alignment can also result in low back pain, as oftentimes people have an excessive arch in their back and drop through their hips to lower the body instead of using upper body strength to lower.”

If you feel like your upper body strength is not up-to-par to push all the way down with the correct form, Dunlop encourages to begin these on your knees with your feet lifted off the ground to build up your strength. “Remember, even if you can only do one at first, the more you practice, the stronger you’ll get,” she adds.

How to Correctly Do a Push-Up

To prevent injury and improve your strength, here are Dunlop’s instructions for how to do push-ups with proper alignment:

  1. Start in a high plank position. If you need to, you can drop to your knees.
  2. Place your hands on the ground, directly under your shoulders.
  3. Press your heels back and engage your core, glutes, and hamstrings, and flatten your back so your entire body is neutral and straight. Keep your back flat and look straight ahead to maintain a neutral neck.
  4. Start lowering your arms and allow your chest to almost touch the floor without letting your booty dip down or stick up.
  5. Draw your shoulder blades back and down, keeping your elbows tucked close to your body.
  6. Keep your core engaged, exhale as you push back to starting position.

Planks

It’s easy to think that positioning your body in a straight line is a no-brainer, but there is a good chance you’re not doing this exercise move perfectly. Improper plank for can actually lead to shoulder pain and lower back pain, according to Ho.

Ho says that the pain develops due to a couple reasons. The first is because people shift their hips upward (which moves your shoulders back) leading to pain in the shoulders. The second is not keeping core muscles tight which can cause your hips to sag and lead to unwanted pain in the lower back.

Dunlop adds that alignment is the most frequent cause of incorrect planking. Red flags of bad form include “hips dipping down, your booty sticking up, and gazing upwards or too far in front of you,” she says.

How to Correctly Do a Plank

To avoid unnecessary strain, here’s Dunlop’s go-to guide for planking like a pro:

  1. Position your arms parallel and stacked directly under your shoulders. Keep your hands spread flat, or come together on your elbows and form a tight fist.
  2. Ground your toes into the floor, press your heels back, and squeeze your glutes to engage and stabilize your entire body and keep it flat.
  3. Keep your gaze straight down at the mat to protect your neck and keep you in a neutral alignment.
  4. Hold for as long as you can, continuously checking in to ensure you are keeping your core super engaged and continue to breathe.

Prepping your muscles with at least a five-minute stretch before trying these exercise moves is also recommended by both fitness experts. Dunlop has a quick and easy warm-up routine to make sure your body is ready to get moving. As for cooling down post-workout, Ho says to make sure your after-workout stretch focuses on the muscles you just worked, holding each area in a stretch for 15 to 30 seconds.

While knowing the how-to’s of these exercise moves is important, what’s even more important is to listen to your body. “If it doesn’t feel right, it’s probably not,” says Dunlop. “Make sure you check in with yourself constantly and make adjustments as needed.”

Related:

11 Ways to Become an Exerciser

What We Lose During a Workout (And How to Replenish It!)

5 Fat-Burning Exercises That Won’t Kill Your Knees

Article written by Victoria Giardina