5 Form Mistakes You Don't Know You're Making

Article originally published on t-nation.com on 5/9/16

Fix These Upper-Body Training Mistakes to Grow

Maybe you were coached incorrectly. Or maybe these common form mistakes are just too subtle to recognize. Whatever the case, it's time to start lifting right, not just to avoid injuries, but to get better results from your workouts.

1. Over-Pulling On Pull-ups and Pulldowns

Both beginners and advanced lifters alike try to pull too far and too high on vertical pulling motions such as pull-ups and lat pulldowns. Rather than trying to touch the bar to your chest or reaching your chin over the bar (both of which can produce dysfunctional mechanics), the goal should be to achieve proper upper back and lat activation. This requires several components.

  • Create ample t-spine extension. This is particularly true in the contracted position. This helps centrate the glenohumeral joint. Lack of t-spine extension facilitates a very unstable shoulder joint and allows excessive range of motion and faulty mechanics to take place. This is largely why many lifters touch the bar to their chest when performing pull-ups and pulldowns. This in no way indicates strong levels of mobility or strength, but instead indicates faulty activation patterns and dysfunctional movement.

  • Pull to the sternum. Another important cue that promotes ideal vertical pulling mechanics is pulling to the sternum rather than to the clavicle. Pulling to the clavicle minimizes activation in the lats, particularly the lower lats, as the shoulders and scapula can't fully depress and medially rotate towards the spine. Pulling to the sternum, however, not only places the shoulders in the most biomechanically sound position, it requires an incredible amount of lat activation, regardless of the load. One cue that can be helpful is to think about pulling your body away from the bar rather than towards it.
  • Point the elbows straight ahead. Screwing the elbows forward is another critical mistake when doing pull-ups and pulldowns. Regardless of the grip (pronated, supinated, or neutral) or hand placement (wide, medium, or close), the elbows need to point straight ahead throughout, rather than out to the sides. This helps to engage the entire musculature of the lats rather than just the upper portion. It also ensures you're not pulling from the upper traps and shoulders.
  • The bar should NOT touch the chest. By incorporating these cues, the pulldown or pull-up range of motion will actually be more compact than what most lifters assume. In fact, proper vertical pulling mechanics during the concentric phase ends with the bar stopping one to several inches above chest height rather than touching the chest.

2. Pseudo Elbow Tuck

The cue, "tuck your elbows," is typically associated with proper upper body mechanics. Unfortunately, many lifters unknowingly incorporate something I refer to as "pseudo elbow tuck" where the maneuver is happening from the elbows and arms rather than the shoulders and scapula.

This can be highly problematic. Implementing elbow tuck without proper shoulder positioning is actually more dangerous than elbow flare. It produces shoulder crowding, which resembles internal rotation and anterior displacement of the shoulder girdle.

Rather than being overly fixated on elbow position, focus more on locking the shoulders in by retracting and depressing the scapula. As you move further and further into shoulder extension, the scapula should then medially rotate towards the spine. As a result, the elbows will find their ideal position.

If that's too complex, simply keep your chest out with your shoulders pulled back and squeeze your lats. Whether it's a dumbbell press, barbell press, push-up, dip, overhead press, row, or pull-up, the elbow tuck should be a result of proper shoulder positioning and not the other way around.

3. Rowing With Excessive ROM

Using excessive range of motion in rowing negatively affects all other components of horizontal pulling mechanics. The natural tendency for many lifters is to achieve maximal range of motion as a means of promoting mobility. Unfortunately, this is actually the very thing that impairs mobility! Exaggerated range of motion produces faulty mechanics and inflammation around the joints, which happen to be the factors that restrict mobility.

On rowing exercises, this frequently occurs at both the contracted and stretched positions and as a result negatively impacts shoulder health and muscle function. When pulling into the contracted position, the elbows and triceps shouldn't go significantly beyond the plane of the torso. Lack of appropriate lat activation, especially in the lower lats, as well as insufficient scapular stabilization, causes the elbows to move too far beyond the line of the torso.

This also creates more tension in the neck, shoulders, and upper traps rather than the lats and middle-upper back. Instead of achieving appropriate external rotation, the shoulders are pulled into internal rotation as they're essentially forced out of their ideal mechanics. If you engage the appropriate muscles and incorporate proper rowing mechanics, the bar/handles should be almost but not quite touching your body when in the fully contracted position.

During the stretched position, similar rules apply. The ideal end range of motion should produce a natural stretch of the mid and upper back, but not an excessive one. As the load pulls you into stretch, the elbows will fully straighten. However, the shoulders will stay somewhat retracted. Contrary to what many strength coaches advocate, allowing complete protraction of the shoulders and scapula (to the point that the shoulders and spine are pulled out of neutral position) represents a highly dysfunctional and hazardous position.

Unfortunately this is where many lifters make a common mistake of allowing their upper back and lats to stretch so much that the shoulders and upper back round forward. As a result, this no longer engages or stretches the muscles of the lats and upper back simply because those muscles had to disengage. Instead, it stretches the tendons, ligaments, and connective tissue around the shoulder and scapula, which is never advisable.

Besides minimizing activation of the targeted muscles, this also promotes scapular instability and laxity of the shoulder girdle. Whether it's during rows or other movements, chances are you'll eventually succumb to a shoulder injury. You've engrained dysfunctional movement and faulty upper body mechanics that are sure to trickle into other aspects of life.

To achieve proper end range of motion and avoid excessive stretch on rows or any other movement requires the chest to remain tall, the shoulders to stay packed, and the spine to maintain its neutrally arched structural integrity.

4. LACK OF T-SPINE EXTENSION ON OVERHEAD PRESSING

Trying to stay excessively upright and avoiding a tall chest position is the single biggest mistake on the overhead press. Many coaches advocate the idea of maintaining a rigid core with minimal ribcage protrusion. Although this has its merit, the idea is sometimes taken to extreme. In fact, many coaches miscue the overhead press by instructing lifters to keep a neutral t-spine rather than an extended t-spine (especially in the bottom position) as a means of minimizing ribcage protrusion.

Unfortunately it's impossible to create optimal t-spine extension and proper shoulder mechanics unless the individual sets his chest high and tilts his upper torso upward. In order to avoid ribcage protrusion, the lifter simply needs to be instructed to keep his core braced and set the hips under his torso while extending the t-spine.

Besides significantly limiting the total load one can handle on the overhead press, lack of t-spine mobility places the scapula and glenohumeral joint into a biomechanically disadvantageous position by promoting internal rotation of the shoulder instead of external rotation. These faulty mechanics can contribute significantly to neck, shoulder, elbow, and even low back pain. Fortunately, creating optimal t-spine extension and proper mechanics during overhead pressing can actually act as a cure for these common ailments.

If you've ever watched strongmen competitors or Olympic weightlifters you'll see how they're forced to get proper t-spine extension by setting their chest very high. You'd never see them keep the t-spine in neutral position–it's incorrect, weak, and dangerous.

If you're still not convinced, try any bottoms-up overhead pressing variation with appreciable loads and take note of your body position. In order to stabilize the load and control the highly volatile bottoms-up object, you'll be forced to extend the t-spine and keep a tall chest. Any lack of thoracic extension will quickly result in dumping the load.

In fact, without ample t-spine extension, it's nearly impossible to produce perfect vertical force vectors because some of the energy is angled horizontally. This produces de-stabilizing forces on the load, not to mention the fact that it compromises force-producing capabilities.

This is one of several reasons that athletes often struggle with bottoms-up movements. They're simply working against their body's optimal mechanics rather than with it. Just remember the extension happens from the thoracic region (upper back) of your spine–not the cervical (neck) or lumbar area (low back).

5. ALLOWING GRIP POSITION TO DICTATE SHOULDER MECHANICS

This problem is annoyingly common. The lifter allows the grip position or hand placement to dictate his shoulder mechanics and body positioning. This should never occur. Proper scapulohumeral rhythm occurs in a very precise position and is dependent on keeping the shoulders retracted, depressed, and medially rotated, all while keeping the elbows tucked.

Anything other than this position for any upper body push or pull is simply wrong. Regardless of whether it's a wide-grip incline press, a reverse-grip bench press, or a simple dumbbell press, the elbows, shoulders, and scapular positioning will be nearly identical with little if any difference in pressing mechanics.

The same is true of any rowing movements, overhead presses, or pull-ups/pulldowns. Regardless of the grip width and placement, each variation across that particular movement pattern will be nearly identical in terms of movement mechanics and arthrokinematic joint positioning. In other words, as the hand position and grip changes, the shoulders and elbow position should remain constant.

And yes, this means that with an extremely wide grip the forearms will not be quite perpendicular to the floor as the hands will be slightly wider than the elbows. And while some lifters assume that maintaining a perpendicular arm position is necessary, this is only the case with more moderate grips.

Unfortunately, a very wide grip makes it impossible to maintain perpendicular joint segments without sacrificing neuromuscular recruitment and internal arthrokinematics (movement of joint surfaces). And because our bodies are highly complex living organisms and not mechanical robots constructed of individual segments, maintaining optimal neuromuscular recruitment patterns and internal arthrokinematics is more important than external kinematics.

Given this fact, competitive powerlifters should employ the widest grip they can handle that allows for their joint segments to line up perpendicularly, in conjunction with optimal shoulder mechanics and neuromuscular recruitment patterns. This grip placement is typically several inches (in each direction) beyond shoulder width as it's typically the most conducive for employing proper lat activation, scapula positioning, and elbow tuck. However, many powerlifters find great success with more extreme grips as long as appropriate mechanics are applied.

In fact, many of the top bench press powerlifters in the world including Scott Mendelson, Ryan Kennelly, Dave Hoff, and Hugene Rychlack use such a wide grip in competition, in conjunction with significant lat activation and elbow tuck (similar to a close-grip bench press), that their arm angles deviate significantly from perpendicular. To incorporate perpendicular angles with their wide hand placement, they'd have to forfeit lat activation and allow significant elbow flare. Not only would this compromise their pressing power and intramuscular tension, but it would most likely result in an immediate pec tear.

The point is, whether you decide to use a moderate grip or more extreme grip, hand placement shouldn't cause deviations in technique or neuromuscular recruitment. It's also important to point out that although many advanced lifters will strategically alter their body mechanics in conjunction with grip adjustments as a means for targeting different areas of a muscle group, this training philosophy can lead to dysfunctional movement patterns, inflammation, and injury.

Instead of altering joint mechanics to isolate a specific area, simply incorporate pre-exhaustion and pre-activation techniques as well as targeting the muscle from different angles, all while maintaining proper technique throughout the movements.