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Proper Exercise Form: What Mistakes Are You Making?

Holly Smith

By: Holly Smith, M.D. - Osteopathic Medicine, B.S. - Dietetics, NASM-PES Certified Trainer,

Writer, The Fit Father Project & Fit Mother Project

proper exercise form

Working out is great, but without proper exercise form, your workouts can be nearly worthless — or even downright dangerous.

One of the biggest keys to fitness is having a top-notch workout program in place.

This includes exercises with strength training moves designed to build toned, strong muscles and to improve your overall health.

While a lot of exercises seem simple, it is extremely important to make sure that you are doing strength moves with the proper exercise form.

Keep reading to learn proper exercise form for all your workouts.

New to working out? Here are the best beginner workouts for women!

Target the Right Muscles With Proper Exercise Form

Proper exercise form is essential to get the most out of your workouts.

If you perform your workout moves with sloppy form, or are just throwing weights around, you won’t be targeting the correct muscles.

This means you will be wasting your workouts if you don’t use the correct form.

The amount of time under tension, angle of joint movements, and range of motion, all play a role in each specific lift or movement.

By using the proper form, you will get the full benefit from each and every workout.

It’s also important to remember that the quality of how you perform each exercise is more important than how much weight you are lifting.

Sure, it seems cool to be able to lift heavy weights in the gym.

But in order to actually get any fitness benefit, your muscles need to be in the ideal position to generate force.

When you lift with your joints and muscles at the wrong angles, or with uncontrolled movements, you decrease the effectiveness of the exercise.

In fact, by starting with a lower weight with proper form, you will eventually be able to lift heavier weights with better results in a shorter period of time.

Should women lift weights? Discover all of the benefits of weight lifting for women!

Improve Breathing With Correct Posture

Using the correct form also allows you to focus on breathing techniques during each rep.

This, in turn, allows you to generate more force throughout each lift.

When you use the correct form, you will be able to breathe the air in easier, and you will be able to focus on the exercise.

For the majority of exercises you do, you want to inhale just before the lift, and exhale as you lower the weight.

Avoid Injury With Proper Exercise Form

Performing workouts without proper exercise form can lead to unnecessary injuries.

Research shows that when trainers coach participants on their form and guide them through their workouts, this decreases the injury rate.

But not everyone has the time to work with a personal trainer that can demonstrate all of the different exercises that you should be doing.

This is especially true if you are a busy mom juggling work, kids, family, and your own personal life.

Fortunately, by following some simple rules you can perform a number of common exercises with proper form.

Let’s take a look at some common exercises and the best form to use to get the most out of each and every workout.

Bench Press

For a regular bench press grip, proper joint alignment is key.

It is a good idea to have a spotter whenever you do traditional bench press to ensure proper form and help with the weight if you can’t fully raise it to the bar.

  • To start, grasp the bar with your wrists above your elbows.
  • You can start with just the bar without any added weight to really nail the form first.
  • Lower the towards your chest.
  • Bring the bar down until your elbows are at the same level as your shoulders, parallel to the floor.
  • Then push the weight back up to the top to complete one rep.

Hand position and range of motion is key in this exercise.

For example, if you hold your hands closer together this will place more tension on your triceps.

This is fine if you are aiming to target your triceps. But if you are trying to isolate your chest, this will change the exercise from a chest workout to more of a triceps and inner chest workout.

Dumbbell Curls

The dumbbell curl is one of the simplest, yet one of the most improperly done weight lifting moves.

You will see a lot of women (and guys) swinging their whole body up and down and without any thought of the correct arm motion.

Performing dumbbell curls is relatively simple.

  • Hold a dumbbell in each hand with your palms facing forward, and keep your back straight and chest up.
  • Without moving your upper arms, bend your elbows and curl the weights toward your shoulders.
  • Slowly lower the weight back to the starting position, straightening your arms completely.
  • You want to be sure your arms are in the correct position when doing this move.
  • Be sure to keep your elbows pulled back and aligned below your shoulders so that your biceps perform the majority of work.
  • Keep your elbows close to your sides and grasp the dumbbells at the same width.

If your elbows are in front of your shoulders, then the anterior part of your shoulders will be doing the work instead of your biceps.

This will turn your biceps exercise into a shoulder exercise, and you won’t be targeting the correct muscles.

On the other hand, if you move your hands closer together, you will be targeting the inside of your biceps.

By using a wider grip, you will again shift the tension of the weight and work different areas of the arm muscles.

This isn’t necessarily a bad thing!

It is actually important to mix up your grips so that you can target all areas of your arms.

However, it is important to understand that when you change the angle of the weights, you will also change the muscles that you are targeting.

Try incorporating these free weight exercises for women into your workouts!

Side Shoulder Raises

Side raises are a great way to work the shoulders.

However, if you aren’t doing these correctly you may not be getting all of the benefits of a pure shoulder exercise.

  • Stand with two dumbbells with your palms facing in and your arms straight down at your sides.
  • You actually want to hold the dumbbells with more of a limp wrist and allow the weights to hang down from your hands.
  • Raise the dumbbells out to your sides, keeping your arms straight until they are parallel to the floor.
  • Pause for a second at the top and then lower the dumbbells back down slowly to the starting position to complete one rep.

If you perform a side raise with a rigid, straight wrist, your forearms actually assist your shoulders.

However, if you perform a side raise so that the wrist is bent slightly at the top of the movement, the wrist no longer performs work, and tension is shifted to the shoulder joint.


Squats are the ultimate quad, hamstring, and glute exercise.

There are numerous variations and they can be done with or without weight.

Unfortunately, many people perform squats incorrectly, which increases the risk of injury and makes the exercise less efficient at building leg strength.

One of the biggest questions when it comes to squats is: “How far do I need to come down?” The answer is: It depends!

The back is key for proper squat form.

Every individual may have a different depth of squat depending on their goals, range of motion, and joint health.

Many argue that you should squat until your thighs are parallel to the floor, while others insist that you should squat down until your hamstrings touch your calves.

In reality, both may be right. But to avoid injury, when doing a squat the most important thing to pay attention to is your back.

The spinal column is very prone to injury and proper back alignment is crucial for injury prevention and to properly perform each lift.

During squats, and really most exercises in general, the lower back should remain flat or slightly concave. This is the natural curve of your lower back.

Therefore, you should squat no lower than the point where your hip begins to tuck under and you lose the natural arch in your lower back.

To keep that natural arch in your back, push your chest up and out and pull your shoulder blades together prior to performing a squat.

This will allow you to have the appropriate back alignment.

You can also tilt the pelvis forward slightly to straighten the lower back. This decreases stress on the spine, and will place some tension on your lower back muscles.

This will actually help strengthen those muscles to protect your low back.

Parallel squats will still build muscle!

Some people can't maintain a neutral spine if they squat any lower than parallel to the floor.

That is perfectly fine! This means this is the depth that you should aim for.

Studies have even found that bending your knees to around 90 degrees, or squatting to parallel, is enough to achieve very high levels of muscular activity in your quadriceps.

In fact, one small study in women showed that there was similar muscle activity for both parallel, front squats, and full squats.

So you don’t have to touch your butt to the ground to build great looking legs!

Find out how you can make squats harder with Tempo Squats!

Use Proper Exercise Form to Tone Muscles and Avoid Injury

There are obviously many things to consider when trying to practice proper exercise form.

You need to determine the goal of the workout, and specifically what muscles you want to target.

Use joint alignment as a reference, and then vary your grips and ranges of motion based on your goals.

When you focus on form first, you will get the most benefit out of each and every workout you perform.

Holly Smith
Holly Smith

Writer, The Fit Father Project & Fit Mother Project

Holly is an osteopathic physician, runner, triathlete, and fitness and nutrition enthusiast.

She is board certified in nephrology and internal medicine, has a bachelors degree in dietetics and is a certified personal trainer with NASM-PES certification.

Holly has completed four full ironmans, twelve marathons, countless half ironmans, olympic distance triathlons, half marathons and numerous other road races.

Holly joined the Fit Father Project in May 2019 as a regular writer, contributing articles on health, wellness, exercise, and nutrition.

She has also recently qualified for the 2020 World Championships for Ironman 70.3, in New Zealand!

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*Please know that weight loss results & health changes/improvements vary from individual to individual; you may not achieve similar results. Always consult with your doctor before making health decisions. This is not medical advice – simply very well-researched info on proper exercise form.

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