Ten Common Workout Mistakes Can Add Up to a Heap of Pain

Michael Yessis, Ph.D., is a professor of physical education at Cal State Fullerton and a training consultant to Olympic and professional sports teams. Linda Shelton, who assisted in writing this article, is Shape Magazine's exercise editor

Are you getting the most out of your aerobic workout? In my years as a physical education professor, sports consultant and columnist, I have found that very few people have all the right moves for working out.

The following list of the 10 most common mistakes made in the name of fitness should help you weed out your own exercise errors. By correcting them now, you will maximize your workout time and effort and minimize the risk of injury. After all, as long as you are taking the time and trouble to exercise, you might as well get the most from it.


Jog in place, lifting thighs upward so knees are in front of hips. Land on ball of foot directly under body, roll through arch to heel so entire foot ends up flat on floor with each step. Keep rib cage lifted and abdominal muscles tucked in.

Don't lean forward or backward when jogging, but maintain a fairly upright posture, keeping body weight balance forward over entire foot, not backward on heels. Keep knees and feet parallel.

Don't raise your heels to your buttocks. When you do this you kick yourself in the behind instead of lifting your thighs. Your thighs remain vertical, and before landing, you snap your foot down and jam it into the floor, which jars your foot, knee, hip and back. If you do this on a regular basis you can hurt yourself. Also, you are not improving your cardiovascular system as well as you would if you jogged in place properly.


Lift one knee to the chest, keeping upper torso erect and other heel on the floor. Bring knee up to chest, being careful not to bring chest down to knee.

Don't drop your chest down as you raise your knee. The top of your pelvic girdle rotates backward to allow the leg to come up high enough. The tendency is to curl your upper trunk downward, usually because of weak erector spinal muscles of the lumbar spine. A little spinal flexion with a slight crouch is permissible, but a quick drop can injure your back. Sometimes this action is accentuated by a quick and vigorous lift of your knee, which causes your chest to drop down quickly.

Don't use momentum or throwing motion to lift leg.


Kick one leg up and forward, lifting thigh without using momentum. Keep upper body erect. Heel should land on floor after each kick.

Don't forcefully kick an extended leg upward as high as possible (as though trying to touch your head). When you do this it overstretches the muscles, tendons and ligaments on the back of your thigh and pelvis. If you have good flexibility in your hip joints, the range of motion when you raise your leg straight up should actually be quite limited (about 45 to 60 degrees). Going beyond this range may injure you.

If you are not limber, to increase your range of motion you must rotate your pelvis to the rear, which creates slight spinal flexion. Don't overdo it, though; your upper body will collapse as you kick upward, causing excessive spinal flexion, which, when combined with greater landing force, can injure your spine.


Lie on side, head on extended arm, body in straight line with shoulders and hips squared. Top leg is bent and relaxed on floor in front of you. Bottom leg is extended. Keep foot and knee of bottom leg facing forward and lift bottom leg upward.

Don't lean too far forward or backward on your hips. Leaning forward may cause you to overarch, and therefore strain, your back. If you lean backward onto your buttocks, your decrease the angle of lift and do not get maximum resistance from your upper leg. Also, don't allow your lower leg to turn upward. Rather than achieving proper adduction, you'll end up using your hip flexors.


Stand in a staggered-lunge position, both feet facing forward, hips squared, front knee slightly bent, pelvis tucked. Bend back knee so that body weight is balanced over back leg; straighten front leg, pulling toe up toward head to stretch hamstring. Place hands on thighs for support and lean into stretch without arching back.

Don't lean over too far away from your body so that you are not balancing your weight on your rear leg. If you do, you may hyperextend your knee joint. When you lean too far forward to stretch the hamstrings, you hyperflex your spine, which strains the lower back and prevents you from maintaining the hip alignment needed to stretch your hamstrings properly. Place your hands on your thighs or legs. When your hands are free, your body is less stable, and you don't have the leverage to push down for a better stretch.


Jump with feet together so lower body (hips, knees and ankles) face one direction, while upper torso and arms twist in opposite direction. Keep body erect and land so feet are flat on floor with each twist.

Don't try to twist your body beyond 90 degrees. Doing this can overstretch the muscles, tendons and ligaments of your spine and cause injury. This usually happens when you turn your upper body and arms too vigorously to one side and your lower body to the other side. Also, avoid landing after a jump with your legs and hips out of alignment. This creates excessive twisting in the knees, ankles and hips. When you're properly aligned, all twisting should happen in your waist (lumbar and thoracic vertebrae).


Crouch on all fours, hips squared, back straight with one leg extended to rear. Head is in alignment with spine, elbows slightly bent. Balance body weight between supporting leg and extended leg. Maintain torso position and lift extended leg upward with out arching back. Keep hips squared; avoid turning hip out to make lift higher.

Don't raise your leg too high. Doing so rotates your pelvis forward and your hip outward, causing excessive arching in your lower back. Raising your leg too high causes you to hyperextend and twist your vertebrae. You squeeze the posterior portion of the disks, which may cause the vertebrae to touch and rub one another and irritate the nerves.


Lie on floor, knees bent, feet flat on floor and pelvis tilted so that lower back and rib cage are flat and pressed to floor. Clasp wrists behind head to form cradle of support for head. Curl head, shoulders and upper torso up and forward in a slow, controlled motion, without using momentum or arching back. Do not lift with neck only, which will push head out of alignment. Return to starting postion without dropping head and shoulders on floor.

Don't overextend your range of motion. The sit-up is a perfectly safe and effective exercise when done correctly. However, many people think that by going through a greater range of motion or by doing it with straight legs, they reap greater benefits. This is not the case. Too great a range of motion (trying to touch toes in a sitting position) causes back problems. Also, when you sit up with your legs extended, one of your hip flexors (the psoas muscle) pulls on and hyperextends your lower spine, which can cause lower-back problems, especially if your abdominal muscles are relatively weak.


Sitting on floor, open legs to straddle position, only as far as is comfortable. Keep torso lifted and reach one hand up and over head, bending laterally to the other side. Place other hand on inside of leg that you are stretching toward.

Don't collapse rib cage by leaning too far over side.

Don't twist your torso to bend over to touch your toes, or you will be using spinal flexion instead of lateral spinal flexion. This can overstretch the vertebral ligaments and may severely deform your disks and pinch the nerves between the vertebrae, which will cause lower back pain. If it is done continuously, the constant pulling and resultant hyperextension can create lower-back problems.


Sit on your side, propped up on one elbow and leaning to that side with your legs extended to the other side. Body should remain in straight line throughout, with arm squarely on floor beneath shoulder; rib cage is lifted so torso doesn't collapse. Shoulders and hips should remain squared; don't lean forward or roll backward onto buttocks. Lower leg should be relaxed with both legs aligned so knees are "stacked."

Lift top leg upward to isolate outer thigh and hip, concentrate resistance on range of motion of 20 to 30 degrees. Keep toes and knee of upper leg pointed forward.

Don't raise your leg up so that it is perpendicular to the floor, nor laterally rotate it such that your toes face upward. Doing so brings your hip flexors into play, not the abductors you're trying to develop. In addition, you should not roll your hips back to lie on your buttocks (gluteus maximus).

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