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Crimes Against Growth
Is your exercise form so bad it's criminal? We lay down the law on how to correct 12 of the most common errors perpetrated in the gym. Listen up '" we have some crimes to report, and everyone in the weight room is a suspect. You've seen it for sure, and likely you're at least a little guilty yourself. Stopping short on your squat. Swinging your arms like pendulums on your curls. Cheating a bit too much on your bench press to lift more weight than you can safely handle. Those are just a few examples, but there's more.

The problem is, by breaking proper form, the only person you're robbing is yourself '" you're not getting the utmost benefits out of each rep, and thus each workout is less productive than it can be.
The good news is, it's never too late to turn away from a life of lifting transgressions. Here, we'll identify the most common form errors on popular exercises, tell you why they're detrimental, and render the verdict on how to fix them to maximize your mass-building results. Ready to lock up new muscle gains?

1) Barbell Squat

Crime: Stopping before your thighs reach a point parallel with the floor

It's a hard pill for some to swallow '" you're able to load enough plates on a leg press to stock an Italian kitchen cabinet, yet on the squat, just a few 45s a side leaves you weak kneed. To compensate, those who can't stand the thought of lifting lighter have adopted a shorter range of motion, and thus are able to move more weight than if they used the correct thighs-parallel-to-the-floor position. While the totals may look more impressive in your logbook, incomplete reps will cheat you out of benefits. In fact, going to parallel is not only safer on your knee joints, it engages more muscle fibers in your quadriceps, hamstrings and glutes than quarter reps ever could. Don't worry about poundage '" go light and get the form down, and once you do, the impressive weights will follow naturally over time.

2) Leg Press

Crime: Letting your lower back lift off the pad at the bottom of the repetition

Bringing your knees down to your chest on the leg press can constitute a nice, full-range-of-motion repetition. But there's a catch '" if you're not limber enough, your glutes and lower back will curl off the seat, instantly putting plenty of undue strain on that very fragile area of your body. The hundreds of pounds of weight bearing down on you can tweak your lower back, and before you know it, you have serious pain to contend with. On the leg press, always keep your glutes firmly against the pad, stopping each rep at the point right before they would begin to lift off. If you work on your flexibility over time, you'll be able to do a nice, deep rep, without compromising your lower back '" a win-win situation on leg day.

3) Lunge
Crime: Letting the knee of your front leg extend past your toes in the bottom position

When stepping down into a lunge, a lot of people make this sometimes hard-to-detect yet critical error. By letting their front knee track out past their toes, they put it under shearing forces and strain. To rectify this, make sure you step out deeply enough and that you keep your hips shifted back (as leaning forward will force that knee out). At the bottom of a lunge, your front knee should be in a 90-degree angle, and your back knee should be elevated an inch or two off of the floor. Also keep in mind, this is a mistake you don't want to make on squats '" shift your hips back and make sure your knees don't extend past your toes on the descent.

4) Bent-Over Dumbbell Row
Crime: Relying on your biceps to lift most of the load

Think about the action of your back muscles on a row. You may believe it's obvious, but for plenty of lifters who do the majority of their rowing with their arms, it's really not. You see, if you bring the dumbbell up to your flank by simply bending your elbow, you're basically calling on your biceps to do the majority of the work. Now, think about what happens to your back muscles when you shift your shoulders and shoulder blades backward '" they contract. Whether you're rowing with a barbell, dumbbell or on a machine, this is a key concept: To engage your back in the exercise, you need to make sure your shoulder is moving along with your elbows. Forge this important mind-muscle connection by visualizing your back muscles engaging on each repetition of a row, and soon you'll be making incredible strides in the weight you can handle and the size of your lats, rhomboids and teres major and minor muscles.

5) Seated Cable Row
Crime: Leaning excessively forward and backward

This crime is so common you'll catch otherwise competent certified personal trainers teaching it incorrectly. During a seated cable row, you'll see people leaning as far forward as they can, then leaning excessively back the other way as they pull the handle toward their abdomen. What results is an inefficient lower-back exercise in place of a movement to hit the intended body part, the upper back. To fix this, you want to control the movement, staying upright throughout. As you bring the handle toward you, flex your upper back (which will pull back your shoulders, as described in #4). As you lower the weight, don't allow your upper body to follow the handle forward, just let your shoulder blades shift outward and your elbows straighten. You should feel the difference immediately, and see the difference in the coming weeks in the form of new muscle mass.

6) Back Extension
Crime: Hyperextending your back at the top of the rep

This exercise was often referred to as "hyperextensions" for years '" no wonder so many gym goers still do it wrong, excessively overarching their back at the top. Instead of benefiting the lower back muscles, this extra extension only serves to put undue pressure on your spinal cord. To perform the extension right, you should stop the rep when your body reaches a flat "plank" position, squeeze your lower back, and then lower your upper body back to the start.

7) Shrug
Crime: Rolling your shoulders

This misdeed goes to show, we can even screw up even the simplest of exercises. There may be no movement more basic than the barbell or dumbbell shrug '" doing it correctly consists of flexing your trapezius to lift your shoulders up toward your ears, then relaxing to drop them back down. Somewhere along the way, someone tried to get fancy by adding a shoulder roll to the mix, bringing the shoulders back, up, forward and down on each repetition in the false logic that it would more thoroughly work the traps. It doesn't, so stick to the original: Straight up and straight down equals straightforward muscle gains.

8) Seated Barbell Press
Crime: Sliding forward so your back isn't in contact with the pad

Those who have stronger pectorals that tend to overpower their delts often resort to this trick '" a slight shift forward of your glutes and lower back makes the military press a bit more like an incline press, thus recruiting more upper pecs. Two problems result, however: Your lower back is put at risk for strain, and you lessen the overall work done by your shoulders, thus always relegating them to be weaker link in your upper body. Stay attuned to doing the press correctly, and sitting upright throughout.

9) Dumbbell Lateral Raise
Crime: Bringing the dumbbells all the way down in front of your hips at the bottom

Lateral raises are meant to work what is a relatively small area '" the middle deltoid head. In general, you don't have enough muscle there to lift a lot of weight. So if you are hoisting 45-pound dumbbells and beyond and you're not built to the gills with muscle mass, chances are you're cheating on your raises. To test yourself, try this: Hold a dumbbell about six inches away from your side, and then, without swaying or moving your body to help, lift the dumbbell out and up, only using your deltoid muscle to power the move. How much weight could you handle? The same as you use normally? Bringing the dumbbells all the way down to your sides between each repetition allows your muscles to rest at the bottom. If you go the extra step of bringing the dumbbells down in front of your hips until they touch one another, you are essentially extending the range of motion down in this "dead zone" where the middle delt isn't activated, and you're probably even shifting your hips forward on the ascent to add some momentum to your raise. From now on, get more out of your laterals by choosing a more realistic weight and bringing the dumbbells down to your sides '" but not quite all the way down.

10) Barbell Bench Press
Crime: Arching your lower back off of the bench

incline shown
With a grunt of intense effort, your feet planted into the floor, the barbell across your chest, you push the barbell as hard as you can. Unfortunately, all too often when that bar doesn't head upward as quickly as hoped, your glutes pop off the bench and your back curls up like a lock of Carrot Top's hair in an effort to prod the weight along, and all of a sudden an innocent bench press turns into a dangerous activity. No matter how often it has been preached in gyms across the country by those who know better, bench pressers all-too-often resort to lifting their butt and lower back off the bench to complete their reps and handle more weight. Don't give into this temptation '" keep your rear down and, in due time, by following good form your bench totals will go up.

11) Standing Barbell Curl
Crime: Leaning back and shifting your elbows directly underneath the bar on the ascent

Watch others perform barbell curls and you'll often spot all sorts of mistakes. Guys especially, who are usually after a larger lift total at all costs, will shift their hips forward to get the bar started on its ascent, then bend backwards in an effort to shift their elbows underneath the bar and get it up to their shoulders. From there, they'll let the bar fall gracelessly back to the start and do it again. After a few sets of this, they may feel as if everything in their body but their biceps has been activated. Checking your ego at the door is the surest way to get your biceps on track; adjust your form on barbell curls by keeping your hips stationary and your elbows firmly entrenched at your sides '" it may help you to picture a steel rod running through your torso, holding your elbows in place. At the top of the rep, stop just before your elbows shift directly underneath the bar. Otherwise, you're giving your bi's a chance to rest at the apex of each rep, taking valuable tension off of them. Taking these lessons to heart will help you engage your biceps thoroughly throughout each and every set, the surest way to achieve maximum growth.

12) Standing Calf Raise
Crime: Keeping your knees bent during the repetition

While on most exercises, you'd never get the advice to completely lock out your joint, on standing calf raises, you do in fact want to do exactly that. Keeping your knees absolutely straight targets the meaty gastrocnemius muscle on the back of your lower leg. Bend your knees and you're calling on the much smaller soleus (the same muscle you're hitting on seated calf raises). One caveat: Straight does not mean hyperextending at the knee, so be careful to not go to that extreme.

   Update: Crimes Against Growth Part II