A friend and former student of mine was asking me a question today that dovetails with something I’ve been thinking about for a while. He contacted me through facebook and told me that he had strained his neck doing lat pulldowns and wanted to know 1) how he had done that and 2) how he could avoid doing that in the future. Basically I suggested that he was probably doing the exercise wrong, but wrong for reasons that he (and most people) aren’t aware of.
When someone is doing an exercise incorrectly, there are only a few reasons why that might be the case. The first is that they simply don’t know how the exercise is done. For some motions, like Deadlift or Squat, this can be both an easy mistake and a very dangerous one. The form for both of these motions is deceptively specific, as it should be, since failing to do this motion correctly can lead to serious and long term lower back injuries. The second (though not necessarily mutually exclusive) reason is that the wrong way of doing it is just easier and lets you do more weight and feel like you’re doing something impressive. But the reason it is easier – and the reason that way is wrong – may be surprising. And it ties in with how my friend hurt his neck.
I told him, “If you strained your neck, you may have been using too much weight. When you strain a muscle that doesn’t seem to be used for a given motion, it means that your body is recruiting secondary muscles to get through that motion (because the primary ones aren’t up to the job). It’s gonna hurt for a minute, but it’ll get better in a week or so. In the future, watch your weight and make sure your form is flawless. If you have good form in a motion, then your body can’t recruit other muscles (and if you can’t do a motion with good form, lighten the weight!)”
So let’s look at three different exercises that a lot of people are doing wrong and why they’re wrong.