As a strength coach, I love body-weight exercises. They challenge your muscles and kick your heart into high gear. You can do them for free—anywhere, anytime. They're as wonderful as unicorns, puppy dogs, and Kate Upton.
But what I don't love is when I see guys performing them wrong. Just because you're moving sans iron, doesn't mean you can use poor form or perform an exercise variation that puts you at an increased risk for injury. Here's my list of five popular body-weight exercises most guys are doing wrong—and the best way to fix them.
|Triceps Dip on a Bench|
Your triceps make up more of your arms than your biceps do, but most men pay their triceps less attention. At most, they may head to an empty bench and knock out a few triceps dips at the end of their workout. Unfortunately, that's one of the worst moves you can do to build fuller, stronger arms. The exercise puts your shoulder joints in an unstable position, overloading the small muscles of the rotator cuff. And if you injure your rotator cuff, it'll be painful to lift your arm above your shoulder, making even the most minuscule tasks—like washing your hair, grabbing the milk from the fridge, hanging up your coat—difficult and awkward.
THE FIX The alternative body-weight solution is a move called the plank-to-triceps extension. Start to get into a pushup position, but bend your elbows and rest your weight on your forearms instead of on your hands. Your body should form a straight line from your shoulders to your ankles. Without allowing your lower back posture to change, contract your triceps, press your palms into the floor, and lift your elbows off the floor until your arms are completely straight. You should now be in a pushup position. Slowly lower to the start position. Do 15 to 20 repetitions with perfect form.
The mountain climber is a stability exercise that trains your entire core, including your abdominal, lower-back, and hip muscles. But most bootcamp instructors treat the mountain climber as a conditioning drill, directing their clients to crank out reps as fast as possible. I hate to break it to you, but only exceptional athletes can do that while maintaining perfect form. For the average gym goer, a fast pace usually leads to sloppy form, including piked hips and rounded lower backs. These mistakes can compress your spinal discs and increase your risk of back injury.
THE FIX To get the full core-hammering effect of the mountain climber, perform each rep slowly and deliberately until you can master the exercise. Here's how it's done: Start in a pushup position with your arms completely straight. Brace your abs, and hold them that way for the entire movement. Without changing your lower-back posture, lift your right foot off the floor and raise your knee as close to your chest as you can. Touch the floor with your right foot, and then return to the starting position. Repeat with your left leg. Alternate back and forth for 30 reps total.
If you perform a cross-body mountain climber, raise your right knee toward your left elbow, lower, and then raise your left knee to your right elbow. Minimize the rotation in your lower back as you alternate back and forth.
If you have zero equipment, you can't work the muscles in your back. But the prisoner squat is a simple way to make a lower-body move work double duty as a back-building exercise. Instead of holding your arms out in front of your body, place your fingers on the back of your head (as if you had just been arrested). I witness most guys using"lazy hands," however. After only one or two reps, their elbows creep toward their face and their hands cover their ears. When this happens, you can forget about working your back.
THE FIX In this squat variation, your arms should be working just as hard as your legs. After you place your fingers on the back of your head, stick your chest out and pull your elbows and shoulders back. Contract your back muscles hard and hold them that way for the entire movement. Every time you return to standing, squeeze your shoulder blades together again to create maximum tension. If you do this, you'll burn more calories and correct poor posture.
Quit doing pushups the same way you were taught as a youngster (think: flared elbows). That version will eventually cause immense pain in your shoulder joint and rotator cuff. Refer back to the triceps dip on a bench for the many reasons you don't want to injure your rotator cuff.
THE FIX Keep your elbows at a 45-degree angle from your body when you're in the bottom position. This slight change in position will dramatically reduce the stress on your shoulders. However, just as with the barbell bench press or the dumbbell chest press, bringing your elbows closer to your body slightly reduces the amount of work your pecs have to do. To make your chest work harder, use this rest and pause technique. Perform as many pushups as you can, and then rest for 20 seconds. Repeat once more. Finally, finish with one last round of pushups to failure. The result: a pumped-up chest and healthy shoulders.
Box jumps suddenly saw a surge in popularity with the advent of CrossFit. Nowadays, men pound out rep after rep during their workouts. While the plyometric exercise improves your vertical jump and lower-body power, it can also lead to injury when not done properly. When you jump straight up off the floor, you typically land with hips pushed back and your weight behind your heels. But when you jump backward off a box, you tend to land with your weight forward for balance. The problem: This stretches your Achilles tendon. Do this over and over again, and you have a good chance to join Dan Marino and Kobe Bryant in the torn Achilles hall of fame.
Instead of jumping backward off the box, simply step down. Sure, you'll do less reps in the same amount of time, but they will be higher quality and much safer.
You can also try total-body extensions. Do this: Stand with your feet slightly wider than hip-width apart, toes forward. Push your hips back as if you’re about to sit in a chair, and lower your body. Let your arms hang by your hips with your palms facing behind you. In one swift motion, swing your arms straight overhead, and explosively stand up by thrusting your hips forward and rising up on your toes. Immediately return to the start position. Continue to do as many reps as possible for one minute.
Craig Ballantyne, C.T.T., is the author of Turbulence Training and a pushup fanatic.