When you head into a strength session, you have one mission: Choose a set of dumbbells and start lifting. But sometimes your intentions to get the most out of your workout can backfire, causing you to rush through your reps, or worse, get hurt.
Whether it's a break in form from lack of strength or improperly handling the weights, it's easy to fall prey to dumbbell mistakes. To help you reap more gains during your next workout, watch out for these common faulty movement patterns and form mishaps.
1. You Hold Dumbbells With Bent Wrists
Before you even start lifting weights, it's important to make sure you have the correct setup, including the way you hold the dumbbells.
No matter which lift you're performing, it's crucial to keep your wrists straight and rigid throughout the entire movement, Samuel Chan, PT, DPT, physical therapist at Bespoke Treatments in New York City, tells LIVESTRONG.com. This means that when you're holding dumbbells, you want the weights to be stacked directly over your wrists. "There should be no angle or bend at the wrist at all," Chan says. Repeat it to yourself if you have to: flat wrists.
Whether you're doing push or pull movements, keeping your wrists straight will also enhance your grip on the weight by engaging your forearm muscles. You don't ever want to lose control over the weight when you're lifting it. "Poor form at the wrist can lead to injury," Chan says.
Keep your wrists straight and rigid while you lift. If this feels difficult, decrease your weights to ensure joint safety during your exercise.
2. You Use Momentum to Lift the Weight
When you rely too heavily on momentum, "this is a sign [you're] using weights that are too heavy for you," Chan says.
What does using momentum look like exactly? Let's use the biceps curl as an example: If you're using momentum from swinging your arms and upper back to lift the weights to your shoulders, you're not getting the most out of the movement because your biceps aren't doing the work.
That's why trainers always say to keep your elbows pinned to your torso when performing a biceps curl. This ensures that you're initiating the movement with your biceps.
Similarly, if you're doing a shoulder press and you're using your legs to drive the weight overhead, then you're not challenging the shoulder muscles to their full potential.
There should be no excess motion in your body when you lift weights.
It's common for people to compensate lack of strength with momentum. But if you want to avoid injury and make sure you're engaging the right muscles, choosing lighter weights will help you better understand which muscles you should be recruiting, and how to execute exercises with proper form.
"There should be no excess motion from your body during lifts," Chan explains. "You should be able to perform eccentric or negative portions of each rep over two to three seconds." FYI, the eccentric portion that Chan refers to is the muscle-lengthening phase of an exercise. In a biceps curl, it's when you lower the weight back down.
Choose weights that are 5 pounds lighter or more, depending on how much momentum you're using.
3. You Don't Complete Your Reps
While you don't always need to be breaking parallel with your squats, you do want to perform your dumbbell exercises with full range of motion to reap all the benefits of your workout.
Back to the biceps curl example: "If you aren't fully straightening and bending your elbow during a biceps curl, you're not getting the full benefit of the exercise," Chan explains.
To strengthen your muscles properly, they need to be trained in all angles and ranges of motion. Stopping mid-range may feel easier, but it won't give you the results you're looking for — and it won't be a true test of your strength and progress.
If you can't perform a move with full range, you probably need to tweak your weights. In some cases, this may mean lowering the weights of some exercises you're already doing, Chan says.
That said, there is a place for performing exercises in partial range of motion. For example, you can do squat pulses to increase time under tension and recruit more muscle fibers in your glutes, but in order to do this, you need to be able to nail the move with full range first.
Practicing full range of motion can also help you improve the depth of your movements and keep you injury-free. So, if you want to squat or lunge deeper, for instance, don't shy away from getting low.
Decrease the weight as much as needed to comfortably perform your exercises with full range of motion and proper form.
4. You Forget to Work Against Gravity
From the beginning of a rep to the end of it, you want to avoid breaking down your form, so you have to position your body a certain way to engage the right muscles. But with hinging movements, you may not be lining yourself up right.
The best way to picture this mistake is with a triceps kickback. This exercise involves hinging at the hips to bring your torso parallel to the ground. "If your torso is too upright, or your upper arm and elbows aren't parallel to the floor, you won't be getting the full benefit of the weights," Chan explains. The goal is to extend your arms straight behind you to engage your triceps.
This concept also applies to exercises that involve anti-rotation, too. For example, when you're performing a dumbbell row, you want to hinge at the hips and bring your chest parallel to the ground. You also want to keep your shoulders and hips square — not rotating to the sides — as you lift the weight by your rib cage.
Adjust exercises as needed to move against gravity while you work out. Remember to initiate movement from the muscles you're targeting.
5. You Don't Engage Your Core
Poor posture is a no-go, whether you're sitting at your desk or lifting weights. Engaging your core while lifting dumbbells is a simple way to fix most posture-related problems. That's because your core anchors your entire body and prevents you from recruiting other muscle groups that hinder the effectiveness of the exercise.
Think about what happens when you perform an overhead shoulder press: If you don't brace your core, you'll probably arch your lower back and rely more on your chest to press the weights into the air.
This can also cause low-back pain if you're excessively arching the low back, Chan says. But if you keep your abs tight, you'll avoid arching, and your body will rely strictly on the shoulders to do the bulk of the lifting. There shouldn't be a sway in your back or movement from your legs.
This applies to lower-body exercises, too. For example, if you don't tighten your core when performing a deadlift, your posture fails and your chest caves forward. But if you engage your abs, then you're able to avoid rounding your back.
Before you start a new set of exercises, remind yourself to brace your core. This will prevent posture issues and potential low-back pain.