The Big 3—the Back Squat, Deadlift and Bench Press—are probably the best exercises for building muscle, getting stronger and becoming a better athlete. Unfortunately, they're also the three moves during which athletes most commonly injure themselves—usually because they try to lift too much too soon or use improper form.
"Poor form encourages dysfunctional movement, which leads to imbalances, asymmetries and injuries," asserts Brian Abadie, who trains NFL Draft prospects at the Michael Johnson Performance in McKinney, Texas.
If you're struggling with one of the Big 3, a simple form fix might help. Or, if an exercise feels difficult, awkward, or just plain wrong, you can swap it out for an easier-to-perform move that targets the same muscle groups. "Not all exercises are appropriate for you and your training level," Abadie says. "Try using exercises that work the same muscles in a similar movement pattern to accomplish the same training goal."
The Fix: Wrap a Band Around Your Knees
Many athletes' knees collapse inward during the Squat, which stresses their knees. Correct this by wrapping a mini-band around your lower legs, just below the knees. "[The band] will activate your glutes to help stabilize your knees," Abadie says. "This helps keep your ankles, knees, and hips aligned, which reduces the risk of injury."
The Swap: Goblet Squat
It's easy to perform and fixes several form issues, forcing you to push your knees out while keeping your chest upright. "We took a bunch of kids who were not good squatters and had them just Goblet Squat," says strength coach Mike Boyle. "Ninety percent got better right away."
How To: With your feet shoulder-width apart, hold a dumbbell vertically with two hands. Keeping the dumbbell in contact with your sternum, squat until your elbows touch your knees, then stand up.
The Fix: Change Your Elbow Position
Many athletes hold their elbows at a 3- and 9-o'clock position in relation to their head, which stresses their shoulders and limits the weight they can lift. Rick Scarpulla of Ultimate Advantage says your elbows should be at 4 and 8 o'clock, and that in order to maintain the proper angle, you should lower the bar to just below your nipples.
RELATED: Perfect Your Bench Press Form
The Swap: Alternating Dumbbell Press
Dumbbells give you a free range of motion so your shoulders aren't locked into position, reducing the stress on your joints. "This allows you to go a little lighter and move a little more naturally," Abadie says.
How To: Lie flat on a bench holding a dumbbell in each hand at your armpits. Drive your right arm up straight over your chest. Lower the dumbbell to the starting position and perform a rep with the opposite arm. Continue alternating.
The Fix: Get Your Lats Into It
It's painful to see someone trying to yank up a Deadlift with a rounded back—and it's as dangerous as it looks. To stabilize your spine, Tony Gentilcore, co-founder of Cressey Performance, says you should "pretend you're squeezing an orange in your armpit. This will fire up your lats, create more supportive tension and keep your back flat during the lift."
The Swap: Trap-Bar Deadlift
Using the trap-bar shifts the load further back, reducing the amount of stress on the back. Boyle says, "[Trap-Bar Deadlifts are] really the only bilateral [two-legged] exercises that we still do."
How To: Stand in the center of a trap bar. Reach down and grasp the handles. Pull your shoulders down and back, straighten your elbows and tuck your chin. Keeping your back straight, drive through your heels to stand up. Reverse the motion, lower the bar to the ground and repeat.
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