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Let’s Get Physical...Therapy! The Top 10 Scariest Things I See at the Gym

The author demonstrates poor plank form (above) and her best plank form (below).

By Ilka Felsen
Staff Writer

As a physical therapy student at UCSF, I am often asked if I see people doing exercises incorrectly at the gym.  My answer:  all the time! 

I’ve decided to share below some of the most common gym errors I’ve witnessed in my time here.  But, I’d like to make the following disclaimer:  first, that I am not (yet) licensed, and therefore excused from being the end-all, be-all source of exercise information.  And second, that physical therapy exercise differs dramatically from fitness exercise, with the former focused on confronting a medical condition, and the latter focused on toning up and meeting fitness goals.

So, without further adieu, here are the scariest things I see at the gym: 

1.  Lifting weights with hyperextended backs, rounded backs, or anything but a stable back.

The core should basically always be engaged.  Otherwise, harmful stress deforms the spine.  Activate your abdominals during any and all gym activities, especially during lifting!

2.  Working the same muscles every time.

There are some people who hog the treadmills, or the row machine, or the quad press, or the weight room...every...single...day.  That chick who is always on the stair stepper?  Get off!  Workouts should be balanced to prevent overuse and imbalance syndromes.  That means some days should be spent on the upper body, and other days on the lower body, endurance or stretching.  And some days should be spent resting!

3.  Rounded back position during cycling.

There will naturally be some flexed curvature of the spine while leaning over to cycle.  But too much spinal flexion is a red flag for back pain, and ultimately, a herniated disk.

4.  The ponytail sign.

Guys have this problem too, but it’s not so apparent without a ponytail.  The ponytail sign is a term we use for someone who bounces up and down so much when they run, that their ponytail wags side to side.  The ideal vertical displacement during running should be no more than three inches.

5.  The thunder sign.

This a term I just dubbed myself, but anyone who has jogged next to someone who treads heavily has experienced the thunder sign.  This happens when the person next to you—or worse, you!—is landing so heavily that their footsteps drown out your music.  Landing loudly is dangerous, and indicates excessive forces on the knees, ankles and hips of this poor runner.

6.   Relying too much on the elliptical handles.

I’m guilty of this myself, because it’s a lot more fun to coast on the elliptical while I watch Netflix, than to hold my body up.  While using the handles can activate the shoulder girdle, I see more people use them as crutches, and end up excessively rounding over their machines (scary back problems on the horizon).  So let’s all man up, and use those handles less!

7.  Leaning obnoxiously forward over iPhones, magazines, and iPads.

I get it—I too like to “lean in,” a la Sheryl Sandberg.  But this is a time when that is actually a bad idea.  Our heads should be held high when we work out, for better cervical spine alignment and shoulder girdle placement.  No more hunching over our technology!

8.   Planks that look more like downward dog.

The plank is an amazingly powerful abdominal exercise.  But that also makes it really hard to do, and very tempting to sneak in some weird posturing instead.  I’ve seen butts high in the air, backs sagging, shoulder blades poking out, heads dropped almost to the floor, and some other very interesting interpretations of the plank.  The key to the plank is to be a plank—so think board!

9.  Super buff dudes working all of the big muscle groups, and neglecting the more subtle stabilizers.

Bicep curls and bench presses are the staple in many a gym-goer’s upper body workout, while the smaller shoulder muscles (subscapularis, teres minor, infraspinatus, and supraspinatus) are overlooked in the mission to bulk up.  But these smaller muscles are super important scapular stabilizers, and function heavily in almost any arm movement and in injury prevention.

10.  Knock-kneed squats.

Squats should be done with the knees moving in line with the toes, not inside or outside of the foot, and certainly never touching. Watch your knees carefully, and if they deviate even the slightest hair side to side, your form needs a little extra love and attention.

Ilka Felsen is a second-year physical therapy student who enjoys watching people walk, palpating joints and muscles and talking about physical therapy.