3 Signs You're doing an Exercise Wrong

You don't just workout for the sake of it, you also want to get better at it. Here are 3 signs that you could be doing an exercise incorrectly and how to fix that.

When you're exercising on your own it can be hard to tell whether you're doing something wrong.

I've been through several bouts of physical therapy and years learning how to do exercises over again. Learn from my mistakes look for help when needed.

Here are some signs that you're doing an exercise wrong, short and long term.

1. You're not feeling it where you should be

This is a good sign you're doing something wrong. If you're feeling squats in your lower back, you might want to check your form.

While there is no such thing as perfect form, there is a range of what is known as "acceptable form".

For example, leaning forward more than 45 degrees in a squat exposes your lower back to unnecessary risk of injury.

Now while you shouldn't confusing this with needing to "feel" every exercise working, light heavy and medium weights bring different sensations.

What should you feel?

With light or moderate weights you might feel:

  • A burning sensation
  • The "pump"
  • A good squeeze or contraction

With heavier weights, you should feel more tension or like your muscles are being pulled.

When you're pushing yourself, your form is going to degrade. Make sure that your form stay's acceptable and avoid technical breakdowns.

2. You're in Pain During or After an Exercise

Sharp or dull pain is a sign that something is wrong.

Not all pain is created equally.

Sharp pains can occur from acute trauma. Dull pains may occur from chronic trauma.

In an overview of Joint Pathology, Physical Therapist Donald A. Neumann notes;

"Trauma to periarticular connective tissues can occur from a single overwhelming event (acute trauma) or in response to an accumulation of lesser injuries over an extended period (chronic trauma).
Acute trauma often produces detecible pathology. A torn or severely stretched ligament or joint capsule causes an acute inflammatory reaction. The joint may also become structurally unstable when damaged periarticular connective tissues are not able to restrain the natural extremes of motion....
Chronic trauma is often classified as a type of 'overuse syndrome' and reflects an accumulation of unrepaired, relatively minor damage. Chronically damaged joint capsule and ligaments gradually lose their restraining functions, although the instability of the joint may be masked by a muscular restraint substitute...only when the joint is challenged suddenly or forced by an extreme movement does the instability become apparent." (Neumann & Threlkfeld "Basic Structure and Function of Human Joints")¹

You should not be in physical pain for minutes after you finish a set.

Examples of this might be:

  • Feeling your an ache in your lower back hurt after a set of deadlifts or hip thrusts.
  • Chronic pain in your knees after squatting.
  • Pain in your knees or feet after a run.

If you notice extreme or chronic pain, you might refer yourself to a local physical therapist. The pain you're experiencingis a really good sign that you're doing something wrong or something is wrong with your body (ex. potentially a strain or overuse injury).

3. You're Not Getting the Results You Expect

If you have reasonable expectations and a well designed program, you should get better at the exercises that you're performing. This is known as being able to achieve progressive overload, a major goal of strength training.

Here are a few signs that you're achieving progressive overload:

  • Getting stronger at exercises you're performing.
  • Being able to perform more reps with a given weight.
  • The ability to perform exercises with improved coordination.
  • Developing muscle, improving the tone in the areas worked.

If you're not achieving progressive overload, something could be wrong with your form or your training program.

For more information, I suggest you read Strength Training for Beginners.

What Can You Do to Fix These Problems?

  1. Hire a personal trainer and work with them until you're confident executing major movements. The basics include upper body pushing and pressing, rows and vertical pulls, squatting and lunging, and hip hinging and extension (hip thrusts).
  2. Asses your form. Record yourself on video to see if you're making any obvious mistakes.
  3. Develop your mind muscle connection. Practice performing the exercise with a really light weight that you can do for 10-15+ reps. You should feel a burn or pump in the places you expect.
  4. Pick up a book. Learning how the body works can help you gain a sense for what is supposed to happen.

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Here's How to Tell You're Doing an Exercise Wrong

  1. Feeling an exercise in the wrong place.
  2. Pain or discomfort.
  3. A lack of fitness gains in movements that you perform consistently.


  1. Neumann, Donald A, and A. Joseph Threlkfeld. “Basic Structure and Function of Human Joints.” Kinesiology of the Musculoskeletal System: Foundations for Rehabilitation, Second ed., p. 42.

Steven Mack is founder and a Certified Strength and Conditioning Specialist at the private training studio, Simple Solutions Fitness. He consults for Stronger by Science, a leader in fitness research dissemination, and is a former Mizzou football walk-on. Steven dedicates his professional life to helping people through his writing, speaking, and role as a personal trainer.