How to Perfect Your Form on the Total Gym


Have you ever tried a movement that is supposed to be the best ab exercise to get a 6 pack, but every time you try to do the exercise, you end up with lower back pain or a sore neck? If so, there’s a pretty good chance your form is off, causing you to utilize the wrong muscles.

Having good form, especially when performing core exercises, is essential to prevent injury and to obtain the best muscular results from the movements you perform. So, because of this, core exercises are often performed incorrectly. This could be why your “six pack abs” are not developing the way you want them to, and why it might result in a muscular strain or injury.


When it comes to training, no matter what style or type of workout that’s performed, I always suggest focusing on learning proper form first before adding additional weight, reps or speed. Some exercise techniques will vary due to biomechanical differences in limb length and height. However, learning the correct way to perform basic exercises is what builds a solid foundation, as well muscle memory initially. Once form is learned and perfected, then advanced movements can be added for more intensity.


Exercises are intended to work your muscles in a specific way. The muscles of the core activate together to support and stabilize the spine, protect your organs, aid in everyday movement and develop into a sexy trimmed waistline! 

If a core exercise is performed incorrectly or with bad form and the muscles are not felt in the abdominal region, typically other muscles take over to help with the movement. This places unwanted stress on other parts of the body and results in pain, discomfort and even injury.

This ‘stress’ may also be a result of having weak core muscles, lack of range of motion in the spine or the ability to know how to execute an exercise properly so that it can accommodate your fitness ability. Learning the correct positioning and way to execute an exercise properly will allow the body to develop strength appropriately, adapt to the use of the muscle, and progress successfully. 


I have a few tips that may help you perfect your ‘core’ form and get your muscles working properly. Some of the most common mistakes are the simplest to correct! When performing any core movement, pay close attention to the following:

  1. Arching of the spine
  2. Using momentum and using articulation
  3. Arm position
  4. Working the wrong muscles (Neck or Hip Flexors)
  5. Holding your breath

Knowing these improper movement patterns will allow you to be aware of how your body performs a core exercise. Here are some examples of specific core exercises that can easily be performed incorrectly if your form is off or if your range of motion is too large. 


Listed below are a few examples of common mistakes that are made when performing core movements. Whether these exercises are performed on the Total Gym, the floor, or other apparatuses, keeping good form is always paramount.

MISTAKE #1: Arching of the Spine

  • Arching of the spine occurs from lowering the legs beyond the activation point of where your core is active. It’s essential to keep the connection of the lower back imprinted into the surface to keep the focus on the core as well as prevent lower back strain.


Straight Leg Lowers


  • Lie supine with the legs extended straight up from the hips creating a 90-degree position of the body. The arms can be placed by the hips, held onto a sturdy object overhead or by pressing the Total Gym cables out from the chest.
  • Execute the movement by pressing the legs together as they lower towards the ground. Keep the entire spine imprinted into the surface to keep the core engagement. Once the lower back begins to arch off the floor, return the legs to the starting position.
  • As the core gets stronger, the range of motion will increase.
  • Be conscious of and keep your lower back onto the surface at all angles as the legs lower. Once the lower back begins to arch, the movement has reached its end point.
  • Modify this exercise by bending the knees and pressing them together. This will minimize the lower back strain and allow you to focus on keeping the core activated as the legs lower a few inches.

MISTAKE #2:Using Momentum and Not Articulating

  • Using momentum of other body parts to perform the movement
  • Not controlling the movement for the muscles to work appropriately
  • Allowing the spine to ‘crash’ down instead of articulating through each segment




  • Performing a typical crunch should be done with control, not with speed or momentum. It also should utilize the spinal muscles by articulating through each segment. When this occurs, change the set up to accommodate for the lack of core strength and spinal flexibility. This can be done by:
    • Lying on an incline to accommodate strength and promote control. This allows the spine to articulate into the surface as it rolls through the varied ranges of motion.
    • Starting from a seated position and work the crunch from that angle.
    • Place the hands on the backs of the thighs. Use your arm strength to assist with the crunch motion. This can be done seated or lying.

MISTAKE #3: Improper Arm Tracking/Arm Position

  • Using arm strength to perform an exercise
  • Incorporating too much external resistance
  • Allowing the arms to move rather than the torso
  • Range of motion is too large


Torso Rotation (on the Total Gym)


  • From a seated position, hold onto one or both cables in front of the chest. 
  1. For a more advanced version of this exercise, start in a kneeling or high kneeling position.
  • Begin by keeping the thumbs touching the sternum. This will allow the motion to be initiated by the torso, not the arm strength.
    • The closer the arms are to the torso, the easier it will be to perfect the form. As the range of motion and strength improve, the arms can be placed farther away from the chest.
  • Exhale and rotate the torso away from the tower while keeping the hips stable. The goal of the movement is to rotate the torso around the transverse axis, which is a twisting motion.
  • Control the movement as you return back to the starting position while keeping tension on the cables at all times.
  • If there’s difficulty rotating the torso, try placing a ball or object onto the chest and hug the arms around it to form a circle. This will allow the arms to follow the torso as it rotates through the motion.
  • Keep the range of motion small and the hips stabilized in place so that the core can work efficiently.

MISTAKE #4: Working the Wrong Muscles (Neck & Hip Flexors)

  • Often the wrong muscles are targeted when performing a core exercise to assist with the movement. This could be due to a number of factors including weakness in an area, flexibility of the spine or lower body, or too challenging of an exercise. 
  • Although the head, neck, and shoulders as well as the hip flexors play a part in initiating core exercises, they often get overworked due to the factors above.
  • NECK STRAIN: Using the neck/shoulder muscles instead of the core
    • Misalignment of the spine
    • Shrugging the shoulders
    • Pulling the head or tucking the chin
  • HIP FLEXOR STRAIN: Over compensating with the legs instead of the core
    • Allowing the legs to go too low
    • Lack of flexibility in the hips or hamstrings
    • Core weakness


All core exercises that require the head, neck and shoulders to be lifted off the floor and the legs to lower towards the floor. Crunches, bicycle, straight leg lowers, knee hangs, etc.


  • When performing a core exercise the goal is to contract and activate the core region, which includes your entire torso from the shoulders to your hips. 
  • The alignment of your spine and your breath is what initiates proper movement skills so that the abdominals can work their magic during the exercise.
  • The correct set up and execution needs to accommodate your current strength and flexibility.
  • Modifications should be made to accommodate these factors. For example, keep the range of motion smaller and more controlled before adding larger or faster movements.
  • Neck Accommodations:
    • Perform exercises that strengthen the neck region! 
    • Strength needs to be developed in the neck muscles so they can stabilize an exercise, not take over. 
    • Unfortunately, developing any muscular strength results in soreness. Just because the neck is sore does not mean you injured it nor does it mean you have to avoid training your neck! They often are weak muscles that need training as well. As strength develops, you will feel less sore in your neck and more soreness in your core!
    • Allow the head to rest into your hands to keep proper spinal alignment. 
    • Initiate the movement with an inhale, then exhale as you lift the torso.
    • Use a towel to support the neck. Lie on a towel and hold it by your ears so that the head, neck and shoulders are supported as you lift the upper body off of the floor.
    • Lie on an inclined surface to allow the angle of the neck to be less strenuous. The incline of the glide board accommodates this perfectly.
  • Hip Flexor Accommodations:
    • Some core exercises require the hip flexors to activate and stabilize the movement. If you feel more work in your hip flexors, then they’re probably taking over the core strength or are weak. Take a rest, stretch and reassess your form before doing it again.
    • Keep the range of motion smaller. Don’t lower the legs to the point that the hip flexors take over.
    • Bend the knees to accommodate for flexibility.
    • Keep the connection of the lower back imprinted into the surface.
    • Stretch your hip flexors.

MISTAKE #5: Not breathing or holding your breath

  • Breathing correctly throughout an exercise is an essential part of the movement. It allows oxygen and blood to filter through the muscles so they can activate and contract. If the breath is held, especially when exerting force in strenuous core focused movements, it can result in injury or other health related issues such as headaches, dizziness and pain in the neck or shoulders. 


Every core exercise!


  • Typically, you will inhale to prepare for the motion and exhale on the exertion.
  • The breath can be interchanged depending on the goal of the exercise. Focus on breathing appropriately so the muscles can contract and activate appropriately.
  • Breathing correctly can make a huge difference in the outcome of your core workout and how the results are received.


One last helpful tip to remember is that your lower back muscles are part of your core too! All of these tips hold true when strengthening your back as well. Be sure to always include lower back strength and pay attention to your spinal alignment (keeping your neck in line with the spine), speed of the motion (controlled range of motion), and breathing (don’t hold it!) as you perform an exercise.

Awareness of these mistakes will allow your body to focus on executing the correct movement patterns so that your muscles develop strength, definition and prevent injury.

*Be sure to check out the video to see how these exercises are performed using proper core form.

Making simple adjustments to your body’s positioning can be a game changer when it comes to successfully performing an exercise correctly. Take notice of how you execute your core movements and begin to fine-tune them so you can get the most out of what you put in!

Best Always,


Maria Sollon

Maria Sollon Scally MS, CSCS holds a Master’s Degree in Performance Enhancement/Injury Prevention and Kinesiology. She has obtained numerous certifications in various areas of fitness and is a national conference presenter. Maria specializes in Pilates, Performance Coaching, and Corrective Exercise Techniques and Kettlebells. She is the creator of the Plyo Pilates Method and has developed a series of amazing workout DVDs. She is a Master Trainer for Total Gym, Resist-a-Ball, Body Blade, Peak Pilates, Kettle Bell Concepts and is a freelance writer for Fitness accredited magazines, newsletters, and fitness blog sites. Maria demonstrates her knowledge each day and uses her dynamic creativity throughout her specialized line of work. (purchasable workout videos) (workout clips)

Leave a Reply