It’s Not Me, It’s You

We have all heard this line from someone we were dating.  Or is it the other way around?  I don’t know.  Women are confusing anyway.  Moving on.  Today I overheard two guys in the gym talking about military pressing and whether or not it was a good exercise.  One gentleman had allegedly been doing it for 45 years but his shoulder was currently giving him problems, while the other guy rarely does the lift but likes using some machine to work his shoulders instead.  They didn’t seem to come to any kind of answer and I was not about to interject with some long-winded response.  But what is the answer?  Is military pressing bad for you?  Is machine training better?  Here are several scenarios to think about when determining why an exercise might be an incorrect choice for you.

You have a movement issue that needs work:

If we are talking fundamentals such as squat, press, hinge, split stance, etc. then the idea is that you should be able to perform them.  If not, working towards improving that ability should be a goal.  Is military pressing “bad for you” in the case above?  Likely.  Maybe he needs to improve thoracic mobility first.  Maybe there is an issue with the neck.  Perhaps some simple soft tissue work would improve things.  For the person who can freely, easily and without pain move their arms overhead military pressing might be a great choice.  Both squatting and deadlifting are often controversial among gym goers.  I hear it all the time, “I used to squat/deadlift until I hurt my knee/back so I don’t do them anymore.  They’re not good for me.”  Likely the real problem is operator error.  Many times I’ve seen a squat or deadlift and cringed, wondering how much pain that person might be in if they aren’t already.  If you can’t squat or deadlift a light weight properly or without pain, it’s not the fault of the exercise, but more likely you.  The good news is, it can be fixed.

It’s too advanced/difficult right now:

Sometimes people are too eager to try something new they saw that’s just too hard or worse yet, their uneducated coach hasn’t progressed them properly.  For example, I think box jumps are a great exercise.  However, I do think that they are generally a “bad” exercise choice for an overweight client who is lacking in basic strength and ability to move their own body well (This is one reason I am drawn to The Biggest Loser on a regular basis.  It drives me nuts but I have to watch).  The same could be said for walking lunges.  Not “bad” per se, but not something I want most people doing because the risk vs. reward just doesn’t add up for me.  I think split squats and reverse lunges possibly done with load are a much safer and effective choice.  Other times someone just isn’t strong enough yet.  The majority of the time I try and progress people to doing single leg squats after weeks of split squats and reverse lunges.  Well, it’s not always perfect the first time.  Sometimes I have found they are just too hard for people and we need to find a regression of some kind.

It’s just a poor exercise choice:

So when talking fundamentals there are no inherently “bad” exercises but I do still believe that there are some bad exercise choices.  That’s why a thought process following certain progressions should always be a priority, not just randomly choosing difficult things.  I have not performed nor asked anyone to do an upright row in many, many years.  The same could be said for sit up variations, as well as leg extensions and leg curls done on a machine and for those of you who know what it is, the sumo deadlift high pull.  I don’t believe that any of these exercises hold any real value and there are certainly more that could be added to the list.  So, although often times it’s not the exercise, it’s you, there are a few exceptions.

The key for coaches is to understand why certain movements may or may not be appropriate for some people.  Not every movement is for every body.  Sometimes there are things to work around.  So as I stated earlier, mastering the fundamental patterns is usually the goal, but those patterns don’t always have to be loaded.  For those who train alone the first rule is if it hurts, don’t do it.  But then, try and realize why that might be the case.  In many instances pain is an indicator.  You might have to do some research or find the right person to help you but improving how well you move will then allow you to move stronger and train the right way without pain.

– Mike Baltren