Last week I raised a few thought provoking questions asking what exercises are we performing in the gym, and what burning problems are those exercises addressing? Are there specific populations that should cautiously choose exercises in their quest for fitness results?
These questions aren’t asked enough within the fitness industry. For example, the popular trend in the past 15 years is that primitive complex movements such as squats are so innate to our being that everyone must get strong at them. The only caveat is that we must scale the load lifted and the degree at which we program these exercises for various populations. Even though this assertion is somewhat accurate, because of the quality control issues that are prevalent in the industry, this convoluted theory has been a concern of mine.
The past 15 years of my strength training have been after a successful T1-L2 spinal fusion. Even though I am an extenuating circumstance, there are certain “primitive” movements that are bothersome for my skeletal shortcomings. I use conventional barbell deadlifts as a staple strength movement in my program. I have programmed this lift regularly for over a decade and have lifted over 2 times my body weight with no ill effects whatsoever. I am a blessed man. I feel great, I generally don’t suffer from chronic pain and my quality of life couldn’t be better.
However, barbell squats and most variations often cause issues for me. I lack thoracic spine mobility because of two 18-inch metal rods that are screwed into my spine. The deep flexion of the hip and knee compounds my thoracic spine immobility and often creates acute back pain for me. No scientific journal on fusion patients has shed light on this; years in the weight room has taught me this lesson.
I train a handful of women well into their 70s. Deb has exceptional joint stability, mobility and muscle flexibility that allows her to move well. She can assume the proper alignment that allows her to lift well over a hundred pounds in the deadlift. This exercise has greatly improved her function and has reduced her joint stress. Susan, on the other hand, has less than ideal movement quality. Susan suffers a host of joint problems that interfere with her ability to maintain the postural integrity needed for lifting. What does she do? If deadlifting is primitive, and she needs this ability, then I must ask myself how to safely modify this movement for her. Ground reaction forces that are transmitted through her body as Susan exerts against the ground through both feet creates torque that is potentially hazardous compounded by her suboptimal movement quality. Using one leg instead of two cuts the ground reaction forces in half, reducing the burden on her joints. This alternative has developed her functional capacity using a non-threatening, low-risk exercise selection.
Deadlifts are good because we must lift things in life. We take this axiom too far when we assume that because this lift is natural, that all trainees must use a barbell, a two-footed stance and push the limit to get as strong as possible. However, this adage is strongly advocated in popular fitness circles around the country. There are numerous ways to train this primary movement pattern, and to affirm that a two-footed barbell deadlift is the best option for everybody regardless of age and other limitations is stretching this functional movement assertion a little too far.
It All Depends
The lesson I hope that you learn from reading this is that it all depends. All of this primitive functional exercise banter is good, but it needs to be aligned within the confines and goals of the trainee. Programs that work well for some will put others in the emergency room. It is imperative if you’re a trainer to understand limitations and address them appropriately. For the trainee, be your own advocate for your own health. I and all the other trainers in the world have no idea how you feel in your own body. Even when we put our best methodologies forward, we will sometimes fail to deliver because of the human condition and our own shortcomings.
Lastly, most trainers teach based on past experiences; confirmation bias is a constant elephant in the room with myself included. Even though a trainer might be correct in her program assertions doesn’t necessarily mean that other trainers who disagree with her are mistaken. This is a large part of the reason why trainees will gravitate toward certain fitness values, programs and specific coaches because of unique styles that work well for some and not so well for others.
The bottom line is that current popularity of a system or exercise doesn’t automatically make it right for you. It is critical to be very specific about your goals and find the right program to help you achieve those objectives. Most importantly, it is imperative to be honest about your current health status and what your limitations are to avoid performing dangerous variations of an exercise that will disable you from enjoying your active lifestyle in the first place.
Ryan Richards has a B.S. from Ohio University and is a certified strength and conditioning specialist through the National Strength and Conditioning Association. He is the personal trainer at the Sonnenalp Golf Club and the owner of R2HP, an athlete consulting and personal training company. Richards’ passion comes from overcoming childhood obesity and a T1-L3 spinal fusion. Contact him at r2hp.com or 970-401-0720.