Vail Daily column: Step away from low-investment exercises |

Vail Daily column: Step away from low-investment exercises

Ryan W. Richards
Make It Count

It doesn’t need to be one or the other. I need to underscore this idea: Within the context of fitness acquisition, we tend to gravitate towards a specific set of principles that resonate with our fitness values. We choose yoga, CrossFit, functional training, bodybuilding, Pilates or barre training. I’m challenging you to consider a different approach. Consider what you need based on training at the edge of your ability in a sensory rich environment. You can still practice bodybuilding to look good naked for example, but consider covering your bases by making sure you’re not missing something.

The leg extension machine is a great tool for developing the symmetry and visual development of the quadriceps muscles in the thighs. There is nothing inherently wrong with this exercise. However, does this exercise put you at the edge of your learning ability so that you can adapt to a higher state of development? It doesn’t because as you sit on the machine, your entire being isn’t put into an environment of risk. If the weight stack is too heavy, you move the pin to a lighter weight selection.

On the other hand, we know that compression and distraction of a joint causes reflexive stabilization in your body. For example, when a lifter hoists a heavy enough weight off of the ground, her spine compresses and her shoulder joint distracts. The weight attempts to break the integrity at her low back, and separates her upper arm from her shoulder socket respectively.


Why is this good for motor learning? Demonstrating this lifting movement (output) causes our brain to sense (input) a threat. Our body says, “Oh my goodness, my spine is about to snap like a celery stalk and my upper arm is about to dislocate.” The brain sends a signal for the torso muscles to stiffen and the upper shoulder girdle to properly engage reflexively, so that you survive the potential injury that’s about to occur. This exercise may be challenging because it puts us in a state of risk that allows us to overcome the risk by gaining new understanding of stabilization. This is how we should exercise.


In fitness and specifically rehab settings, we often look at a problem within our body’s systems, and try to strengthen the tissues around the problem area using isolated, low risk exercises. For example, we choose planks to strengthen the core to protect the low back. Not a bad exercise per se, but a potentially faulty approach because this exercise doesn’t cause enough of a threat to put us into an environment for change.

Our greatest human attribute is our ability to adapt and change. In what situations do humans adapt and grow? When we are at our worst case scenarios. When the storm is hitting in all directions and maybe our house is built on sand. We fight, struggle, cry, mourn, and eventually if we are willing to yield and learn, we adapt to higher state of development.

This is not to say that we invite harm to trainees from negligent coaching. I’m suggesting we consider stepping away from low investment exercises that aren’t yielding a great return. There is a reason why low investment exercises are such staples for so many people. They don’t pose enough risk — but they certainly aren’t yielding a great return either. Popular low investment exercises include but aren’t limited to planks, running, cycling, biceps curls, seated overhead dumbbell presses, triceps extensions, and various ab exercises. All machine based exercise programs are paltry investments — the pec deck, lat pulldown, elliptical, leg curls, leg presses, recumbent bikes, seated rows, thigh adductor machines, etc.

Sure, they are all mostly as safe as watching paint dry on the wall, but I’ll bet you’re not really getting anywhere.


What are examples of high investment, high yield exercises? All forms of deadlifting, yoga, kettlebell training, body weight calisthenics such as proper pushups and pullups, gymnastics, swimming, rock climbing, and martial arts. Why do these practices yield a high return? They do precisely because they require a high level of time and physical resource commitment to master the abilities needed to successfully demonstrate competence.

For example, I have spent four weeks getting a trainee to perform a kettlebell get-up with an eight-pound implement. That’s eight hours of total practice focused on one exercise that she is now demonstrating with a basic level of understanding. Mastery of this one movement will yield 80 percent of this woman’s fitness needs. Simple, not necessarily easy or without some level of controlled risk.

The point isn’t to stop doing what you’re doing. There’s nothing wrong with triceps pushdowns; make sure to add proper pushups into the mix. Do you enjoy doing curls for the girls? Fine, consider adding pullups to the program. There is nothing wrong with reformer Pilates. Just show me you have the integrity to actually move your body in the real world and you’re not overweight. Cross fitters are another ball of wax. Again, that’s fine. Give a big hug to Pukie the Clown for me. Better you than me. Have a great week!

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 or 970-401-0720.

Support Local Journalism