Lifting weights has great benefits, but it also has hidden costs like pain, stiffness, injuries, and burnout.
To combat these problems, many lifters are turning to corrective exercises – stretching, foam rolling, joint mobilization, and core stabilization exercises – largely cobbled together by doctors, physical therapists, and massage therapists.
But exercises that live in this foggy no man’s land between fitness and therapy often fail on two fronts: corrective movements and movement. As a result, many people have become overly cautious and focus on the minutiae of self-care and avoiding injury instead of working intelligently to build a strong, robust, and capable body.
Fortunately, there are better levers to pull apart from the foam rolling and all the usual suspects that will keep you in the game while avoiding costly injuries. Just adopt the following three strategies:
. Kill your darlings
Everyone has their favorites – exercises that you enjoy doing or rather should love even though they may not match your real goals, anatomy, age of exercise, or injury history.
The truth is that not every exercise will suit every practitioner, but people still stay married to them. But these are nothing more than stories we’ve been told, a script written by someone else – ones that we blindly follow and that get in our way, trip us up and tie us to unhelpful beliefs.
I lost the number of times I dragged through painful shoulder injuries – not to mention the hours I lost on foam rolling and stretching to reverse the damage – before finally foregoing straight bar bench press.
It was a bad relationship from the start, but I wanted it to work so badly that I was willing to endure what appeared to be loads of abuse to stay in it. Why? Because, and I’m no exception, people are prone to group think – an “us versus you” narrative that makes us feel like we belong to a special club.
Well, fuck it.
Mike Boyle says the best way to avoid burning your hand is to stop touching hot ovens. Smart words from an experienced trainer who has undoubtedly watched people do just that with their exercise selections.
It is time to kill the sacred cows that no longer serve you. Think tactically, not emotionally. Kill these cows before they kill you. Here are a few alternatives to consider:
Instead of the back squat, do the following:
- Front squat
- Leg press
- Hack squat
Instead of the straight bar deadlift, do the following:
- Trap bar deadlift
- Barbell hip thrust
Instead of the barbell bench press, do the following:
- Dumbbell bench press
- Press dumbbell
- Machine press
Instead of the military press, do the following:
- Landmine Press
- Dumbbell press
- Incline bench press
After a few weeks of these alternate movements, the sacred cows should all have moved on to their new incarnations and you will be free from many of those annoying and boring rehab movements.
2. Limitations instead of corrections
No one wants to spend more time in Deficit Correction Mode trying to “fix” pain through low intensity corrective exercises that don’t look or feel like training at all. Don’t focus on corrections, focus on limitations.
Restrictions – like the huge rubber buffers that you stick in the bowling alley for children’s birthday parties – manipulate the environment, take away bad options for movement and create paths for good ones.
Here are some “problems” easily lendable to constraint-based modification:
The sloppy deadlift
There are really only two things that can go wrong on a deadlift: either you don’t have the freedom of movement to pull off the floor so you round your back or bend your knees too much, or you can’t figure out how to find your center of gravity Move it back so far that the movement is clearly different from a squat.
If you don’t have enough freedom of movement, simply lift the weights on a small box until you find a height that makes sense for your ability.
If you’re having trouble shifting your weight backwards, slide a weight plate or wedge under the front half of your foot to push your weight back onto your heels, as shown in the video below.
The flat squat
Half-ass squats are the bane of any serious lifter. Obstacles to properly performing a full squat include stiff ankles or stiff thoracic spine, poor motor control, protective tension, or poor anthropometry.
The truth is, some people just aren’t set up to be good at squats. See every big guy ever. The good news is that 95% of the time when you put a heel lift under your heels and shift your center of gravity forward, the flat squat instantly turns into a completely different exercise.
The painful chest press
Achy shoulders and elbows are common side effects of heavy pressing. But here’s the thing: the position of your rib cage, spine, and pelvis is a major factor in the health and performance of the rest of your body.
One of the most common things you see while squeezing your chest is an exaggerated arch in your lower back that changes the dynamics of the shoulder joint. Some people compensate for this by putting their feet on the bench, but that only decreases stability. Instead, put your feet against a wall. It takes the arch away while providing a reference point for stabilization.
The over-extended overhead press
Does your overhead press look more like an extension of your lower back? If you don’t have overhead mobility, then the body becomes “overhead” by pulling the spine forward instead of pushing the arms up and back. Not good.
Here’s the solution: “Get the floor up” by sitting on a short box with a step under your feet. This flexes the hips and prevents the lower back from stretching.
The valgus lunge
Most people find it difficult to control movement in the frontal plane. This is true in two ways for split posture exercises like lunges. As a result, we often see knee valgus during lower body exercises – the knee collapses inward.
This requires a foam roller, but not in a way that you might expect. Instead of rolling on it, we’re only going to use it to block adduction across the midline when doing lunges.
3. Manage training loads like an accountant
We all know the cautionary story of the newbie storming out the gates to be injured after just a few weeks. As clichéd as that is, it’s not just for beginners.
Injuries occur when the exposure exceeds tissue tolerance. The load can be the amount of weight on the bar, the number of sets and repetitions per workout, or the number of workouts per week.
However, when the stress slightly exceeds tissue tolerance and there is sufficient time to recover, positive adjustments are generated. If we accept too much too soon, we can fall into a physiological hole that we cannot escape.
In other words, there is a sweet spot. Not much happens below this sweet spot, but hover over it too often or for too long and your risk of injury increases.
We know from research in sports science that injuries occur most frequently when the acute workload (the load during a single training session) rises above ten percent of the chronic workload. These are the average levels of exercise your body is used to, usually measured in four week increments.
In other words, keeping the chronic workload high with regular exercise increases resilience by creating a buffer against injury. It’s protective, because the higher your chronic workload, the harder it is to cross it and get into the “danger zone” where your risk of injury increases.
Prevention is better than cure
Use this three-step formula to help you stay healthy while achieving your goals instead of falling down increasingly esoteric biomechanical rabbit holes trying to “fix” themselves.
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