Whether your goal is to lose a few extra pounds, increase your bench press, train for a marathon, or just look and feel better, the gym -- and more specifically, the part that holds all the dumbbells, barbells and other cool, shiny stuff -- is a great place to start.
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Countless people already hit the weights on a daily basis, though some may be doing more harm than good. There's no such thing as a contraindicated exercise, just contraindicated exercisers. Put another way, and using a common example, not everyone can or should walk into the gym on day one, put a bar on the floor and deadlift it. Too many factors -- training history, injury history, mobility and postural deficits -- come into play that can affect the safety of the move, let alone its effectiveness.
But it's not only beginners who need to be concerned about their exercise choices. A number of the more common exercises, performed by both the experienced as well as the novice, have the potential to lead to injury down the road.
Just as there are healthier alternatives for certain foods, there are also healthier alternatives for certain exercises that will offer not only the results you're looking for, but also the safety you need as you move toward your goals.
Repeated flexion, which is what occurs when you perform crunches or situps, is the exact mechanism for disc herniation.
Do Board Bench Presses, Not Bench Dips
Designed to target the triceps, the muscles on the back of your arm, bench dips are frequently performed in local gyms. What's not typically known, however, is just how much this exercise can beat up your shoulders.
Bench dips are performed by placing your arms behind your body, palms on a bench. In technical terms, this means you're placing your shoulder joint into maximal extension and internal rotation, decreasing the subacromial space. This alone will often result in an irritated rotator cuff.
From there, with your feet on the ground, you lower your body up and down repeatedly in the hope of toning and developing your triceps. And all the while you're performing this exercise, you're massively aggravating your shoulders.
A much better option is board presses, and Bret Contreras, a certified strength and conditioning specialist and author of the e-book "Advanced Techniques in Glutei Maximi Strengthening," agrees. Board presses, he said, "are undoubtedly one of the best exercises to build rock-solid triceps. Because you're decreasing the range of motion the bar has to travel and concentrating, almost exclusively, on the top half of the movement, you're really forcing the triceps to take on a larger portion of the load. What's more, it's much more shoulder-friendly."
To prepare for board presses, take two or three 2-by-4 pieces of wood, ranging anywhere from 12 to 24 inches in length, and tape or staple them together. Now place the wood underneath your shirt or, better yet, have a training partner hold them in place on your chest. From there, set up as you normally would for a bench press.
Unrack the weight, then lower the bar, making sure to let the bar "sink" into the boards. Pause for a one- to two-second count, then press the weight back up. Repeat for the desired number of repetitions. Often eight to 10 reps will be sufficient.
Do Slideboard Leg Curls, Not Typical Leg Curls
You know that contraption where you either lie on your stomach or sit upright in it and curl your heels towards your derriere? Those are leg curls. And while some magazines and fitness professionals will wax poetic about the exercise and how it's ideal for strengthening the hamstrings, it's actually a complete waste of time.
In his book, "Advances in Functional Training: Training Techniques for Coaches, Personal Trainers and Athletes," world-renowned strength coach and author, Mike Boyle states, "The hamstring group, a secondary hip extensor, is still mistakenly trained as a knee flexor [curling heels toward the butt]. ... Hamstrings are only knee flexors in non-functional settings. In any locomotor activity, the function of the hamstrings group is not to flex the knee, but to extend the hip."
Boyle goes on to say that "exercises like leg curls train the muscles in a pattern never used in sport or in real life."
In fact, the tendency to train the hamstrings in a nonfunctional manner may explain the near epidemic occurrences of hamstring strains seen in professional sports, as well as in everyday activities like pick-up basketball, recreational softball leagues and jogging.
The glutes are your body's most powerful hip extensor; the hamstrings are second. Because we generally do little with our butts but sit on them, the glutes are often weaker than a wet paper towel. As such, it's important to perform movements that strengthen them as well as the hamstrings.
An exercise that can do just that is slideboard leg curls, popularized by Boyle. Because the knees are bent during this exercise, the hamstrings aren't able to contribute as much and the glutes are forced to become the prime player.
To perform slideboard leg curls, lie on your back on a slideboard with your knees bent and your feet on the slideboard. Perform a simple hip lift; that is, bring your hips off the ground and squeeze the glutes. From there, while making sure to keep the hips up, not letting them touch the ground, straighten and extend your legs, then slide them back to the starting position.
You'll notice your glutes are forced to contribute in order to keep your hips in extension, while your hamstrings work to both resist leg extension and produce knee flexion. And that is why this is such a great exercise.
It's a lot more challenging than it sounds. And for many, your hamstrings just might cramp due to the fact your glutes aren't doing their job. If this happens to you, try to start with the hip lift, then slowly straighten out your legs as far as you can without allowing your butt to touch the ground. Finally, lower your hips to the ground, then glide your feet back towards the starting position, hip lift, repeat.
Ideally, you should do two to three sets of eight to 10 repetitions.
If you don't have access to a slideboard, you can use furniture gliders, or even a towel, beneath your feet to get the same effect.
Do Pallof Presses, Not Crunches or Situps
For the last decade or so, probably no exercise has been more universally vilified in the fitness community than the abdominal crunch or situp -- and rightfully so. Given its popularity among fitness enthusiasts, it seems almost counterintuitive to think that such a popular exercise could be considered harmful.
While entire books have been written on the topic -- most notably Stuart McGill's "Ultimate Back Fitness and Performance" -- the short version is this:
- Each crunch or situp places roughly 730 lbs. of compressive load on the lumbar spine.
- As McGill has repeatedly shown in his research, repeated flexion, which is what occurs when you perform crunches or situps, is the exact mechanism for disc herniation.
- While trunk flexion is indeed an action of the abdominal muscles, the main "function" of the abs is to resist rotary force; that is, to promote core stability and more efficient transference of force by maintaining proper lumbo-pelvic-hip positioning in the presence of change.
- And hammering the final nail into the coffin, crunches and situps actually do nothing more than bring the sternum closer to the pelvis, which doesn't do your posture any favors.
Instead of crunches or situps, do the Pallof press. Named after physical therapist John Pallof, this exercise targets your core and is also more spine-friendly.
To start, stand perpendicular to a cable column and set a handle at chest height. Grab the handle with the fingers of both hands interlaced, then take a few side steps away from the column, placing the handle against your sternum. Keeping your chest out and standing tall, your shoulders back and your feet just slightly wider than shoulder-width apart, "press" the handle away from your body until your arms are fully extended in front of you.
Hold this position for a two- to three-second count. At this point, you should feel your core "engage" in an effort to prevent you from rotating. This is core stability in its truest form.
From there, bring your hands back toward your sternum -- again making sure not to rotate your torso -- and repeat the process for the desired number of repetitions. For this exercise, eight to 10 reps for two to three sets, on both sides, should be adequate.
Why Are My Hamstrings Cramping?
It's not uncommon for the hamstrings of most trainees to cramp up when performing the slideboard leg curl for the first time. But why is this?
Often a cramp occurs when the muscle is attempting to shorten in a disadvantageous position. With slideboard leg curls, for example, when the knees are bent, the hamstrings are already shortened and unable to produce the necessary force to hold this position of poor leverage, the hip extension.
Compounding the issue, remember that the glutes are the body's most powerful hip extensor, with the hamstring group a distant second. Whether due to sedentary work habits, inactivity or poor program design, the glutes are generally weak. When performing the slideboard leg curl, therefore, the hamstrings are forced to pick up the slack. As a result, the hamstrings, normally a synergist in hip extension, are now acting as a prime mover. Thus cramping occurs.
To circumvent the cramping, strengthen your glutes and get them to start firing like they're supposed to.
One of the simpler ways to do this is to incorporate sets of glute bridges into your day.
To perform bridges, lie on your back, with your knees bent and your feet pointing straight. Pushing through the heels, lift your bottom off the ground roughly 6 to 8 inches and squeeze as hard as you can for a two- to three-second count. Return to starting position and repeat for a total of 10 repetitions. Shoot for three to six sets, spread out through the day.