The New Rules of Strength Training
I've just received word that I've been appointed the new President of the Strength Training Industry.
As your leader, my first order of business is to address what I consider to be the greatest challenge facing the industry today: the widespread acceptance and proliferation of biomechanically dangerous exercises.
We've allowed strength training to become a "risky" or "dangerous" business, attracting an unsavory mix of foolish, hardcore, Jackass-inspired thrill seekers who preach lifting ridiculously heavy weights in a chalk-dusted frenzy. Their unwanted influence needlessly injures thousands of well-intentioned exercisers that just want to enjoy a refreshing workout and follow a healthy lifestyle.
I can say with confidence that it doesn't have to be this way. And thanks to my newly acquired authority, with just a stroke of a pen I can render strength training as safe or safer than the stationary bike, lawn bowling, and Chinese checkers, current gold standards of exercise safety.
The following is a list of banned exercises that shall not be performed again, along with a brief explanation.
Abducting your arms over 90 degrees combined with severe internal rotation will shred your shoulders like Grandma's 4th of July coleslaw.
Behind the neck press, behind the neck pulldowns, and behind the neck pull-ups
The "high five" position characterized by shoulder abduction and extreme external rotation is an injury waiting to happen. While you grind away at your rotator cuff, inducing tendonitis, you'll also be stretching out the ligaments and anterior capsule, leading to permanent elongation, hyperlaxity, and instability.
While you're at it, why not jam the bar into your spine and damage a cervical process? Might as well multi-task, right?
All squatters have round lumbar spines and posteriorly-tilted pelvises when they go deep, and if their poor discs could talk, they'd be screaming bloody murder. The low bar position wreaks havoc on the shoulder joints, and the ACL, PCL, and patella take a beating during the descent. Too heavy a weight leads to excessive forward lean, exposing the lumbar spine to injury.
Worse, the lift requires dangerous levels of intra-abdominal pressure and can lead to rectal prolapse, a condition where the walls of the rectum protrude through the anus and become visible outside the body. Good luck riding your bike home from the gym after that happens.
The barbell puts the wrist in a fixed position that can damage the elbows and shoulders, while the powerlifting style low-back arch will hammer the posterior elements of the spine. Going deep overstretches the delicate shoulder ligaments, and the scapulae can't move naturally as they're pinned against the bench. Not to mention, the scapulae will be permanently abducted and the shoulders internally rotated, which over time can lead to a Neanderthal-like posture.
Ignore that the head is dead smack in the path of the barbell and just focus on the fact that the delicate acromions can't handle the load. Furthermore, the typical kyphotic posture will massacre the shoulders and cause spinal hyperextension.
A perfectly named exercise. The deadlift will create numerous disc herniations and permanent elongation of the spinal ligaments due to a slumped posture. Weak glutes encourage lumbar flexion and posterior pelvic tilt to initiate the lift, and lumbar hyperextension and anterior pelvic tilt to finish. Just imagine, a single exercise that can create flexion and extension intolerance in one fell swoop!
Increasing or decreasing the load doesn't improve the safety profile one iota. Heavy deadlifts over stress the CNS, leading to permanent downregulation of key brain chemicals and eventually mental retardation, while high rep deadlifts can lead to cardiac arrest.
If you bumped into an extra terrestrial at the gym and asked him to put a heavy bar on his back and bend over with it, he'd likely start laughing hysterically in that cute way benevolent aliens do before shooting you in the face with a phaser. It's sad that even aliens have more common sense than meatheads.
Reverse hypers and back extensions
Most people's hips don't work correctly, so they move at the spine and not the hips. Down low, they flex the spine to make up for crappy hamstring flexibility, and up top hyperextend the lumbar spine to make up for weak glutes. Why not just foam roll on the freeway and get it over with?
Glute ham raises
Nobody does this exercise properly. Weak hamstrings require anterior pelvic tilt to try to improve the length tension relationship, which puts the low back into hyperextension and annihilates the posterior elements of the lumbar spine.
Lunges, Bulgarian split squats, step ups, pistols, and single leg RDL's
All single leg exercises lead to SI joint pain and sciatica. Crappy hip stability causes the knee to move all around in the frontal and transverse planes, obliterating the patellofemoral joint. Any PT who prescribes a single leg movement is a shill for the knee replacement industry.
Hip thrusts, barbell glute bridges, and single leg hip thrusts.
Whoever thought up these abominations is a serious douchebag. Since weak glutes can't do the job, the pelvis will anteriorly tilt and the low back will hyperextend, thereby taking a jackhammer to the posterior elements of the lumbar spine. Furthermore, the weak glutes will fail to exert a rearward pull on the femur, leading to anterior hip pain as it jams forward in the acetabulum.
If you still choose to perform these hare-brained movements, maybe you should consider the other exercisers using the facility. Unless you have an Airex pad to place under the bar, too much pressure is placed on the abdomen, resulting in volcanic eruptions of explosive diarrhea.
Extreme shoulder extension combined with external rotation will inevitably lead to anterior capsule dysfunction. Dips are for dipshits.
Push-ups are too hard on the wrists and elbows, and if the feet are elevated to make them more difficult you risk hyperextending the neck. Due to most lifter's obsession with the bench press, the serratus anterior and trapezius fibers often don't fire and can't properly stabilize the scapula so once again the shoulders take a beating.
Leg presses and seated rows
These exercises require too much hamstring flexibility, leading to severe lumbar rounding under heavy loads and eventually herniated discs. Moreover, machines place the body in unnatural fixed positions that can lead to faulty motor recruitment in as little as six workouts, and walking like Frankenstein's monster in twelve.
Bent over rows
I get it. Since the ribcage can serve as a trampoline in the bench press to max out at 225 lbs., it would be silly to only row 95 lbs. So you pile two plates on each side of the bar, round the back to 30 degrees, and start performing upright rows to the belly.
Chin-ups and pull-ups
Supinated chins over stress the biceps tendons, while wide grip pull-ups over stress the shoulder joints. To make the exercise easier lifters hyperextend the low back and shrug the shoulders to account for weak lower traps.
Sit-ups, side bends, and Russian twists
Sit-ups will induce compressive and sheer loading on the spine, leading to compromised neural function, mindless incoherent babbling, and eventually holding up homophobic signs at Michele Bachmann campaign rallies.
Since the hip flexors are already tight from sitting, you should never, ever try to strengthen them. Twisting sit-ups combine lumbar flexion and rotation, which is akin to a Mike Tyson right uppercut - left hook combo.
The spine was meant to stay in neutral your entire life and should never be moved. For this reason, side bends and Russian twists are out, along with getting out of bed, tying your shoes, sitting, and picking up loose change off the ground.
Shrugs, farmer's walks, and all loaded carries
Most lifter's upper traps already dominate their lower traps. You should never, EVER, carry anything heavy or even take a plate or dumbbell out of the rack or your traps will become perpetually imbalanced.
Pullovers, flyes, lateral raises, barbell curls, and prone rear delt raises
Single joint exercises in the stretch position such as flyes and pullovers are hard on the shoulder joint, and lateral raises, unless performed in the scapular plane, will destroy the shoulders.
Barbell curls over stress the biceps tendon and the bones of the lower arm.
Prone rear delt raises require hyperextending the neck while lying prone on an incline bench, which can cause amnesia, aneurisms, or stroke.
Let's not forget the most important point, that single joint lifts aren't functional. Even though they may look like movement patterns seen in swimming, tennis, and strongman, don't let your eyes fool you! There's zero functional transfer to the real world.
Power cleans and jump squats
People can't clean worth a piss these days, and the wrists take too much of a pounding over time. Jump squats jar the entire body upon landing.
Pallof presses, cable chops, cable lifts
These exercises require simultaneous contraction from all the core muscles, which clamp down on the spine and create enormous compressive loads. This leads to vertebral issues and severe constipation that cases of Metamucil can't cure.
Since I'm President, I've decided to eradicate the terms "lumbar flexion" and "posterior pelvic tilt" from the Kinesiology textbooks, and the rectus abdominus will now be referred to as "The Muscle Whose Name Cannot be Mentioned." (TMWNCBM for short.)
Before you roll onto your back and start crunching, realize that the lumbar spine only allows for 20,000 flexion cycles. When you hit this number, all five lumbar discs herniate immediately and you begin writhing in uncontrollable spasm.
Even if you're way shy of the 20,000 limit, with every single rep your athleticism and ability to walk upright while chewing gum decreases by .02%. You do the math.
Crunches destroy the workings of the pelvic floor musculature, resulting in you pissing yourself uncontrollably every time you laugh or sneeze, or whenever the fighter jets do a fly-over on opening weekend.
Furthermore, crunches are linked to glute dysfunction. It doesn't matter if you're sprinting or hip thrusting, crunches override those signals and extinguish their effects. The result is now you can't walk, run, or jump properly.
Worse, this glute dysfunction can lead to erectile dysfunction. Since the glutes no longer function properly, thrusting becomes impossible, and even the most accommodating partner is bound to start laughing hysterically at such anemic displays of ass drive, resulting in the "little general" shriveling like over-cooked linguini. This psychological catastrophe can embed itself deep into the brain, resulting in permanent erectile dysfunction.
Finally, crunches can lead to AIDS and other STD's. Many lifters who perform crunches become so horribly kyphotic that they can't attract a mate through conventional means, leading to encounters with prostitutes and other ladies of ill repute. This significantly increases their exposure to AIDS, gonorrhea, syphilis, certain politicians, herpes, and other single-guy buzz kills.
The New Rules to Strength Training
What's the deal? Has Contreras sold out?
Hell no! I wrote this article to make a point. If you know enough about anatomy, physiology, and strength training, you could make a case for why every exercise in the book should be avoided. Conversely, you could also make a case for why every exercise in the book should be performed.
Without further ado, here are President Contreras' actual new rules to strength training:
- An exercise is judged by how it is supposed to be performed, not by how the jacktards screw it up.
- If you think lifting weights is dangerous, try being weak. Being weak is dangerous.
- There are no contraindicated exercises, just contraindicated individuals. Learn how your body works and master its mechanics.
- If you can't perform an exercise properly, don't do it. If an exercise consistently causes pain, don't do it. If an exercise consistently injures you, don't do it.
- Earn the right to perform an exercise. Correct any dysfunction and become qualified with bodyweight before loading up a movement pattern.
- There exists a risk-reward continuum and some exercises are safer than others. It's up to you to determine where you draw the line. Don't bitch about your lack of progress or poor joint health as you lie in the bed you made for yourself.
- Exercises performed poorly are dangerous, while exercises performed well are beneficial. If you use shitty form, you'll hurt yourself. It's only a matter of time.
- If you display optimal levels of joint mobility, stability, and motor control, you'll distribute forces much better and be able to tolerate more volume, intensity, and frequency.
- Structural balance is critical. You must strengthen joints in opposing manners to ensure that posture isn't altered. If your posture erodes due to strength training, it means that you're a shitty program designer.
- Body tissues adjust to become stronger to resist loading. The body is a living organism that adapts to imposed demands.
- Your training will be based on your needs, your goals, and your liking. Different goals require different training methods. The loftier your goals, the more risk entailed.
- There are two type of stress: eustress and distress. Keep yourself in eustress and you'll be okay.
- If you believe an exercise will hurt you, it probably will.
- Injuries in the weight room have more to do with poor form and poor programming than the exercise itself. Exercises are tools. You are the carpenter. A good carpenter never blames his tools.
- Rather than drift along with popular trends, it's more fruitful to learn how the body works, which will allow you to understand the pros and cons of every exercise and make educated decisions in your programming.
At the end of the day, how you train is your call. Whether you play it safe or roll the dice, at least you're not sitting on the couch. Pain and injuries have a way of teaching you proper form and programming, and having a large arsenal of exercises is important to prevent boredom and habituation and spark further adaptation. In short, keep learnin' and keep liftin'!
I'm President Contreras and I approve this message.
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Bret Contreras has a master's degree from ASU and a CSCS certification from the NSCA. He is currently studying to receive his PhD in Sports Science at the Sports Performance Research Institute New Zealand (SPRINZ) at AUT University in Auckland, New Zealand. Visit his blog at www.BretContreras.com and his research review service at www.StrengthandConditioningResearch.com.