This last month I was featured again in the Performance Menu. This time they let me rant about some of the things I think people may not actually need in their programming. The following article is what ensued.
Unnecessary Exercises For Strength Performance and Fitness
If you read enough blog posts and magazine articles on regular basis, it will soon become apparent there are about a million things you should be doing in your training to be awesome at weightlifting, powerlifting, and life, and a sexual Tyrannosaurus to boot. That’s all well and good for someone with great athletic ability, an advanced level of strength, and plenty of mobility with no real injuries to speak of, but so many of these training modalities are taken directly or indirectly from the practice and training for specific sports with unique and specific needs or prerequisites. I think if we are honest with ourselves, we’ll realize not everyone is as intermediate, advanced or as elite as we think and there is plenty to be gained with the basics still. The general fix-it answer from coaches or personal trainers is often something along the lines of, “Well, we just regress it back or lower the weight to make it more accessible, bro.” But what if some people just don’t need to do it? That’s what this piece is about. The stuff you really may not need to do or shouldn’t do--even if it does seem cool or fun.
Let’s get the most sacred cow first and up front. I’ve had this discussion too many times to count, but I still see it all the time. I don’t particularly care if you are an athlete from another sport or a general fitness enthusiast. If you can’t squat and front squat a prerequisite standard set by your coach (they SHOULD have one; I like a bodyweight squat as a bare minimum, and that’s fairly liberal), you most likely won’t gain many additional benefits in power output with the olympic lifts compared to just improving your squat and deadlift strength. If you improve rate of force development in an individual that can’t develop much force at any rate, you haven’t really changed much at all. Zatsiorsky discusses this idea in the book Science and Practice of Strength Training.
Additionally, if you are using weightlifting as a way to simply get fit fast by incorporating big movements that require you to do a lot of work, there are plenty of other big work movements that you can use to meet the same goal. Sled drags, trap bar deadlifts, squats, jumping, crawling, push-ups, or burpees all fit the bill, but with substantially more margin of error and room for learning and growth for less advanced individuals. Someone who has just entered the sport of weightlifting might very well be the only exception to this rule, because the athlete is actually participating in the sport they will benefit from reinforcing the appropriate movement patterns right from the start.
The actual size and grandiose visual nature of strongman training is one of its most attractive features for a lot of people. It’s a pretty cool feeling to look at a giant tractor tire or a big friggin’ rock of cement and think, “Yeah, I just manhandled that. That’s right.” It may be a little harder for some to grasp the impressiveness of added kilos or pounds on a barbell without a little background knowledge.
But the same reasons you may not need to be weightlifting might hold very true for strongman training as well. If you were to switch from deadlifts to lifting stones, you are switching to a much more complex training implement. One of the reasons the barbell is king of training implements (don’t argue that it isn’t) is because it’s about as simple as it gets, allowing for individuals to make fantastic strength gains in the absence of complexity. The additional complexity of an object like a stone will make strength gains more difficult to achieve for beginners who have not already achieved a strong foundation in deadlifting, squatting, cleans, and other large compound movements that are done more easily with a barbell. Additionally, the sizes of stones that are molded at less than 200 pounds are often so small that they become less ergonomic for people to lift, creating a more rounded lifting posture in an effort to keep the implement close to the body and over the base of support. It’s lighter, but the movement quality sucks--so much for making it more accessible. This loss of ergonomics is exactly what happens when you have someone flip tires under 300 pounds. They are simply undersized and it becomes nearly impossible to flip the tire correctly.
The things you don’t necessarily need to be doing are not only limited to heavy lifting. There are bodyweight exercises we should probably think twice about as well. Box jumps are a great example of such an exercise. I think box jumps could soon just be called jump stomps. Jump up and stomp the shit out of the box--sounds like a great idea. Let’s take individuals that may not know how to land well after jumping and put them in a situation that allows them to exaggerate their bad mechanics while making lots of noise and feeling good about it. Box jumps are considered a great way to teach individuals to improve power output without external loading; they reduce eccentric loading for in season athletes, and people love to say they’re using plyometrics or P90X. Jumping up to a box reduces the amount of distance the trainee “falls” so the absorbing and landing skills required are reduced, but stomping the box only creates more impact. There are many people that just don’t even know how to land well on the ground after a small vertical jump or broad jump. Rather than smashing boxes like a drum to waste energy or improve power, it may serve you or your trainees well to learn how to land and absorb forces eccentrically.
Run or Sprint
Running is one of our most basic concepts of athleticism and fitness. We all think athletic or fit and we think of something that involves running or sprinting (most of us, anyway). The problem is that running is one of the most injurious activities you can possibly engage in. If you go out running, you have a very high risk of injury, and if you’re not conditioned for it, progressivelyover time, it’s going to be an even greater risk. Before an individual goes out running, they should be able to jump and land well on two feet and on just one from a variety of heights, stances, and distances.
They should be able to perform unilateral lower body movements with some level of proficiency, even if it’s only loaded lightly. These two skills will at least provide some basic ability to move and absorb striking forces similar to running, and there are strongpeople that don’t do these things well. And now that sprinting has been made out to be the ultimate way to get shredded, it deserves some special consideration as well. You should meet the above requirements to run before you sprint, and going even further sprinting should begin in very short distances, 10-20 meters, or uphill. The shorter distances will keep an individual from maximally accelerating, keeping their relative intensity a bit lower. Hills keep the stride length a bit shorter, reducing the risk of the big hamstring pull for those that haven’t been progressively sprinting already. Get fit to run, don’t run to get fit. I don’t know who said that first, but it’s the truth.
Lifting with External Loading
This one saddens me the most. Its indicative of how deconditioned we are as a nation to actually have to include it. But I can’t omit it because I’ve experienced this with my own clients, and not just geriatrics or the obese. I have worked with college students who were not particularly overweight, but were so weak and lacking in physicality they struggled to get up out of a lunge or off the ground without support from their arms. Yet to look at these individuals you wouldn’t necessarily think them unhealthy or excessively weak.
Luckily for them, bodyweight only exercise is in fitness vogue right now. So if they don’t touch a barbell, and just perform basic calisthenics, jumping drills, and regressed variations of push-ups and other bodyweight exercises, they may not stand out that much from other weak bodyweight only exercisers. These people need to continue to include a large variety of games and activities in their exercise regimen until they develop a basic level of physical education and conditioning that public schools may have failed to provide them.
I don’t think any of the above exercises are bad. I just think there are plenty of reasons not to include them in everyone’s training program. General fitness and health enthusiasts shouldn’t train like a sports-specific athlete, and when they do perform the same types of movements, they should meet the same types of prerequisites. You can’t always just regress a complex or advanced type of exercise to fit everyone’s needs and do it well.
Additionally, athletes aren’t always as advanced as we may want them to be. There are many D1 athletes that still lack the fundamental levels of strength that are needed to really benefit from more advanced lifting movements and programs. Finally, some people just need basic physical education. If you can’t move well, chances are you won’t lift well. Be honest with yourself about where you and your athletes/clients really stand with regards to training, and making the decisions about what is best or appropriate for positive adaptation with low risk of injury. When in doubt, err on the side of simple.