Alternative Exercises: Choosing the right exercises for your body

Today’s guest post comes from my friend, Matt Immerman. Matt is a recent graduate of The Doctor of Physical Therapy Program at Mercer University in Atlanta, GA. Matt has been in the health and fitness industry for ten years. He started out as a trainer helping people to get stronger, and more fit. Like many trainers, Matt had to work around his client’s various limitations. Knowing what exercise is appropriate for you (or your client) is vital to long term progress and injury prevention.

Picking the right exercise for your body

Who this article is for:

Those who are new to weight training or exercise.

Or those who have had a history of problems with their knees, back or shoulders and want to continue strength training without further aggravating old injuries.

So you have decided to pick up weight training! Right on! The benefits of lifting relatively heavy weight are too innumerable to list. However, the other side to this coin is that there are potential risks (like with any physical activity) when you engage in weight training. Fortunately, there are many ways to minimize this risk by picking the right exercise for YOUR body. With a little knowledge you can enjoy the many benefits of strength training while minimizing the potential risks that come with it.

In this article, I will offer alternative exercises to the “staples” of weight training which include barbell squats, deadlifts, and shoulder presses. Now, before you completely tune me out, please know that I am a HUGE fan of these exercises. When done correctly with proper form they can be extremely beneficial in building strength, improving bone density, helping with balance, and the list goes on. However, not everyone is able to perform all of these exercises for a myriad of reasons… whether it’s a previous injury, tight muscles and joints, bony anatomy, or even lack of space or proper equipment available at your gym. And that’s okay! Just because something may be preventing you from doing squats or deadlifts or presses doesn’t mean that you still can`t train hard!

What follows are a few of my favorite alternative exercises which I like to perform which target similar muscle groups and still provide an awesome bang for your buck much like the aforementioned “staples.”

Walking Lunges

These are great for working the quadriceps, glutes and hamstrings. You can also add plenty of resistance to this exercise simply by holding dumbbells in each hand. Unlike the back squat, your torso is vertical and the weight is down at your sides which means the lower back is not having to work as hard as it does in a back squat which means you can work the legs as hard as you want while `working around the back.` This is a great option for those whose backs don’t tolerate the back squat as well especially as the weight gets heavy.  As an added bonus, the walking lunge can also challenge your balance and ability to decelerate which is key for sports as well as just staying fit and healthy.

Sled Pushes

Sled Pushes

The sled push is an awesome exercise which also is fairly easy on the joints because it is purely concentric in nature. Furthermore, it is very easy to make sure your back remains nice and straight and that you are only using your legs to push the sled. This exercise is great for building lower body strength and as added bonus it gets you breathing pretty hard! Plus there is nothing more satisfying knowing you just pushed a ton of weight across the gym! Be careful on these though…get too good at these and all your friends will start calling you when their cars are stuck in the snow!

Landmine Press

Landmine Press

This exercise is great for hitting the same muscles that you would target with a traditional shoulder press but with the different angle, you are much less likely to impinge some of the smaller muscles in the shoulder. Furthermore, it is much easier to keep your back straight and abs tight with this exercise thereby ensuring you are working the shoulder and not putting undue stress on the back by over -arching.

Those were just a few examples of alternative exercises you can play around with and see what works best for you. Ultimately the best thing is to see a professional trainer who can help you along your path to fitness! Thanks for reading!

Matt Immerman  PT, DPT, CPT


The Pushup:

Ah the pushup. An exercise that countless women are convinced they’ll never do, and one that most men feel is a God given right to do. I’m tired of seeing women doing these from the knees, and the contortion act many men put on while attempting them. Its got to stop. If any woman has hopes of doing an actual pushup one day, it’s time to start training for them correctly.

The pushup is like a mobile plank. You maintain neutral spine throughout the range of motion. The chest, shoulders, and triceps fire to move the body while the core, legs, serratus, and upper back musculature work to stabilize the body. The elbows stay close to the body to generate external rotation and torque from the shoulder joint & upper body, and the scapulae retract and depress on the way down and on the way up to stabilize the shoulder joint until end range is reached at the top, where they protract a bit.


Nasty looking push up

So ladies, how are you going to do a pushup if it’s not from the knees? Well, first we can try elevating the surface that you’re pushing from. A bench, step, or even an elevated barbell will do. The idea here being that you eventually work your way down to a more parallel position, i.e – the floor. The idea here is to train in the position that you’re trying to achieve, only modified. You can also use bands to help offset the load of your own bodyweight. Trying to do this from the knees isn’t going to cut it in the long run.


Band assisted Pushup

Elevating the surface that you’re pushing from is a great way to help scale the exercise, but there are a few key components you’ll need to do them properly.

– Scapular stability (Keeping the shoulder blades in retraction and depression, aka – “down & back” while descending to the floor and on the way back up)
– Adequate core strength and stability
– Glute activation to help further stabilize your core

What’s scapular stability? Simply put, it’s the ability to keep the shoulder blades in a controlled/fixed position while the arms and rest of the body moves. What you often see when people have poor scapular control is a forward head posture as they descend towards the floor in the pushup. This is a common compensation for the individual’s inability to properly retract, depress and stabilize their shoulder blades, among other things. A lack of scapular stability also prevents the chest and shoulders from firing maximally to drive the movement. A lack of upper back strength and scapular stability puts you at a disadvantage, and makes your pushups look like crap.


Scapular retraction and depression

There’s another thing I’d like to touch on in regards to upper body positioning. The elbows. Keeping the elbows “in” is important for proper recruitment and shoulder mechanics. The more you “flare” the elbows out to the side away from your torso, the more the shoulders become internally rotated. For pressing mechanics, we want an externally rotated shoulder. This allows us to generate more torque through the joint, and keeps the shoulder joint in a safer position to operate within while loaded. Plus, healthy rotator cuffs are kind if important.

Core strength and stability. Ever see people doing pushups with a ridiculously swayed back? Of course you have! Excessive lumbar lordosis (extreme lower back curvature) can be pretty to look at, but it’s not very comfortable in a loaded position. If the anterior core (aaaaaab-dominals) isn’t firing, you’re going to see that lower back arch like Nicki Minaj doing the Anaconda. In this instance it’s not a good thing.



Glute activation is also extremely important because the glutes have to fire in order to help stabilize the lumbar spine as well. I’ve always said, “Never underestimate the power of the ass”, and this also holds true for the pushup. The combination of a weak anterior core and poor glute activation makes doing a proper push up pretty much impossible. So get that booty fired up!

So to summarize:

• Elevate the surface from which you’re pushing from while maintaining proper position
• Make sure you’re squeezing your shoulder blades down and back to maintain proper stability in the upper back
• Make sure you’re bracing the core musculature while performing the push up
• Keep your elbows close to your torso throughout the range of motion
•  Squeeze your butt!

Pick up something heavy.