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

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Proximal stability for distal mobility:

There are many times I can think of when a new client comes in and is complaining of stiffness in the hips or shoulders, or their calves are tight. When I ask them what they’ve been trying to do in order to correct this issue, I usually hear something like this…

“I stretch it occasionally. You know, just try to loosen it up so it doesn’t bother me”.

After assessing and screening these individuals, I often find that they lack core/spinal stability. Tissues may be “tight”, but it’s imperative to find out WHY they’re tight to begin with.

What these poor souls don’t realize is that aside from possibly having some true tissue stiffness, they also possess a lack of core stability. What needs to be understood is that a lack of stability in the core has an impact on the other joints (hip, shoulder, neck, ankle, ect).

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What happens over time is that these joints basically “pick up the slack” for the lack of core/spinal stability, and in turn the body creates an artificial stability by “locking down” the tissues at that joint. That joint becomes unable to proficiently transfer any sort of load or force back towards the core because the body realizes that the core can’t handle it. This can happen up and down the kinetic chain.

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…Nerd alert!

If we take a look at how each of us develops from an early age, you’ll see that we are born with mobility. It’s through exploring movement as infants, trial and error and a LOT of reppetition that we gain our stability. Gray Cook explains this very nicely in the video below. I especially like how he talks about kicking your kid so that he or she has to keep getting back up to truly gain the ability to stand and eventually, walk.

Here is an image of the progression of gross motor control. Remember the good ol’ days?

Started from the bottom, now we here.

Life has a funny way of changing this. As we age, we pick up bad movement habits, we sit more and we move less. The body is incredibly good at finding alternatives and adapting when something in the chain isn’t working properly. This brings me to my next point, which is… Stretching is NOT always the answer when stiffness/tightness is present.

You can stretch and foam roll all you want, but if that joint is unstable, or there’s an unstable joint in one of your myofascial lines (Thomas Myers anyone?), your body is going to b**** slap you right back to where you were before – TIGHT, WEAK & UNSTABLE.

For example. I routinely see people with “tight shoulders” who also present very poor scapular control/stability. I have them perform exercises that focus on joint centration and stability and the tension may subside. Of course this isn’t always the case, and things aren’t typically that simple. This is why it’s imperative that we look elsewhere for issues that may be contributing to the problem. The point is that stretching should not be your go-to whenever tension is present. Investigate, assess and correct.

Kettlebell training can be especially beneficial if executed correctly for shoulder stability. The turkish get-up is one of my absolute favorite exercises for this. Of course, whether or not they are safe for you or a client is subjective, but when learned correctly they are an invaluable tool for shoulder health and performance. Bottoms-up kettlebell variations are also a simpler alternative for working shoulder stability.

Turkish Get-Up:

Bottoms-up Kettlebell Carry:  Eric Cressey

“Failure of the rotator cuff and the scapular stabilizers to maintain the humeral head in the glenoid fossa can lead to excessive humeral head migration and either increased tensile stress on the tendons 10, 15 or compression of the tendons from abutment of the humeral head on the undersurface of the acromian.” (1)

External rotation much?!

 

Eric Cressey on anterior humeral glide in a common rowing motion:

So, to quickly recap:

  • If your core is weak/unstable, surrounding joints/tissues can & will pick up the slack and create tension at those joints/tissues
  • Unstable joints are sloppy joints. They under perform and can often cause discomfort or pain for the individual depending on the severity
  • Working on joint centration and stressing osteokinematics as well as arthrokinematics is vital to your joint health & overall performance

Osteokinematics:

  • Gross movements of bones at joints
  • Flexion / extension
  • Abduction / adduction
  • Internal rotation / external rotation

Arthrokinematics:

  • Small amplitude motions of bones at joint surface
  • Roll
  • Glide (or slide)
  • Spin

 


 

References:

(1)  Tovin BJ. Prevention and Treatment of Swimmer’s Shoulder. N Am J Sports Phys Ther. 2006;1(4):166-75.

 

Pick up something heavy.

The Hip Hinge:

When it comes to being a “functional badass”, there are many ways to display the various qualities that showcase the body’s ability to perform.  In the world of “functional fitness”, it’s easy to lose sight of the fundamentals.  It may look impressive to see some poor soul pistol squatting on a kettlebell while simultaneously doing a dumbbell curl with one hand, and an overhead press in the other; but that doesn’t have much carryover to the real world.  Unless of course, you work for Cirque du soleil.  As much as Planet Fitness loves to mock strength, (or anything remotely related to strength for that matter), “picking stuff up and putting it down” is in fact, incredibly beneficial!  Man or woman, it doesn’t matter.  Getting stronger is good for you, regardless of what sport or activities you engage in.

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So much room for activities!

If you are going to engage in picking up heavy stuff regularly, and you should – then you need to do it correctly. Hint – it doesn’t involve standing on a Bosu… As you may have guessed from the title, I’m talking about… THE HIP HINGE!

The hip hinge is the most powerful movement a human can do, it’s the apex movement of an apex hunter– Dan John.

The hip hinge is one of the most beneficial movement patterns that we should be utilizing in everyday life. Everyone should master this movement, for a number of reasons.

–  Hip hinging is a requisite for athletic movement & performance
–  The hip hinge allows for maximal activation and utilization of the posterior chain; and can help bring balance between the anterior & posterior chain
–  It allows for loads to be lifted with the hips, while sparing the knees and the spine (when done correctly)
–  It can increase hamstring flexibility
–  When done quickly and explosively, it’s incredibly effective for burning fat
–  Hip hinging is generally much easier to master and perform than the squat
–  Hip hinging is corrective
–  Learning the hip hinge will allow you to deadlift, and therefore become superhuman, and super sexy.

The list goes on and on…

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Ovechkin single leg hinging like a boss.

Before you go and grab a barbell or kettlebell, lets take a look at something that’s vital to this movement. Core stability! Your spine will thank you, and chances are that if you work a desk job, you could use the help.

Deadbugs:

Deadbugs are a great core stabilization exercise. You begin by laying on your back, keeping your back flat against the floor. Keep your hips and knees bent. Extend one leg while keeping the static leg from drawing in towards the chest. The objective here it to avoid extension of the spine (excessive arching of the lower back), so make sure your lower back is flat against the floor, and your “ribcage is down”.

Planks:

Planks are about recruitment, not endurance. There is little reason if any to hold a plank for any ridiculous period of time. Make sure to contract the glutes, quads, abdominals, lats, and shoulders maximally.

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Stir the Pot:

From the brilliant Dr. Stuart McGill.  What we’re going for here is a neutral/stable spine.  Using the swiss ball challenges the core musculature’s ability to stabilize the spine – and you need that!  Placing your elbows on a swiss ball, make small smooth circles while keeping the rest of your body still.  Eventually, try to make the circles larger.

Now lets get into some hinging! There are many progressions, regressions, and ways to learn and coach the hip hinge.

The Dowel Method:

For beginners the dowel method can work well. The dowel method is great because it provides instant kinesthetic feedback. Here are a few pointers for performing it:

–  Start with a symmetrical shoulder width stance
–  Holding the dowel behind you, make sure your body contacts the dowel at three points (the head, upper back, and lower back)
–  One of your hands should be holding the dowel at the small of your neck and the other at the small of the lower back
–  Maintain contact at the three points (head, upper and lower back)
–  Keep abdominals braced (as if you were about to be punched in the stomach)
–  Initiate the movement by bending at the waist and sitting your hips back behind you
–  Keep your shins vertical throughout the movement, allowing the knees to bend only to allow for the hips to sit back
–  Squeeze the glutes to return the torso to the upright position

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Once you’ve mastered the basic hip hinge pattern, you can advance to a loaded version of the movement – the kettlebell Romanian deadlift.

Kettlebell Romanian Deadlift:

The kettlebell RDL (Romanian DeadLift) is a nice progression for a beginner who doesn’t possess any profound limitations in motor control or mobility/stability. If you do have issues getting into a proper deadlifting position, don’t worry; the movement can be easily scaled as you work towards improving your limitations. You can perform the KB RDL on a step, yoga block, or plyo-box to shorten up the range of motion. Simply place the kettlebell on one of these options and perform the lift. If you’re still struggling with the movement after adding these implements, then you’ll need to address those deficiencies first.

Here are some tips:

–  Stand over the kettlebell with a symmetrical hip-width stance
–  Line up the midpoint of the feet with the handle of the KB
–  Brace the core, keep the spine neutral and the back straight throughout the movement
–  Send the hips back, keeping the shins vertical
–  Reach down to grasp the handle of the KB (you should feel the hips & hamstrings “turn on” at this point)
–  Squeeze glutes and push the feet into the floor (emphasis on heels and mid-foot) as you stand up
–  Finish with a strong squeeze of the glutes at the top before lowering the kettlebell

Alright, so now you’ve got the basic hip hinge pattern down. Lets move onto another incredible movement – the Kettlebell Swing!

Kettlebell Swing:

The kettlebell swing is an explosive movement that is capable of building strength and improving conditioning. It does much more than that though.  The recruitment of the posterior chain and the core strength and stability that are needed make this exercise very demanding, but also insanely beneficial.  Not only that, but kettlebell swings are a great alternative to the much more technical Olympic lifts.

In a study conducted by Stuart McGill it was noted that “Some unique loading patterns discovered during the kettlebell swing included the posterior shear of the L4 vertebra on L5, which is opposite in polarity to a traditional lift. Thus, quantitative analysis provides an insight into why many individuals credit kettlebell swings with restoring and enhancing back health and function, although a few find that they irritate tissues.”  If they’re good enough for the king of back health, they’re good enough for me.

Here’s a video by Tony Gentilcore on the kettlebell swing:

TonyGentilcore.com Cleaning Up Kettlebell Swing T…: http://youtu.be/xWgl1rEiCeQ

So there you have it.  These are just a few examples of what learning how to hip hinge can do for you.  More importantly, if you’re someone who is performing this movement incorrectly day in and day out, then low back pain is likely to be a result eventually.  It’s best to understand how to perform basic human movements correctly since most of us do these things fairly often.  Not only that, but correctly learning how to hip hinge will allow you to work with a multitude of wonderful strength tools such as barbells, dumbbells, kettlebells, bands, ect.  Put simply, there is a bunch of valuable carryover that this movement will provide you with.

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References:

McGill, S. M., & Marshall, L. W. (n.d.). Retrieved from http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/21997449

Pick up something heavy.