In Exercise

Don’t throw the baby out with the bath water. 

The first time a friend of mine said that to me, I did a double take. What?

Since, I’ve realized that in the fitness industry this is so applicable! We tend to protect the exercises we love like they’re our children and throw the rest under the bus as if never, ever, ever should you do that.

Never say never. I’ll admit I come very close with sit ups and crunches, which is a story for another blog another day. But otherwise, there are exercises that the fitness Gods would not deem “functional” that may keep you fit, moving, and functioning if you do them and leave you at risk for injury if you don’t. I would call using them functional and not using them because they don’t fit into some arbitrary category, dysfunctional and injury waiting to happen.

The following is a short list of to-do and to-avoid I’ve accumulated from 34 years of doing, teaching, and of research. Where possible I’ve got back to dig up the study or studies that supports the exercise need.

Exercises to Do:

Seated calf raises

This is historically a big boy weight room exercise. You know the ones I mean. This machine is usually placed in the center of the weight room full of big guys who least expect you to walk in and hop on it in your Lululemons and attack your calves. It’s something to consider, even if your biggest motivation is to intimidate them for a few minutes.

Why – Weakness in the soleus muscle is directly related to falls in middle-aged women. That is, I expect my 90-year old mom to be a little more at risk for falls. I don’t expect it of myself at 52. But that’s what a study in the Journal of Strength and Conditioning showed. The soleus muscle lies under the larger gastrocnemius (calf) muscle. We work the “gastroc” all the time. When we do heel raises and push up a hill or walk on incline, it’s working.

If you’ve ever done a stretch (and I hope you have!!) for your calves first with a straight leg and then bending the knee (heel down), you’ve felt the soleus.

Turns out this lesser known and lesser work calf muscle is weaker in women, and associated with increased risk of falling when weakness reaches a certain point.

How – So, if you want to venture into the weight room, great. If not, sit on a chair, bend your knees at 90 degrees and add a few “coffee table” books to your lap. Slowly lift your heels up and down. This muscle doesn’t have power like the gastroc so you need to go slow. Work these guys two to three times a week just like you would any other major muscle group.

Rear lunge stepping back with right leg

Rear lunge stepping back with right leg

Rear lunges

Why – Safety for knees, and sometimes hips, is a primary concern when lunges are discussed. If you have bone-on-bone with no cartilage, you’re excused. Often it’s not what you do but how you do it, however. Stepping back into a lunge instead of stepping forward is a much safer alternative to the joints at risk and equally stressful for the muscles you want to wake up. In other words, all benefits, less risk.

Stand tall and step back with one leg taking a large enough step so your rear heel is up and weight is on the ball of the foot. Your front knee should have barely moved, leaving it still directly over your heel where you’ll feel the work in that leg in the hip or bump and not solely on the top of thigh (quadraceps) or in the knee. Adjust your weight back (without picking up your feet) in order to better position if you need to give the knees relief.)

Better –  Weight one side of your body. If you’re stepping back with your right leg, hold a weight in your left arm at chest height, elbow into your side. Why? You’ll be calling your core to attention and making the exercise slightly more challenging.

Exercises to Avoid:

Chest flys

Why – Stress to shoulders by moving weights from a long lever makes the disadvantages of this exercise outweigh its advantages. Though women can be weak in the upper body, for postural reasons I’d rather see women first stretch passively tight chest and front of the shoulder (deltoid) muscles and do back exercises.

Better – Once there’s better postural balance adding a chest press exercise that uses both the elbow and shoulder joint is a safer way to work the chest.

If you have plenty of time, and you want to spend more time in the weight room, and you have developed a strong upper body and do at least as many exercises for your back (or more) as you do for chest, this is not a “never do” it’s just low on the priority list. Above all, choose multi-joint, or compound, exercises first.  

Lat Pull behind the head

Why – The risk of shoulder injury is one reason this is a to-avoid exercise, the forward head hang posture (that too easily comes with age anyway!) that’s encouraged is two, and three is that it’s a much less effective way to work the latissimus dorsi which is targeted in this exercise.

Better – Pull the bar or handles down to your collar bone, leaning slightly back to engage your core and open your chest. Keep your hands just slightly wider than shoulder distance apart.

If risk for you is too great you might substitute bent arm pullovers for this one.

Inner and outer thigh machines

Why – Women tend to do these machines for leaner thighs. They’re ineffective. They’re also potentially injurious if you’re adding too much weight or range of motion such that you strain the lower back.

Better – Do lunges. Can’t lunge? Do single leg balance poses. You’ll streamline those leg muscles far better and in a more functional way that will improve your balance without risk to the lower back.

Alternative – Employ kickboxing in  your fitness routine. Side kicks, front kicks, and the mere standing on one leg while kicking the other will give you a lower body (and core) to brag about.

Smart Shoulder Press

Smart Shoulder Press

Traditional shoulder press or machine shoulder press

Why – The impingement risk to the shoulder and rotator cuff is not worth the benefit.

Better – If you must have overhead strength pull your elbows in directly in front of you, use lighter weights, and raise the arms one at a time.

Best – If you want strong shapely shoulders with the least risk, do lateral raises, reverse flies, and front raises. They can all be done for the shoulders without raising above the shoulders, where generally, risk is greater.

Even more support – add swimming or boxing to your program.

Plank slide

Plank with leg slide

Ab Crunches and Sit ups

Why – strain to neck, ineffective, disc compression setting you up for injury sooner or later. If you have a thicker spinal column you’re at risk for bulging discs sooner than someone with a thin vertebral column, but it’s a matter of time for anyone doing repetitive movements like dozens or hundreds of crunches and sit ups.

Better – Bracing and stabilization exercises like planks of all kinds and small or no movement exercises for the core prepare you for life and build those abs in better.

Better boost – add cardio to your workouts that features your core: swimming, boxing, intervals (when you go fast it is in part because you are holding that core tight!


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