5 strengthening exercises to avoid at the gym

I will often get asked about weight training and which exercises should be done and others that need to be avoided.  Let’s first start with the 5 to avoid so we don’t reinforce incorrect or faulty movement patterns.  I’ve compiled my “top 5 list to avoid” based on my experience as a Physical Therapist.  Let me give you a quick overview of how I look at strengthening exercises: Whenever we “load” a movement pattern (that is to use weight) we are reinforcing that movement pattern in the central nervous system, telling our body “yeah, that’s how I want you to move!”.  Therefore, it is critical that our form is perfect, symmetrical, and it ultimately reinforces a posture or position that we would want the body to get stronger in.  That being said, here goes:

1. Dips:  These are used to help strengthen the triceps, chest, and shoulders. The problem with dips are the levels of stress that the movement places on the anterior shoulder capsule in the completely lowered position.  You also notice that when you are at the lowest position, there is a significant amount of forward rounding of the shoulders.  I spend most of my day trying to improve postures and eliminate the forward shoulder (or rounded shoulder) posture that so many of us have.  An alternate exercise to strengthen the tricep would be a standing tricep push down with cables with the shoulder blades “set” back and down first.

2. Back Squat: Let me first say that I love the squat, but  I’ve got a couple of issues with this one.  If done correctly, the back squat can be a very useful addition to your strengthening program.  The problem is that most people do it wrong!  They often rest the bar at the base of the neck instead of farther down and are unable to keep their lower back in a neutral position throughout the range of movement.  Placing the bar just at the base of the neck  further “locks up” an area that is historically tight on many individuals since this is where the cervical spine (neck) meets the thoracic spine (rib cage) and we aren’t meant to weight bear in this area.  Since most people end up using too much weight, we come to the next issue:  Incorrect return to neutral from the down position that places too much stress on the lower back region.  What tends to happen is that the legs start to extend first, and then the lower back lags behind since the strength of the lumbar extensors tend to be the weak link in this chain.  Therefore, in your quest to maximize the strengthening response in your legs, you may be placing your back in a vulnerable position.    In defense of the squat, all my back patients are taught how to properly squat since this a very functional activity that is done multiple times per day. Most of my more “mature” clients have trouble even getting out of a chair without using their hands, so I will have them start working on “chair squats” with perfect form.  As they become stronger, we then can load the movement pattern with either weight in the front (front squat) or with dumbbells in their hands ( a variation of the dead lift, another exercise I love if done correctly).  Remember to watch the knees, not letting them come together as this could be a sign of weak gluteals.

3.  Hip adduction machine.  This is the one where you sit down with your legs spread apart and the weight is in between your legs.  You try to pull your knees together, working the inside of your thigh.  First of all, most of us do not have weakness of the adductors (muscles of the inside of the thigh) and actually develop a much greater weakness of the hip extensors (gluteals) and abductors, the muscles that move our legs out to the side.  A very common movement dysfunction that I see often is the inability of the gluteals to control hip movement in a simple standing squat.  The knees often will come together with those individuals with weak gluteals as they seek greater stability as they squat down.  This is a movement flaw that I work hard to correct so….why would I want you to further strengthen your adductors that further promotes this “knee in” movement pattern?  The focus should be on strengthening your hip extensors (gluteals) and hip abductors (lateral thigh muscles) and leave the adductors alone!

4. Upright Rows:  This exercise is used to strengthen the shoulders and upper trapezius.   The problem lies in the up postition when the elbows are out to the side and your hands are turned palms down to the floor.  This has the potential to place your shoulder joint in a compromised position that could lead to a very common movement dysfunction called an “impingement” that can lead to the dreaded rotator cuff strain.  That position is very similar to a test that Physical Therapists will use when evaluating a shoulder to see if that reproduces any pain.  Also, notice how your shoulders round forward  when you have the weight in your hands in the down position?  Rounded shoulders are not a position that we want to reinforce by strengthening in this manner.

5. Empty can exercises:  This is an exercise that has historically been used to strengthen the rotator cuff.  However, in the exercise your thumb is pointed down towards the floor as you raise a dumbell about to shoulder height.  The problem lies in the position of you hand.  When you have your thumb pointed down, this again places your shoulder in a compromised postition that negatively effects blood flow to the the rotator cuff.  So, as you are strengthening the rotator cuff, the muscle demands greater blood flow, but the thumbs down position prevents maximum flow.  Solution?  Do the exercise about to shoulder height with your thumbs up.  Still works the rotator cuff without the compromised blood flow. 

As always, I welcome your thoughts, questions, concerns, and gripes.  Have a good workout!

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