Lunges are “good”. Military press is “bad”. Planks are “best”.
Every month popular magazines and media outlets barrage us with propaganda for the “best” and “worst” exercises. Instead of basing your decision of which exercises are safe to do or which exercises you should avoid on what the media says, do you ever stop to ask, “Good for what?” or “Bad for whom?”
In an attempt to demystify complex concepts, we frequently attach labels. Exercise is no different. Unfortunately, these labels are often misleading at best and leave the consumers with their heads spinning.
Recently, such an article sparked conversation on our fitness floor as members discussed a recent publication of exercises individuals “should never do.” Ironically, most of our personal trainers employ variations of most of these exercises with at least some of our clients. Does that mean our personal trainers are choosing the wrong exercises? There is evidence to the contrary.
Categorizing exercises as good or bad draws many assumptions. The reality is that an exercise is basically a combination of joint motion(s) and muscle contraction(s) initiated by the brain- no more, no less. An exercise is not inherently good or bad.
The greater question is whether that joint motion and muscular contraction is appropriate to a specific person’s body and fitness goals. An exercise that may be ideal for one person could be catastrophic for another. There is a level of risk and benefit to every exercise. Labeling exercises as good or bad assumes that all individuals are created equally: limb length, range of motion, prior injuries, muscular strength, neurological function and joint stability.
Is a lunge the “best” exercise for someone having had ACL surgery? Is the military press “bad”? The answers to these questions lead to a series of additional inquiries. How long ago was the surgery? How is the range of motion at the knee? How is their strength and control at the joint? How does he perform the exercise?
How are you performing the military press exercise? What is your range of motion at the shoulder? Is there a prior injury to the joint? Have you progressed the exercise appropriately over a period of time? What is your goal for the exercise? These inquiries will lead to the right answer for that individual.
Labels fail to consider the specific goals of an individual. The high-level gymnast has very different training goals than the middle-aged, stay-at-home mother looking to tone up and shed a few pounds. The gymnast may need to train into extreme ranges to accommodate the demands of her sport. High-intensity squat jumps and tricep dips might be very appropriate for her training but not for the stay-at-home mother.
Can the adductor machine spot reduce your inner thighs? It cannot. Is it a good exercise for the average person? That may be true. But, it is both appropriate and functional exercise for the equestrian athlete training to hold her position on a horse coming off a 3’ jump.
Perhaps the 40-year-old man with prior shoulder injuries should not be doing excessive push ups. TRX suspension training – despite being very popular – may be a recipe for disaster due to the strain on the shoulder joint. Perhaps the fixed Smith Machine, deemed “bad” or “not functional” by some, may offer the joint stability his shoulders need until his strength and control improves.
When we begin looking at exercise relative to the individual, and not the masses, it changes your perspective of good vs. bad. Our role as fitness professionals is to help assess what is appropriate for you as an individual – and all the unique qualities that make up your personal physiology.
The plank that may not have been appropriate for you six months ago, may be the “best” exercise for you today! Our bodies are not static, and our exercise programs need to adapt to those changes.
So, before you restructure you entire fitness program around the latest media report, consider whether those exercises are really the “best” choice for you.