Contraindicated Exercises vs. Contraindicated Lifters
At some point in our lives, 80% of people will have some form of lower back pain. While lower back pain can be attributed to any number of things – aberrant motor patterns, mobility/stability deficits, lack of spinal endurance, or blunt trauma , to name a few – I’d go so far as to say that 75% of those people (the ones who are physically active anyways) will usually point their finger at one specific training session where they tweaked their back performing either a squat or a deadlift.
Not surprisingly, these are the same people who will scour the message boards, tirelessly, warning people of the dangers of squatting and deadlifting.
Of course, if we were to dig deeper, we’d find out that their version of a squat is more like a rounded back goodmorning, and what they consider a deadlift is basically an epileptic seizure.
Nonetheless, the point I’m trying to make is that it’s rarely the exercise that’s the problem – it’s the lifter. Both Eric and myself have always stated that there’s really no such thing as a contraindicated exercise, rather there are contraindicated exercisers.
Take someone with poor hip internal rotation, place a bar on his or her back, and have them squat, you’re probably asking for trouble. Likewise, take someone with poor kinesthetic awareness, and have him or her try to lift a loaded barbell off the ground, and you’re bound to have issues. Not always, of course. But the risk increases exponentially when you have an unprepared lifter attempt an exercise that he or she isn’t ready for.
That said, I still believe that EVERYONE should learn how to squat and deadlift. Both are basic human movement patterns that, for whatever reason: whether it’s poor mobility, some sort of kinetic dysfunction, inactive lifestyle, lack of core stability, tight this, stiff that – many people have forgotten how to do properly. It doesn’t mean, though, they can’t re-learn it.
For example, the owner of the building where CP is located comes in and trains with me 2-3 times per week. He’s 70+ years old, which tells you a lot given that most people his age are sitting at home watching Murder She Wrote re-runs.
Unfortunately, though, while he has the spit and vinegar of a 20 year old, he still has the knees of a 70 year old. As such, he about had a heart-attack the day I told him we were going to squat. Matter of fact, it went something like this
Me: Jim, we’re going to squat today.
Jim: What the **** do you mean we’re going to ****ing squat? Are you trying to kill me? You know back in the day, I used to walk three miles to and from school in four feet of snow…..barefoot. I used to hunt bear with a sling shot. Dammit, I could have shown you young whipper-snappers a thing or two.
Once the dust settled, and I was able to explain some simple progressions we were going to take, we headed over to the TRX and I had him do a few sets of un-loaded, DEEP, body weight squats…..pain free. He was sold.
Moreover, the same can be said about anyone with limited hip or thoracic mobility – which can make deadlifting from the floor a bit problematic. Instead of trying to hammer square pegs into round holes, we can use something like the trap bar (with an elevated setting) which makes things infinitely more manageable, and safer.
Matter of fact, we don’t have to limit this to just squats and deadlifts. Someone’s shoulder hurts when they bench? While the simple answer would be to tell them to:
- Stop benching three times per week
- Implement more horizontal rowing into the picture, to the tune of 2:1, or even a 3:1 (pull/push) ratio.
- Push-ups, push-ups, and more push-ups
- Work on their technique, cause it sucks
- Add in more dynamic stabilization drills for the rotator cuff, like THIS
- Get some aggressive soft-tissue therapy done, whether it’s Graston, ART, or massage
Okay, so it’s not that simple. As such, since most are going to bench anyways, why not show them some better alternatives, like floor presses or board presses? They’ll still be able to “bench,” albeit with infinitely less stress on the shoulders. Along with the stuff mentioned above, in a matter of weeks, they could be back to benching pain-free in no time!
In the end, it comes down to understanding that there are contraindicated lifters, not contraindicated exercises. Understanding this point, as well as being able to make the necessary progressions, is oftentimes what separates the great trainers from the not so great.