It’s virtually impossible to escape all the videos and articles on social media telling you that a specific exercise is the answer to fixing your “pancake butt,” “spaghetti arms,” “chicken legs,” or [insert cliché fitness statement here]. Applying this advice to a global audience can be misleading and dangerous if not qualified, or put in the wrong hands.

 

For example, somebody says “ass to grass” squats are a must for everyone, because research has shown us that a full depth squat has the greatest glute activation when compared to parallel or partial squats.1 Chances are, you will get great results, if you can meet the positional demands and execute the technique properly. For the rest of us, we will find ourselves moving closer to injury, if we haven’t already hurt ourselves. Without assessments and knowledge, people who blindly follow exercise trends quickly fall victim to the laws of natural selection.

 

 

 

How Different Bodies Respond to the Same Movement

Often, it won’t be blatantly obvious or visual that something is faulty with a certain movement or exercise. It might be something minor that could become an issue over time, or with volume and loading. It’s like running a marathon with a pebble in your shoe—you’re barely able to notice it in the beginning, but after a few miles, things can be catastrophic!

 

Generally speaking, isolation exercises have less demanding requirements to perform safely, in comparison to the complex nature of compound movements like the classic barbell lifts.2 This is part of the reason why it becomes much harder to identify problems in compound movements, as the body has an innate ability to compensate for a deficiency.3 Often, it’s only under maximal loading that a weakness becomes visually obvious. 

 

Applying a single exercise can have varying outcomes with different genders, posture profiles, limb length, and torso length.1, 4, 5 If you have two people perform a low bar back squat and one of the individuals has a significantly longer femur and shorter torso, this can create differences in squat mechanics and structural loading. The individual with the longer femur and shorter torso will most likely develop more torque at the hips by an increased moment arm (hip break), compared with the shorter femur, longer torso person. If the person with the longer femur and short torso has a program with substantial low bar squatting combined with intensity, there is a propensity for lower back issues to develop if they are not careful.

 

Anthropometric difference in squat form
Different body geometries can produce very different outcomes from the same exercise. Figure taken from Starting Strength,7 courtesy of Mark Rippetoe.

 

The low bar squat can have up to 11 times the torque (rotational force) at the hips compared with a high bar squat.6 If we factor in a long femur and short torso, there can be even greater force the at lower back and hips, thus creating back pain issues if not monitored. Possible changes in squat style to a high bar, safety bar, or front squat would reduce this issue. This doesn’t necessarily make the exercise bad, but it’s important to know, as we need to look at the whole picture when selecting exercises. It is crucial to factor in how outcomes can be affected by gender, anthropometrics, soft tissue restrictions, and structural anomalies.3, 7

 

Find Movements That Work for You

Without taking these factors into account, it can become a matter of trying to jam that square peg into a round hole. Not everyone is suited for every exercise that has been invented, much like food. What might be considered as a “healthy food” can literally kill someone if they have a strong enough allergy to it. “One man’s medicine is another man’s poison.” With this, it’s imperative that we understand that the cookie cutter approach will ultimately create less than optimal results. To quote the elite strength coach Brett Bartholomew, “Cookie cutter cultures and organizations never last or succeed long-term, because high quality individuals cannot be mass produced."

 

Utilizing what an individual brings to the table is a skill in itself, and must be promoted ahead of the one-size-fits-all approach. Unfortunately with most “online fitness gurus,” screening, relevant programing, and technique are not as important as how to market and sell the program effectively, with as much automation as possible. This leaves a large chunk of people up the creek with no paddle, when they inevitably run into soft tissue or structural limitations, technique flaws, and lack of individualization. 

 

Luckily , there is no shortage of coaches, clinicians, and resources that can assess and help you understand what movements or exercises are better suited for you, or how they may be adjusted or avoided for optimal results. It’s important to understand that getting hurt must not be an accepted part of training! From time to time, especially when you’re working with maximal loading, there will be niggles and potential set backs, but by no means should training be creating regular injuries. A coach once said to me, “there are no bad exercises, if you can qualify, justify, and execute with good reason.” 

 

farmers carries
Nobody says you have to back squat. Find the movement that produces the greatest benefit for your body.

 

Your Guide to Better Choices: Find a Coach

When it comes to selecting exercises and training protocols, don’t underestimate the benefit of human interaction and working with a coach to help make the right choices. Having that second set of eyes helps pick up areas that need attention, and to push you in the uncomfortable direction of improvement and growth.

 

People tend to stick to the things that they are good at without consciously knowing it, and put off the harder tasks. If we’re completely honest, we love doing things that we know we are good at, because we get compliments, a sense of achievement, purpose, and validation, not to mention a stroke of the ego. It’s part of human nature to move towards pleasure and try to avoid pain or perceived pain. This is often a problem when people are left to their own devices for picking the correct exercise to maximize improvement. 

 

When I’m working with people, it’s always apparent which exercises that they can perform with ease, and which they avoid like the plague because they are less proficient at them. The greatest level of growth and bang for buck comes from doing the exercises that you are not good at.

 

Take the guy at the gym that always skips leg day—he might be able to bench press like a power lifter, but he can’t seem to lift his own body weight on a barbell back squat. Wearing sweatpants to the gym and walking past people half his size as they warm up with weights that he couldn't lift for 1 rep can't be a great feeling. The most significant change and results for this guy won't come from him furthering his bench press; it would be from stepping out of his comfort zone and attacking his weakness, because therein lies the biggest capacity for improvement. This takes character to act without ego; to work on the weakest link with humility and conviction.

 

Please don’t be a sheep with your training. Regular, recurring injuries are not okay. Seek unbiased information, learn what works for you, and make sure you step outside your comfort zone on a regular basis. 

 

How are you going to get where you want to go?

 

References:
1. Caterisano, Anthony, Raymond E. Moss, Thomas K. Pellinger, Katherine Woodruff, Victor C. Lewis, Walter Booth, and Tarick Khadra. "The effect of back squat depth on the EMG activity of 4 superficial hip and thigh muscles." The Journal of Strength & Conditioning Research 16, no. 3 (2002): 428-432.
2. Baechle, Thomas R., and Roger W. Earle. Essentials of Strength Training and Conditioning. Champaign, IL: Human Kinetics, 2008.
4. Zeller, Brian L., Jean L. McCrory, W. Ben Kibler, and Timothy L. Uhl. "Differences in kinematics and electromyographic activity between men and women during the single-legged squat." The American Journal of Sports Medicine 31, no. 3 (2003): 449-456.
5. McKean, Mark, and Brendan J. Burkett. "Does segment length influence the hip, knee and ankle coordination during the squat movement." Journal of Fitness Research 1, no. 1 (2012): 23-30.
6. Fry, Andrew C., J. Chadwick Smith, and Brian K. Schilling. "Effect of knee position on hip and knee torques during the barbell squat." The Journal of Strength & Conditioning Research 17, no. 4 (2003): 629-633.
7. Rippetoe, Mark, and Lon Kilgore. Starting Strength. Wichita Falls, Tx (2005).

 

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