Bulletproof Your Body

Gareth Sapstead

Melbourne, Australia

Personal Trainer, Men's Fitness


By selecting the best exercises to build maximal strength and size, while limiting unnecessary stress and risk of injury, you can build a bulletproof body that will perform as well as it looks. Unlike ‘pre-hab’ exercises which are often used as assistance exercises to help prevent injuries, a ‘joint-friendly’ approach deals with how to better select your heavy lifts. In this article, you will learn why selecting the right exercises is the key to you training longer and harder.


This approach is contrary to training with the purpose of beating up your body with the hope to look good in the short-term, but little thought over your long-term goals. We could say that joint-friendly training is simply to train smart and plan for the future.



Common Misconceptions

In many fitness circles the idea of training for longevity and functional movement looks something like a circus act or a gymnastic routine. Unfortunately, this has developed more through popularity as a fitness craze, rather than an evidence-based approach to training.


In reality, joint-friendly training is not taking every exercise to a Swiss ball, or swinging around on a functional training rig, nor is it sacrificing heavy barbell presses for push ups. Joint-friendly training is about selecting the most appropriate exercises to achieve your goals while paying attention to injury risk and wear and tear on your body. It is identifying the risk versus reward of the exercises that make up the backbone of your training program.


How useful an exercise is should be determined by its raw effectiveness in helping you hit your end goal while taking into account the biomechanics of what is happening at the joint. It has nothing to do with the tools you are using and should have no bias towards a specific style of training.


The rules are simple; choose the right tools that will help you achieve your desired goals (strength, muscle size, performance, fat loss), and select the exercises where the risk versus reward makes sense.


The Beat Up Bodybuilder

If your training is very short-sighted, you will be sacrificing long-term gain. That is an inevitable fact in most walks of life, not just when it comes to training. This is your story over the next 5-10 years, so be sure to choose the smart path.


Looking back as a beginner you may have gotten some results, so there was no need to question the methods used and you continued to train in the same way. Because you were so indoctrinated in this training style, you believed it was the best (and only) way to train.


Your icons trained in this way, which supposedly validated its effectiveness. Your training style became your religion, and you became a devout follower. No matter what anyone else says, or what science tells you, your approach is the best.


Eventually your body got beat up, and through a series of injuries (and pain) you change your training. You stick to what you know, and you continue to select the same old-school routines, but you go lighter for higher reps. You then experience less pain because you are using less weight and you now have a greater focus on technique. You may also start spending half of your workout warming up and doing specific mobility exercises.


Often the right balance is never found until it is too late. By looking at things from an evidence-based approach you can see how to achieve your physique and strength goals faster while being able to train harder and longer.


They Key to Becoming Bulletproof

The real key to becoming bulletproof is exercise selection. With a few minor tweaks to your current training style you can get bigger and stronger, for longer.


First off you should start thinking about the strength of your smaller less superficial muscles. You can't be all ‘show’ without the ‘go’! Injury specialist Chris Stankiewicz weighs in:


“There is a huge range of motion available at our joints. Training in linear patterns constrains the full movement of the joint and has the potential to over-train your larger muscle groups. Training in a more functional way will not only recruit the smaller stabilizing muscles around the joint to injury proof your body but will also increase your strength and performance with more traditional gym exercises, too!”


Secondly, we should learn how to make smart exercise decisions when we are trying to hit larger muscle groups and produce as much force or muscle activation as possible.


Barbell lifts for example are excellent tools that can be used for a variety of goals. However, because of the fixed stiffness of the bar the joints are often not as free to move as they should be. The same could be said for doing chin ups on a fixed bar. They can be a good exercise but there is limited freedom of movement around multiple joints, resulting in sheer forces in the elbows that cause wear and tear over time.


This is not to say you should cut barbell movements or chin ups from your program, on the contrary they can be excellent movements. But there needs to be the right balance in your program of risk versus reward. The reward is based on your goals, and the risk is based on the potential long-term impact that exercise has on your body.


As an example, a barbell bench press has massive reward to a powerlifter or someone training for the NFL scouting combine. It is also a good overall builder of upper body strength and size. But for the latter there are equally as good choices to build up your upper body while being a little more shoulder-friendly.


Overuse of fixed-plane machines can be another problem. This is because they fix the direction your body is moving in. Machines serve a purpose for building muscle but fall short in many other categories. They undertrain the stabilizer muscles, while potentially exposing certain joints to unnatural positions.



Getting the right balance of exercises is the key to any good program in the long run, and there are a few simple changes you can make to your routine to feel an immediate difference.


Put It to Practice

Always consider the cost-benefit ratio to you of any given exercise. Ego aside, if you cannot justify the risk versus reward of an exercise you are using right now, then why are you using it?


Get out of fixed plane and sagittal plane movements. Include more exercises in the frontal and transverse planes where you are most likely much weaker. For example, more lateral and rotational movements.


Include more unilateral movements. That is not to say you should be balancing on one leg all the time, but a few times a week throwing in some single-arm or single-leg work will allow greater focus on strength imbalances and working some smaller stabilizer muscles in the hips and shoulders.


Do not neglect the muscles you can not see. Those little muscles provide stability around your valuable joints, and a support system for your bigger muscles to do their thing. Focus on your pulling muscles a little more to ensure good balance of strength in your shoulders, as well as posture.


No amount of stretching or pre-hab will undo the damage of a poorly designed workout. Choose better exercises to start off with, then use pre-hab and targeted mobility work to further bulletproof your body.


The best time to start training smarter is today, the second-best time is tomorrow!


Traditional Exercise Effective Swaps Rationale
Barbell Bench Press

Reverse Grip Bench Press


Presses with a Neutral Grip/Football Bar



Floor Press


Bench Press with Reverse Bands

Co-activation of the biceps long head improves shoulder stability.


A neutral grip limits flare of the elbows and shoulders.


Most experience pain when pressing in the bottom position.

Barbell Back Squat

Safety Bar Squat


Cambered Bar Squat


Box Squat with or without pause

A traditional bar does not suit those who lack enough shoulder external rotation.



A box cues you to sit back more and allows better adjustment of knees and hips in the bottom position.

Leg Extensions

Split Squats


Reverse Lunges


Lateral Split Squats

Works more stabilizer muscles, and better transfer to real-world movement.


Going lateral gets you out of the sagittal plane.

Hamstring Curls

Nordic Hamstring Eccentrics


Ball or TRX Hamstring Curls


Cable or Banded Hamstring Curl variations

The hamstrings benefit massively from eccentric overload.


Fixed plane machines do not allow natural movement of the joints.


Try to integrate the glutes in to hamstring movements when you can.

Conventional Deadlift

Trap Bar Deadlift


Single-Leg Deadlifts

A trap bar applies less load to the back, while arguably better transferring to sport performance.


Single-leg training activates stabilizer muscles, as well as allowing you to identify and target asymmetries.

Military Press

Overhead Kettlebell and Dumbbell Presses

The shoulder and scapula would benefit from more freely moveable loads.


Less sheer force through the elbows.


Better activation of the shoulder stabilisers in all directions.

Fixed Plane Machines such as Plate-Loaded Chest and Shoulder-Press


Cables are ‘free’ allowing more natural movement while being able to mimic the actions of fixed plane machines.

Chin Ups/Pull Ups

Use Rotating Grips/Handles, a Towel (grip strength), or Rings

A freely moveable grip will allow more natural movement of the shoulder.

Lat Pull-Downs

Dual Cable Lat Pull-Downs

A freely moveable grip will allow more natural movement of the shoulder.

Bent-Over Barbell Rows

TRX Inverted Rows


1-Arm Row Variations

Master the ability to pull your own body weight.


A freely moveable grip will allow more natural movement of the shoulder.


1-arm row variations can simultaneously train the core to resist rotation.

Crunches and Sit Ups

Roll-Outs and Body Saw movements



Pikes and Knee Raises and Leg Raises


Leg Lowers

Scientifically proven grater levels of muscle activation achieved in Pikes and Roll-Outs (Escamilla et al. 2010)


Teaches the core to resist extension and absorb force.


Movements that involve a posterior pelvic tilt (PPT) efficiently train the lower fibers of the rectus abdominis.

Isolated Biceps and Triceps movements with a Barbell

Switch for Dumbbells or Cables

A freely moveable grip will allow more natural movement of the shoulder.

Side Crunches and Side Bends

Uneven Load Farmers Carries


Cable Rotations and Chops


Rotational Landmine Movements

More ‘functional’ core movements hit a lot more muscle in less time.


They teach the ability to resist lateral flexion and resist rotation.


When rotation is performed it should ideally integrate the hips for more functional energy/force transfer through the kinetic chain.

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