Sunday, February 16, 2014

Exercises I Never Do (Upper Body)

This evening as my girlfriend was studying for her medical school tests she had a question I might know the answer to. The question was about scapular winging and it's causes. All she needed was a simple "weak scapular stabilizing muscles" but instead I started rambling about the scapula and how best to train it. My ramble continued and eventually became me complaining about the ridiculous exercises I see in the gym and fitness magazines. Turns out I had a lot to say so I made a post out of it.

I am of the belief that there are very few bad exercises. An exercise is only good or bad based on it's place within an overall program and whether or not it helps a person achieve his or her goals. With that said there are a handful of exercises that I will almost never program for my clients or myself, regardless of the goals involved. There is an exception to every rule but these exercises will be unsafe for most of the people that step foot in the gym.


Dips are a fantastic way to build strength in the triceps, anterior delts, and pecs. However, they require a high degree of shoulder extension range of motion in order to attain a safe shoulder position.

When an athlete does not have sufficient extension and internal rotation ROM something else has to give to get into position. That something else includes:
- forward tilt of the scapula, which can compress the supraspinatus muscle and cause irritation
- upper back flexion
- forward head position, which is associated with neck pain

Between this exercise and the next one on our list a brief look at the relevant anatomy is in order. I mentioned the potential for impingement earlier but this image should show very clearly how the injury occurs. As the humerus drifts back as in a dip, the acromion moves forward and down and pinches the supraspinatus in the subacromial space.

Everything I just said counts double for bench Dips. This is an exercise that I would NEVER do. Just look at this shoulder:

Everything about this is bad
The hand position further internally rotates the shoulder and takes away grip strength. Further internal rotation increases the risk of injury to the shoulder. Decreased grip strength takes away from the ability of the rotator cuff to stabilize the humerus

Smarter choices: Close grip pushups, pushups against bands, neutral grip bench pressing

Upright Row

In the upright row the shoulder is near maximally internally rotated and then elevated into the zone of impingement. That happens on every single rep, even with proper technique.

I prefer when my exercises dont resemble provocative pain tests

The image above compares the top position of an upright row to the Hawkins Kennedy impingement test, a common screen for shoulder impingement. It is a combination of elevation and internal rotation of the humerus. This makes sense in a screen for pain, when the goal is to check for a painful response. If the goal is to build muscle or strength I would recommend a movement that doesn't have such a high risk.

I am opposed to this movement but not opposed to Olympic lifting. While the position is similar in the high pull of a clean there is a very significant difference. In a properly executed clean the load is accelerated by the hips and the bar is weightless when the arm passes through the top position. The elbows rotate around the bar and receive the load in the front rack, a very stable position.

Smarter choices: Lateral raises, Olympic lifts, Row variations

Kipping Pullups

If you compete in Gymnastics this next section is not for you. The kip is a valuable gymnastics skill. The kip motion is a full body movement designed to generate force to get an athlete up to the bar and into an ideal position for executing more complex gymnastics maneuvers. This is similar to how a football player has to be able to tackle and/or absorb tackles. It is a part of their sport. It is a skill. However if you do not participate in a given sport it is stupid to spend your training time working on the skills of that sport.

If you are a Crossfit games competitor (note the use of the word competitor, not gym member) you also have reason to practice kipping pullups, albeit for slightly different reasons. The kip is a manner of cheating the pullup exercise to allow you to do more reps. It can be athletic and it can be a fluid coordinated effort. If you are strong enough it can even be reasonably safe. However, it is still cheating. You are using your hips to complete more repetitions of an upper body exercise. In competition this is considered legal and I am all for doing whatever possible to win in your chosen sport so kip away. 

For anyone else, you have no reason to kip. Yes you will be able to do more but so what. I can bench press more weight if I bounce it off of my chest and throw my hips in the air while I do it. But then it isn't really a bench press any more. It isn't training anything other than my ability to perform a skill.

That addresses the function and utility aspect of the exercise but lets also take a look at the injury potential involved here because holy crap it's ugly. High risk of repetitive lumbar hyperextension combined with high velocity shoulder distraction usually performed for high volume (because you can totally do more this way, bro!!). Additionally the odds are that if you can't execute proper pullups you probably don't have the scapular stability to maintain external rotation and scapular depression at the top of the pull and are violently pulling into internal rotation and scapular elevation with every rep. Fantastic.

Smarter choices: Real pullups and chinups, Row variations, lat pulldown machine (i'm not a big machine lover but for every job there is a specific tool and sometimes the lat pulldown is just what's needed)

I'll be back next week with lower body exercises to avoid.

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