While some who know me may disagree, I really like to keep training as simple as possible. You squat, deadlift, push and pull with accessory work thrown in for balance and injury prevention. And for healthy and well balanced clients that's really all you have to do. Unfortunately not everyone falls into that category. A lot of people come with exercise related baggage. Tight here, weak there etc. For these reasons we sometimes have to change course and deviate from the traditional lifts to get progress. People don't usually like to hear that because the big lifts (squat, bench, deadlift, overhead press) are usually also peoples favorite lift to do.
People don't like to be told that they can't do their favorite thing. I have had clients debate me and argue that they have always done exercise x,y or z so they shouldn't have to stop now. Or they will tell me that previous trainers never said anything so why am I stopping them. The answer is twofold.
1. I am better than your old trainer
2. I am going to make you stronger/faster/fitter than you've ever been
For some people that isn't a sufficient explanation and they may require a more in depth breakdown. The logic behind excluding a particular lift, at least temporarily, is fairly simple. A good coach puts his or her athletes in position to succeed. That means finding the exercises that allow them to challenge the appropriate systems without risk of injury. Taking two steps backwards often allows you to find the right path to get 10 steps forwards. Staying on the current path may lead to a dead end in the long run.
Next we can start to work on recovering the ability to move freely in all patterns. There are many reasons a client might not be able to do a particular lift. Poor trunk control, lack of mobility, left-right imbalance etc. Dealing with these problem movements is one of the things that I have always found separates the average trainers from the great ones. An average trainer probably recognizes which movements give the most bang for your buck and might even be very good at coaching the technique and progressing them in terms of volume and intensity. But a great coach is able to identify when a client cannot safely do an exercise and is able to still make improvements while working to fix whatever is holding them back from the movement in question.
Let's look at some common examples
Joint by joint theory dictates that movement should come at the hips and not the lumbar spine. However when the hips lack proper mobility the body searches for mobility elsewhere, often immediately upstream or downstream of the immobile area. This can lead to movement occurring at the lower back and a squat that looks like this.
Maybe this looks more familiar
You can also try having the client lay on the ground and pull the knees up to the chest. If they get all the way up without the lower back rounding that is another demonstration of sufficient mobility. In this second example the ground provides the stability so the client doesn't have to. If the previous two drills don't fix the pattern then you are likely dealing with an issue of tight hips.
Remedies: If someone cannot safely get a into the squat position the last thing we want to do is force them further into it. Take a month off from squatting and work on the limiting factor to the squat. Emphasize hip mobility in warmups, foam roll problem areas. Strengthen the anterior core. You can build tremendous strength in the lower body without squatting. Try exercises like step ups, lunge variations, deadlifts (if hip mobility allows) and hip thrusts. Eventually you can progress to heavy kettlebell squats, then front squats, then back squats can come back in to the program if deisred.
Pressing a barbell overhead builds tremendous strength and requires good upper body mobility, particularly from the internal rotators and thoracic spine. It also requires strong control over the lumbopelvic region to avoid catastrophes like this
Our screen for safe overhead pressing is fairly straight forward. Stand up tall and raise your arms straight over your head
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If you look like the image on the left you have work to do. If you look more like the right side image you are free to press.
In the event that you cannot get the proper position and overhead pressing is temporarily off limits there are still a lot of good upper body exercises you can do. There is almost no such thing as too much horizontal pulling. There are tons of varieties. Cable rows, DB rows, face pulls, barbell rows, half kneeling rows, TRX rows..
Pendlay rows, Supine grip rows, wide grip seated rows...
Upper body pressing strength can be maintained as well with half kneeling press variations like landmine presses or upside down kettlebell presses. Bench pressing may be safe as well although it likely won't fix any of the problems.
Someone that can't squat or overhead press safely can still get an effective full body workout by using single leg training, upper body pushing from the half kneeling position and a lot of anterior core and mobility work.
Taking a staple lift out of the arsenal for a few weeks is not the end of the world. In fact it may allow you to make greater progress than you ever thought possible.