Sunday, January 8, 2017

5 Questions You Must Ask Yourself Before Every Exercise

People love to debate over whether this exercise or that exercise is “good” or “bad.” In reality, hypothetical debates like these are nonsensical.

That’s because the question “Is [fill in the blank] a good exercise?” is the wrong one. The correct question is this:

“Is [fill in the blank] a good exercise for me?” 

See the difference?

Despite the proselytisms of some internet fitness gurus, there are no absolutes when it comes to exercise selection. To determine whether an exercise is good for you, you have to ask yourself a few questions -- and answer them honestly.

Pre-Participation Self Questionnaire

1. Will the exercise in question help me work towards my goals today?

This assumes that you’ve already set realistic goals for yourself and your workouts. If you haven’t, start there. Then, once your goals are established, cross-check the exercise in question with those goals.

For example, suppose your goal is to lose fat, and the exercise in question is bicep curls. Because bicep curls isolate motion at one joint, they’re not very effective for fat loss. The better choice in this case would be lat pull-downs or rows, which work the biceps and back muscles simultaneously, thereby stimulating more fat loss. On the other hand, suppose your goal is to put on muscle. Then bicep curls would be effective for working towards your goal.

Clearly, context matters. Some additional factors to consider when answering this question are your age, how long you’ve been training, your injury history, and how well-rested and excited you are to train on the given day.

Note that an exercise could be good for you on one day but not the next. For instance, suppose you’ve reached the last day of a tough week of exercise. You’re not well-rested and your motivation is waning. On this day, heavy back squats would likely be counterproductive (and potentially dangerous) for you.

Always ask yourself why you want to do the exercise. If it will help you get to where you want to go, great! If it’s just because you saw someone else do it, thought it looked cool, and wanted to try it, think again.

2. Do I have the build, mobility, and coordination to get into the necessary positions and move through the required range of motion?

Before loading up a bar on your back or over your head, you should first check to see if your arms, legs, and trunk are able to do what you need them to do without weight. If you can’t do an exercise without any weight, you certainly have no business doing it with weight.

For example, for an overhead movement (e.g. overhead press, pull-up), you have to be able to lift your arms overhead. Moreover, you have to be able to do so without compensating by hyperextending your lower back.

To test yourself, simply lie down on your back, flatten your lower back on the floor (by engaging your abs), and raise your arms overhead. If you can’t get your arms to the floor or your back arches when you do, overhead movements are a no-go until you can.

Assuming you do pass the arm-to-floor test, it’s also a good idea to then perform a similar test while standing against a wall and applying the same criteria. In standing there are the added challenges of integrating your lower body and fighting gravity to lift your arms.

Similar drills can be applied to many other exercises:

And so on. The key is first to examine the parts. Do the joints actually move the way they're supposed to? Then examine the sum of the parts. Do the joints actually move the way they're supposed to when challenged slightly (i.e. by gravity)? If the answer to either of these questions is 'No,' it’s extremely unlikely the situation will improve with added load.

In many cases, mobility and coordination can be improved in order to progress to the desired exercise. Sometimes, though, your body just isn’t built for a given exercise. For example, if you’re eight feet tall (or about six-and-a-half), you’ll probably never be a great back squatter or conventional deadlifter, and that’s okay. There are always other options.

3. Do I know how to do the exercise in question safely and correctly, or do I need further instruction?

This may seem like a no-brainer, but with the abysmal form the average gym-goer exhibits, it obviously can’t be repeated often enough.

Ask yourself the following sub-questions:
  • Do I know how to set up and execute the exercise?
  • Do I know which muscles I should feel working?
  • Do I know what an appropriate amount of resistance is for me (neither too light nor too heavy)?
  • Do I know how to tell when to end the set?
  • Do I know what to do if I fail mid-rep?
  • Am I comfortable asking for a spotter, if need be?

As always, be honest with yourself. If any of the answers are 'No,' you’re better off seeking the help of a qualified friend/trainer or choosing a different exercise for which all of the answers are ‘Yes.’

4. Does the exercise in question cause pain when I do it?

Of course, this ties back to #1, #2, and #3. Do you have a nagging injury that’s causing you pain? Is the exercise causing pain because you’re attempting to move through a range of motion that you don’t actually have? Are you doing the exercise correctly?

There may be a subtle tweak you can make to the exercise to eliminate the pain. For example, some people have knee pain when they squat because they have trouble firing their hip muscles to keep their knees in-line with their toes. A quick fix is to place a resistance band around their knees, which brings awareness to the problem and forces them to push out against it.

Oftentimes something as simple as changing your stance or grip or lightening the load can eliminate pain. If you’re not able to tweak the exercise to make it pain-free, switch to a different exercise that doesn’t cause pain. The "no-pain-no-gain" mentality is so 2016.

5. Is there a different exercise that might be better for me?

This question underlies all of the above ones. You may have an exercise in mind that checks all of the previous boxes. It supports your goals, you know how to do it, you have the requisite mobility, and it doesn’t cause pain. Even so, there could still be another exercise that would be even better.

The best way to answer this question is to experiment with lots of different exercises. Make the gym your laboratory. Each time you do an exercise, document in your workout log how it felt in addition to how many sets and reps you did.

Here are a few things you might note:
  • Was it fast and easy to set up, or was it cumbersome and difficult to do in a crowded gym?
  • Was it comfortable, or did it not feel quite right?
  • Could you feel the target muscles working, or did you feel it more in other places?
  • Are you able to make steady progress from week to week, or have you plateaued?

If the answers to these questions are unfavorable, try a related exercise (e.g. back squat vs. front squat or conventional deadlift vs. sumo deadlift) and see if it’s better for you.

Clearly, only through trial and error (and asking yourself a crap ton of questions) can you know whether an exercise is good for you. Because these answers will be different for everyone, there’s no such thing as a “good” or “bad” exercise -- only good and bad exercises for every unique individual.

Lifters are like snowflakes: each one is unique.

Share This