This post is about exercise dogma, namely the notion that certain exercises are absolutely required to make progress.
For example, some people seem to think everyone should back squat all the time -- that if you don’t back squat, the fitness gods will smite you with a protein shake flavored lightning bolt, zapping you of your gains.
Are back squats potentially the best exercise of all time?
Yes. Yes, they are.
Are they a good fit for every person at every point in their fitness journey?
No. No, they are not.
Not everyone can or should squat with a bar on their back. There’s a lot that can go wrong in back squat -- it’s simply not the best option for many, especially if you sit at a desk all day.
An exercise is a means to an end, not the end in and of itself.
Back squats are an amazing tool towards achieving your goals whether it’s to lose fat or climb a set of stairs without hating life. So if you’re fortunate enough to possess the mobility, stability, and coordination to do them properly by all means back squat your face off.
If, for whatever reason, you can’t back squat without collapsing into a ball of fail, pick a squat variation better suited to your current capabilities. I’ll go into more detail about how to find those “well-suited” exercises later in the post.
In summary, back squats are awesome. Just not for everyone all the time.
This is all to say, you don’t need any single specific exercise to get results. You’re not going to be in gym purgatory if you swap out Back Squats for Zercher Squats.
There’s always a substitution or modification for an exercise.
The trick is choosing a subsitution/modification that fits the individual.
If you're telling me the 25 year old who's been working out since they were 16 is going to do the same exercises as the 40 year old desk worker with an arthritic left foot and a history of chronic lower back pain, you are mistaken.
Once you understand movement patterns, swapping exercises becomes simple -- just swap it with an exercise that has the same movement pattern. Swap a Squat for a different Squat or a Pull for a different Pull.
There’s more than one way to achieve the same goal. Besides, everyone’s body is different. People have varying injury histories, mobility, and bone structures.***
All of these factors influence not just the exercises you choose, but how you perform them.
I could have two different clients doing goblet squats properly. Yet they could look quite different.
I’ve had clients who could squat ass to ankles keeping their heels on the ground with their back completely flat. I’ve also had clients who did quarter squats to a box until we increased mobility, and core strength enough to get them squatting lower without pain or abberations in technique.
Which one’s better? Neither! Both!
Both are tailored toward the individual’s needs and goals.
The body is complex. Certain movements might inherently irritate your joints no matter how “perfect” your form is.
Or, you might simply not be ready for that exercise yet. The bar will still be there tomorrow -- no need to rush these things.
This is why we don’t force movements -- why I don’t hold my clients movement to any arbitrary standards, and their exercise programs are written based on what will be most effective for them specifically. We just focus on getting better, regardless of their starting point.
This is also why seeing partner assisted stretching makes my eyes bleed. Especially when the client sounds like they’re passing a kidney stone the size of Nebraska.
Not my idea of relaxing, But hey, different strokes. I digress.
Basically, everyone ought to squat in some capacity, but not everyone ought to do the same type of squat.
What the devil is a fundamental movement pattern?
Fundamental movement patterns is a key concept if you want to get the most bang for your buck in the gym.
Squats are just 1 of the 5 fundamental movement patterns
The full list of fundamental movements is:
Now, this definition will vary ever so slightly depending on who you talk to. I prefer to use Dan John’s definition because it’s simple and has worked wonderfully as a compass when writing my online clients’ workout programs. Plus, the guy tends to be right about everything.
What’s the difference between a movement and an exercise anyway?
Exercises are categorized by the movement pattern they fit under.
For example, a Bench Press is a push movement because it involves you pushing things. For more detail on movement patterns check out this post.
Most everyone ought to be doing at least 1 exercise from each category throughout your training week to maximize your time in the gym.
Not to say there aren’t good programs that don’t include each movement. For example, there are many stellar programs that don’t include carries. That said, at some point though you’ll want to add weighted carries to your workouts to balance things out.
The trick to a long, successful, injury free training career is finding exercise variations:
- You can perform well.
- Your body responds well to.
- Allow you to make it more challenging over time.
This is a better road to progress than sticking with a variation that, no matter how much stretching you do, you still aren’t flexible enough to perform the exercise properly. Or no matter how good your form looks or how light you go, still causes joint pain or irritation.
When you only have a hammer everything looks like a nail.
Listen to your body, adjust, and take note of what works and what doesn’t. That way you know what lifts you can push really hard and what lifts to avoid.
If everytime you perform an exercise, your joints hate you regardless of how much weight you use, reps, technique etc., don’t force it. Find an exercise that works better.
This is where the concept of “go-to” exercises come in.
To be successful in the gym, know which exercises your body responds well to and which ones it doesn’t. Build a list of go-to exercises. The exercises your can push themselves on and reliably give you the best results.
This happens when you've experimented enough to know which exercises will move you to your goal and which one’s will hurt you.
I pretty much never conventional deadlift, not anywhere close to maximum effort at least. I’m still playing around with it, but so far I’ve yet to find a way to do conventional deadlifts without making my hip cranky.
Option A: I could be like , “well I heard you’re an (expletive) if you don’t deadlift”. So keep doing heavy conventional deadlifts, ignoring the signs my body is telling me, and eventually turning a totally avoidable nuisance into an actual injury.
Option B: Instead of actually training and making progress, I could do a bajillion mobility/rehab type exercises in the hopes they’ll do something productive and fix my deadlift.
Option C: Or I could simply switch to a variation that doesn’t piss my joints off. A variation where I can go heavy, get stronger, and make my joints more, rather than less, resilient.
Option C, as always, is clearly the better option.
So rather than conventional deadlifts, I alternate between sumo, modified sumo, and jefferson deadlifts. Since taking this approach I haven’t had any significant problems with my hips, other than the ever present shame of knowing they're not nearly as honest as Shakira's.
These are my go-to deadlift variations. I’ve played around enough with technique and different variations (still do) to know these allow me to train them the hardest with the least wear and tear on the joints.
This gives enough variety to switch it up every few months to not stall progress, but not so much variation that I never get stronger.
The point is to work with your body. Don’t dogmatically marry yourself to any specific exercise variations.
Find the variations your body responds best to and hammer away at those.
As long as it’s in the same movement category, getting strong in one variation will carry over to getting stronger in another. So even though I rarely deadlift conventional, when I do, my conventional is stronger than it was, despite mainly training sumo.
Unless you compete in a sport that tests you on a specific exercise (weightlifting, powerlifting), you’re free to use whatever variations get you the best results.
So again, you should hit all of the fundamental movements in your training, but specific exercise variations are always optional.
What are the best exercises for you? How do you find your go to exercises AKA the best exercises for YOU, not ME.
The short answer is to experiment and pay attention to how your body feels during and after performing an exercise. You’re looking for exercises that stress the muscles maximally and the joints minimally.
Here’s a few key questions to help you out:
Can you perform the exercise properly? Does your current level of flexibility allow you to use a full range of motion, or close to it?
For example, if I have a client who can’t squat past a quarter squat, but can do a full range of motion lunge, we’re going to do lots of lunges, mobility, and stability until they can do a full (or close to it) squat. While the quarter squat would still garner a training effect, a full range lunge is a better choice here.
Constantly work on improving your technique.
While there’s no such thing as perfect technique, the best lifters in the world are constantly working on improving their technique. You should too.
Sometimes, an exercise may not work for you because of your technique. After determining if you have the requisite flexibility for an exercise, look at how you perform the exercise.
If your technique is solid, the weight feels light, but your joints ache during and/or after. Then best move on to another exercise.
That’s basically it. Leave your ego at the door. Be present during your training sessions and pay attention to what let’s you keep getting stronger, and what doesn’t.
Take notes in your training journal and adjust your exercise selection accordingly (e.g. swap out a squat with a different squat). Eventually you’ll instinctively know your go-to exercises, but for now, it’s helpful to write this stuff down.
Keep experimenting and if something doesn’t feel right, don’t be afraid of swapping it out.
Train hard. Lifting weights is supposed to stress the body. But don’t keep doing something if it’s causing more harm than results.
***Side note: If you have a bony block on your hip that prevents you from reaching certain ranges of motion, you can do all the freaking stretching/mobility/yoga/cat juggling in the world and that won’t make your hip more flexible, at least not without pain.