Generally speaking, there aren’t very many bad exercises. However, there are a few moves we avoid at all costs. To be clear, this doesn’t mean the exercise that causes these moves are bad - it means the individual isn’t ready for the exercise, or the exercise is being performed badly.
Big Thing to Avoid #1 - Spinal Flexion
We joke sometimes that the only rule in our space is “Back Flat.” Being able to maintain a flat back (a neutral spine) is crucial to maintaining long term back health, and is also an indicator of hip function. For those who perform a deadlift or squat and end up curving their back at the deeper points of the exercise, we know that they are at a very increased risk of injury, potentially major injury, to their spine. That curvature also means they are substituting spinal movement in place of hip function, or in other words, because they can’t get their hips to tilt or hinge anymore, they curve their back. So, not only are they at an increased risk of injury, but they also aren’t getting the desired benefit from the exercise. The deadlift, for example, is a hip dominant exercise, meaning that it strengthens the glutes through extension. But, for someone who goes into spinal flexion, they aren’t really strengthening their glutes anymore (or at least not as much), they are using their lower back instead. Increased injury risk and decreased benefits lead to the obvious conclusion: avoid spinal flexion at all costs.
The reasons for spinal flexion can include:
1 - Simply not knowing the exercise properly yet, in which case we need to regress and teach the exercise before loading
2 - Lack of pelvic control, meaning we need use simpler exercise substitutes while we develop pelvic control
3 - A lack of strength, where an athlete is capable of doing the movement properly, but is just loading too heavy. As coaches, it’s important to make sure we train the athlete’s performance, not his or her ego
Big Thing to Avoid #2 - Anterior Glide
Anterior glide is when the head of the humerus pushes forwards to the front of the shoulder joint. The shoulder is a highly complex joint with a variety of functions and a huge range of motion. However, there are positions it can get into that don’t really serve to keep the shoulder healthy. If you imagine an athlete trying to lift their elbow up behind them and the upper portion of the arm tilts forwards, pushing the shoulder forward, you might be imagining anterior glide. This is dangerous, particularly for overhead and throwing athletes, as it puts a lot of pressure on the labrum and the musculature of the shoulder joint has very little leverage to help. A common exercise where we’d see anterior glide is the “dip,” one of the few exercises I find to be bad for everyone. Another example of anterior glide is when the barbell bench press is performed poorly, and the shoulders round forward. Causes of anterior glide are generally neuromuscular patterning, meaning it’s not as deep of an underlying issue for most athletes like spinal flexion is, it’s more about teaching, in which case we’ll eliminate most or all of the load, fix the motion, and then go back to the loaded exercise. We do, however, avoid barbell bench presses for overhead or throwing athletes, and athletes who have a history of shoulder injuries, and instead substitute dumbbell bench press. The ability to rotate our hands when using dumbbells means that the dumbbell bench press has a far lower risk of anterior glide than the barbell variation.
Big Thing to Avoid #3 - Valgus Shift
A valgus shift refers to when the knee sits inside of hip and ankle, commonly referred to as “knock-kneed.” This movement is more common in females than males due to anatomical differences, but equally dangerous for both. Generally, a valgus shift occurs through the early stages of knee and hip flexion when the athlete lacks either ankle mobility or strength in the external rotators of the glutes. The valgus shift, repeated over and over, can lead to lots of knee pain and injuries, including tendinitis and eventually, in extreme causes, ligament injuries.
The root cause of the valgus shift lies at the hip or ankle, which means when an athlete begins to feel the effects of the mistake, it is generally treated incorrectly. Let’s say an athlete has weak glutes, which means the femur rotates internally early during the squat, and creates a valgus shift. If that athlete begins to have knee pain, they go to the doctor and get prescribed physical therapy for their knee pain. The therapist then treats the knee pain, and when the knee feels better, they return to normal activity. But, the issue of the weak glutes remains, and the valgus shift continues, and the knee pain returns. This is a common refrain in sports.
To address the valgus shift, we need to do two things
Most non-contact injuries are preventable. They are really just the accumulation of movements done incorrectly until the tissue or joint eventually breaks down during a motion it should be able to complete. We see the player make a sudden cut on the field and the knee gives out - this isn’t a “freak” thing or an example of the cleat getting stuck in the turf. This happens when maybe a valgus shift has gone uncorrected for years, until it causes catastrophic injury. This happens with spinal flexion and anterior glide as well - years of built of dysfunctional movement, unaddressed by coaches, leads to serious injury. We prioritize correcting movement to prevent these injuries well before they occur.