Bad Exercises: Fact or Fiction?

May 8, 2016
By Michael Lau of ThePrehabGuys
The following article was originally published at Human Performance Therapy. What do you think? Is there anything such as bad exercise? Let us know your thoughts by answering the polls throughout the article and comment below. There is a huge misconception in the fitness and rehab worlds. Far too often, we label exercises as good or bad for all athletes. Many preach that squats are a must in every athlete’s fitness program and exercises such as behind the neck press’ should never be performed…when in fact, many of these movements can be great for athletic performance. These beliefs are from years of dogma surrounding certain movements. But in reality, any exercise can be bad if an athlete lacks the requite mobility & motor control. On the flip side, so called “great exercises” like the back squat can be poor training choices if it doesn’t contribute to an athlete’s goals.


On the flip side, no exercise can be labeled the perfect exercise either. We’d like to make the case that there is no PERFECT movement, but rather IDEAL movement. Ideal movement is in large part determined by what the specific functional goal of the exercise/athlete is. For the CrossFit athlete or Olympic weightlifter that needs to perform a lot of overhead lifting, it would be advantageous to optimize the overhead movement pattern. This means improving this athlete’s shoulder range of motion, strengthening the shoulder stabilizers like the rotator cuff and scapular stabilizing muscles, improving neuromuscular control in an overhead position, and working on stability of the core and hips as proximal stability promotes distal stability. For this athlete, overhead exercises and movement patterns are ideal. But for the soccer player, who just about never needs to be in an overhead position, especially under load, is it necessary to train overhead movements? Will optimizing the overhead movement pattern by improving strength, motor control, and range of motion lead to increased performance on the soccer field? I think not, and it’s safe to say that there are a plethora of other sport-specific exercises this athlete can directly benefit from. This is why specificity of training and keeping in mind the goal of every exercise in your routine is so vitally important. For this athlete, the risks of overhead shoulder exercises might outweigh the benefits; thus, overhead exercises and movement patterns are not the most ideal. Ultimately, what makes an exercise or movement ideal or not boils down to is this: do you perform this particular exercise or movement pattern for function in your sport, occupation, or everyday life? If you answered no, then your fitness program needs re-evaluation and better use of tools that will specifically address your performance needs.

Anatomy Dictates Movement

As we mentioned earlier, our anatomy does in fact play a large role in determining what makes one exercise safer than another. Certain movements or positions can in fact place more stress and strain on our bodies. In these particular positions, bones might rub against tendons, and if done repetitively under load, it could possibly lead to tendonitis. Or the articular cartilage, which lines many of our joints, might be subject to higher shearing or compressive forces, which overtime can possibly lead to osteoarthritis. However, it is important to note that not everyone has the exact same anatomy. Yes, the majority of us all have a skull and a spine. But my femur might be longer than yours (even if we are the same body height). Or your subacromial space (which is an important area in regards to shoulder impingement) might be wider than mine. These anatomical differences can manifest as altered biomechanics from person to person, which can affect things such as range of motion, strength, & ultimately risk for injury. Furthermore, those individual who have spent more time practicing a particular movement or exercise will exhibit better motor control of the movement, regardless of brute strength or power. Ensuring you have the physiological constructs like range of motion, strength, and motor control necessary to perform the movement is equally as important as the goal of the exercise in determining if a movement is ideal or not for you.

5 Often Criticized Exercises that CAN be Performed Safely

Certain exercises and movements definitely can place more stress on our anatomy, but if the athlete needs those particular movements for performance or function, then we must train in the most optimal movement pattern we can. In the following five exercises, we’ll explain why the particular movement might be doing more harm than good. Furthermore, we’ll document the physiological constructs necessary to ideally perform each of the exercises if you need the movement for performance or function. Again, we must reiterate that our bodies are meant to move and training smart will promote the longevity of your movement system! Thus, if you need these particular movement patterns for performance or function AND you have the physiological constructs necessary to perform the movement, then by all means perform these exercises!!

Behind The Neck Shoulder Press/Lat Pull Downs

Behind The Neck Press Behind the neck exercises have been given a bad reputation due to the high mobility and stability requirements necessary to properly perform the movement. To properly perform these exercises, the athlete needs: • Adequate shoulder external rotation ROM • Good thoracic spine extension mobility • Strong and competent rotator cuff muscles to stabilize the shoulder joint in this end range motion If the athlete is lacking these physiological constructs, they will most likely compensate by bringing the neck forward in order to allow the barbell to pass behind the neck. This excessive neck flexion places increased compression forces on the discs in the neck, which is something that should be avoided at all costs. If this is the case, keeping the bar in front of the head is an alternative variation. However, if the athlete does in fact have good shoulder ROM and strength, as well as thoracic mobility, then there is absolutely nothing wrong with these exercises if the athlete needs these movements for performance or function. In the example of an Olympic lifter, the strength and stability gained when performing a behind the neck press will translate into improved performance and safety during the snatch. Furthermore, this end range shoulder position mimics the shoulder position necessary to properly perform a Crossfit handstand push-up. As far as the behind the neck lat pull down, studies have shown that there is higher posterior deltoid and biceps brachial activation with this variation, and that latissimus dorsi activation is either the similar or slightly less than the in-front of head variation. If you do not have the requisite mobility and stability requirements, a pull/push from in front of the head is an alternative movement.

Sumo Deadlift High Pulls/Upright Rows

Sumo Deadlift These exercises are often controversial as the internally rotated and high elbow position at the top of the movement is believed to be a shoulder impinging position that can possibly damage soft tissue structures. As the shoulder is internally rotated and flexed, the tendon of the supraspinatus (a rotator cuff muscles) can rub against a bone in the shoulder, leading to inflammation and pain. However, these exercises can be performed properly if the athlete has: • Adequate shoulder internal rotation ROM • Good thoracic spine extension mobility • No recent history of shoulder impingement or shoulder pain As long as the athlete has the above physiological constructs and needs these motions for performance or function, then there is nothing wrong with executing these exercises. Sumo deadlift high pulls can be a great way to teach explosive hip extension. Furthermore, they are a great way to work specifically on the “pull” portion of a clean or snatch. However, if the athlete does not have the requisite mobility, some alternative variations could be performing forward or lateral shoulder raises to target the front delt, scapular upward rotators, and mid delt. Furthermore, utilizing a wider grip on the barbell decreases the amount of shoulder internal rotation and risk for shoulder impingement.


Dips Dips are an extremely functional movement that is a true test of pound-for-pound strength. However, there are concerns that the shoulder extension and internal rotation of the shoulder joint can push the head of the humerus forward, possibly leading to anterior instability or even subluxation. While these claims are definitely valid, the role of the rotator cuff is to stabilize the head of the humerus within the glenoid fossa of the scapula, preventing this anterior translation – even at extreme range of motion. Thus, in order to properly perform this exercise, the athlete needs: • Adequate shoulder extension and internal rotation ROM • Strong scapular stabilizers and rotator cuff muscles • No history of anterior shoulder instability or “shoulder dislocations” It is absolutely vital the athlete has the above-mentioned physiological constructs in order to safely perform a dip. Dips, when performed correctly, can be one of the most potent movements for developing the chest and triceps as well as bolstering your bench press PR. Additionally, training of the dip movement is a vital progressive step in learning a muscle up or even a ring muscle up. However, if the athlete does not have the requisite range of motion or stability requirements, the tricep rope push down is a great alternative to developing tricep strength. Specificity of Training and Anatomy Should Ultimately Guide Your Exercise Prescription If you need the movement for function in your sport, occupation, or everyday life AND you have the physiological constructs necessary to properly execute the movement, then there is absolutely nothing wrong with these often-labeled “bad exercises”.

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