The vast majority of people who go to the gym have similar goals: look better, feel better, become objectively stronger and more fit, and possibly improve their fitness in a way that specifically supports their non-gym sport (Jiu Jitsu, running, cycling, rock climbing, football, soccer, and so on). Only a small percentage of people actually participate in “strength sports” such as weightlifting or powerlifting – if you are one of those people, this article probably will not apply to you. On the other hand, if you relate more to the former group, then I think this will be helpful. I am going to share a bit my experience with people making poor choices on exercises in the gym, and essentially sabotaging their own progress.
First, some context. In 2020 we took on a sizeable construction project that included both improvements of an existing building as well as new construction on the property that is now our current gym. Once the permits were issued, the actual construction took about six months to complete. During that time period we had many meetings with the contractor to go over updates, discuss options, and make decisions on next steps. Over the course of these discussions our questions were always about the ultimate outcome – what would the finished product look like? In contrast, we never had questions on what tools he and the other workers would use to do the actual construction; as long as we were happy with the finished product, then what does it matter what tools were used to build it? More importantly we never questioned his judgement on what tools and methods to use to build it – as long as we got a finished product we were happy with and within our budget, then what does it matter what tools were used?
Now, circling back to the gym, it is my belief that a lot of people hinder their own progress by having a “love affair” with specific exercises or equipment that are actually not conducive to them accomplishing their goals. In most cases the exercises are not inherently bad, the problem lies in either A) the exercise does not align with goals, or B) they are not able to perform the exercise in a way that will deliver results. The latter is more common and can be due to many factors including injury history, mobility limitations, kinesthetic awareness, pre-requisite strength levels, orthopedic conditions, and more.
The exercises and equipment that are common culprits here have usually been “built up” on the internet and social media to seem cool, and since everyone wants to feel cool then people feel pressured to do those exercises. It can also be confusing because most of these exercises can be wonderful for people who do meet the pre-requisites for doing them – they move well enough, they are strong enough, their form is good enough, and so on. The problem lies in that trying to force yourself to do exercises for which you do not have the pre-requisites in place is a glaring example of trying to force a square peg into a round hole. Some examples of the exercises that frequently fall into this situation include:
- Weightlifting movements (snatch, clean, jerk, power clean, and so on)
- Powerlifting movements (back squat, deadlifting from the floor with a straight bar, bench press with a barbell)
- Pull ups (in particular an obsession with an overhand grip)
In case it was not already clear, if someone has all the pre-requisites in place to do the above exercises safely and effectively then by all means go get after it! The point I am trying to make is that a lot of people do NOT have the pre-requisites in place to do them, yet try to do them anyway, and that is sabotaging their progress.
One specific example jumps out at me that I would like to share. Years ago I did a few personal training sessions with someone who had been reasonably athletic his entire life, but had not done a ton in the gym. He also came in with many previous injuries that still impacted how he moved, many of which were from high-contact / high-collision sports. It is important to note that he had a career that involved an enormous amount of physical activity, so keeping him as safe as possible in the gym was especially important, because if he got injured he could not work. As I usually do, we took it slow the first few sessions and focused on fundamentals and exercises he could do well given his injury-based limitations. After a short time he started asking me to teach him power cleans – he had heard from his friend they were a good exercise, and he really wanted to learn them. I explained to him that I did not think they were a good fit for him for a variety of reasons, including that 1) his injuries limited his movement enough that he could not get into safe positions for the start or finish of the exercise, 2) there were fundamental movements I thought we should work on first before more advanced movements like that, 3) I wanted to be really careful with his training because I knew if he got hurt in the gym it would be bad news for his career, 4) with all that in mind, even if we did work on power cleans we would have to keep the weight so light that it would not actually help him get stronger, more powerful, or more athletic, which is the whole reason he was coming to see me. In spite of that, he got frustrated that I would not teach him power cleans and he ended up leaving.
I also think using myself as an example here may be helpful. Out of the eight specific exercises I listed above, personally I only do one of them (back squats) and even those I circulate in-and-out of my training and do not include year-round. I do not do overhand grip pull ups because they hurt my elbows and shoulders. I do not bench press with a barbell because it hurts my shoulder. I have not deadlifted from the ground with a straight bar in years, and I do not do any weightlifting movements at all (power clean, snatch, etc.).
At the risk of sounding full of myself, I imagine that most people who read my posts would like to take their own fitness level in the direction that they perceive mine to be; with that in mind I hope the point is being made that if I can achieve my fitness level WITHOUT those exercises, then you can too. I urge you to remind yourself that it is important to use the right tool for the job, and to caution yourself against letting obsession with a particular exercise cause you to stubbornly use it even in situations where it is not appropriate.
It might be helpful to think about something we have all seen, which are “before and after” photos of people who have had impressive transformations. I would suspect that most people who see those photos say something to the effect of “Wow! That is awesome! They made some serious progress!” Your reaction is a result of the end-product, their transformation, and has nothing to do with what exercises they did (or did not) use to get there. In fact, in 99% of cases you never even learn what exercises they used; and even if you did learn what exercises they used, would it really change your opinion of their transformation?
In closing, I urge you to remember that gym equipment and exercises are tools we use to do a job – they are a means to an end. If you were doing construction and one tool could do the job better than another you would obviously use it, and would have no regard for how “cool” or “uncool” it was. I hope you can treat your time in the gym the same way, and focus primarily on exercises that give you the results you want, even if they are not as “cool.”