On Tuesday, we talked about the importance of finding the right exercises for your body, and the importance of acknowledging pain and its root cause, and not pushing past our body’s signals. Today, I want to break down some of the most popular exercises I hear are painful for many individuals, and offer some equally as effective substitutes.
Let’s start with burpees. I know this is a hot take, but I’m with you guys that burpees are not my favorite exercise. They can place a lot of force throughout the spine in both the jump back and the jump forward.
I simply think there are lots of better ways to strengthen the legs, arms, and abdominals without the unnecessary compression through the spine, feet, and wrists. You really won’t see any burpees in my classes - if we do them in cardio we use a chair to really elevate your body. And even then, we do them very sparingly.
So if you hate burpees, I’m giving you full permission to never do them again. You don’t have to force yourself into any movement if it doesn’t feel good.
An option for you, if you must jump, and I don’t think it’s 100% necessary to jump all the time, are jump squats. You don’t have to go super low in jump squats or jump super high. You can keep them small range and springy.
Next, let’s talk about our planks/push ups/mountain climbers/or any exercise in a plank position.
Planks and pushups are another gold standard exercise in the fitness industry. These days, you pretty much can’t take a fitness class without doing a plank.
I’m not hating on planks and pushups. But, I think you could never do a plank or a pushup for the rest of your life and be perfectly fit and strong and balanced.
So let’s first talk about pushups.
We usually do pushups in my classes about twice a month. I always give the option for chest presses since pushups are so commonly uncomfortable on the wrists, necks, and shoulders.
But after reading feedback on my Instagram about how common it really was to despise planks and push ups, I’m actually planning to feature them less in my classes, if at all. My plan is to just choose another exercise altogether because I’m not married to any particular exercise. To me, it’s so much more about what the exercise will do for you than trying to force your body into the exercise.
So how I’m planning to approach this in my classes, is that we still work our chest muscles and our trunk, but, through decline chest presses and flat chest presses instead of push-ups. Then, we’ll work our abs separately using something like an incline crunch.
The first thing people will say to me is that “Isn’t that less efficient since you are doing two exercises as opposed to one singular exercise that works your abs AND your chest?” And I would argue that it’s often not more effective to choose one of the popular “catch-all” exercises.
If you’re working multiple muscle groups at the same time, you probably aren’t sufficiently loading any of the muscles. You’re getting the so-so recruitment of more muscles rather than quality recruitment of one or two muscles. So although it may take a bit more time, it’s overall more effective and puts less stress on your joints.
Next, let’s talk about planks.
Planks are hard because they involve almost every joint in your body. The reason it’s a “core” exercise is because of a physics phenomenon, called active levers. Your spine acts as the lever for your trunk muscles, meaning that the position of the spine will dictate how hard the muscles of the trunk have to work to keep the spine bones in place. The more horizontal to the floor, the more “active” the lever becomes, and therefore the more the trunk muscles have to work to keep the bones from collapsing.
So because your spine is perfectly horizontal to the ground in a plank, the lever is 100% active, meaning the trunk muscles are forced to work really hard.
So planks have a great reputation amongst the fitness community because they feel “hard” due to this 100% active lever. But is what’s hard always better? I bet you can guess my answer.
I’d argue that in some cases yes, but not always.
There are a few key issues from my perspective in a plank exercise:
So again, planks aren’t bad - we will do them in some of my classes, but if strengthening your trunk, abs, and arms is the goal, I think you have better options! Particularly, if planks are uncomfortable on your shoulders/wrists/back/feet. And you absolutely don’t have to do them to have a strong body. You can sub incline crunches for the abs, narrow presses for the anterior deltoids, and cobras for the back extensors.
Lastly, let’s talk about lunges. On my Instagram poll, there were quite a few variations that you all said you didn’t love. Some people just said “lunges,” but there were also quite a few people also said forward stepping lunges, curtsy lunges, side lunges, and bulgarian split squats.
I’ll start with regular lunges. I think they are commonly uncomfortable because there is a lot going on in a lunge. You have to stabilize your foot, knee, pelvis, and spine. Step-back lunges tend to be my favorite since they accurately target the glutes.
However, like pushups, in my classes, I always give options because I know they are commonly uncomfortable, especially on the knees. This is because when you are on a single limb, your center of gravity shifts to the side to keep you from falling over. Your base of support always has to be centered under you, or you would fall.
This causes a sideways force through the knee, which can be uncomfortable for many people. This is why I personally always hold on to something with the opposite hand - it centers your gravity and decreases the sideways force through the knee.
But even despite my recommendation for lunges, they still aren’t comfortable for many. So can we work the glutes without doing lunges? 100%. In fact, a step up is more effective for targeting the glutes than a lunge is. So a great first option for you could be swapping lunges for a step up.
Other lunge variations like a step forward, curtsy, or side lunge can also be hard on the knees, which is why many of you are not big fans.
For example, step forward lunges bias the quads, and place a lot of work through the quads. However, they can be uncomfortable for the knees because of another physics principle called ground reaction force. This has to do with Newton's third law which many of you probably know!: For every action, there is an equal and opposite reaction. Whenever your body hits the floor, the floor is pushing up at you in an equal and opposite direction.
So in a step forward lunge, your foot is landing down and forward. The ground reaction force will push up at you with the same magnitude in the opposite direction. So essentially, you are getting an angled force up through your knees, which causes the quads to be loaded. Loading your quads is a great thing, however, because this ground reaction force is also compressing the knee joint, it’s often uncomfortable for our knees.
But, what if we could get just as efficient quad work without the discomfort to the knees? Well, I have options for you. If you have knee pain, you may start with wall sits. This exercise will load the quads, but more gently. As your quads and patellar tendon get stronger, you can start to add some knees over toes exercises like sissy squats and reverse nordic curls
Ease into these with small ranges of motion that feel comfortable on the knees, and let me know how it goes!
Although those three are commonly despised exercises, there are many more. This month, listen to your body’s cues and see if you notice an exercise that might be doing more harm than good. See if you can choose another exercise that feels more comfortable and satisfying.