Picking exercises that are right for you

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As some of you may know, in the last several months I started studying for my YMCA FIT certification as a personal trainer. Pretty awesome-sauce. I've enjoyed the first two phases, though getting used to studying again is a bit of a challenge. In this little break before Phase III and THE BIG TEST, I'm trying to go over the important bits and make sure it's all in my brain. Luckily, the material is interesting and useful. So useful, in fact that I wanted to share with you something I learned about making a workout safe and effective - Exercise Analysis. 

You can find exercises everywhere, videos, magazines, you can make them up, see a new graphic of a workout on Pinterest, or a video on Youtube. They may look wonderful, but how do you determine if the exercise is right for you? Read on for some tips for a safer workout.

Think of Yourself:

Photo by lisadragon
First thing's first, when you see an exercise, you have to think about if you can do it. Do you have the exercise experience necessary for a complicated exercise? Is the exercise within the grasp of your fitness level? Does it involve a movement that you can't perform? There's no shame in answering "no" to these questions. An honest answer is a good one and will help you find exercises that will get you where you want to be and weed out the ones that will only frustrate you, injure you, or generally not move you forward.

While thinking of yourself, you'll also want to think about any medical conditions you have that may make an exercise inadvisable. At the gym, you may be asked to fill out a PAR-Q form which let's the gym know, on a basic level, if exercise, in general, will be safe for you. If you are pregnant, outside the age range of 15-69, or answer "yes" to any of the questions on that form, you need to see a physician before beginning physical activity. Even, and perhaps especially, outside of the supervision of the gym it is so important to know what physical activity is safe and what is not for you. 

If you aren't certain, it's not a bad idea to ask a qualified medical professional if the activity you want to begin is contraindicated for you. Even if you answer no to everything, be aware that certain conditions, like asthma, diabetes, etc. might not show up on a form like The PAR-Q . If you don't know how these conditions are affected by exercise, talk to your doctor; they can tell you what you need to do to exercise safely.

Think of the Exercise: 

you feel confident that you can and should do the movement, look at the exercise. Is it well designed?  That is:

  • Can you tell if  the purpose to strengthen, to improve endurance, flexibility, or is it cardio? What muscle are you trying to work? An exercise can do more than one thing (ex: biking up a hill), but you should be able to identify the goal of the exercise in order to be able to work towards it.
  • Is the exercise actually using the muscles you want to be targeting in an effective way? Is the resistance coming from the right direction? It's a bit tricky to explain, but think of this. If you lift a weight up, you feel the resistance because gravity is pulling it down, if you pull back, it is still pulling down. If you want to pull back, you will get more resistance and a better workout if you play tug of war because you are working in opposition to the resistance. If you take that tug of war and stand higher than your opponent, you will be working differently than if you stand level.

Feel the Exercise:

If you think the exercise is right for you, getting the proper form is the next step. A good description should make it very clear what exactly you should and shouldn't be doing.

If you're not sure, or the exercise seems questionable, here are a few guidelines:
  • Locking the joints is not recommended
  • Keep breathing (sounds silly, but lots of people forget)
  • The spine should be protected by avoiding momentum in movements (avoid this, in general with resistance exercises; unless called for, it's cheating), 
  • With the spine, also avoid hyper-extending to excess (back bend, tilting head back), rotating too far, bending forward unsupported (forward flexion), or combining movements of the spine.
  • Most people have fairly strong iliopsoas, therefore, you'll want to stretch them rather than strengthen them too much. I'm looking at you thigh exercises!
  • Generally, the knee should not extend past the toes, particularly when bearing weight. 

If you cannot do the motion and maintain the proper form, the exercise, as is, will not be right for you. You may need to modify it or work up to it .

If you can maintain the recommended form, ask yourself if you feel comfortable. Where do you feel the exercise? Is there pressure on the joints? Do you feel pain?

If you have pain - very different from "the burn"- something is wrong. Stop. Pay attention to what your body tells you.

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Balance your workout:

Once you think the exercise(s) are safe, you'll want to make sure that you are working out in a balanced way. For general health it's a good idea to work on the 5 components of physical health, and to balance the muscles you strengthen and stretch (ex: abs+back, triceps+biceps, back +chest, etc.).

These steps, offered mostly for my own review, might seem like a lot to think about, but they help to make a workout safe and effective and it's worth the effort to avoid injury. These are some of the steps a qualified exercise professional will ask themselves when designing a program and I highly recommend speaking to a trainer or medical professional before beginning new exercises. Whatever you do do, listen to your body and enjoy your workout.

Live well,

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