When it comes to strength training, it is easy to get attached to the "burn" or sensation of pulling tension in particular lifts or movements. I am convinced it is this almost palpable sensation that makes exercisers think, "Wow, that was a killer workout!"
And that brings me to this new category of blog posts. I will be sharing a few of these exercises, breaking them down, explaining where the risk or pain points are outweighing potential benefits, and offering an alternative or two you can use instead.
The intention isn't to hate on an exercise or any trainer who may wish to incorporate these exercises in their routine. Rather, the goal here is to offer alternatives that are going to be generally regarded as safe for most exercisers. After all, some athletes who are well conditioned, have no limitations in their range of motion or flexibility, exhibit proper form and posture, and are injury-free, may be just fine with some of my contraindicated exercises. For the rest of us mere mortals, I offer this advice instead.
Today's post is inspired by a friend whose father recently suffered at the hands of this exercise. The pull-over.
There are several variations that can be employed here. Flat on the bench, as shown, or perpendicular with hips held in a bridge position, shoulders resting on the bench. Some may even try this on a stability ball for added proprioceptive and balance challenge to up the core training ante. In all instances, the goal is to keep the elbows in a lock out position and move the weight from chest to overhead position.
In all variations, the muscles of the back and belly will work to prevent the ribs from flaring, which is where some exercisers may perceive this to be a great compound exercise. While the emphasis is clearly in the chest and triceps, the lats in back and abdominals in front work to keep the spine from hyper-extending.
A word on posture
Now, before I break this down, consider the position most exercisers are in throughout the day. The reality is most of us are in front of a computer, mobile device, and/or steering wheel for a good percentage of our day. The result? Shoulders are often rolling forward and upper back rounded. This creates tight chest muscles -- pectorals -- in most instances and in some more extreme instances, difficulty in raising arms in an overhead position without shoulders creeping up towards ears.
When elevating your arms, the bones that run from elbow to shoulder -- the humerus bones -- drive into a small process at the shoulder blade, squeezing your rotator cuff (the small group of small muscles and tendons that hold the shoulder together). Some exercisers tolerate this effect better than others, but everyone will experience impingement to some degree (see illustration).
Stretching under leverage
Okay, back to the exercise. As the weight travels overhead, it adds leverage. As the weight moves further from the targeted muscle group -- chest and back -- the load increases proportionately to the length of the lever. Now, add the stretch occurring in the chest, arms, and back. The further a muscle is stretched, the weaker and less prepared it is to work.
Stretching under stabilization
As the weight moves overhead, the hips tend to elevate. When it comes to inflexible joints, it isn't hard to imagine how tightness in one area refers further down the chain. In this instance, as the arms travel overhead, the muscles that would ordinarily stabilize the movement at the core are stretched against gravity. Tight hip flexors and back muscles make it difficult, if not impossible, to keep stable from this angle. The hips move, throwing off balance and risking a deeper impingement as the head of the arm bone travels further in the process described and illustrated above.
Rotating under resistance
As the weight travels overhead from a reclined position, the head of the arm bone -- humerus -- rotates externally while a weight is held between two hands that remain relatively fixed. This unnatural path causes muscles to move beyond natural range and pattern. This pattern places shearing force at the shoulder joint, again placing the shoulder complex under further stress.
Traveling with imprecision
The lack of clear end points is what makes this exercise so difficult to gauge. One exerciser's range of motion can be vastly different from another's. Since there is no defined landmark and the exerciser is relying on perceived effort in maximal range, often the exerciser does not discover their "edge" until they have gone too far. Ouch!
Of course, I hate to suggest that any exercise is strictly verboten. There are plenty of exercisers out there that can do this exercise safely and effectively. Is it the best one for the targeted muscles, however? Perhaps not.
So, if you are looking to swap, I recommend the double bell chest press.
In this exercise, you are moving two shoulders that inevitably have differing ranges and strength under separate forces, simultaneously. Getting weights to travel uniformly from start to finish is to cultivate strength in the obvious places -- chest, shoulders, and arms -- but adds shoulder stabilizing, core activating, and proprioceptive challenges to boot.
Like its closed-chain analogue, the roll-out, there's a very real challenge to prevent hypertension of the lower back on the pull-over. Wanting to get that core challenge is reasonable. However, rows, squats, sprints, and the double bell press above hit the core well enough already, and more safely. These have you keep a good posture. This protects the spine and works these muscles as intended.
Disclaimer: Fit Club is not a medical doctor and the information contained herein should not be taken as medical advice. These are not intended to diagnose, treat, cure or prevent any health problem. Recommendations by Fit Club are not intended to replace the advice of a physician or health professional. Please consult your physician or a health professional before beginning any diet or exercise program.