What is “safe” exercise?
I talk about “safe” exercise a lot. It’s the foundation of Levo and what not only moved me past my chronic back pain, but allowed me to create programs are effective at increasing strength and decreasing pain. But what does it really mean? Low-impact? Moving slow? Warming-up and cooling down? Stretching enough?
Exercise is truly a science—physics, to be more specific.
Safe exercise effectively utilizes physics and levers to stress the targeted muscles and tissues while minimizing stress through the tissues you aren’t trying to stress.
More simply, safe exercise is this: an exercise that has a high reward and low risk. If the ratio is even or flipped, it’s not worth it. You will be increasing your risk without enough reward.
It’s not just about moving slow and mindfully, although that is a factor. It’s not just about warming up properly, although that is crucial. It’s not about stretching enough at the end (I don’t do that at all, although it isn’t always bad. See my post about stretching here). It’s about understanding how joints are structured and how to distribute force for an individual’s structure and tolerance.
You could think about it this way: if there are a prevalence of injuries in the type of workout you’re doing, it’s probably not as safe or effective as it could be.
Safety and effectiveness run hand-in-hand. A more effective exercise will target the muscle with less risk to the joints. String together a bunch of those exercises, and you’ll see results in no time.
Safe exercise is not just about alignment, form, and muscle engagement. All those things are important, but exercise selection has to come first.
For instance: a slow curtsy lunge, even with lots of engagement through the quads and glutes is not what I would consider a “safe” exercise because it compromises the knee joint. The knee hinges forward and backward, so placing a sideways force through the joint implies a risk to the lateral and medial structures like the meniscus and collateral ligaments. (Many people can do this exercise without getting injured, but I’m just looking at it from an anatomical lens.)
There is some level of subjectiveness in determining if the risk outweighs the reward, but you might as well choose exercises that have very little risk and very high reward to get the most bang for your buck. You’re spending time exercising; you might as well make it as efficient as possible, gain muscle the fastest (because you’re using effective levers), AND keep your joints healthy and feeling good until you’re 90.
Sounds simple. But it’s much more complicated. Don’t worry; I’m here to take you step by step through this process. This information will shift your workouts from providing average results and possibly causing cranky joints to significantly improving strength and feeling happy in your joints.
Exercise selection over everything
“Form over everything,” is a term I used to live by. Now I live by “exercise selection over everything.” I would dare to say that exercise selection is more important than form. You could have the best form in the world, but physics always wins. If the force distribution is such that it’s compromising structures, good form cannot save you. Exercise selection has to come first, and I’m going to teach you some of the ways to do this.
This is a part of what will be included in my 7-day Strength School launching on October 19th, but this will get your wheels turning. This Strength School will change your workouts – it will show you that you don’t have to kill yourself in your workouts for 60 minutes/day to see results. 4 30 minute workouts are all you need. Efficient and safe go hand-in-hand, and I’m going to teach you how to apply safe exercise in this week-long reset. Click here to get signed up.
How to choose a safe exercise
Answer “yes” to all four of these questions, and you have a safe exercise.
1. Does this honor joint structure?
You have to understand how your joints move. I can’t get too deep into this today, but I touched on it in this blog post. There are textbooks written about this, which is why it’s important to exercise with someone who has extensive anatomy education.
But there is a level of intuition with this. Take the knee as we did in the example above. The knee hinges forward and backward into flexion and extension. If we twist the knee and then place our body weight down onto a twisted knee, like in a curtsy lunge, now we are placing force onto a joint that isn’t aligned with how the bones and joints were designed move. This can result in rubbing/damaging tissues like the meniscus and ligaments over time.
2. Does this place force through the muscle we are trying to strengthen?
I dove deeper into this in the biomechanics blog post. Click here to check it out. Take the time to learn this, because it will change everything.
3. Does this exercise feel the hardest in the middle of the range of motion?
This takes me to when (during the range of motion) the force is applied to the muscle. Each muscle has what’s called a strength curve.
The strength curve of a muscle, in general, means the muscle is strongest when it is lengthened, and weakest as it is shortened.
This means the muscle has the greatest capability to generate force when it is longer, and probably the most stable in its middle range.
Think of a rubber band – if you pull a rubber band as far as it can then let it go, it will fly across the room. But if you only pull it back halfway, it won’t go nearly as far. Your muscles are the same way. They can generate much more force when in a lengthened position.
Because a muscle has the least capability to generate force in its shortened range, that is the place where it is most likely to compensate.
This concept is important to understand because it will help us determine when to place force through a muscle.
For the best and safest results, you want to place the most force through a muscle when the muscle is in its middle range. In other words, the exercise should feel the hardest when you are halfway finished with the repetition.
When the bicep is in its middle range, the exercise feels the hardest. This is because the moment arm is the longest (if this is confusing to you, read my post about biomechanics, click here). As you approach the top and the bicep shortens, the exercise feels easier. This is an example of optimally loading the muscle and honoring the strength curve. This will yield the best results.
When the muscle is in its shortened range, it has the least capability to contract. If heavily loaded, this will be where compensations and injuries occur. Notice if an exercise feels the hardest at the end of the movement. This is called “late phase loading.” Late phase loading is not optimal and will probably compromise other structures if the load is too heavy.
4. Does this limit force through adjacent joints and tissues that we aren’t targeting?
When looking at an exercise, you want to also look at the force through other joints. Let’s examine a deadlift, and why this isn’t the best exercise for your glutes and hamstrings.
In a deadlift, your torso leans forward. Even if you take a really wide stance, you will still have a forward lean of the trunk, loading the spine. An issue with deadlifts is that your back muscles cannot tolerate nearly as much load as your glutes and hamstrings, so your back will limit you from effectively challenging the glutes and hamstrings. You can practice this functional exercise with light or no weight for the coordination and motor learning piece, but it is not as effective as a strength training exercise because of the stress and limitations of the lower back.
A step up is much more effective for training the glutes. Your spine is more neutral, and all the work can be placed into your glutes without compromising the spine. Stronger glutes and a healthier back will lead to functional results.
Remember that these are the basics. Exercise is a science, and if you want to learn how to apply this into a routine that could double your strength in three months, AND will improve your joint pain significantly, get enrolled in the Strength School! Click here to get signed up.