From Desk to Gym: The Hidden Dangers of 'Beginner' Gym Exercises

gym health mobility movement physical training strength Feb 02, 2024

If you’re new to strength training, your primary challenge is avoiding injury.

I’m not exaggerating — injuries in the gym are alarmingly common, particularly for beginners without the necessary know-how for safe training.

Starting out, you typically receive a standard beginner program at most conventional gyms, including exercises like squats, hinges, pulls, and presses.

However, not all 'basic' exercises suit everyone. Common pressing exercises like bench presses, shoulder presses, and push-ups can pose risks — especially for those used to sitting at a desk all day, due to the likelihood of limited shoulder flexibility.

I'm here to guide you on whether to avoid certain pressing exercises and offer safer alternatives.

My goal is to help you prevent injuries and help you develop strong, supple, and resilient shoulders.

In this issue, discover two essential tests to assess your shoulder mobility. Next week, I'll share four safe and effective alternative exercises.

Are your shoulders ready for safe and effective strength training?

Overhead Mobility: a Requirement for Safe Pressing

Like many, you might spend over 8 hours a day at a desk, with most activities occurring right in front of you.

Prolonged sitting is bad for your body. It often leads to a muscular imbalance: shortened chest muscles and weakened scapular muscles, causing impaired shoulder mobility.

The typical outcome? The common hunchback posture. Marked by a rounded upper back and inward-turned shoulders.

This affects 9 out of 10 new clients I see, to varying degrees.

So, what exercises should you think twice about with this posture? Precisely, pressing exercises.

Strength training isn't just about building muscle; you are reinforcing movement patterns. A hunched posture means your back overly bends, and your shoulders turn inward, significantly reducing your overhead mobility.

Put simply, a hunched posture hinders your ability to lift your arms straight overhead, primarily due to the shortening of front-body muscles and weakening of back-body muscles.

In order to get your arms overhead, you're forced to compensate, putting your spine and shoulders in a compromised position.

Horizontal pressing exercises even worsens the issue by further shortening the already tight chest muscles.

If this is your current reality, avoid the common pressing exercises and focus on corrective exercises to regain your mobility.

Now that you’re aware, let's evaluate if you're prepared for pressing exercises or if need shoulder mobility exercises instead.

What the Overhead Press Tells About Your Body

Your capacity to overhead press says a lot about how well your body works.

For a solid overhead press, you need:

  • Good hip mobility
  • A balanced pelvis
  • A straight (neutral) back
  • Strong core
  • Stable shoulders
  • The ability to fully raise your arms

Missing any of these? It'll show when you try to press overhead.

Most people who aren't used to strength training don’t tick all these boxes. If that's you, jumping straight into regular presses might do more harm than good.

Why risk it?

If your shoulders aren't there yet, pushing for an overhead position can strain your back, neck, and shoulders. That's the last thing you want. Right?

So, what should you do?

First off, let's check how mobile your shoulders are. That'll show you if you're good to go for safe and effective pressing exercises.

Two Simple Tests to Assess Your Shoulder Mobility

Test #1: Crab Bridge

The Crab Bridge is fantastic because it demands full hip and shoulder extension at the same time.

Your aim is to form a straight line with your body by fully extending your shoulders and hips while keeping your spine neutral. If there's any shortfall in extension in the hips or shoulders, it's noticeable right away.

Often, the hurdle is a mix of flexibility and strength. Typically, tight muscles in the front part of your body end up weakening the muscles in the back over time.

Common limitations include:

  • Tight chest muscles
  • Tight hip flexors
  • Weak upper back muscles
  • Weak glutes
  • Or a combination of these

Addressing this involves exercises that enhance both flexibility and strength. Fortunately, some exercises can tackle both at once. I'll dive into these in next week's newsletter, so keep an eye out!

Test #2: Belly Supported Prone Overhead Extension

I developed this corrective exercise to strengthen the thoracic spine for individuals with kyphosis.

The issue with kyphosis is the upper back's struggle to extend correctly, which often causes the lower back to compensate.

By lying belly down on a bench, we focus the movement on the upper back, eliminating the lower back from the equation.

The exercise begins with back extension, then progresses to shoulder flexion (raising the arms).

The goal is to fully extend the upper back and ensure the arms are in line with the spine.

You might face challenges like:

  1. Difficulty fully extending the spine
  2. Trouble aligning the arms with the spine
  3. Or experiencing both issues

If achieving the end position of this exercise proves difficult, it indicates a need to strengthen your thoracic spine and shoulder stabilizers. Addressing this is crucial before incorporating regular pressing exercises into your routine. Next week, I'll share some effective and straightforward exercises to help you build this foundation safely. Stay tuned!

What These Tests Show You

One of the biggest causes of postural problems in the upper body among desk-bound professionals is the shortening of the pectoralis (chest) and abdominal muscles. The Crab Bridge quickly assesses if this is an issue for you.

When muscles shorten, their opposing muscles lengthen and weaken. As your body becomes more hunched over, the muscles in the thoracic (upper) spine, upper back, and shoulders weaken. The Belly Supported Prone Overhead Extension tests if you have the strength to extend the spine and lift and support the shoulders.

These tests reflect the impact of our daily habits on our body's functionality.

Looking Ahead

Next week, we'll move from diagnosing to remedying. Prepare for three transformative exercises designed to counteract the effects of prolonged sitting and enhance your posture:

  • Single Arm Landmine Press with Full Flexion Focus: Boosts shoulder strength, stability, and mobility.
  • Dumbbell Pullover with Feet Elevated and Pause: Improves flexibility and strength in chest and back muscles.
  • Bench Supported Prone Angels: Strengthens the upper back and enhances thoracic mobility.

Your Takeaway

Understanding your body's current state is the first step toward building a strong, well-functioning body. These tests aren't just for assessment; they're also effective corrective exercises.

Incorporating these movements daily is a smart way to work your way back to healthy, functional shoulders.

Don’t just follow generic fitness advice. Look at your situation and do what's right for your body.

Remember: You can’t build a house on a weak foundation. If your foundation isn’t strong enough, meaning you lack flexibility and stability, you need to address that first. Once successful, you can start building a strong 'house' with regular strength exercises.

That's it for today.

Catch you next week with top-notch corrective exercises tailored for your shoulders and thoracic spine.

Give those tests a go, and hold off on any pressing exercises if you don't pass even one. If you've got questions or want to share your test results, feel free to connect with me on 𝕏 or LinkedIn. I'm all ears for your thoughts and experiences.

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