Conditioning Corner: Old School vs. New Rules

By Mike Mejia, M.S., C.S.C.S

In today's fast-paced, technologically obsessed world, it seems as though efficiency is the order of the day. Whether at home, at work, or just about anywhere else, we're always looking for a better way to get things done. Except when we're at the gym, that is. For some reason, a trip to the local sweat palace seems to bring out the inner caveman in most of us. What else could possibly explain our fascination with "time-honored" exercises that either lack any apparent carryover to sports performance, or, impose way too much risk, for far too little reward.

That's why I've decided to take five gym favorites and put them under the microscope. In doing so, I'll not only expose their shortcomings, but I'll even offer up some alternative drills that are both safer and more effective. Sure, some of them may seem a little bit out there; especially when directly compared to exercises that you've been doing for years. I promise you though, the results will be well worth it.

The Bench Press

The problem: When done correctly, restricts optimal range of motion at the shoulder joint. Can also place excessive strain on the shoulders and wrists.
Replacement: Suspended push-up.

Might as well start with one of the most popular lifts of all time. In fact, this exercise is so popular that I defy anyone reading this to walk into a gym and not find someone cranking out a set on the bench press. The real question, though, is how a lift that has such limited functional value, and a reputation for chewing up shoulders and spitting them out, ever got to the top of the exercise hierarchy?

In order to maintain proper positioning of the shoulder joint and lessen the likelihood of impingement, you have to keep your scapulae (shoulder blades) depressed and retracted throughout the lift. That's all well and good, but that's not how our bodies were designed to move. The shoulder blades need to move more freely, through a much larger range of motion. Kind of like the way they do when doing a push-up.

Besides more freedom of movement around the shoulders, push-ups also engage your the muscles of your neck, core and legs in a way that you simply can't replicate while lying in a bench. The only knock on them is that they're difficult to load, so to get the most out of them you have to do tons of repetitions. That's where the suspended push-up comes in. By requiring a more complete range of motion and greater recruitment of your stabilizing musculature, suspended push-ups are offer a great way to simulate the type of demands your body is placed under when you're in the water. In addition to being a great upper body strengthener, suspended push-ups are also a lot easier on your shoulders and wrists than the good 'ol bench press. Plus, they look pretty cool. So you definitely don't have to worry about losing any style points if you opt for them, over the bench press.

Execution: Set up a pair of suspended straps or a TRX suspension trainer over a sturdy object that you know isn't going to move. Next, grab the handles and extend your legs behind you as you adopt a push-up position with your upper body now suspended off the ground. Brace your core and lower into a push-up and then push back up. Want to make it harder? Place your feet up on to a bench, or step instead of the floor. Harder still? Try wearing a weighted vest.

Olympic Lifts: (Cleans, Snatches etc.)

The problem: Can be difficult to learn the right technique. Swimmers often lack the balance of shoulder mobility and stability needed to execute them properly- especially overhead movements like the barbell snatch.

Replacement: Kettlebell swings

Let me start by saying that I love Olympic lifts. I think they're a terrific way to improve explosive strength. That said, they can be incredibly difficult to learn due to the fact that they're such technically advanced lifts. Meaning that there's a lot that has to go right from a bio-mechanical standpoint to execute any of these exercises drills properly. Now, factor in the types of musculoskeletal imbalances we typically see in swimmers (weak middle and lower trapezius, upper trapezius dominance, tight lats and pecs, quadricep dominance etc.) and you can see why they can be so daunting for some.

By comparison, a kettlebell swing requires the same kind of "triple extension" (simultaneous extension at the ankles, knees and hips) that Olympic lifts are predicated on, without having to spend time on all the technical nuances of learning the "rack" or "snatch" positions. So they offer a safer, more simplified way generate the kind of power needed for dolphin licks and starts off the blocks.

Execution: Stand with feet shoulders width apart holding a kettlebell at arms length in front of your thighs. Begin by doing a "hip hinge" and allowing the weight to swing back under your body. Be sure to keep a slight bend in the knees and a straight torso as you do this. Then, quickly extend your hips, knees and ankles to thrust the weight forward and stop when your arms are parallel to the ground and your hips are right under your shoulders.

Leg Lifts

The problem: Too much strain on lumbar spine.

Replacement: Plank Variations

This exercise is just bad news, plain and simple. Instead of having someone forcibly push your legs away as you hold on to their ankles of dear life, try any number of different plank variations. They offer a much better way to improve spinal stability, strengthen all of the muscles that comprise your core (not just your abs and hip flexors) and can even help improve scapular stability and upper body endurance. Plus they don't look anywhere near as goofy to your fellow gym members than the scenario just described above.

One Arm Row

The problem: Traditional execution stresses lat dominance. Too easy to use excessive weight and bad form.

Replacement: TRX row

I actually like this exercise a lot- when it's done properly. Trouble is, it's just way too easy to screw up. Start rounding your back, or yanking with your arm like you're trying o start a lawn mower and you'll essentially be negating any potential benefits of doing the exercise. Instead, try doing a row using a TRX suspension trainer. First off, it's self-regulated, so you not only get to control how hard you're working, but you can change it on the fly by making it easier , or more difficult while you're still doing the set. Try that with dumbbells! Plus, the fact that you're in a standing position increases both core and lower body activation- which is always a good thing.

Execution: Stand holding the handles of a TRX suspension trainer in your hands and begin walking your feet forward, as you recline back. Once you feel enough load, begin by pinching your shoulder blades together and down to you initiate the rowing movement. Keep pulling until your elbows end up past your torso, with your hands just outside your chest. Hold for a second, then lower and repeat. You can also walk your feet forward if you want to make it more difficult, or, walk them back up to make it easier as you start to fatigue.


Smith Machine Squat

The Problem: Pressing a weight along a set track decreases core and stabilizer muscle involvement, while the unnatural movement pattern increases stress on the joints.

Replacement: Split squat/ Romanian Deadlift Combo

This is easily my least favorite exercise of the group. That's because it offers lifters a false sense of safety while in reality, increasing their risk of injury. The main problem here is the linear motion of the bar path. When we do a free weight squat, there's actually a slight arcing movement to the bar. By only allowing for linear motion along a set path, the Smith machine squat not only reduces hamstring involvement, leading to greater shearing force on the knees, but it also places unnecessary strain on the lumbar spine.

Instead, try the split squat to Romanian deadlift. It requires a combination of flexibility, strength and balance and is quite simply one of the toughest lower body exercises you'll ever try.

Execution: Stand in a split squat position, with one foot about 2 1/2 to 3 feet in front of the other, about shoulder's width apart. Lift your back heel off the ground and with your torso held up straight and tall, bend both knees and descend until your front thigh is parallel to the ground. As you press back up, start leaning your torso forward, as you simultaneously lift your back leg up straight behind you. Pause once your body is in a straight line, just about parallel to the ground, with your support knee slightly bent. Finally, lower the leg back down into the original split squat position and continue the set. 

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