Never Say Never (When it Comes to Exercising)

“Never” is a dangerous word. I get it, you should never stick your tongue in an electrical socket and you should never lick a metal flagpole in January, but “never” should NEVER be associated with exercise. I hear all the time - “I threw out my back so I should NEVER do deadlifts.”  “I have bad knees, so I should NEVER do squats.” Well, last time I checked, since you threw your back out 10 years ago, you have bent over to put on your pants, and I’m pretty sure you’ve squatted down to get on a toilet. If you’ve gone a decade without pooping, you have bigger issues than your knees…

The beauty of exercise is that everything can be modified so you never have to say “never.”  Let’s take the deadlift for example. It may bother your back to lift a 200 pound barbell off the ground. How about trying a lighter weight with the hex bar, or using two yellow kettlebells, or maybe lifting that 200 pound bar off a stack so you don’t have to bend down so far? You can still do the deadlifts, you might just have to modify HOW you do them so that you don't re-injure yourself. Here are five simple rules I always give my patients for modifying any exercise to make it a better fit for you.


If your back hurts after 30 sit-ups, figure out how many you can do without your back hurting.  15 sit-ups is always better than zero.


If it hurts your shoulder to lift 20 pounds overhead but you can reach over your head with no weight painfree, can you split the difference and do 10 pounds? If 10 pounds is fine, try 15. Again, some weight is better than nothing.


Does it bother your wrists to do a push-up?  Use a Perfect Pushup to keep your wrists in neutral. Try an incline push-up. Do a plank instead. Put your feet in the TRX straps or hold TRX straps to change the angle of the forces on your wrists. Gyms usually have a ton of equipment - utilize it to make your workout the best for you!


Are you super stiff in the morning?  Does the thought of a Turkish get-up at 6am make your skin crawl?  Try the noon class instead - you’ve been up and moving all morning and your joints will be much better lubricated.  Plus some exercise mid-day will help get you out of your desk chair and refresh you for the afternoon.

Another way to interpret this: If you get pain from holding an exercise for too long- i.e. if your neck hurts after holding a plank for 30 seconds- stop after 15 seconds and change positions.  Instead of holding a static plank, do repeated supermans on the TRX - you are at a different angle and sometimes our bodies tolerate short holds and brief rests rather than long holds/long duration.


Your knees may not like it so much if you try to squat past 90 degrees. Do they hurt if you only bend them a little bit? What if you turn your feet out just a little? With either one of those tweaks, you can still squat, you’ve dramatically reduced the forces on your knees and ankle joints, and you still get a good burn in your quads (especially if you are holding something heavy).

While pain can often be avoided just by modifying an exercise, there are some situations that will require extra attention. If your knees hurt all day every day regardless of what you are doing, or your shoulder hurts every time you reach overhead - even without weight, or you really tweaked your back and can barely limp into the gym, then it may be time to bring in the big guns. This is where our Doctors of Physical Therapy at Empower Movement come in. We will do a comprehensive movement assessment to help you figure out why you are having your symptoms in the first place, and use every tool available in our arsenal to get you moving again. We all want to see you moving your best and feeling your best. If you are ever feeling stuck, talk to Tom, Nick or Stacey to point you in the right direction so you NEVER have to say “never” again.

-Lindsay Rush, PT, DPT, OCS

Krystle Howald