What if you can’t do the “perfect” exercise to get fit?

He was frustrated and confused. Jason (I’m using a fictional name for this individual) came in with low back pain after exercising.

Jason was in his 50’s and decided he finally wanted to get fit. He excitedly hired a trainer and began a weight training program. But then he started having low back pain. It seemed to always come after doing bent over barbell rows. The trainer insisted that bent over barbell rows were an important exercise, so Jason kept at it. The pain continued session after session. And it got worse. Finally, Jason decided to see a doctor. The doctor gave him pain-relieving medications, recommended physical therapy, and told him that weight training is dangerous.

So, Jason comes to the PT clinic with conflicting advice. The trainer insists that the exercise (the bent over barbell row) is fantastic and crucial to getting fit. The doctor says that weight training is dangerous.

Sound familiar?

Unfortunately, this happens all too often. Trainers fetishize certain exercises. They insist on the superiority of a particular exercise to get fit. Then on the other hand, some doctors and physical therapists say that certain exercises are inherently dangerous.

So what does someone new to exercise do?

In the example with Jason, we first ruled out a more insidious, “red flag” cause of the low back pain. Note that in the vast majority of people with low back pain, there is not an insidious, “red flag” cause of pain (such as tumor or fracture) (Hartvigsen 2018), (Seizer 2007).

Next we zoomed out to ask, “Why do bent over barbell rows?”

We do them to strengthen the upper body pulling muscles like the biceps, latissimus dorsi, rear deltoids, and trapezii.

The next question, “How else can we strengthen those upper body pulling muscles?”

There are many options; seated cable rows, arm supported dumbbell rows, and more.

We found exercises to work those upper body pulling muscles, while not aggravating his low back. This might seem like an obvious solution. But many coaches fixate on certain exercises as being of vital importance. They fit the person to the exercise, rather than fit the exercise to the person.

Why do coaches prize certain exercises?

Well-intentioned coaches may focus on certain exercises because of their training. Some training organizations and influential fitness gurus prefer certain exercises. Aspiring coaches learn from them and then carry on the tradition.

For example, some coaches dogmatically state that low bar back squats are superior. However, research suggests that many squat styles, both back and front squats, produce similar muscle activation (Yavuz, 2015). Anecdotally, you observe people building plenty of muscle and strength using different squat styles.

Further, the squat is not even necessary for everyone. Research shows that for those new to lifting, the leg press exercise can build just as much strength and muscle as a squat (Rossi, 2018).

A caveat. If you want to compete in a sport like powerlifting or must perform a specific exercise for athletic testing, that is a different story. In that case, you have to specifically train that exercise at some point.

Are bent over barbell rows “bad”? Is weight training dangerous?

There is nothing inherently dangerous or “bad” about the bent over barbell row. I use them for myself and clients. They can be a fantastic exercise. But certain people, at certain phases in their life, may not tolerate them well.

For Jason at that point in his life, the bent over barbell row was not a good exercise. But later, when his back was feeling less aggravated, we could reintroduce it. Just because an exercise is not well tolerated now, does not mean we cannot return to it later.

Broadly speaking, there is nothing inherently dangerous about weight training. Research suggests that the injury rate of weight training is low (similar to that of walking for exercise – quite low) (Powell, 1998). This is not to say that walking is dangerous. Rather, that weight training is a safe, healthy activity just like walking. Further, the Center for Disease Control (CDC) actually recommends “muscle-strengthening activities” at least 2 days per week for adults.

So, to wrap up, there are no “perfect” exercises that you need to get fit. And most exercises aren’t inherently dangerous or “bad”. In weight training, we have a menu of options for different people in different phases of life. 

*Medical Disclaimer: Please be advised, the information provided in this article is educational in nature and not meant to diagnose or treat any disease, illness, or condition. For individualized recommendations it is best to follow up with a licensed provider, like myself or another physical therapist.

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