Don’t blame your pain on the exercise.

If you have strength trained for very long you are sure to have experienced some pain associated with a particular exercise. Far beyond some muscle soreness the next day, this is usually a sharp pain in a joint that happens while you are doing an exercise. The initial reaction is to blame the pain on the exercise and respond to this problem one of two ways….

The first way to deal with this is to avoid the exercise altogether. While this isn’t a bad choice in a lot of cases, what happens if the exercise in question is a core movement skill skill squatting, deadlifting or pressing something over your head? In this case avoiding the exercise isn’t a good option because your overall results will suffer greatly, which leads us to the second way people usually deal with this problem.

This second way is to pop some pain killers and keep training through the pain. The old adage of “no pain, no gain” is usually cited as a reason here and the growing collection of pills, wraps and other things to keep the pain at bay are seen as a badge of courage. This approach is like hearing your smoke detector go off and simply pulling the batteries out – sure, the annoying beeping went away but your house is still burning down. This is why this path usually leads straight to the doctors office and surgery when the joint in question finally gives out.

So, what is the answer then? If you shouldn’t avoid certain exercises because they cause pain but you shouldn’t just pop some pain killers and hit it anyways, what are you supposed to do? That, my friend, is where option number 3 enters the picture…

This third option is to address the cause of the pain, which is not the “exercise” but how you are doing the exercise. One of my favorite coaches Dan John tells the story about a girl who told him that squats hurt her knees. After looking at her perform her version of a squat he told her that “squats don’t hurt your knees, whatever your doing there hurts your knees.” In other words, the exercise was not the culprit but how she was doing the exercise was.

This is something I have seen played out many times myself over the years. I have had countless people tell me that they can’t squat because it hurts their knees, can’t deadlift because it hurts their low back and/ or can’t shoulder press because it hurts their shoulders. Almost every time I checked their form there was a fundamental flaw with how they were performing the exercise. Fix the flaw and the pain goes away.

At the heart of this is a core philosophy that guides my approach to training – bad movement causes pain. If you move poorly then your exercises will suffer as well since you can’t practice the intended movement patterns like you need to. Exercises are not just a way to build strength and fitness but a way to refine and improve how you move.

The flip side to this is that the same bad movement that causes pain also decreases your performance. Bad movement is also inefficient movement, which mans that it produces less strength and power while also using more energy than efficient movement will. This means that you waste a lot of energy in the process of trying to work around bad movement.

To give you a concrete example of how this idea looks in action check out this video I shot a few years ago on How to Squat. If you think that your knees can’t take squatting then this video could change your whole view of things:

Like many of my clients, once you start to employ this advice you’ll find your strength going up and your pain decreasing rapidly. And this is the power of training movement – if you move better you will feel and perform better. If you move poorly you will be fighting yourself and making things much harder on yourself.

Plus, how you move off the bike will dictate how you move on the bike. Being able to squat, deadlift and press a weight overhead are all indicators of quality movement and you’ll find that your body position and balance on the trail will increase. So, if one of these exercises causes you pain then stop blaming the exercise and look at the real problem, which is a flaw somewhere fundamental movements you use to execute the exercise. Fix the bad movement and fix the pain as well.

-James Wilson-

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  1. Gus says:

    I keep fighting with hand numbness. I have tried many different things up to and including various bike fits, and just riding through it. Its so bad that I have considered just giving up. I have been riding at an intermediate level for 2 years and I should not be having this sort of issue, no one else does! How can you help?

    Reply • April 5 at 7:51 am
    • bikejames bikejames says:

      Really sorry to hear about your struggles, that is a common area that bother riders who get advice from someone who doesn’t understand adapting the body to the bike instead of the bike to the body. Check out these posts, they should help:


      Reply • April 6 at 7:47 am
  2. Jim Marks says:

    OK, makes a lot of sense. So to take it to the next step, I am having pain in one shoulder doing the overhead press. I must be doing something wrong, so do I lighten the load to correct the form? Once form is perfect then do I start going back to the heavier weights?

    Reply • April 5 at 8:25 am
  3. Will says:

    Very good point, James, about the hips coming up first instead of the shoulders. But I can’t see how your form is going to work for a front squat. Wouldn’t the bar roll off leaning forward like that? Shouldn’t the upper body be erect AND you sit back on the heels and not let the knees go forward of the toes? It seems like what you are doing would work fine for a back squat. But my friend who is also a strength coach said that only powerlifters should do those and athelites should do front equate instead.

    Reply • April 5 at 10:12 am
    • bikejames bikejames says:

      I think that the problem is that I am talking about the squat as a movement pattern and you are talking about it as an exercise. The principles I talk about in the video apply to any variation of the exercise, including the Front Squat. I also recommend Front Squats over Back Squats but it has more to do with the risk-to-benefit ratio than athletes needing to avoid them.

      Reply • April 6 at 7:52 am
  4. Will says:

    Last sentence was supposed to read “front squats instead “. (Stupid tablet changes words on me all the time)

    Reply • April 5 at 10:15 am
  5. Gary Terner says:

    James, the single leg squat is the movement that causes me the most problems. Will the adjustments in the vidio address this, or are there other issues that I should look out for?

    Reply • April 5 at 10:20 am
    • bikejames bikejames says:

      In general yes but mobility starts to become more of an issue once you go to a single leg because you can’t contort your way around it as easily.

      Reply • April 6 at 7:53 am
  6. James G says:

    Excellent point James. A few months ago I started getting ready for the riding season at a local Kettlebell/Taekwondo/Muy Thai training faculty. They had us do a functional movement screen. I found out that the pain in my knees from squatting was from poor stability in my hips and core. I thought I just had bad knees. I’m working with a PT to fix the issues now. Glad I caught it before I needed more serious work. A workmate of mine in his late-30’s needs a new set of knees from poor movement most of his life.

    BTW, keep up the excellent post.

    Reply • April 5 at 11:01 am
    • bikejames bikejames says:

      Thanks for the feedback. As a coach few things make me feel as good as seeing someone realize that they can squat, they just needed to fix how they were moving. Glad you found that out, good luck getting things back on track.

      Reply • April 6 at 7:54 am
  7. Julie says:

    Even with my knowledge, I pretty much gave up on the idea of doing pushups because of my AC (shoulder) separation. But somewhere I stumbled upon the idea that I had terrible mechanics/movement patterns when performing a pushup. Heh.. just because one knows a bit about biomechanics and muscle imbalances doesn’t mean that one is immune from bad habits.. (me) So if knowledgeable people need and use coaches….all can benefit.

    I am doing modified pushups again. I am learning to activate my serratus, for one thing, and am curious about adding a MAT (Muscle Activation Technique) certification to my toolbox or at least seeing a practitioner. Jury’s still out on overhead movements, but this article has got me thinking, as your articles usually do. The deeper I go, the more I realize I don’t know, this stuff humbles me all the time…if that makes sense. Thanks!!!

    Reply • April 5 at 12:44 pm
    • bikejames bikejames says:

      I always assume that if I can’t do something pain free then my technique is off and I need to humble myself and figure out why. It is so much easier, especially for those of us who “know” about these things, to write it off as just something we can’t do but that just ends up limiting us. Good luck with overhead pressing, I’ll be shooting a video soon going over the things I see causing problems with it that will hopefully give you some ideas.

      Reply • April 6 at 7:57 am
  8. Tepi says:

    Thanx for this post. I have been going through UMWP during the winter and I had to stop making over the head movements (including wall handstand/press) at the middle of phase 5 because of severe pain in the shoulder area, more accurately at the blade and supraspinatus and upper arm (left side only). I have tried to find a way around this but to no avail. Any suggestions/videos about this?


    Reply • April 6 at 5:00 am
  9. Jon Laterveer says:

    I see a few questions about shoulder pain. I have been using your Shoulder Mobility Exercises for Mountain Bikers consistently for about a month, it sure helps. Over the past week recovery from my groin pull and getting back into KB training I have added your Bullet Proof Shoukder workout. This simple workout is terrific, the Reach-Roll-Lift and 1/4 Get up really retrain the shoulders. I think the Reach-Roll-Lift is a key exercise, if you can’t do it you can’t press overhead safely. I have found the Lying Single Arm Press extremely valuable in strengthening and re patterning the pressing movement, the floor gives you consistent feedback about your form and core position.

    Reply • April 6 at 5:36 pm
  10. Jon Laterveer says:

    I have substituted the Single Arm Lying Press for Overhead Presses as per an recommendation you made…

    Reply • April 6 at 5:46 pm
  11. neil says:

    Another excellent informative article and video James.
    Thanks so much

    Reply • April 10 at 10:23 am

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James Wilson
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James Wilson