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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