Exercise is fun. Well, it can be if you allow it to be.
Exercise is also largely safe and effective at enhancing resilience. Again, if you allow it to be.
It is exhausting scrolling through social media — particularly Instagram — and seeing a parade of nocebo-driving posts frightening people into avoiding movement. Health and fitness gurus spend most of their time telling people what not to do.
Don’t squat past 90 degrees — nonsense.
Maintain a specific posture at all times — nonsense.
Don’t lift with a rounded back — nonsense.
There is no “best” exercise or universal form for any movement pattern. We are all unique with differing body types, down to the shape of our bones and joints. Injuries are complex, resulting from a combination of training load (i.e. rigors of a sports season), exercise intensity, external factors (e.g. responding to the opposing players), stress, nutrition, and sleep.
You don’t injure your back because of a butt wink at the bottom of a squat.
Research shows lifting weights is amongst the safest things you can do with respect to athletics. The injury rates — including powerlifting and CrossFit — are far lower than most sports.
The key is building up your capacity appropriately. If you don’t have experience with a type of exercise, don’t start maxing out and performing the exercise daily. But, if you build capacity, listen to your body, and put effort into good recovery and training habits (i.e. diet, sleep, and training frequency), you can perform any exercise you want.
The research backs it up. Need a more personal experience? I have had back pain since I was 15, when I was diagnosed with a stress fracture in my lumbar spine. Since then, I have dealt with intermittent low back pain that peaked three years ago when I attempted powerlifting.
When you mix stubbornness with mediocre training habits, you are liable to overtrain. That’s what happened to me, forcing me to take a step back from heavy lifting for a while.
Now, I listen to my body, taking a step back sooner if needed, focus more on my recovery, and appropriately increase my training intensity.
I also train my body to handle a variety of positions against load.
This is where the instagurus miss the mark. Instead of fearing movement, I embrace it. Since I started implementing squat and deadlift varieties often performed by old-time strongmen, my back has never felt better. I feel more confident with heavy lifting and can train harder. It even feels better when I sleep or sit for long periods.
When it comes to fundamental movements, most people are familiar with the basics — the squat and deadlift. Often you will see the deadlift can be performed conventional or sumo (wide stance) and the squat in one of three positions — high, low, or front rack. Other common variations in the gym include the goblet squat, pistol squat, stiff-leg deadlift, and single-leg Romanian deadlift. I’m going to show you the less common variations that will build your resilience and add some variety to your routine.
These are not to add variety for variety’s sake, rather, they are to build strength, capacity, mobility, and resilience. Several of the exercises require a barbell but some can be done with dumbbells or kettlebells.
I am still a novice with a few of the movements, but I am slowly building up my capacity.
No squat rack? No problem.
If you have a barbell but don’t have a squat rack, a deadlift is not your only option; you can still squat.
A common approach to getting a barbell up is through either cleaning or snatching the weight up first, then lowering the weight onto the shoulders (front squat) or back (back squat). Here are two other variations from the strongman world.
As you increase the weight, try lifting from the floor to the small of your back in one motion, rather than pausing as I do in this video. For a full tutorial, check out this video from a great resource on strongman lifting.
This is a poorly executed Steinborn but I left it to show mechanics don’t need to be perfect. You will have rough lifts. As long as the weight is something you can control, you will be fine. I won’t add significant weight until this becomes more smooth and controlled. That doesn’t mean I will keep the weight static until the lift is “perfect.”
These lifts require a barbell. Using dumbells will change the position of the body and design of the lifts. They may look dangerous but I assure you they are safe, provided you build your body up. Don’t start maxing out with novel movements repeatedly.
These are some of my favorite exercises for fitness and rehabilitation. Exposing the body to new and challenging positions against resistance can better prepare it for strenuous activity in life. These lifts have been integral for my personal low back rehab.
Zercher squat (2 different starting positions, can use a rack too)
1st option to lift the weight
2nd option to lift the weight
Barbell not required
These lifts can be performed with a barbell (that is how I perform them to provide more weight) but it is not necessary. Dumbbells and kettlebells work well. If you are aiming to build strength, power, or muscle, the exercises must be challenging.
There is no magic muscle-building zone (e.g. 8–12 reps) but the intensity must be high. You should only have 1–2 reps left in the tank when you finish a set.
Ypu can do this with the bar in front (like a traditional deadlift) but you will be able to lift more weight with the barbell between the legs.
No weight required
It’s difficult to build strength, power, or muscle with bodyweight only. When starting out, pistol squats can be challenging and achieve these goals, but they are common (which I’m not shooting for in this article) and you are better off lifting more weight with a two limb variety.
There is one large exception to the rule: the Nordic hamstring curl. Again, this is a well-known exercise so I will move on.
The reverse Nordic can be used for quad development, but it is neither a squat nor deadlift, which is my focus here. Therefore, I am left with one ‘no weight’ option to share with you.
The sissy squat.
It may look silly and dangerous for the knees, but once again, slowly build up your depth and frequency. This can be weighted like a suitcase squat if you want an added challenge.
*No knees, backs, hips, or ankles were harmed in the making of these videos.
Implementing these in your workout plan
These lifts are fun, effective, and safe, provided you gradually implement them into your workout plan. You should be comfortable with squatting and deadlifting first, however.
Once you feel comfortable squatting and deadlifting, try some of the common varieties — front squat, goblet squat, and straight led deadlift. All of these lifts are great ways to add variety to your workout.
But don’t add variety for variety's sake (what many fitness gurus do).
The best way to improve your squat and deadlift is to squat and deadlift. There is a reason each is referred to as the king of exercise (I vote squat but understand the argument for deadlifting). They are total-body exercises that will build strength, power, and muscle. But only squatting and deadlifting can become tedious and your progress may stall.
Our bodies are remarkable. They adapt well to stimuli placed on them. They are not cars in need of alignment. They will not break if loaded out of midline.
Ignore the fitness gurus and their nocebo messaging of harm.
Enjoy your exercise.