It Depends


There are many times where I am asked a question about a particular exercise or movement. Is the exercise a good one? Is the movement exercise going to be helpful? If I have performed a physical evaluation, where I have measured out ranges of motion in the hips, hip flexion, T-spine, shoulders, etc. then my answer to these questions will be pretty precise. However, there are many times (most of the time) I get asked by people I have not evaluated and the question is not so easily answered. I usually just tell them “it depends.” It sounds like a copout but it’s the only answer I can give at the time. Why would that be? Take the deadlift. It’s a great exercise. It is one of the most fundamental exercises one can do. But, as great as this exercise is, it can also be a bad exercise for some.

In previous posts I have mentioned the joint by joint approach and how I apply this to my clients. A quick recap: the body is designed in an alternating pattern of mobile and stable joints. If this pattern is disrupted compensation is likely, followed by pain and dysfunction. (You can read more about it here:  Obesity is not our enemy…it’s a symptom. Every time I do an evaluation I am measuring the joint range of motions and I am trying to see if the stable joints are stable and if the mobile joints are mobile. I am looking for a solid hip hinge during a toe touch. I am looking for a host of things really and these things are generally my road map as to what is causing pain, if there is any pain, dysfunction and exactly what does the person need to make training more successful. Without doing this evaluation I am merely guessing and this can lead to reinforcing bad movement patterns or exacerbating painful movements.

Back to my statement that deadlifts are a great fundamental exercise for some but a terrible idea for some. If a person cannot make a proper hip hinge they have no business loading a bar and doing a deadlift. They will not have proper muscle recruitment, the lumbar spine will bear much of the load/stress and they are merely making the bad movement pattern permanent. I will go one step further, if you cannot touch your toes I do not believe conventional deadlifts from the floor are a good idea for you. Every human being should be able to touch their toes on command. We lose the ability to do this largely because of ergonomics. Our jobs and schools are destroying our bodies. This is covered in a great detail in the previously mentioned blog post.

Another exercise I get asked about a lot is squats. “Are squats good or bad for me?” Again, it depends. If you cannot dorsiflex your ankle (Stand up on your bare feet and lift your right toes up as high as possible keeping that heel on the ground. This is dorsiflexion) then squats is not a great idea for you, at least not loaded or flat footed. If you have poor ankle mobility your ability to fire your glutes is severely limited, as in it will not happen. This requires you to recruit the wrong muscles and puts tremendous strain on the knees and low back. Also, if you cannot perform a deep body weight squat or at least to parallel then loaded backs squats are a horrible idea. I have seen many people perform loaded barbell squats and the only reason they get close to parallel is because of the stress of the load. Forcing a motion your body rejects is a recipe for disaster. You cannot coach yourself or anyone else through dysfunction. If your ankle does not like dorsiflexion you cannot coach your way through it. Your heel will lift up every time until you eventually hurt yourself and stop performing the madness.

A quick side track about pain, but still relative to the topic: pain is usually the last thing we feel and is usually the first thing to go away. We usually have hurt ourselves long before and we are usually not better just because we don’t feel any pain. I heard Greg Rose, cofounder of TPI, once say that the absence of pain does not equal all better. Listen to your body. Also, if you are in pain and let’s say your low back is locked up, stretching is not going to be ticket to pain free. Your body tightened up to protect you from a particular motion(s). Your body is trying to protect itself but if you insist on not listening then you should be prepared to pay the cost.

There are times where there are concrete answers to our questions but when it comes to the body the answer is often, it depends. It is not a copout answer and it does not mean that you are incompetent. In fact, it means the exact opposite. It means that you are smart enough to know that you do not have all of the information.  The first job of any trainer, nurse, doctor, PT, chiropractor, etc. is to do no harm. This applies to anyone walking into a gym, trainer or not. You are there to make yourself better, not worse.

How do you know what you should and should not do? The best way is to get a physical assessment done. Measure your ankle ROM, rotation (shoulders, hips and T-spine), hip hinge, etc. Once the assessment is completed go over with your trainer. They should be able to tell what everything means to you. If they cannot intelligently explain your results where you can understand them then you should get a new trainer. The information is useless if you don’t know what it means. Feel free to contact me through my website,, for any questions or more information about getting your assessment. Train hard, train smart and head down.


“Don’t downgrade your dream just to fit your reality. Upgrade your conviction to match your destiny.” Dr. Perry Nickelston

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