The Three Rules

Last Friday as I was finishing my workout another trainer who rents from the gym came in with three obese clients. She led them right past the MedX machines, past the barbells and dumbbells, had them pick up sledgehammers, then took them outside behind the building. One of the bay doors was open, so I walked over to get a closer look at what she had them doing. I expected something stupid, but what I saw shocked me.

All three were standing around the same tire swinging sledgehammers at it. Having obese people in obviously poor condition performing hard physical work in the hot sun is stupid. Sledgehammer training is stupid. Having people swing any hard, heavy object while standing as close to one another as they were is really stupid. If one of them lost their grip or balance the situation could have very quickly gone from stupidity to tragedy. If you have three obese people standing outside in the hot sun around the same tire swinging sledgehammers at it you have no business training anyone.

Sledgehammers: great for breaking up concrete or pounding fence posts, NOT for exercise.

Sledgehammers: great for breaking up concrete or pounding fence posts, NOT for exercise.

There are three rules every trainee or personal trainer should follow and this breaks all of them.

1. Do what works best for each individual and their goals

Use the most effective methods and tools available for yours or your clients’ goals. Not what is popular, trendy, or fun. Not what they think they need because their friends or some celebrity, athlete, or television doctor or “trainer” recommends it.  What matters most is whether and how well it works.

Proponents claim sledgehammer training is an effective way to improve metabolic and cardiovascular conditioning, core strength, and grip and forearm strength. However, since it does not provide relatively balanced, continuous loading for any of the muscles involved it is relatively inefficient and ineffective for all of these goals. Chin ups or close, underhand-grip pull downs and deadlifts or trunk extensions and compound rows would be far more effective and allow for more efficient resistance progression.

There is no general factor of functional ability, health, or physical appearance that can’t be improved more effectively by proper training with conventional bodyweight, free weight and machine exercises. If you have some empty floor space and a chin up bar, an adjustable barbell or dumbbells, or a basic line of decent machines, you have no reason to swing sledgehammers or kettlebells, flip tires, drag sleds, throw medicine balls, lift sandbags, wave ropes, do Olympic lifting or plyometrics, balance on Bosu balls or wobble boards, or any similar nonsense.

It makes no sense for that “trainer” to have those people swinging sledgehammers at a tire when there are barbells, dumbbells, and MedX  machines inside the building only a few feet away.

2. Don’t hurt anyone

All else being equal, use the safest methods and tools available.

A major goal of any exercise program should be to improve your long term health and functional ability. Obviously, getting injured or putting a lot of unnecessary wear and tear on your body is counterproductive to this. While any physically demanding activity carries some risk of injury and causes some wear, when done properly and with proper equipment exercise is one of the safest and least damaging things you can do.

To minimize the risk of injury during exercise it is necessary to move in a slow and controlled manner to avoid rapid acceleration and positions where the involved tissues might be excessively stretched or compressed so the force the body encounters stays within safe levels. This means lifting and lowering the weights or your body under strict control, not swinging, flipping, throwing, yanking, jerking, bouncing, etc.

Any exercise that requires a weight or the body to be swung, jerked, etc. should be avoided. Whatever muscles are involved can be trained more safely and effectively with an exercise which can be performed with a strict lifting and lowering movement.

Having people perform any exercise that involves people swinging or throwing any heavy weight within arms reach of another person is almost unbelievably stupid and if you tell people to do this you deserve to be punched in the face.

3. Don’t waste time

All else being equal, use the most efficient methods and tools available.

If you have a choice between different methods and tools which are similarly safe and effective, choose the one that makes the most economical use of your resources. You have a limited amount of time, money, and space, and life is too short and there are too many worthwhile things to do to waste any of them.

If you are a personal trainer, respect your clients’ time and money as well and don’t waste it. Don’t tell them to work out for an hour three or four times a week when they can get the same or better results training less than half an hour once or twice weekly. Don’t charge them for an hour, and have them spend half of that or more doing things they could have done just as well without your supervision or instruction or don’t need or benefit from (like warming up on a “cardio” machine for fifteen minutes or doing fifteen to twenty minutes of “core” work).

Be flexible, but don’t compromise results, safety, or efficiency.

Individual goals, health and functional ability, and response to exercise varies. Constraints like scheduling, space, and available equipment varies. Although the principles of effective exercise are the same for everyone there is a lot of flexibility in how they can and should be applied based on these things. Exercise programming needs to fit the individual, not the other way around. As Ryan Hall put it in his 2005 Indy High Intensity Training Seminar presentation on genetics and individual variability in response to exercise, “…all cookie-cutter programs are null and void”.

This flexibility should exist within an objective framework, though, which in addition to being based on evidence of what does and does not work prioritizes results, safety, and efficiency. Treat everyone as an individual, but use what works best for them and don’t hurt anyone or waste their time.

Update: I forgot to mention although sledgehammers should not be swung for exercise, they are well suited to and can be used safely and effectively for strengthening the grip and forearm in wrist adduction and abduction when lifted and lowered in a slow and controlled manner. Systematic resistance progression in these exercises can be achieved by adjusting the distance of the grip from the head of the hammer, with the distance in inches or centimeters marked along the handle.

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