We all know that we should exercise regularly because it’s good for us, but if you suffer from musculoskeletal joint pain, some exercises are better than others. This was a topic I covered recently for the PBS website, NextAvenue.org.

In the article I explained the benefits of using functional or corrective exercises to coax the body back into proper alignment, and re-learn how to move. Hours of sitting hunched over at a desk, sitting in the car, and sitting on the couch have wrecked our bodies. The result is often neck, back or hip pain that can radiate outward, affecting other areas of the body as well. While better sitting posture is key to preventing a relapse back into this cycle of pain, in order to get out of that cycle in the first place, you have to correct your posture and your movement patterns. And surprisingly, many of the traditional exercises you might be doing could actually be making matters worse.

Why Bicep Curls Are Bad For You
Exercises that isolate a single joint and only work one muscle group at a time are generally a bad idea. These exercises include bicep curls, dumbbell raises (front or lateral, with a straight arm), hamstring curls, the “pec deck” and leg extensions. For starters, exercises like these involve moving a weight at the end of a long lever (your body part), which generates a lot of force (read: strain) on the acting joint. In the case of bicep curls, it’s the elbow joint, for hamstring curls and leg extensions it’s the knee joint, and for dumbbell raises and the pec deck, it’s the shoulder joint.

The second reason these exercises are a bad idea is that they can easily create muscle imbalances in the body. I call these exercises “vanity moves,” because they are usually performed for the sole purpose of growing or shaping muscle. The problem with that is we favor these exercises to the exclusion of other exercises. Because we are a mirror-obsessed society, we tend to focus most on what we can easily see: arms, shoulders, chest, abs, thighs. We pay less attention to our upper back and glutes, and completely neglect the many muscles of the lower back and hip complex. So we develop muscular asymmetries, which exacerbate our already bad posture and movement patterns.

Finally, single-joint exercises simply don’t produce any real strength or functional advantage. You may be able to move 150 pounds on the hamstring curl machine, but that doesn’t do anything for you in real life. The same is true for bicep curls: hoisting a heavy bar looks cool, but when’s the last time you lifted anything other than a weight using only your elbow joint and the muscles attached to it?

Do This Instead
It’s much better to spend your time in the gym doing multi-joint, compound exercises like squats, deadlifts, pushups or bench presses, pull-ups or lat pull-downs, and overhead presses. These exercises not only mimic our actual movement patterns, but they require a lot more energy (read: calories) to perform, and they elicit a greater metabolic and hormonal response, leading to faster strength and muscle gains. Most importantly, though, when done correctly (under the guidance of a good trainer), they can also correct your postural deficiencies and help erase those aches and pains you thought were just part of life now.

For more information on functional and corrective exercise, check out my article at NextAvenue.org. For expert guidance in setting up your own functional exercise program, contact me for personal training services.