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I have had few back and shoulder injuries over the years which left me terrified of those happening again. The recovery was slow and I lost much of the ground I've gained since I had to go with lower weights and better posture, almost in a physiotherapy way.

I heard from an instructor that heavy lifter tend to injury since they tend to concentrate on only a smaller set of muscles and some of the more "difficult" muscles to target are not exercised properly.

So recently on those chit-chats on the gym someone mentioned that I should start doing "foundation" exercises in between sets, during the rest period. Those exercises would be with barely or no weight at all, slow speed and higher repetition and they should not be focusing on the muscle being worked.

For example:

  • 1 set of biceps curl, during the rest, execute 15 reps of forearm
  • 1 set of bench press -> alternating deltoid raise

Now I would like to know what are the pros/cons for this approach?
If anyone here thinks it is okay to start with this regimen.

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2 Answers

up vote 9 down vote accepted

You do have the right basic concept that low weight exercises can help build smaller muscles. However, it does require a better understanding of kinesiology (exercise science) to know which small muscles need help, how often, and when.

For example, lifters who focus on bench press and rows will have the major muscle groups exercised. However, the rotator cuff can go unused because all the surrounding muscles are compensating. The more you keep lifting heavy, the worse the problem gets. Eventually you can get a rotator cuff injury which will keep you off the bench for a while. The guys over at DeiselCrew.com have a great video for a week of shoulder rehab you can do to strengthen the smaller muscles.

However, there are other complementary main exercises a lifter can do to keep healthy rotator cuffs, and other stabilizer muscles. For example, the standing overhead press does a good job of maintaining shoulder health. You can't do it for as much weight as the bench, and it exercises the shoulders on a different plane of loading that is more ideal for the way our body is built.

Some small exercises are superfluous when combined with other compound lifts. For example, forearm curls make no sense when you do heavy deadlifts and/or pullups/chinups. The reason being that your forearms get more than enough stimulus holding on to the bar.

Here's the bottom line:

  • Very low weight resistance isolation exercises are great for rehab/prehab of smaller supporting muscle groups.
  • Compound lifts do exercise the majority of small muscles, with some notable exceptions
  • Just as problematic as underuse (atrophy) is overuse injuries. The most common form of overuse injury is tendinitis--an inflammation of the tendons in the joint being overused.
  • Don't neglect mobility. Mobility exercises can prevent a different sort of injury due to not having the flexibility to do your main exercises with proper form.

A better approach would be to diagnose and resolve problems. If the problems are common enough, you can plan regular maintenance. For example, once a month you can run the shoulder rehab protocol to maintain healthy shoulders. You'll want to see what existing rehab/prehab routines there are, and then plan to incorporate them at different times.

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It's not always necessary to focus so diligently on "out-of-the-way" muscles, but for many athletes with prior injuries or non-athletes it is.

More important than exercises like this is programming a lifting regimen that is well-balanced. Pushes like the bench press should be balanced with pulls like rows or pull-ups, squats should be complemented with deadlifts, curls (if you must) should be balanced with extension work.

Also more fundamental than getting the "small muscles" is working on mobility generally. Getting your hip, shoulder and other joints operating freely is a major project for most people and is highly productive.

Once you have a well-balanced strength and mobility program, it's awesome to start collecting a variety of low-weight exercises meant to target injury-prone areas for prehabilitation. I've been told that these from an excellent Men's Journal article called Everything You Know About Fitness is a Lie are reasonable:

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I have also enjoyed Hindu pushups, Cuban presses, kettlebell halos, and dynamic stretches like arm and leg swings per Tom Kurz. When I do those regularly, my body feels more solid and less creaky when I play sports.

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