fitness exercise strength
Moves that are too technical or easily butchered won't be as efficient as moves you can do correctly every single time. (Photo: Geber86/iStock)

Five Foolproof Strength Exercises

You know your weight-training regimen? It's breaking you down. Build yourself up for endurance success—and prevent injury—with these five improved alternatives.

fitness exercise strength
Michael Beck

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You’re in a slump, reading these words hunched over a keyboard or your smartphone. It’s habit that’s throwing your body out of whack and resulting in a musculoskeletal system that’s about as architecturally sound as that 1950s-era Springbar tent gramps left you.

“Our bodies adapt to the positions we put them in the most,” says James Wilson, owner of MTB Strength Training Systems. “When you sit hunched over a desk all day a lot of areas become tight, off kilter, and weak.”

If you’re the kind of athlete who supplements outdoor sports with strength work in the gym, performing some of the most popular and oft-prescribed exercises—like barbell back squats, conventional deadlifts, and military presses—can set you up for injury. “Classic barbell exercises are great if you can do them right,” says Ben Bruno, C.S.C.S., a Los Angeles-based trainer. “But they’re the most commonly butchered because they’re highly technical and require a lot of mobility.”

Take the squat and deadlift, which require all the muscles in your body to work together. “So mobility deficits, asymmetries, and weaknesses in your hips are going to throw the entire move off, shifting the weight to delicate areas like your knees or low back,” Wilson says.

The fix: Chose exercises, like the five presented below, that hardly ever go wrong. 

“It’s a question of risk versus reward,” says Bruno. “These moves have far less risk, but their rewards and payoffs are the same.” By their very nature, these five exercises remove your weak link and put your body in a position where you can likely perform each rep with perfect form, reducing your risk of injury. And besides keeping you off the DL, these five moves have another upshot, says Wilson. “They all carry over to adventure sports more than their alternatives.”

Swap out your old barbell exercises for these improved variations. For a total body workout, do each exercise for three to five sets of eight to ten reps.

For Your Lower Back

Instead of: Barbell back squats
Do: Bulgarian split squats

“This exercise gives you the same lower body training effect as the back squat,” says Bruno. “But because it doesn’t require as much hip, ankle, and thoracic mobility, most people can do them with ease.” The move also trains you to maintain the bottom position of a lunge, and then power out of that position, which is why it’s especially great for tele skiers, hikers, and trail runners.

Hold a dumbbell in each hand and stand facing away from a bench, with the bench about a foot behind you. Place your right foot on the edge of the bench so you’re standing on your left leg. Lower your body until your left knee is bent to 90 degrees, then push back to the start. Do all your reps, then switch legs.

Build Explosive Strength 

Instead of: Barbell deadlift
Do: Kettlebell stagger stance deadlift

The conventional deadlift requires serious hip mobility. And if you don’t have that hip mobility, you’ll bend at the low back, shifting the weigh there, which is a recipe for disaster. The stagger stance deadlift cuts the mobility requirement. What’s more, it uses the exact same foot positioning and movement patterns that bikers use for seated pedaling and the downhill attack position on a mountain bike, says Wilson.

Put two kettlebells side-by-side on floor in front of you. Place your feet in a stagger stance, your left foot slightly forward and your right just behind and to the side of it. Push your hips back, bend your knees slightly, and grasp the handles of the kettlebells. Then thrust your hips forward to come to a standing position, the brunt of the weight on your forward leg. Squeeze your left glute at the top of the move. Return the kettlebells to the start. Do all your reps with your left leg forward, then switch legs.

Protect Those Shoulders

Instead of: Barbell military press
Do: Externally rotated pushup

The military press is risky because most guys can’t lift weight straight overhead without bending their lower back. What’s more, biking, climbing, skiing, and fly fishing all keep your arms and hands internally rotated—your palms facing downward or inward, like in the military press, says Wilson. The externally rotated pushup puts your hands and arms into an outward position, which engages your underused shoulder muscles. Strengthening those muscles can help you prevent injuries down the road, like issues with your rotator cuff.

Set up a TRX and hold the handles out in front of you, the straps taut. Walk a step or two back so that your entire body is leaning forward, your weight resting on your hands. Rotate your hands so your thumbs are pointing out and your palms are facing up. Now, bend your arms and do a pushup, lowering yourself until your chest touches the TRX handles. Pause, then push yourself back up.

Get Ready to Climb

Instead of: Bent-over barbell row
Do: Chest supported row

Climbing is essentially a series of pulls. So to work that pulling motion, most guys do bent-over barbell rows. “But you see a lot of body [movement] when guys row the weight,” says Bruno. “And that puts stress on the low back.” Adding support from the bench allows you to maximally work your upper back without involving your lower back. And those bolstered pulling muscles will help you last high into your favorite climbing route.

Set an adjustable bench at a slight incline. Grab a dumbbell in each hand and then lie facedown on the bench, the dumbbells hanging in your hands near the floor. Pull the dumbbells up to just below your pecs. Pause, then lower them back down.

Build a Rock-Steady Core

Instead of: Situps
Do: Kneeling Inch Worm

Situps put undue stress on your spine. Plus, there aren’t many adventure sports that require you to flex your spine forward like you do in a situp. Kneeling inch worms teach you to brace your core and stabilize your shoulders, says Wilsom. That’s key in any speed sport, like skiing and biking.

Get on your knees and place your hands on the ground in front of your knees. Brace your core as you slowly walk your hands out in small “steps.” Walk as far out as you can while keeping your core braced, then walk slowly back to the start. That’s one rep.

Lead Photo: Geber86/iStock