When An Exercise Has The Opposite Effect That You Intended


It's easy to google "top three shoulder exercises" or "best moves for the glutes", then go to town on the exercises that come up. 

But, just because you perform an exercise that's supposed to target a certain muscle, this DOES NOT gaurentee that the target muscle will be trained effectively. 

If you want to target a certain muscle to build-up a weak link, you need to feel the exercise in that muscle. Sounds simple, but it isn't always as straight forward if you might think.

  1. Do you feel a glute bridge more in the hamstrings, glutes or back?
  2. Do you feeling chin-ups more in the back or biceps?
  3. Do you feel shoulder press in the delts, neck/traps, triceps, wrist?
  4. Do you feel rowing work in the mid back or arms or upper trap?
  5. Do you feel RDLs more in the hamstrings or back?

These are all important things to pay attention to because they tell you whether or not you're performing the exercise correctly, and whether it's a good fit for what your body needs. Let me explain.

Two Clients with Broken Glutes

A while back I had two clients come to me asking if I could help them strengthen their glutes.

Their physio had assessed them and told them that their glutes 'weren't firing'. As a result, they both reported feeling some back soreness during squatting.

This doesn't necessarily mean that their glutes were completely shut off. Actually, both had visibly muscular glutes. So, no atrophy. For these two it simply meant that their glutes were too weak in comparison to the other muscles around the leg/hip. The glutes worked up to a point, but at heavier loads/under more fatigue, they weren't strong enough to carry their fair share of the work compared to the other muscles. As a result, other muscles in the back became overworked and pissed off. This is where the breakdown occurred.

OK, so their glutes are too weak. Sounds like a simple fix. Just do some glute exercises, like glute bridges or something, until they get stronger. Right? Wrong.


PR COACHING assessment and correction plan for broken glutes (it's a more common affliction that you might think!)
Even if an exercise looks perfect, it matters (a lot) which muscles you feel working/developing fatigue. Use this assessment guide to ensure your exercises are having the correct effects.


The Simple Assessment

I had them perform 5-7 basic 'glute exercises' and asked where they felt any muscle fatigue developing. Some of these included:


Interesting Results

After trying 5-7 drills, one client could feel their glutes working in only one exercise (modified clams) and the other could feel the glutes in two exercises (modified clams and side shuffles).

If the glutes were functioning properly/in balance, you should be able to feel them working in all of the exercises we tested. 

So what gives?

How did we get the glutes to work properly again?

Correcting this Problem

Step 1: Find A Way To Work The Muscle

Start with frequent training on the exercises where you can properly activate the target muscle. Discard the exercises that aren't working/creating fatigue in the muscle.

The purpose here is to build some basic strength-endurance and to the enhance the trainee's ability to control/coordinate movement with the muscle. This means that you need to develop the ability to 'think into the muscle' and have it contract/become stiff. Most people can do this with their biceps. You just think about flexing/sitffening your bis without moving your arm, and chances are you can make it flex. That's what I mean by 'thinking into the muscle'. It's body control and the brain-body connection.  

In this case, we had the clients do several sets of clams every day for about 10 days to get the muscles fired up. 


Step 2: Re-Assess And Add New Movements

Now that we had a base to work from and the client could 'find' the target muscle, I asked them to do new exercises and try to get the same feeling of fatigue in the glutes as they did in step 1. At this point, we still want to keep the exercises very targeted and relatively simple (i.e more isolation exercises and less multi-joint movements). The athlete won't be ready for complex exercises yet.

The key here is that the client must feel muscular fatigue accumulating primarily in the target muscle. If they don't feel this, the exercise isn't doing it's job.

We'd start the workout with clams to activate the glutes, since we knew they would work for sure, and then added kneeling hip extensions and bridges and other drills. It took another 3 weeks or so to build the coordination necessary to consistently get the glutes working in all these exercises.


Step 3: Re-Assess And Add Complexity

From here, we kept some of the basic drills in the program to reinforce proper activation (usually in the warm-up), and then we started training the clients how to properly active the glutes in full body movements.

In this case, we started with deadlifting, split squats and step-up variations. From there, we tackled the squat, which was the exercise that was giving them the problems to begin with.We started with lighter weights and emphasized how the movement felt. Then, we gradually increased the load as high as possible without the movement changing and without losing the feeling that the glutes were engaged. It took several weeks of this before they were handling loads close to what they would have used in training before we started the rebuilding/retraining process. 

With enough time and practice, both were able to get their glutes 'to fire' properly, and their stability and positioning in their key lifts (particularly the squat), improved considerably. But this would have been impossible without taking a couple steps back to re-build some fundamentals. 

Key Take Aways

  1. Even if an exercise looks perfect, it matters (a lot) which muscles you feel working/developing fatigue.
  2. If you can't feel the target muscle (assuming that there is a reason to target a specific muscle/muscle group to begin with), experiment with different exercises until you find one that works. Practice this frequently until you can gradually work on carrying over your new skill/coordination to other more complex movements. 
  3. If the correct muscle isn't pulling it's weight, then another muscle (or series of muscles) will need to take on extra work to complete the movement you're doing. This can lead to less force production (i.e. you'll be weaker/performance potential decreases), and potentially injury down the road on the tissues that are taking more than their fair share of stress.

    By continuing incorrect training, the target muscle will not get any stronger while the muscle that's compensating for it will get stronger - making the imbalance worse and worse. Remember, when you have an issue with your body, you can make it better or worse. It rarely stays the same. .