Stop Exercising While Sitting Down

By Jon Habeshy

stop training while sitting down

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Standing Up While Training, A Novel Idea…

Let’s face it, laziness has become a part of human nature! Even our efforts to better ourselves through training and exercise are embedded with laziness.

Consider your last trip to the gym. What did the crowd of people look like in the free weight are vs. the machine area? Chances are you saw more people sitting down on the machines than you did standing up moving a barbell, dumbbells, or kettlebells. You may even see more people sitting down for cardio.

Here’s the problem, you weren’t made to sit on a seat! It’s a fact that before the toilet seat was invented people sat on air and took care of business. Nowadays many of us sit chronically at work, at home, and then we just propagate the pattern by going to the gym… and sitting!

Many orthopedic diagnoses are linked to chronic sitting. Low back pain is inextricably linked to tight hip flexors and tight hamstrings, muscles that are in a shortened position when you are sitting. It gets better when you’re older. You’ll be sitting more, confined to a wheelchair, and your former 5’11 self will probably be 5’9 at best.

Why do we do sitting exercises when we really should be standing? Simple, they are easier! Why set up with dumbbells or a barbell and plates when you can just sit on a machine and set a pin?

Exercises done in standing or supine require good posture, which means spending more time working on your posture. Standing exercises require core strength, something that you become deconditioned from when you spend most of your day sitting.

Is Sitting While Exercising Hurting Your Orthopedic Health?

Ask yourself, how are your joints? How is your back feeling? Do you feel beat up? Not for reasons of CNS overtraining but because your posture sucks! Lower back pain or tightness, chronically slumped shoulders, and similar problems aren’t helping you make gains in the gym.

If this describes you then you need to take a corrective approach to your training rather than banging your head against a wall repeatedly. It’s time to stop sitting in the gym and start standing!

While you are reading this, you are probably not sitting in a wheelchair most of the day; many of the people I work with are in wheelchairs. If they can stand, we have them stand. If they cannot stand, we have them lay down in supine to strengthen them. In my years of experience working in long-term care and skilled nursing, the patients who consistently exercise in standing and/or supine get stronger, faster!

If this approach works for a population with a host of impairments and complex medical history, imagine how much more effective it will be for you who are probably still in possession of your full health.

How To Train These 4 Traditional Seated Movements In Standing

Here’s your options when it comes to training:

  1. Keep doing sitting exercises and watch your posture continue to deteriorate OR
  2. Start emphasizing standing and/or supine exercises and start seeing improvements in not just muscle strength and size but also improvements in your posture and overall orthopedic health!

The following are 4 common sitting exercises that I recommend you swap out for more effective variations done in either standing/upright positioning or done in supine.

#1 Replace The Seated Cable Rows Standing Cable Rows

Compared to other positions, sitting upright produces the greatest compressive force on the lumbar spine. If you add heavy loading to horizontal pulling in that position you have a recipe for higher risk of disc herniation. I personally love this exercise; however, if you have a history of low back pain or weakness in your core musculature there are better ways to do this!

You won’t be able to go as heavy with these since your body weight becomes the counter balance against the weight of the stack you are pulling. You want to get into the top half of the squat position and sitting back just enough to keep yourself from pulling forward. You may need to sit back a little farther the heavier you go.

Contract your glutes hard, keep your spine neutral, tuck your chin, and drive your elbows back. The handle should meet the bottom your rib cage and keep your elbows tucked at the sides. This is a great warm-up or finisher for your back days or even to complement your pressing days and to help protect the shoulder complex.

#2 Replace The Seated Military Press With The Standing Military Press

As previously mentioned, we already know sitting causes the most compressive force on the lumbar spine. This exercise is great for exacerbating the problem since many of you are sitting throughout the day. What else tends to happen when you sit? Your shoulder blades come forward and you slump. A flexed thoracic spine with protracted scapulae is not a recipe for healthy pressing, especially if you plan to do any kind of heavy loading with it!

The key here is getting yourself in position to go through the full range-of-motion and not be limited by the position of your scapula and thoracic spine. It’s also important to note, thoracic extension and lumbar extension are not the same thing.

Trying to compensate for the lack of thoracic extension by over-extending the lumbar spine is also problematic. This really is a full body exercise because you need to have your hips fully extended and your core stabilized along with adequate thoracic extension and external rotation of the shoulder joint. Also, the stricter you are with the motion, the more likely you will be to maintain postural control; momentum and hip drive are not your friend here.

Once you have fully mastered the movement pattern here, you can attempt higher loading. My personal recommendation, however, is that you avoid heavy loading on this exercise unless you are an Olympic weightlifter or strongman competitor in which you would need to have a high level of overhead pressing strength. You should also take note, as you can see in the videos, when doing these corrective exercises, I tend to avoid high reps and I prefer my clients do more sets to get their volume in. The idea is to learn to move right so it’s best to stop short instead of letting your form break down to hit your rep goal.

#3 Replace The Seated Leg Press With Trap Bar Deadlifts

My personal preference is to use these as a warm-up, I do not advocate doing these as a primary compound or assistance exercise. Again, from a corrective standpoint, trying to go heavy on these will not help you move better! If all you care about is building muscle, that’s fine; but if you can’t move right eventually you won’t be able to build anything!

Heavy leg presses tend to turn into an ego exercise. Just look at most of the leg press videos out there; there’s usually too much weight, too little ROM, and/or their butts are coming off the seats. Perfectly executed HEAVY leg presses are a rarity. They can be useful for bodybuilding and strength training, but it’s not imperative to do them with a heavy load and serve little, if any, benefit as a corrective exercise.

If you look at the positioning of your hands relative to your legs it looks very much like how you might hold the handles on a leg press machine. Also, because of the orientation of the loading, the weight is closer to your center of gravity. This makes it a lot easier to minimize lumbar flexion and reduces the shearing force on your spine.

Compare this to a conventional deadlift where the load is farther away from the spine, increasing the shearing force. Since it’s easier to keep the hips lower it allows for more ROM in the hips and knees with less strain on the back. You’ll also notice that I’m pushing with my quads here and using the trap bar allows me to position for whatever muscle group I want to focus on (quads or posterior chain). Once you’ve reached the top of the lift you’ll be more likely to be in better postural alignment with the shoulders down and back and in the same “plumb line” with your hips. You’ll get all the benefits of the leg press with corrective benefits to boot!

#4 Replace The Seated Machine Crunch With Hanging Leg Raises

Sitting with forceful lumbar flexion? That sounds like a contribution to your physical therapist’s monthly car payment if you ask me! The best way to stimulate the core muscles is by executing movements at the shoulders and hips while maintaining the positioning of your spine. This requires you to contract your transverse abdominus hard to maintain that position.

You’ve probably seen most hanging leg raise variations with instructions to flex your lumbar spine to recruit the rectus abdominus (your 6-pack muscle). Doing them strictly while minimizing the lumbar flexion will still recruit the rectus isometrically and have greater involvement of the transverse. The hang stretches out the shoulders and promotes vertebral distraction, which is great after a heavy squatting or deadlifting session!

About The Author

jon habeshyJon Habeshy, BS, PTA

Jon is a licensed physical therapist assistant, personal trainer, competitive bodybuilder, and contest prep coach with over 10 years of experience in the healthcare and fitness industry.

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  1. Shawn Eagle March 19, 2017 at 12:57 pm - Reply

    Great article. I agree 110%. Way too many people sitting to exercise.
    You should think about changing your URL to dot net or dot org. People will take it more seriously. Dot com websites aren’t the most reliable of sources and you are obviously properly trained and educated. Think about it. (And yes I take you seriously)

  2. Brian April 5, 2017 at 11:56 am - Reply

    Agree 100%. After a serious disc herniation, I would tell everyone – JUST DON’T!

    Don’t sit and do overhead press. Stand for that. And do handstand pushups.
    Don’t sit and do lateral raises. Stand and use dumbbells.

    Don’t do squats down to sitting on a box. If you sit down at the bottom of those, you will naturally relax, the lumbar back will round or flatten, and when you go back up, you’re guaranteed terrible form. If you have to put a box back there so you know you’ve gone down far enough, just barely touch it. Never sit on it.

    Disc damage is cumulative.

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