For example, for at least the past year I have seen only the seated version of the bent-over lateral arm exercise described. It appears that even the overhead press and biceps curl is gaining more supporters for the seated version rather than the standing version. In essence, there is considerable debate on seated vs standing exercises.
Why Seated Exercising is Preferred
Some of the reasons given for preferring the seated version include that it does not allow for cheating, is more stable, is safer and makes the exercise more difficult. Close scrutiny of these reasons, however, may show that they are not valid. Many seated exercise may not be only more dangerous, but more ineffective than the standing version.
In fact, according to many chiropractors, the seated position is probably the number one cause of back problems. The reason for this is that it is very difficult to maintain proper spinal posture while seated. Proper posture means that your spine is in maintained its normal, slightly arched position in the lumbar region.
In effective standing or seated posture your trunk should be erect from the pelvis to the head. If your trunk is not erect and you instead have a rounded spine, the forces acting on the spine are compounded greatly.
In time they can cause severe injury especially during repeated resistive movement. For example, handling weights with a rounded spine is a common cause of injury to the back. This happens most often when lifting weights off the floor or from a low height.
Attaining and maintaining proper seated posture is much more difficult than assuming and holding proper standing posture. When you are seated you must contract the erector spinae muscles of the back to force you into proper posture and keep the muscles contracted to hold that position. However, most chairs are not made for you to sit upright. This is true of most chairs and especially couches and sofas. The soft seats automatically roll the pelvis under and create a rounded spine.
Also, when you sit erect in a chair and you relax the erector spinae muscles, you will notice that the pelvis slides out and tilts backward so that you have a rounded back. Merely looking at a seated audience shows this quite clearly. You’ll see most of the people with the buttocks slid forward to the front of the seat, a rounded spine and the shoulders up against the mid- to upper part of the seat. Very few people will have their full spine flush against the back of the chair.
In the standing position it is easier to hold the spine in good position not only by consciously thinking of contracting the erector spinae muscles, but by merely lifting the head and looking forward. This activates the “righting” reflex, which holds you in an erect position. Thus simple maneuvering of the head is usually sufficient for good standing posture rather than trying to constantly maintain a strong contraction of the lower back muscles, as is needed in many seated positions.
In addition, it is important to understand that when you are in a standing position your legs can act as a safety valve. If the weights are exceptionally heavy, you can absorb some of the forces with slight knee flexion and extension. In some case, you can even use the legs to give a slight assist to execute the exercise properly and effectively.
Why Seated Exercises are Not Recommended
It is important to understand that assuming the seated position because your balance is not as good as it should be, only creates a potentially more dangerous situation. More effective is to improve your balance rather than avoiding the necessity to balance. Balance can be improved quite easily by doing ankle, hip and spine extension exercises, as well as exercises for all the hip muscles. When these muscles are strong they can hold your upper body erect and in a stable position.
It is relatively easy to practice balance by doing different exercises. This includes one leg stands with the trunk and free leg in different positions. In addition, doing exercises on one leg and in some cases doing exercises on both legs but with the eyes closed, can improve your balance capabilities greatly.
It should also be noted that in the biceps curl exercise if you have a rounded back you place the arm in a disadvantageous position for effectively isolating the biceps. Since the biceps is a two-joint muscle it should be positioned so that the upper end of the muscle is placed on stretch.
To do this you should hold the arm alongside or slightly behind the body to do the exercise most effectively. In the seated position this becomes impossible because of balance and posture. Thus, assuming a seated position to do curls, which can in time can injure the lower back, is a poor substitute for doing an exercise incorrectly.
The seated overhead press is also very dangerous for some of the same reasons. When you are in a seated position with a rounded back and then press weights overhead the pressure on the spinal discs is multiplied several times. The exact amount will depend upon the weight that you are using and how rounded you maintain the spine.
However, when you return the weights to shoulder level and round the spine again as occurs in the seated position, it can create spinal problems. The constant switching from flexion to extension, together with the build-up of great disc pressure and compaction can lead to negative results.
Thus when you position yourself to do the seated bent-over lateral arm raise your lower back muscles become stretched and relaxed. Only the lower back ligaments support the spine. Contracting the abdominals in the seated position as is often recommended only compounds the problem. When you contract the abdominal muscles they pull the spine into greater flexion which is even more dangerous.
Thus the initial positioning in the seated bent-over lateral raise is highly dangerous. To compound the problem when you begin raising the weights, especially in a very vigorous motion you will find the shoulders or chest rising somewhat because of the momentum. But with erector spinae muscles being relaxed they will be unable to control this movement and the spine will be moving in an uncoordinated manner with little control.
Such movement is extremely dangerous. Note that the cause of most back problems in bodybuilding is improper spine positioning. Because of this, execution of this exercise takes number one position as an exercise that can contribute to lower back pain or other severe problems.
For these reasons seated exercises are not recommended especially for healthy individuals. If, however, you have particular problems that prevent you from assuming a standing position and you must exercise in a seated position, you should take some precautionary measures to make sure your spine is in a safe position.
One way of doing this is to straddle the bench and place your legs around the bench supports. Placing your feet around the sides of the bench helps to automatically place your spine into lordosis, i.e., the normal slightly arched position of the spine.
In conclusion, do not be duped by many of the recommendations being advanced by various authors to do exercises in a seated position. The seated position is a highly dangerous position and should be avoided at all costs. Much safer and effective for isolating and developing the muscles involved is to use the standing position.
This article by Dr. Yessis was first published in Muscle and Fitness in the 1980’s.
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