I can’t do that exercise!

Published by Jason Narog on

Lots of people doing pullups

Exercising is hard, but today we’re talking about why its hard mentally and emotionally (and somewhat physically.) Now you (or I) may say we can’t do an exercise for a variety of reasons – lack of physical strength (this is where modifications / regressions of that particular move come into play), fear of executing the exercise (be it moving on from a stable exercise to a balance exercise, moving up in weight to something that involves quick or overheard movement, or jumping up onto a higher box), a misunderstanding of what’s supposed to happen in the exercise (maybe you saw it on the Youtube, or you’re in a group class and didn’t get a full view of what’s going on, or…), or exhaustion, be it mental or physical.

Before we dive in, let me tell you – it’s OK to be scared. It’s OK to ask to see something again if you didn’t catch it the first time. It’s OK to not know what you’re doing when its something new. And it’s OK to look silly (as long as you’re safe and not completely compromising form) while trying to learn a new movement. The hardest voice you’re hearing in your head is your own (unless you’re doing some sort of weird kettlebell work in my general vicinity, then I might holler.) In general people aren’t really paying attention to what you’re doing. We all think they are, but those people you think are paying attention to you are busy wondering if you’re paying attention to them. Same dialogue, different head. Be you, be OK with learning, and soon you’ll be the master.

Now, let’s dive into the reason’s you “can’t” do an exercise.

Lack of Physical Strength

Lately I’ve been anti HIIT workouts (although I still love their timers) based on an adjustment of my mindset by the SFG crew. That’s not to say there isn’t a time and a place for HIIT workouts, but for me personally I’m steering clear of them for a bit. HIIT is all about executing as many movements as you possibly can in a short period of time. The SFG crew is all about stopping your reps before you put yourself into failure. If you can only do 1 rep with the weight you’re holding and can’t do a second one, then stop. Don’t teach yourself that you can’t do it. Do what you can, and stop.

Let’s say you can’t do an unassisted pull up. No problem. Back up the exercise a bit (jump up and hang from the bar, jump and and slowly lower yourself) or invest in some fun toys to get the assistance you need. Or switch tools. Try a TRX Pull Up.

We’re all born with natural strength and we all need to train for strength. Just because you can’t do something today doesn’t mean you won’t be able to do it tomorrow, or next week, or next month. This isn’t a sprint, it’s a marathon.

Fear of Executing the Exercise

Damn Plyo box! I fall into this category of fear when it comes to box jumps. And single leg balance exercises. In my case my fear of box jumps involves smashing into said box. And hearing tales of people smashing their arms into the box on the way up before smashing their shins doesn’t help matters. You’re welcome internet for me passing on my fear.

The single leg work (for me) just took time. Fear is based in the unknown. When you’re new or new-ish to something then there’s something to be afraid of. The more you do something the less you fear it. Going outside (for those of us who don’t have debilitating agoraphobia) is more difficult for the population when they’ve spent several days inside (like hanging out inside during a long weekend) than it is when you’ve been going to work every day for the last three months without a vacation.

Be safe and progress yourself up to something to build up that confidence. If you’re doing box jumps start lower and work your way up. If you’re doing single leg work stand close to a wall so you can catch yourself. If you’re doing overhead work, start with lighter weights (or non explosive movements) to get comfortable with having weight way over your head.

A Misunderstanding of What You Should Be Doing

1 on 1 training can help with this one, or asking to see it again. I’ve talked to people about kettlebell swinging a lot. I’ve seen a lot of interesting things. I fall into the crowd who like the Russian kettlebell swing. It’s a hinge as opposed to a squat (I’ve seen a lot of squatting), and it involves violently thrusting your hips to force the bell up (while being controlled by your hands), then stopping said bell at about shoulder level, then letting it move back towards the ground, waiting until the last possible second to thrust it back between your legs and repeating the process all over again.

I’ve seen the squat. That was a misunderstanding on the difference between a hinge and a squat (or bad information from someone else.) I’ve seen the trying to control the bell on the way down (which limits the eventual thrust back between the legs killing the momentum of this ballistic exercise), and then I’ve seen some other crazy stuff. I’m guilty of not engaging the giant bat winged muscle (the Lat) in my back correctly while swinging.

For me, learning how to use my lat correctly involved completely switching the tool and trying another tool. I swapped the bell for a suspension trainer. Then I took the knowledge I learned from the suspension trainer and applied it to the bell. Things look cleaner now.

If you don’t get it, have asked someone to show you how to do it correctly, tried again, still didn’t get it, asked again, and still don’t get it then try a different tool. Also, ask questions. I’ve found a simple adjustment in movement can make a world of difference when it comes to performing any movement. Maybe you’re just missing that one little piece and need to see / hear about that adjustment to get it.


Back to my HIIT rant from above. If you’re physically tired your body is going to go with the path of least resistance. If you have movement compensations you’re attempting to correct then working while tired will most likely not be beneficial. You may fall into old movement patterns and strengthen things you didn’t intend to strengthen.

Endurance and strength endurance are important things to work on though. Pushing the envelope to develop more endurance can be a good thing. But it has to be a gradual pushing of the envelope. If you can do 10 swings, don’t push for 20. Let’s increase by 10%. Go for 11.

If you’re mentally or emotionally exhausted then we’re in a whole different world. Mental fatigue can lead to mistakes, which can lead to injury. If you’re mentally tired try to choose exercises that are less risky. I’d say a swing is less risky than a snatch. Push ups, pull ups, bodyweight squats / lunges, core work, and suspension training exercises may be able to be performed while mentally tired, but this is up to you to know what’s safe for you to do.

Mental fatigue (as well as emotional) are also going to play a factor in your physical ability. Endurance and strength are going to be slightly lower. Be kind to yourself. Don’t go for a personal record while mentally exhausted. Don’t skip the gym either, you want to stay in your routine, but don’t go crazy.

Parting Thoughts

It’s just a workout. I growl and grunt at myself when trying new things or trying things I think I should be able to do but can’t seem to pull together on a particular day so I get it. It’s just a workout. We’re doing this so we can feel fitter and move better with the likelihood of physical injury being slightly lower because our muscles are strong. Be kind to yourself and know if you don’t get it today you just have something to work towards in the future.