Ever woken up with pain somewhere in your body after an evening at the gym? Ever left the gym in pain right after a session?...
Or maybe you finished a set early because you have pain doing an exercise?
I think we’ve all taken being able to get a pump in the gym pain-free for granted. When we do end up in pain, we very quickly turn to stretches and prehab exercises for wherever we’re getting pain, which ultimately takes up our training time.
But, imagine if you could feel like you’re training with intensity in the gym to build strength and muscle, whilst also successfully getting your prehab work in too? Well, the aim of this blog is to help you figure out how to do just that.
What Is Prehab?
There are a few different concepts around what prehab exercises are. Generally, prehab is considered as the rehabilitation training that someone does pre-surgery, to put them in the best condition possible going into and coming out of surgery.
Let’s say you tore your ACL (fingers crossed you never do). If you were to have surgery, a physio might provide you with knee rehab exercises complete leading up to the surgery.
However, prehab can also be described as training with injury reduction in mind, to minimize our risk of getting injured in the first place. Throughout this article, we will be referring to the latter.
The Importance Of Prehab
Now, one thing that we need to know is that we cannot completely prevent injuries. It is impossible to reduce the risk to 0%. And, if you’re pushing yourself in the gym or sport, the chances are you’re going to get some niggles.
That’s partly why prehab is so important. If we can’t prevent injuries, then we need to minimize the risk with what we can control, which is our training itself. Prehab doesn’t necessarily mean we have to do ‘stability’ or ‘functional’ training, either.
Getting stronger is one of the most effective forms of prehab you can take advantage of. Research shows that the stronger you are, the less likely it is that you’re going to get injured in sport (3).
The 5 Best Prehab Exercises
You may recognize some of the best prehab exercises above, others may be new to you. Don't worry. We've got more in-depth explanations below, along with examples of how to do each of the best prehab exercises.
Many of us get strong on two legs. Not many of us get strong on one. The technical term for this is ‘bilateral facilitation’ (4). This is where force production from two legs together in a given exercise is higher than the sum of force from each leg performing the exercise individually.
Exercises we all do and love (hate) such as Split Squats can help develop single-leg (unilateral) force production, with around 84% of the work coming from the front leg (2).
However, this still means that they’re not truly unilateral. When standing on one leg, you’re supporting and lifting around 84% of your body weight alone on that leg (1), without adding weight!
Here’s why I consider this one of my favorite knee prehab exercises::
Develop single-leg strength at the hip and knee, using the quads and glutes
Develop strength and stability in the trunk to maintain balance
Develop strength in the gluteus medius and adductors to maintain balance
Improve ankle and foot stability in standing, which means this could also be classed as one of your ankle prehab exercises
Build confidence and balance and reduce the risk of falling when standing on one leg
Although it’s not ‘optimal’, you will still be able to build muscle using this exercise
A single-leg squat builds a lot of strength around the knee using the quadriceps. But, you don’t want to forget to do this using the hamstrings too.
Hamstring exercises can be hip dominant, working the hamstrings proximally (higher up near the hip) with exercises such as a Romanian Deadlift. You can also work them distally (lower down near the knee), which is exactly what this Harop Curl does. This is easier than a Nordic, which is good because you won’t fall flat on your face. It might also give you the best Hamstring pump you have ever had.
Here’s how to do it:
Wedge your heels under something secure
Ideally, your toes won’t touch the floor
Cross your arms over your chest
Lower your forehead towards your knees by flexing your spine
Drive your heels up as hard as you can to do so
If you’re feeling strong, hold a weight!
The shoulder is the most commonly injured upper-body area. It makes sense as it’s a ball and socket joint that has 7 primary functions and supports further function of the scapula (shoulder blades). This is why shoulder prehab exercises are so popular in warm-ups, But, shoulder prehab exercises can be used beyond a warm-up.
This is why Arnold may have been onto something with his infamous Arnold Press, and here’s why:
It’s a compound (multijoint) vertical pressing movement
You can load it up pretty well which is effective for shoulder strength and size
There’s rotation at the shoulder which builds control around the shoulder blade
This gives us a press that might challenge the rear delts a little more too
Think about having constant and steady rotation throughout the movement
Lower the dumbbells so your knuckles finish around your eye line
The reason you’re seeing a second shoulder exercise in this list is that one exercise recommendation isn’t enough to keep the shoulders healthy and happy.
Most of us love a chest day. We get lots of heavy pressing work in, which is great for the front deltoids. Now, this doesn’t mean we don’t get enough pull work in. But, if any of the three heads of the shoulder get a good amount of work already it’s the anterior deltoid.
This is why it’s nice to include some direct rear deltoid and rotator cuff work in your gym program. A Face Pull will also target the upper-back too. You can do face pulls standing, seated, or kneeling. Here, I’ve opted for a half-kneeling position as I feel I get good bracing from my legs.
To execute this exercise well:
Set your legs up at right angles
Set up the cable somewhere around chin height
Take an overhead grip on the ropes
Thinking about pulling your hands above your ears
Try and lead the movement with your shoulders
This is one of my favorite core exercises of all time and with good reason.
It’s easy to set up, and it’s easy to add load so you don’t have to do hundreds of reps to feel the burn.
With many core exercises, you either get the yin or the yang. By that, you either train the core with a crunch, spinal flexion-like action in a short range of motion, or you train ‘anti-extension’. This is where your body is in more of a lengthened position, and you’re aiming ‘fight the fall’ (e.g. plank and ab rollouts).
Aleknas however are a rare exercise in which you get a bit of both, which is partly why there are a ton of benefits:
Extending the legs and arms develops anti-extension
This means you get some good lower-ab work
You don’t want to let your lower back lift off the floor, which develops a strong ‘hollow’ position throughout the full core, not just the abs
Bringing the legs back in with the shoulders lifted off the floor creates that crunch-like movement, which works the upper abs well too
The extension and flexion of the hips give the hip flexors a little bit of extra work
As the knees extend out, they’re challenged to not drop from the extension with near-straight legs
How Often Should You Do Prehab Exercises And How To Incorporate Them
The beauty of getting strong with these types of prehab exercises is, they can simply fall into your normal training split. If you’re training lower-body and upper-body twice per week, you could put each of these into the appropriate day. Instead of a Hamstring Curl on your second lower-body day, you could swap it out for a Harop Curl. If you have been doing Cable Crunches for the past two years, switch it up with Aleknas. It’s that easy!
Hopefully, this blog has helped you understand that doing prehab exercises doesn’t mean you have to lose out on exercises that get you the gains. If you choose the right types of exercises to include in your workouts, you can get the best of both worlds.
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Dempster, W.T. and Gaughran, G.R., 1967. Properties of body segments based on size and weight. American journal of anatomy, 120 (1), pp.33-54.
Helme, M., Emmonds, S. and Low, C., 2022. Is the rear foot elevated split squat unilateral? An investigation into the kinetic and kinematic demands. Journal of strength and conditioning research, 36 (7), pp.1781-1787.
Lauersen, J.B., Andersen, T.E. and Andersen, L.B., 2018. Strength training as superior, dose-dependent and safe prevention of acute and overuse sports injuries: a systematic review, qualitative analysis and meta-analysis. British journal of sports medicine, 52 (24), pp.1557-1563.
Škarabot, J., Cronin, N., Strojnik, V. and Avela, J., 2016. Bilateral deficit in maximal force production. European journal of applied physiology, 116, pp.2057-2084.
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WRITTEN BY: ANDREW HYDE
Andy has a BSc (Hons) in Exercise Science and an MSc in Strength & Conditioning. He has worked with Leeds United, Science for Sport, the NHS and more. Andy works privately with elite football players and gym goers who want to improve their performance, fitness, and body composition.