5 exercises you should stop doing

For a lot of us fitness enthusiasts, working out is an integral part of our lifestyle. We enjoy the sweat, the burn, the pump and more importantly, those endorphins that we release and stay with us long after we leave the gym. By now we know resistance/strength training is essential for weight loss, muscle gain and strength. But with a plethora of exercises out there, it can be overwhelming to find the right ones. The fitness industry is always evolving and newer exercises continue to hit the scene.

But how do you know you’re doing the right exercises? I’m not talking about proper form but rather the selection. While any resistance training exercise is better than none at all, some have better bang-for-your-buck value and will yield more dividends. As a fitness professional/fitness enthusiast who’s been a part of fitness for nearly 15 years, I can say confidently that there are some exercises better left alone.

Here are 5 exercises you should stop doing:

LEG PRESS: A lot of guys are going to balk at me for this but the leg press has zero functional or core value. The seated, upright version may be ideal initially for elderly and deconditioned individuals. But the traditional, incline version can be hard on the knees not to mention its high risk of injury because of the angle. Although most guys, especially bodybuilders who want to build extreme mass, may be able to load a lot of weight, they also risk knee pain and back injuries later on.

ALTERNATIVE: The traditional barbell back squat offers way more bang for your buck while utilizing your core and trunk stabilizers. Also, because you’re moving a load through space, as opposed to your back fixed against a chair, you’ll build more strength and power. As an added bonus, how’s this for a fit nugget: There are over 600 muscles in the body and the squat is known to work at least half of them!

UPRIGHT ROW/BEHIND-THE-NECK LAT PULLDOWN: The upright row is a popular shoulder exercise that made its name during the early era of bodybuilding. It is thought to work the rhomboids and other mid-trap muscles. The behind-the-neck lat pulldown is kind of a modern modification of the traditional lat pulldown. Those who do it routinely claim it targets the mid-trap region very intensely. However several studies have linked these two exercises to acromiclavicular joint injury. The clavicle and acromium make up the AC joint. When the aforementioned exercises are performed, the ligaments around those joints stretch further away causing laxity. This is what ultimately leads to AC joint injuries like a fractured collarbone or torn labrum.

ALTERNATIVE: Face Pulls and Band Pull-Aparts (front or behind the body) are safer bets. They put very little pressure on the AC joint and don’t require a lot of weight to feel the burn.

SEATED HIP ABDUCTION/ADDUCTION MACHINE: I really wish fitness manufacturing companies would stop making these machines. Ladies, you can’t spot reduce! It’s virtually impossible. What’s more alarming is these are two of the most popular and utilized machines in every gym. Yes you may feel a burn when you’re on these machines but the muscles you’re targeting (hip external rotators/adductors) are not getting the proper challenge they need. Being glued on a chair with a back support robs the trunk stabilizers and glutes of adequate firing.

ALTERNATIVE: Band-resisted clamshells and band-resisted side stepping are arguably the two most effective exercises for working the glute medius and other hip external rotators. The sumo squat, sumo deadlift and various lunge variations all do a great job of targeting the inner thighs and several other hip adductors.

DUMBBELL SIDE BEND: I still don’t know why people think the dumbbell side bend target the obliques. Simply put, it doesn’t. In a nutshell, the anatomical motion of the side bend is lateral flexion of the spine. When this movement occurs, the primary muscle that is targeted is a deep muscle on the side of the lower back called Quadratus Lumborum or QL for short. Although there’s nothing wrong withe using the dumbbell side bend to work your QL, you’ll get more perks and benefits with compound movements like the squat and deadlift.

ALTERNATIVE: The side bridge, in my estimation, remains one of the most effective exercises for the obliques. If you have preexisting shoulder pain or just weak shoulders, try doing the side bridge with a hip drop to the ground.

DONKEY KICK-BACKS: Popularized by Jane Fonda in the 80’s, this exercise was the premier movement women used to shape their butts. I still see many women doing it today with ankle weights or resistance bands. The problem with this exercise is 9 out of 10 women I see doing it grossly compensate lumbar hyperextension for hip extension, thereby making it counterproductive. Also, it takes an insanely number of reps to be able to feel a good burn.

ALTERNATIVE: I don’t know if the donkey kick-back will ever be extinct but current literature shows and endorses the hip thrust as the most effective exercise for pure glute activation. Unlike the squat, the hip thrust relies a great deal on the gluteal muscle than the hamstring and lower back during maximal contraction.

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The Big 4.

Fat loss. Lean muscle. Strong bones. Blood pressure maintenance. Improved HDL. Sustained strength and energy.

These are some of the plethora of benefits that can be achieved through resistance training. It is historically well-documented and theoretically proven that anaerobic training has an enormous impact on long life. It is for this reason health practitioners and fitness professional continually push for weight training on a regular basis. But what are the best resistance training exercises?

For some fitness enthusiasts, being in a weight room with so many machines and equipment can be overwhelming. It’s like being in an amusement park with so many rides to chose from. Any of those machines will certainly help make a positive change (like I always tell people, Something is better than Nothing at all) on a person’s health. However, there are 4 exercises that we all MUST perform routinely.

The squat, deadlift, bench press and overhead press are arguably the most important resistance training exercises known to mankind. Collectively referred to as The Big 4, they address strength gain, lean muscle development, fat burn, core stability and power when performed at the right intensity and with good mechanics. Known also as compound movements, they are functional in nature meaning they help immensely in real life activities and movement patterns.

Let’s dissect them one at a time.

1. SQUAT: Widely considered by many as the single most functional and important exercise, the squat is the premier traditional movement. Infants and toddlers spend countless hours in a squat because they have to progressively learn to go from crawling to standing. A tree with weak and fragile roots will ultimately collapse. The human body can be compared to a tree with weak roots in the sense that ligaments and tendons will break down over time thereby making walking, standing and sitting difficult. If squats aren’t made a priority in our training programs, it won’t be long before we start to fall apart. There are over 600 muscles in the human body and the squat alone is known to work half of them! For more on the squat, read my Shut Up And Squat blog I wrote a few weeks ago. Although different versions exist, the traditional back squat remains the most popular.

2. DEADLIFT: Eerily similar to the squat, the deadlift is another vital exercise that should be a staple in our training programs. It mimics the action of bending down to pick something up from the ground. For this reason, some argue that the deadlift is more functional than the squat. In my opinion, both are valuable for strength, lean muscle, hip mobility and fat burn. Virtually every muscle of the body is engaged in this movement from the entire posterior chain to the forearms and even the dorsiflexors.. I’ve always maintained that if I had to chose one exercise only to perform for the rest of my life, it’ll be this one. Keep in mind that other versions like the sumo, suitcase and romanian deadlifts address different objectives and will not yield as much perks as the traditional version. While these versions can be performed occasionally for a change, the standard deadlift should get the greater emphasis.

3. BENCH PRESS: Perhaps the most regularly performed upper body exercise by guys, the bench press is widely considered as  the ideal upper body movement. “How much do you bench?” is a common question you’ll hear amongst guys in the weight room. Many consider it to be the best measure of upper body strength and along with the sqaut and deadlift make up the 3 primary powerlifting exercises. It is not uncommon to see guys spend over an hour in the weight room working on their chest. While supplementary versions like the decline and incline bench press can aesthetically improve the pecs, the standard flat bench press remains the staple. Aside from the chest, the anterior deltoid, anterior core musculature and triceps get some good work as well.

4. OVERHEAD PRESS: For many years, the squat, deadlift and bench press were the 3 most routinely performed resistance training exercises among fitness enthusiasts. The overhead press completed the quartet. It is an exercise that works the deltoid musculature primarily and the triceps secondarily. While this exercise can be performed seated, the standing version yields the most benefits. The resistance from gravity trying to push the weight forcefully back down creates a brace in the core. Preventing lumbar extension automatically engages the anterior core making it good workout for the abdominals. It’s like doing a plank where the objective is not to let the lower back sink via lumbar extension. Unlike a bench press where the low back is fixed on the bench, the prevention of the lumbar spine from hyperextending creates rigidity which engages and strengthens the low back.

These 4 exercises should be performed with an olympic barbell for best results. While dumbbells can be used as well, they don’t allow for greater load and make it difficult to illicit the same physiological response from the body as a barbell due to the design. And yes women can perform these exercises too. The key is to work at a challenging intensity but within your limits. As always thoroughly warm up and use good form when lifting. Perform no more than 2 of these movements in one workout session alternating between upper and lower body.

How to design your own workout program

Stronger, leaner, body fat reduction and improved endurance are some of the plethora of reasons why we exercise and train. One of the most difficult challenges in exercise is the ability to continually push the body safely and effectively but also being able to yield upward progressions. Many trainees have told me of their struggles with boredom, inability to bench press or squat past a certain load and a lack of enthusiasm on training days.

All of this can be attributed to program design, arguably the most overlooked aspect of training. Very few people put in the effort in planning out their workout programs over the course of several weeks and months. The eagerness to get a good pump in the weigh room or to break tons of sweat on the treadmill has often lead to this. All of the sudden we stop seeing the results and over time, complacency creeps in, lack of focus, lethargy and we hit a plateau.

I was faced with these same problems when I first started training, both with my clients and myself. Here are my 5 most effective ways to design a training program:

  1. SET GOALS: Goal setting is like the foundation that is laid out for a house to be built upon. Knowing exactly what your specific short and long term fitness goals and objectives are will make it much easier for a program to be written and quicker for the goals to be met. Regardless of the goal at hand, programs should be planned for 2 to 4 weeks in advance with small progressions in intensity and exercises.
  2. INTEGRATE RESISTANCE TRAINING: It has been scientifically and theoretically proven that resistance training is the most effective modality of training. Fat loss, muscle gain, increased metabolism, improved self-esteem, reduction in high blood pressure and increased bone density are some of the many benefits. Resistance can be obtained via one’s body weight, barbells, dumbbells, medicine ball, bosu ball and resistance bands.
  3. WARM-UP: This is obviously a no-brainer but warming up is more than just using your favorite cardio machine. Although core temperature of the body will elevate after a 5-minute brisk walk on the treadmill, dynamic and mobility drills offer more bang-for-your-buck perks. Foam rolling, self myofascial release work and certain dynamic drills help loosen up the muscle tissue and promote blood flow quicker and better prepares the body for the workout ahead.
  4. EMPHASIZE COMPOUND MOVEMENTS: These are exercises that utilize more than one joint and also engage more than one muscle group. The squat, push-ups, deadlift and overhead press are some of the popular compound movements that can work virtually the whole body which translates into more calories burned. Perform compound movements at the start of your workouts before transitioning to single-joint movements like biceps curl, tricpes extension and lateral raises.
  5. DE-LOAD: The body is like a car in the sense that it can’t run continuously without frequent refueling and serviced maintenance. By frequently scheduling active rest and recovery periods (at least once a month), the body is able to recharge its batteries and increase performance. Far too many people exercise for several months in a row without de-loading and end up with nagging aches and pains, lack of motivation on training days and a decrease in energy and strength. A de-load period can be anywhere from 4 to 7 days with complete rest (no training) or achieved performing lower intensity activities like brisk walking and/or cycling, resistance training at very low intensities or self myofascial release and soft tissue work.

These steps are based on my experience as a seasoned trainee and trainer over the course of 12 years and through extensive research study. Listen to your body, leave your pride and ego at the gym door and remember to always use good form.