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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Squats Vs. Hip Thrusts – Which Is Better For The Glutes?

Ask anybody at your local gym what exercise they think is best for the backside. I can confidently say most people will say it’s the squat. From the beginning of time, the squat has been associated with developing and building strong gluteal muscles. The backside of the human body has become an essential part of many training programs. Athletes require a strong posterior chain for optimal performance in their sports. Society’s obsession, though mostly women, for a firmer, tighter and rounder butt is at its highest. In fact, many women I come across these days tell me they want bigger butts. The butt craze is in full effect!

So what is the best exercise for building the backside?

For years, the traditional squat was the go-to movement for butt and still remains a fantastic choice. But in recent years the hip thrust has gained popularity and emerged as a true rival for gluteal development. No research comparing the two exercises and its effect on the glutes had been conducted until Bret Contreras (www.gluteguy.com), the creator of the hip thrust, conducted one. Bret examines 3 key factors that impact muscle growth and development : mechanical tension, metabolic stress and muscle damage on the gluteal muscles. Majority of this is based on his findings.

Gluteal Biomechanics During Squat: Glute activation during a sub-max effort on a barbell squat isn’t what most people think it is. With the loaded bar on your shoulder, the glutes are relaxed and only begin to contract during the eccentric phase. Contraction during descent is very low and lowest at the bottom of the squat. In fact, research now shows that a ‘bucket squat’ or going too deep has little to no impact on the backside.  The most amount of muscle contraction and activation takes place during the concentric phase; as you drive explosively upward from the bottom of the squat. Maximal contraction takes place during the middle of the rep, and slowly dissipates as you get back to the top.

Generally speaking, gluteal activation at the lowest phase of the squat is about 10-20% of maximal contraction, 20-30% at the start of the eccentric phase and 80-120% at the start and during the concentric phase. Overall the average gluteal activation percentage is about 60% of maximal contraction.

Gluteal Biomechanics During Hip Thrust: Using a sub-max load, the barbell hip thrust challenges the gluteal muscles a bit different from the squat. At the start of the movement, when the barbell is placed on the hip, the glutes are relaxed.  The lifter thrusts the hips concentrically upwards until full hip extension is reached. Average gluteal activation during this phase is about 160% of maximal contraction. Keep in mind that full hip extension must be achieved (squeezing the buttocks as hard as possible at the top of the lift) for full benefits to be reaped. Unlike a barbell squat where the glutes are relaxed at the top, the gravity effect on the hip thrust (the barbell constantly trying to push you back down from the top) inevitably places constant tension on the gluteal fibers resulting in more of a burn.

There is little to no hamstring activation during the barbell hip thrusts. However, when the drive occurs at the balls of the feet as opposed to the heels, some may get some hamstring work. As a rule of thumb, the heels should always be favored.

Squat:Hip Thrust

Conclusion: Both the squat and hip thrust are excellent choices for building the backside. The fact that both movements keep the knees in a bent position means there is limited hamstring activation due to its shortening and therefore more involvement of the gluteal muscles. The hamstrings can only fire maximally when they’re continually lengthened. Although both exercises require hip extension which forces gluteal activation, the minimal activation during the eccentric phase and the lack of tension at the top of the squat doesn’t cause immediate burn and soreness unlike the hip thrust where there is constant tension. However because the fibers get a deeper stretch eccentrically during the squat more than the hip thrust, a lifter is highly likely to get sore in the days following a sub-max squat workout. The only small drawback is the lower back strength limits the load a lifter can use on the barbell squat and quadriceps and hamstrings activation takes away from maximal gluteal activation. The hip thrust, though easier to perform, is limited by glute strength, meaning once the glutes get tired from firing, a lifter will no longer be able to thrust thereby ending the set.

So which is the better choice for the backside?

Based on what the research shows, both exercises build and develop the gluteal muscles effectively and should be incorporated in a training program. Though the hip thrust offers more gluteal bang-for-your-buck results, it shouldn’t be necessarily favored over the squat nor should it replace it entirely. The barbell squat engages more of the lower gluteal fibers than upper fibers whereas the hip thrust fully activate both fibers. If you want a fully developed butt, you’ll have to routinely perform these two exercises. Performing only one and not the other will rob you of the full results. Both can be performed during a workout session or on separate days. The load must be challenging enough in order to illicit good gains. Generally speaking, a sub-max effort of about 75% of 1RM should suffice. Ideal rep range should be between 8 and 15.

Keep in mind that the front squat and goblet squat, which place emphasis on the front side of the body and anterior core, has very minimal impact on the backside and therefore can’t be relied upon for maximal gluteal development. While both exercises are low-back and knee friendlier than the back squat, they don’t fire the glutes nearly as hard due to the placement of the load.  As a bonus, the deadlift along with other gluteal isolation exercises like the reverse lunge, stiff-legged deadlift and hip abduction movements will yield one heck of a backside.

 

5 Overrated Exercises You Shouldn’t Be Doing

Let me preface this blog post by saying the exercises about to be put under the microscope aren’t necessarily bad for you. As a fitness professional with a relentless mission of spreading the gospel of health and fitness to as many as possible, any form of physical activity is highly encouraged. A more physically active nation means a longer-lasting nation. However, there are quite a few exercises that I feel are a complete waste of your time and effort.

These exercises could very well be some of of your favorites and some of the premier exercises in fitness so I expect some of you to disagree with me. I truly believe these exercises are on the verge of being extinct. After some extensive research and experimenting, I’ve come to the conclusion that world of health and fitness is better off without the following 5 exercises:

1. SQUATS ON A BOSU BALL: Theoretically speaking, this movement makes no practical sense nor does it have any functional purpose. Doing squats on a bosu ball first gained popularity in the early 2000’s back when the ‘core’ craze was at its peak. It was thought that performing traditional exercises on unstable surfaces yielded the best core stability. I won’t dispute the fact that any squat variation trains the core stabilizers. If you routinely perform squats, you know the core is engaged a great deal. But why go through the daunting hassle of getting onto a bous ball to perform a squat when you can easily perform a traditional back squat and reap the same exact benefits? Furthermore, a case study conducted a month ago in Slovakia showed that squats performed on unstable surfaces greatly affected the concentric portion of the lift when compared to a stable surface like the floor. A 2013 research from the Journal of Strength & Conditioning also concluded that squats on a bosu ball resulted in lower EMG activity and force production in comparison to floor squats.

Surfers are perhaps the only group of people who may benefit from squatting on a bosu ball because of the amount of instability they have to deal with, not to mention how eerily identical both movements are. Other than these select few, everyone else should just stick to traditional squat variations.

2. UPRIGHT ROW: This exercise was made popular by bodybuilders in the early days and recruits the muscles of the trapezius, middle deltoids and to a small extent the biceps. It is often incorporated with overhead pressing movements and rows. I’ll admit that once upon a time I regularly performed barbell upright rows. Growing up around older lifters who adopted the 70’s and 80’s way of strength training, I had no choice but to acquiesce. But over the years, I’ve come to realize that this exercise is an utter waste. The biggest concern with this exercise is the internal rotation of the humerus at the top, which has been linked to shoulder impingement. When performed over time, the overhead movement of the arm plus internal rotation of the humerus stresses the subacromial joint. A 2011 research article in the Strength and Conditioning Journal supports this theory.

A traditional deadlift will effectively work the trapezius along with a host of other muscles and will prevent any use of the shoulder. The rear deltoid and other upper posterior muscles can be targeted with behind-the-back band pull-apart and Face Pull. The middle deltoids and biceps can be trained via lateral raises and any biceps curling movement respectively.

3. SIDE BEND: Almost every gym goer I know has performed (some still do) this exercise at some point. The side bend is a unilateral movement performed as an abdominal exercise to work the internal and external obliques. For those unfamiliar with it, it requires holding a single dumbbell or weight plate in one hand and tilting the body sideways and back to upright. Anatomically speaking this is an action of the body known as lateral flexion of the spine which uses a small muscle of the lower back called Quadratus Lumborum, or QL. By definition, the QL originates from the posterior iliac crest and inserts on the 12th rib and lumbar vertebrae. The QL also aids in extension of the lumbar spine and is associated with low back pain via prolonged seating and weak gluteus medius and minimus. Thus when you do a side bend, you’re actually working your lumbar region, not your obliques.

QuadratusLumborum

While side bending with a decent amount of resistance could potentially lead to a stronger low back, it has ZERO impact on the abdominal muscle group. Besides, compound movements like the squat and deadlift are ideal low back strengthening exercises that also offer a plethora of other benefits. For those looking to work their obliques, any anti-lateral flexion, i.e., resisting going into spinal lateral flexion (barbell rainbows, suitcase deadlift) or anti-rotation (pallof press) exercises will be ideal.

4. WHOLE-BODY VIBRATION: Simply put, whole-body vibration (WBV) is the use of vibration devices to strengthen the body. The most popular of this device is the Power Plate which originated in Russia and quickly spread through Europe and Japan before arriving on U.S soil. Experts of this device maintain that vibration transmission of energy into the body can help with weight loss, core strength, increased bone density amongst other things. I took a Power Plate introduction course in 2009 and have occasionally incorporated it into various segments of training programs of my clients and I.

Today I question the effectiveness of the device. While it can serve as a passive warm-up prior to strength and aerobic training (which I use on myself and a few of my clients), there is inconclusive findings to support the claims of weight loss, hypertrophy and core strength. In fact many of the promised benefits aren’t backed by research. There isn’t sufficient evidence to support these claims and it is my belief this device is on its way to extinction. On a small positive note, it appears sedentary individuals and chronically ill patients may benefit initially from WBV training.

5. GLUTE KICKBACK: If you’re a woman reading this, you probably already have a frown across your face. This is one of the most common butt exercises women love to do. Also known as ‘Donkey Kick’ or ‘Single-Leg Hip Extension’, it is performed from a quadruped position and involves pushing the foot of each leg towards the ceiling (from the knee) one at a time, usually with ankle weights strapped to each ankle. Some gyms even have machines that mimic this action from an upright position. My concern is that most women always hyperextend their lumbar spines when doing this exercise making it counterproductive. While effective, it expends way too much energy due to the unilateral nature of it and requires a good amount of effort to yield desirable outcomes.

glute-kickback-overrated_ph

As a substitute, perform any variation of the deadlift and squat, reverse lunges and hip thrusts. Simply put, no exercise activates the glutes better than the hip thrust.

The correlation between the hip flexors and back pain

It is estimated that 8 out of 10 people living in this country will at some point experience some sort of back pain. That’s an alarming 80 percent of the country! Poor posture, mechanical imbalances and lack of physical activity are the major prevalent reasons behind this epidemic. Although a recent UN study now ranks Mexico as the most obese country in the world, America is still a close second with a 31.8 percent adult obesity rate. Obesity has been linked to knee, hip and ankle pain, all of which have a direct impact on the lumbar spine.

While back pain can result from a number of factors, perhaps the most common cause of it is weak and tight hip flexors.

The hip flexors are a group of muscles that enable to thigh bone to flex or allow the knee to bend towards the trunk. Activities like stair climbing, squats, lunges and sprinting all require engagement of these muscles. Collectively referred to as iliopsoas, they consist of two major muscles, the psoas major and the iliacus. The psoas major originates form the lumbar spine area and attaches in upper region of the upper thigh hip bone. The psoas is the primary hip flexor. The iliacus originates and attaches in front of the upper thigh hip bone.

Hip Flexors 2

In my experience, almost everyone has some sort of issues with their hip flexors. I’m yet to find a person with super pliable and strong hip flexors. Many of us have tight and weak hip flexors and don’t even know it until it chronically gets bad and starts to affect the low back. Prolonged sitting, not enough emphasis on glute training and excess abdominal crunching are 3 of the major causes for tight hip flexors.

When we stay in a seated position for a very long time, the psoas shortens and pulls on the lower back. Imagine the psoas as an elastic band. When the body is standing in a neutral position, the band is fully stretched in its highest elasticity. But when the body sits, the elasticity of the band gets slack and the length is reduced as a result. When the psoas stays in this slacked position for a long time, it causes the pelvis to tilt anteriorly causing arching of the low back and overstretches and lengthens the glutes.

When the butt gets too slack due to overstretching from prolonged sitting, it automatically gets weak requiring the need for more glute training. Certain abdominal crunches like the prone jackknife where there is repeated hip flexion has also been known to tighten the hip flexors. This is the reason why some us feel a an uncomfortable burning sensation in our upper thigh area while performing these exercises. This ultimately leads to low back pain due to excess stress on the psoas.

The good news is that there are ways to loosen the hip flexors and permanently prevent back pain. Activation mobility drills, self myofascial release work, strength exercises and dynamic stretches are the remedy.

1. WALL MARCHING (PSOAS ACTIVATION): This is a great drill for anyone who sits at a desk for the majority of the day. Stand in front of a wall at arms length with a neutral spine. Place both hands on the wall so you’re in a vertical push-up stance. From there, lift one knee to about hip height or slightly higher. Your pelvis should tilt posteriorly as your upper back rounds slightly. Don’t worry about that. Just make sure it doesn’t round excessively. Hold that position for about 5 seconds and switch to the other knee. Aim to do 8 to 12 repetitions per side.

2. SELF-MYOFASCIAL RELEASE: This is the most uncomfortable of all the hip flexor drills because of it’s direct contact on the fascia. However SMR is the one of the most effective ways of loosening tight muscles and restoring blood flow. A foam roller or small hard ball is needed for this, though using a lacrosse or tennis ball will work much better. Place the foam roller or ball directly under the hip flexor muscles on the floor and roll around it for a couple of minutes. To intensify this, locate a tight spot and stay on it for 20 to 30 seconds. After about a couple of minutes of doing this, you should feel some warmth in your upper thigh region indication increased pliability and restoration of blood flow.

3. STRENGTH EXERCISES: The reverse lunge and hip thrust are two great exercises for fixing tight hip flexors. As mentioned earlier, the glutes weaken and stretch as a result of shortening of the hip flexors. These two exercises serve to activate the glutes while stretching the hip flexors simultaneously. In a reverse lunge, the hip flexors of the back leg is relaxed and stretched while the butt activates. The same theory applies in a hip thrust where the hip flexors get a deep stretch at the top of the thrust while the opposing glute muscle gets contracted.

4. DYNAMIC STRETCHES: Many hip flexor stretches exist for loosening of the psoas and iliacus. Most of them are effective and will certainly help the cause if done correctly and held for a good amount of time. However one of my favorite and perhaps the most common is the half-kneeling stance hip flexor stretch. From a half kneeling stance, drive the butt of the knee on the ground forward until you feel a mild stretch in your hip flexors. It is imperative to drive from the glutes and NOT the lower back. The spine should be neutral all along and arching of the lower back must be prevented. Hold this for about 30 seconds and repeat on your other leg.

These movements and exercises must be performed routinely for results to occur. Make sure you incorporate them in your workout sessions and work and keep the intensity mild. As always listen to your body and consult with a fitness professional if you need any help.

Top 10 bodyweight exercises for building muscle and strength.

From the beginning of time, exercises and movement patterns were mostly performed solely with one’s bodyweight. Over the years, and in part due to the evolution of mankind, barbells, dumbbells, resistance bands and kettlebells have become the norm in our resistance training programs. While I do believe these are permanently here to stay, occasionally reverting to bodyweight training could alternatively help increase your strength and muscle gains.

Here are my top 10 bodyweight exercises to improve strength and build lean muscle. Keep in mind, these exercises must be performed at  moderate to high challenge level good enough to illicit a good physiological response on the nervous system.

1. CHIN/PULL UP:  This is obviously a no-brainer. No other exercise collectively works the biceps, forearms and lats as effective as the chin/pull up. In my humble and professional estimation, there’s no preferred choice between a chin-up and pull-up. Do whichever is easiest for you for a decent number of reps. The close-grip parallel bar handles, which can be seen on most modern day pulley stations, are a bit safer on the shoulders and elbows. 3 sets of 8 to 15 reps no more than 3 days a week is ideal. When that gets too easy, attach weight plates via a dip belt to your body or simply wear a weighted vest and do as many as you can.

2. PISTOL SQUAT: This is arguably the most challenging bodyweight exercise due to its unique execution. This exercise will work your entire lower body and could even challenge them harder than a traditional back squat because each leg has to absorb the weight of the entire body. Balance, hip mobility and coordination are some the factors that impact this exercise so don’t get discouraged if you can’t do them initially. Patiently and gradually work your way up to perfection. Aim to do 15 reps per leg for 3 sets.

3. PUSH-UP: Considered by many as the the premier bodyweight exercise, the push up is arguably the most routinely performed exercise in the world. Its easy set-up makes it virtually possible to do anywhere. The chest, triceps and anterior deltoid are the primary muscles involved but the anterior core gets engaged as well due to its anti-extension component (preventing the lumbar spine from going into extension or ‘arching’). Perform as many reps until low back starts to arch and progress to weight plates on your back when it gets too easy. Unique variations like the one-hand push-up, TRX atomic push-up and decline push-up offers exciting challenges.

4. PLANK: The most basic and simplest core stability exercise for developing the abdominals. The plank is arguably everyone’s favorite exercise for working the abs. Although the rectus abdominis and the transverse abdominus are the primary muscles involved, it is assisted by muscles of the trapezius, shoulder girdle, lumbar spine, quadriceps and calf muscle. The only drawback to the plank is it challenges the shoulder a great deal. This means a person with preexisting shoulder pain or chronic ailment will have a hard time holding a plank for a long time.

5. BULGARIAN SPLIT-SQUAT: This variation of the squat is much easier than the previously discussed pistol squat. Stand with your back facing a  bench, chair or stool. Pick up one foot and place it on the bench or chair behind you and descend to a squat. High reps really work the quads and glutes very well with this exercises so aim to perform 3 sets of 12 to 20 reps.

5. SINGLE-LEG HIP THRUST: The hip thrust, invented by the innovative Bret Contreras, is the most effective exercise for activating the gluteus muscle group. No other exercise works the butt better than the hip thrust. It’s that simple! The single-leg hip trust is basically the same but performed with one leg. Make sure you drive the hip as high as you can when you thrust and hold and squeeze that butt cheek at the top. Perform 12 to 20 reps per side. For all you ladies looking to tighten and firm up your butts, this is a must do!

6. PARALLEL BAR DIPS: The most effective triceps builder is also the number one ideal supplementary exercise for developing the chest. Just like the push-up, the pectoralis muscle group and anterior deltoid are the prime movers. Do not dip the shoulder beneath elbow on your descent as that has been linked with impingement of the shoulder. Perform as many reps as possible and just like with the chin/pull-up, attach additional resistance when the challenge starts to get easier.

7. MUSCLE-UP: Inspired by the CrossFit movement, this unique exercise combines a pull-up and a dip. Because of its requirement of supreme athleticism, coordination and dexterity, most people will never be able to do this exercise. But if you’re like me and you welcome challenges, patiently practice and learn the movement. 6 to 8 reps will suffice for most people.

8. HANGING LEG RAISE: I talked about this exercise on my post on abdominal training last week as part of the hip flexion exercise. A very challenging exercises that requires balance and coordination, this  exercise may take you time to master. But when done properly, it immensely recruits the fibers of the rectus abdominals. The only drawback is when performed too often, it can tighten the hip flexors. Take your time in learning the necessary steps and do this exercise no more than 4 times a month.

9. SIDE PLANK: Just like the plank, the side plank is one of the most popular exercises for working the obliques. And just like the plank also, shoulder stability and strength are the prime factors in performing the side plank. While some people can hold for as long as 60 seconds, I personally wouldn’t recommend more than 45 seconds of hold time to prevent stressing the shoulder joint too much. If 45 to 60 seconds is too easy, progress to advanced variations like the TRX or stability ball.

10. BIRD DOG: Not too many exercises target the anterior and posterior chain simultaneously. The Bird Dog is one of the few that does just that. The anterior core, shoulders, upper back, lumbar spine, glutes and various hip extensors are all engaged in this unique exercise. Balance and coordination are key factors so it may appear difficult initially, but once you master the technique, you’re going to want to make it a staple in your training program.