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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Machines Vs. Free Weights

If you’ve been an avid  gym exerciser for at least couple of years, then you must be familiar with the ongoing debate between free weights and machines. It is one of the most heated and polarizing topics in the fitness with so many biased opinions. When I was growing up, the older guys I lifted with made me use free weights and told me never to use machines. They demeaned machines saying it was for the weak and lazy. So many case studies over the years concluded that free weights are advantageous over machines when it comes to maximal strength, bone density, fat loss and muscle mass.

So machines are useless and should be extinct right?

Well, not necessarily. It’s scientifically true that training with free weights (barbells, dumbbells, body weight, etc) have more benefits than machines. The proof is in the pudding : Increased range of motion, development of maximal strength, best potential for hypertrophy, stronger bones due to increased tension and building maximal power are some of the great benefits of using free weights. An overwhelming part of my workout programs and that of my clients are centered around free weights. I’m a firm believer in them.

However, machines also have their benefits and can be incorporated into workout programs. Certain people may also benefit a great deal from machines. It is important to identify the fitness goal at hand and the training level of the individual when utilizing machines. While the use of machines will never be as popular as that of free weights, they can still be used in some capacity.

Here are  3 ways machines can be used:

1. Sedentary & De-Conditioned Individuals: These are people so inactive that walking up a flight of stairs can be a daunting task. Sedentary and de-conditioned individuals have little to no muscular strength and endurance. Their muscles are so weak and tendons very wound up. For these reasons, these people are better off starting off with machines, where there is easier range of motion and controlled directional force. As the body adapts over time, free weights should be used.

2. Isolating Muscle Groups: When it comes to lean mass, free weights is the undisputed king. No question about it. However certain small muscle groups may benefit a great deal from the use of machines. Small muscles like the gluteus minimus and medius, anterior deltoid, biceps and calf muscles can be individually targeted through the use of machines for better definition. Keep in mind, these muscles should already be activated via compound movements before being isolated for better accentuation. Examples are the hip abduction (gluteus minimus and medius) and seated shoulder press (anterior deltoid) machines.

3. De-Loading: The term ‘de-load‘ refers to lowering the intensity and volume of training for a period of time. It basically means, taking some ‘load’ off your current workload. Though not set in stone, de-load phases typically occur following 3 to 4 weeks of moderate to intense training and can last anywhere from 7 to 10 days. During this phase, a free weight exerciser can use machines to lighten and lower his/her workload. It’s basically a way of giving the body a break while still training it at a decreased intensity.

Remember, I’m not advocating the notion that machines are better than free weights. Both are effective and impactful for muscular strength, lean muscle, fat loss, increased bone density and decreased LDL. However, machines do offer some advantages that could benefit certain individuals. In my humble estimation, they should be routinely performed providing the fitness goals at hand are being addressed properly.