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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Bodyweight Essential : The Plank

The pull-up & push-up exercises are without question two of the premiere movements in fitness. They remain a staple in building lean muscle and strengthening the upper body. Although not definite but if a third exercise were to follow the aforementioned movements, it’ll be the plank. Arguably the most universally preferred choice for developing the core and abdominals, the plank has been around for years and is as ancient as the squat. Planking requires virtually no equipment and can literally be performed anywhere thus making it a favorite for working the abs amongst many fineness enthusiasts.

The simplest way to get into a plank position is by first getting into a push-up position. From there, bend your elbows to 90-degrees and ensure that your shoulders are directly above your elbows. With your weight resting on your forearms and your legs fully extended, the exercise commences by holding that position for as long as possible. Ensure that there’s alignment from your head through your shoulder blades, butt and feet. The plank is an anti-extension exercise which means the lumbar spine will naturally want to ‘sag’ or go into lumbar extension and you have to resist it for the movement to be effective.

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When performed correctly, the plank develops the rectus abdominis, anterior core stabilizers, lumbar spine, quadriceps, glutes and shoulders. It requires major involvement of the shoulder girdle thereby making it difficult for those with preexisting shoulder pain. Individuals with chronic shoulder pain should seek out regressed versions of this movement (more on that later). Different metric standards exist for the plank making it difficult to determine what hold time is considered ideal. Some older individuals may not be able to hold a 1-minute plank while a 25-year old female could easily hold a 2-minute plank. As a rule of thumb, hold your plank for as long as possible and until your abs and shoulder start to burn.

For those interested in some challenge and competition, the world record for the longest plank belongs to Mao Weidong of China with a time of 4 hours 26 minutes and was set in September 2014.

If you enjoy doing the plank and would like to add some new challenges, here are a few progressions:

1. Body Saw Plank: This progression of the plank requires a TRX, stability ball or gliders. Set up the way you would for a regular plank but with your feet and legs placed on top or attached to either of the aforementioned accessories. From that position, glide your entire body back as far as possible while keeping your forearms stationary and then glide it forward as far possible again. If using a stability ball, the forearms should be mounted on a bench with legs extended on the ball. The advantage of the body saw plank is that it’s quick and it eliminates what could potentially be a long hold time. This is ideal for individuals pressed for time.

2. Plank on a Stability Ball: The unstable surface of a stability ball presents a unique challenge. Going from planking on the floor to planking on an unstable surface proprioceptively forces the body to adapt to new demands. Balance and motor control are enhanced thus forcing the abdominal muscles to react in a way it never did with the conventional plank. Variations include legs on ball/hands fully extended on the floor, forearms on ball/feet on the ground, hands fully extended on ball/feet on the ground and forearms on bench/legs extended on ball. Due to the advanced nature of this exercise, many people will have a hard time mastering it initially. Take your time in perfecting the old-fashioned plank before adding this progression to your routine.

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3. Lifting One Leg/One Arm Up: This is a very challenging progression of the plank so it must be carefully performed. This progression is performed by either lifting one leg up or one arm so you’re planking on only 3 of your 4 limbs. To plank on leg, simply lift either your left or right leg just a few inches off the ground. A higher lift will result in more gluteal activation. To plank on one arm, take one hand off the ground and extend it in front of your or place it on your opposite shoulder. The latter requires the hands to be fully extended. With either progression, the body will naturally want to rotate and you must resist falling to one side. The anti-rotation component coupled with anti-extension makes this progression ideal for strengthening the entire abdominal region.

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4. Plank Push-Up: This creative plank progression combines a traditional plank and a push up making it a great bang-for-your-buck choice for effectively targeting the abdominals, chest, triceps  and anterior deltoid. To perform this exercise, assume a plank position. From there, extend both your elbows one at a time until you’re in a full push-up position. Reverse the actions by bending both of your elbows and return to a plank. You can alternate hands or continually push off the same hand, though the former is more effective because both arms will be put to work. Intensity can be measured in reps (from plank position to push-up is 1 rep) or timed.

For those dealing with chronic shoulder pain, planking on a bench can be just as effective as planking on the floor. While holding until the abs begin to get a good burn is always recommended, the exercise should be discontinued if the shoulder region begins to flare up. Individuals with torn shoulder labrums and rotator cuff injuries should be especially conscious of this. This regression is also ideal for beginners who lack adequate core strength.

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If you routinely perform planks and have never done any of the progressions, trying adding some of them to your workouts. Most plank variations can be done anywhere which means you can do them in the office on a quick break or at home during a TV commercial break of your favorite shows. Exercises like Deadlift, Squat and Overhead Press can improve plank strength and hold time because of the recruitment of the lumbar muscles in the aforementioned exercises. It’s no surprise that individuals who are great at planking also perform compound movements.

I’ll talk about the side plank (the sister exercise to the traditional plank) on another post.

 

Why You Should Deadlift

Aside from the traditional barbell back squat, no other exercise works the entire body like the conventional deadlift. In fact, some would argue that the deadlift offers more benefits than the back squat. Both exercises are functional in nature and engage nearly the same muscle groups. However the deadlift, which is a a hip dominant exercise, additionally recruits fibers of the upper body musculature and as a result burns more calories. The lower and upper back, anterior core and forearms are greatly engaged. The prolonged gripping of the barbell also helps to improve grip strength. I’ve always maintained that if I only had to do one exercise for the rest of my life, it’ll be this one.

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Contrary to popular belief and societal misconceptions, everyone CAN and SHOULD deadlift. It is not a ‘guy’s exercise’. Although different versions like the Sumo Deadlift, Romanian Deadlift and Suitcase Deadlift exists, the traditional version yields the most dividends and should be prioritized in everyone’s training programs. The deadlift addresses virtually every health and fitness goal from fat loss and lean muscle gain to strength, power, core stability and even postural enhancement.

Here are 5 reasons why you should deadlift:

1. Functional Component: If you had to pick up a box or bin from the floor, you would without a doubt hinge your trunk slightly forward, push your hips back, reach down with you arms and then drive back up with the box using your heels. That’s a deadlift in a nutshell! We pick things up from the floor everyday and the deadlift is perhaps the only exercise that mimics that action. By deadlifting regularly, the body continually adapts to picking up dead weighted objects from the floor. This can become extremely helpful in the event a much heavier box had to be picked up.

2. Full Body Work: The deadlift is one of the few exercises that requires lifting a dead weight from the floor. It is a true integration of the upper and lower body musculature due to the simple fact that the entire kinetic chain has to work in synergy in order for any object be picked up from the floor. When executed properly, the quadriceps and dorsiflexors activate themselves at the starting phase and contract to about the middle of the rep. From that point, the forearms, hamstrings, glutes, lower and upper back take over. Although you won’t feel a ‘burn’ in your abs, believe me when I say your core will activate via resisting anti-flexion during the eccentric (lowering) phase

3. Postural Impact: Complete execution of the deadlift requires a lockout at the top of the movement. This means the shoulder blades must retract and hips must fully thrust. Both movements are essential for correcting short hip flexors and tight shoulder internal rotators. The extension of the hips at the top of the deadlift forces the opposing iliopsoas muscle group to get a stretch and lengthen. Simply put, contraction of the hip extensors will correct short hip flexors. At the top of the movement, retraction of the shoulder blades forces an internally rotated shoulder to externally rotate. When performed routinely, this will have a tremendous impact on a person’s posture. Even the dorsiflexors, which activate during the start phase, helps improve ankle mobility by stretching the calf muscles.

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4. Best Upper Back Builder: When it comes to overall development of the upper back, no exercise works better than the deadlift. Traditional back exercises like the pull-up and bent-over row are fantastic choices for adding mass to the back but they pale in comparison to the thickness and density the deadlift provides. Part of the reason for that is because of the constant tension in the posterior trunk muscles during it’s execution. So many exercises can be used to work the back in an exercise program but the deadlift is the king.

5. Power & Strength: Of the 3 primary powerlifting movements, the deadlift has the potential for developing maximal power and strength because it uses the entire body. The bench press and squat can do the same but are affected by shoulder and knee limitations via max load. The shoulder girdle complex can only handle so much weight from bench pressing. Almost every guy I know that regularly bench presses heavy has some kind of shoulder pain. The shoulder is one of two joints impacted during a bench press (the other being the elbow), therefore too much tension on it makes it susceptible to injury. And although the deadlift and squat use similar joints (knee, hip, ankle and lumbosacral joints), the compressive forces on the knee and back in a traditional back squat makes the potential for maximal strength and power minimal compared to a traditional deadlift.