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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5 Ways To Make Your Workouts More Fun And Challenging

If you’ve been an avid exerciser for more than a year, chances are you’ve occasionally gotten bored with some of your routines and wished for new ones. There are some dedicated fitness enthusiasts that use workout programs designed by famous strength coaches and keep daily logs of their workouts. At the health club I work, I frequently see members bring fitness magazines with them and follow customized workout plans written in some of the sections. If you belong to either of these groups of people, give yourself a pat on the back. Your brilliance and creativity is an obvious sign of your commitment to your health and fitness and your constant push for new challenges and upward progressions.

I applaud your efforts!

However, what if I told you that you could embrace new challenges without doing any of the above? What if I told you your workouts can become much more exciting without changing anything in your routine? Sounds hard to believe right? Well, the thing is the human body is designed to respond to any physiological demands placed on it and can handle a lot of stress providing good form, appropriate load and proper mechanics are up to par. Whether the goal is strength, lean muscle gain or fat loss, you can avoid complacency, boredom and minimal results from your workouts by simply making a few minor adjustments.

Here are 5 ways to make your workouts more fun and challenging:

1. Increase The Volume: So many gym folks, guys especially, feel as if they have to continually increase the weight between sets to achieve or maintain their size and strength. I also know of several women looking to sculpt and lose weight who stick the the old 3×15 rule of thumb for every exercise. When I began to earn my stripes as a lad in the weight room, I was told by some of the older folks that 3×10 was the blueprint for everything. I’m sure some of you heard that at some point as well. It’s true. It does work. But only for a while before the body demands for a new challenge. Simply adding more reps and sets to your workout is a surefire way to continue to keep your body guessing. If you’re looking to get bigger and stronger, there’s only so much weight your body can handle before your joints start to scream. Squatting 225 pounds for 10 reps can be made more challenging by squatting185lbs for 15 reps. If you’ve been doing 3 sets of 15 reps of reverse crunches for a month, increase the challenge by adding a fourth set or an additional 5 reps. In both examples, the body will respond because a new stimuli has been placed on it. Trust me when I say you’re going to hate me when you’re done!

2. Take Shorter Rest Periods: If there’s one cardinal sin I commit occasionally during my workouts, it’s that I often get carried away by conversations with buddies and colleagues and end up resting too long. So many of us are guilty of doing this even if we have workout partners. Because the gym can be looked at as a social gathering of people with a common interest, it’s easy for this to happen. Our muscles can get cold over a prolonged rest which can hamper our goals and efforts and even lead to injury. Now I don’t necessarily believe in designating rest periods except unless you’re a powerlifter where the all-out maximal effort requires rest periods of up to five minutes. However 60 seconds to 2 minutes seems to be recommended norm for the majority of us. So let’s assume you’ve been resting 90 seconds between your sets, increase the challenge next time by resting 75 seconds. It’ll be much harder initially but the good news is that your muscles will stay under tension and contracted for a very long time which means stronger and leaner muscles.

3. Stop Doing All That Cardio And HIIT It: We all need cardio to stay lean and live an optimal lifestyle. We know that. But so many of us (even myself once upon a time) continue to spend endless amount of time on cardio machines. What if I told you that you could burn more calories in a much shorter amount of time? Recent studies have endorsed High Intensity Interval Training (HIIT) as the most effective cardio method to burn fat. Simply put, HIIT is performed by alternating short bouts of high intensity activities with moderate-to-long bouts of very low intensity recovery periods. An example would be to run at your fastest speed on the treadmill for 30 seconds to 1 minute followed immediately by a slow, mild walk for 90 seconds to 2 minutes. That process would be repeated at least 6 to 8 times. HIIT has also been associated with increased EPOC (Excess Post-Exercise Oxygen Consumption) in which the body stays in a fat-burning metabolic zone for 24 to 48 hours afterwards! HIIT is the best way to burn fat which for a lot of us living in this country will continue to be a priority. But steady-state cardio can be incorporated occasionally for those interested in improving cardiovascular endurance. For a deeper insight on HIIT, read this blog I wrote a while back.

4. Change The Sequence Of Your Exercises: This basically refers to the order in which you perform your exercises. One major reason our workouts become so redundant and uninspiring is because we perform particular exercises at certain junctures and on certain days. Monday has been universally dubbed ‘Chest Day’ by an overwhelming majority of guys who workout. Some people like to do cardio before weights or vice versa on the same day. Others simply do a collection of exercises in a particular order (barbell squats, leg press, lunges, leg extensions, etc). Again, there is nothing particularly wrong with this format but its predictability by the body’s central nervous system can cause the body to plateau and stop responding to these exercises. It inevitably makes workouts drag and as a result takes the fun out of it. Try switching things up a bit. Rather than start your chest workout with flat barbell bench press, start with incline dumbbell chest press or weighted push-ups. If you’ve been doing a push-pull superset for a few weeks, try a lower body-upper body superset or simply reverse the push-pull format to a pull-push.

5. Learn A New Craft: Those that know me well know how much I love, enjoy and embrace exercise-related challenges. It is a huge reason why my workouts never get boring because I’m always looking to learn a new skill that can enhance my workouts. Resistance training will continue to be the template for a lengthy, healthy lifestyle. It’ll be that way forever and will not change. But there are days when you just can’t push your body to get under the bar, run on the treadmill or even do some core work on the mat. Fitness accessory tools like the TRX, Kettlebells, Medicine and BOSU Balls, Battle Ropes and Prowler Sleds can add some spice to your workouts. These tools have the ability to strengthen the body and build lean muscle while additionally emphasizing core and cardio work. The TRX and Kettlebell alone allow for hundreds of exercises that will target virtually every part of the human anatomy. If you’re proficient with any of the aforementioned tools, I’d suggest you routinely incorporate them into your workouts. If you have no knowledge on how to use these workout accessories, leave a comment at the bottom of this blog and I’ll be of assistance.

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.