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“Everything is permissible but not everything is beneficial.” Originally intended for the people of Corinth, this message can be aptly applied to your training protocols, as well. In the gym, just because you can do something doesn’t mean you should. Exhibit A: the prevalence of ineffective, overrated or downright dangerous exercises that have somehow taken a firm foothold in gyms everywhere.
While it’s true that no exercise is really bad for you and that some people enjoy great results doing things that make other people cringe, some moves can be simply swapped out for greater overall benefits. Here, we dive into some of these exercises and show you a clear-cut alternative, helping you to make every rep of every workout beneficial once again.
1. Leg Extension
So you want to have a beautiful set of quads? Who doesn’t? News flash: Toiling away on the leg extension machine isn’t going to get them for you. This fixed range of motion exercise, which can produce a lot of shearing force on the knee joint at full extension, is not the ideal choice for coaxing the quads into growth or additional detail.
Super Swap: Goblet Squat
The front squat is probably the best quad builder known to man or beast. Because it forces you to maintain a rigid, upright posture, the front squat decreases the contribution from the glutes, leaving the quads to do most of the work. But a solid alternative to the big-barbell front squat is the goblet squat. By holding a dumbbell or a kettlebell in the “racked” position — tucked under your chin, against your chest — you’re forced into the same tall body position, lest you drop the weight forward. Start off with a weight that you can handle for three to four sets of 12 to 15 reps and work your way up (hopefully to the squat rack) from there.
2. Barbell Upright Row
Whether you’re using the wide grip or the more popular narrow grip, the upright row simply doesn’t hold up against a handful of other options available to you. The shoulder joint is a splendid thing — it can glide freely through a number of angles, making it something of a treat to train the surrounding musculature. But that advantage is also its downfall. Locked into uncomfortable or unstable angles, as is the case with a barbell upright row, the shoulder can become compromised. Held together by a complex net of (mostly) smaller muscles, the shoulders are strained by upright rows in the top position, which lies somewhere between external rotation and shoulder flexion.
Super Swap: Dumbbell Overhead Press + Shrug
The upright row isn’t without value. Done right by a person with no shoulder problems, it can produce solid improvements in your front and middle delts as well as your traps, the fan-shaped muscles between your shoulder blades on your upper back. But a more natural and functional movement is the dumbbell overhead press. By using dumbbells, you free your shoulders up to move in the most comfortable slot, effectively hitting the front and middle delts (and rear delts, to a lesser extent). And if traps are an area of concern, you can simply add a few sets of shrugs to the end of your workout (no rolling of the shoulders allowed). For one concentrated workout, try supersetting overhead presses with shrugs, aiming for three to four total supersets and 10 to 12 reps on each exercise. Rest one to two minutes between supersets.
3. Lying Leg Curl
Whether you’re a leg curl/leg extension supersetter, who just does them because you feel obligated, or a dedicated hammy trainer who sees value in building strength in these crucial muscles, you are doing yourself a disservice by spending too much time at this machine. First of all, machinery is almost always inferior to free weight because it generally works your muscles through fixed, artificial and sometimes dangerous angles. The leg curl is the worst of these. No machine is one-size-fits-all, making it difficult to find a comfortable — let alone productive — start position. And while you may be able really load up the weight, this machine only emphasizes part of your hamstring complex.
Super Swap: Romanian Deadlift
The “RDL,” as it’s known to the cool kids, takes advantage of your hammies’ anatomy. The hamstrings cross two joints — the hip and the knee — meaning that bending at only one of these joints is inherently limiting. The RDL, which starts with your knees slightly bent, hits your hamstrings from the top down, giving you an origin-to-insertion beatdown that the leg curl simply doesn’t offer.
4. Side Bend
These used to be a very popular choice for targeting the obliques until people realized that it was generally only targeting their spines. There is nothing inherently wrong with lateral flexion, but done under increasingly heavy weight loads on an exercise where it’s easy to get ambitious is a recipe for disaster.
Super Swap: Single-Arm Farmer’s Walk
The obliques don’t just exist to laterally flex the spine. They also help you to resist flexion in that direction. To mix up your obliques training, try grabbing a single, heavy dumbbell and just walking with it. You still get the direct focus on the obliques, but in this case, your muscles are working hard against gravity to maintain a safe, erect position rather than deliberately putting your spine in a compromising position for multiple reps. Try four sets (two for each side) of 20 steps, alternating sides each time.
5. Kipping Pull-Up
Made popular by the CrossFit nation, this move has its roots in gymnastics and calls for a momentum-driven “swing” to get up to the bar. However, because your head comes forward of your wrists and shoulders on the swing, kipping requires a great degree of shoulder flexibility to pull off successfully. People can typically achieve higher rep totals this way — I’m gonna build awesome lats! — but quickly find that the small muscles of their rotator cuff can’t keep up and strains and inflammation quickly follow. And because the movement is done with so much momentum, direct, heavy targeting of the lats, rhomboids and even biceps is reduced.
Super Swap: Assisted Pull-Up
The assisted pull-up machine allows you to build up strength in your back while keeping the muscular emphasis where you want it. The key is progression: Start with a healthy spot from the machine for four to five sets of eight to 10 reps and work up to handling your own bodyweight (no help from the machine) for 10 to 12 reps.