Are there bad exercises out there?
Any activity that gets you up and moving is a generally a good thing. But some exercises provide little return on your strength and fitness investment.
Here's a list of exercises that don't make the grade, along with better alternatives for each.
1. Crunches (or any other abs gimmick)
If you're doing Crunches to reveal your six-pack abs, you're fooling yourself. Although it's true that Crunches strengthen your abs, they do virtually nothing for the layer of fat covering those abs. That requires high-intensity, fat-burning cardio. Also, Crunches can be hard on the neck and back.
Variation: The Plank, and its many variations, is a great way to strengthen and stabilize your entire core, from shoulders to hips. Start with the basic 4-point plank, holding the position for one to two sets of 30 seconds, with a one-minute rest between sets. Challenge yourself by increasing time as you are able.
2. Seated Leg Extensions
This exercise is not very functional and can actually be bad for your knees.
Variation: Try Step-Ups as a bodyweight exercise. Start with a 12-inch plyo box or bench and rest your left foot on top of the box. Step up with your right foot, then back down to the ground. Repeat for six repetitions, then switch legs. Increase the intensity by adding weight (hold dumbbells at your sides), increasing the height of the box (to about 18 inches), or adding repetitions.
3. Prone Hamstring Curls
Similar to Seated Leg Extensions, this exercise is not particularly effective.
Variation: The Glute-Ham Raise is a better alternative. If your gym has a glute-ham machine, you're all set. If not, do this exercise kneeling on the floor, with a partner to keep your feet down. Focus on the eccentric movement (descent) by slowly descending to a four-count. Start with two to three sets of six reps, with a one-minute rest between sets.
4. Wrist Curls
If you want to improve your grip strength, this exercise is of limited effectiveness, and it can be tough on the wrist joint.
Variation: Try the Farmer's Walk instead. It will strengthen your entire body in addition to your hands, wrists and forearms. Grab a pair of heavy dumbbells (each should weigh about 1/3 to 1/2 of your body weight), hold them at your sides, and walk 25 yards with perfect posture. Repeat once or twice more, with a one-minute rest between sets.
5. Bicep Curls
Guys spend a lot of time and effort trying to develop a muscle that's about as big as an orange. Your triceps make up about 2/3 of the musculature in your upper arm; if you want bigger arms, work your triceps!
Variation: Instead of using Biceps Curls, build your biceps—and simultaneously work the muscles of your shoulders, back and core—with the Underhand Inverted Row. To do this exercise, lie beneath a bar set to about hip height. With an underhand grip, pull yourself up to the bar so the mid-line of your chest touches the bar. Start with two to three sets of six reps.
6. Triceps Kickbacks
I've rarely seen this one done with anything approaching good, safe form. I'm pretty sure it stresses the shoulder as much as it works the triceps (and, in what sport do you use this movement?).
Variation: To work your triceps more effectively, narrow your hands and try the Close-Grip Bench Press and Push-Up. These exercises engage your entire upper body and require your triceps to work harder. Close-Grip Bench Presses and Push-Ups are more challenging than the standard versions, so you may want to decrease the weight or reps you typically do.
7. Almost any exercise on the Smith machine
I'm not a big fan of any machine that locks you into a narrow range of motion. For example, if you're bench pressing or squatting on the Smith machine, you're limiting your muscles by not allowing them to balance and stabilize your load—which requires more muscle activation.
Variation: Get off the Smith machine and try the Dumbbell Goblet Squat and Dumbbell Neutral Grip Bench Press. The additional effort your body uses to balance and stabilize the weight will accelerate your gains.
8. Low-intensity cardio
Ditch slow, steady cardio—walking, running, biking, treadmill, elliptical, etc.—which takes a lot of time to deliver little benefit.
Variation: With High-Intensity Interval Training, you can decrease your exercise time and improve your cardiovascular fitness. Start with 10 minutes divided into five two-minute intervals. For each interval, maintain an aggressive pace for 30 seconds, followed by a light-to-moderate pace for 90 seconds. Repeat.
9. Static stretching
Research indicates that pre-activity static stretching reduces strength and power output in the short term, and does not decrease post-exercise muscle soreness.
Variation: Switch to a Movement-Based Dynamic Warm-Up, performing the same types of movements as you will do during your activity, and gradually increasing the intensity. Your cool-down should also be movement-based, but don't give up on your stretching routine entirely. Stretching relaxes and elongates muscles, which can improve their uptake of oxygen and nutrients.
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