New training notions seem to spread extremely fast within the fitness industry. But “revolutionary” ideas circulating through crowds of workout warriors are often a double-edged sword. Research is constantly conflicting, and steadfast claims can be completely discredited weeks, months or years later.
Thus, when trendy claims about the next superfood, the best dietary supplement, the greatest cardio routine or the quickest way to build muscle start spreading like wildfire, problems can arise. The upside of fast circulating information is that when good tips do come along, they tend to get the recognition they deserve. However, the good gets muddled in with the bad, making it hard to know the best course of action.
As a strength and conditioning coach, one of my biggest concerns is exercise selection. Whether it’s an athlete doing some extra, unguided work, or a position coach mimicking what he saw back in the ’70s, or an administrator executing the latest YouTube workout move, I’ve observed many cringe-worthy routines. Much like the popular “Eat This, Not That” series, perhaps we need a bulletin board displaying “Build Muscle Like This, Not That” hung in every weight room.
Off the top of my head, I can reel off an extensive list of exercises to avoid, but let’s keep this round simple. Here are three common lower-body exercises for which substituting a Squat could go a long way:
The Smith Machine, while meant for Squatting, actually sets a lifter up for pain and injury, both short- and long-term. Due to its vertical sliding track, which allows for no deviation from the set pathway, the machine puts the body through an unnatural range of motion, forcing the lifter to go through a linear—not arched—path and placing undue stress on the knees, lower back and shoulders.
Don’t get me wrong, there is a definite time and place for the Leg Press machine. It serves as one of the main progressions in a rehabilitation program for lower-body injury, and it can even facilitate good prehab work, since it promote some extra quad strengthening. However, using a machine removes many of the crucial byproducts that result from a free weight movement. One of the greatest benefits of a Squat movement—whether bodyweight, back, front or single-leg—is the stabilization and mobilization that it helps cultivate. The Leg Press does not engage any of the stabilization muscles of the core; and there is little or no recruitment of the hips, glutes and lower back. If your objective is to get in a little extra quad work after a good session of squatting, then press away. Just note that the Leg Press machine can force the spine into flex if the movement is not carefully executed.
Again, there can be a time and place for the Leg Extension machine. Like the Leg Press, it is appropriate for rehab, prehab and strengthening. However, when you look at the motion the legs perform (see picture below), you would be hard pressed to think of a time in real life when your legs actually execute this motion—and that’s because it’s a movement the lower body is not designed to do. If heavily loaded, the machine can place stress and strain on the tendons and ligaments surrounding the kneecaps. Plus, all the stabilization benefits are lost on a seated machine, not to mention the lack of glute and hamstring recruitment. Since weak glutes and hamstrings are key issues strength coaches often have to address with their athletes, the Leg Extension machine should be the at the bottom of the list of go-to movements.
Learn more about the Squat and different variations with our How-To Squat Series.
Alex Boyd currently serves as an assistant strength and conditioning coach at Middle Tennessee State University, where she works with the women’s volleyball, soccer and softball programs. She previously served as a graduate assistant strength and conditioning coach at Eastern Illinois University and as a sports performance intern at Stanford University. She earned her undergraduate degree in physiology from the University of Arizona in 2010, while simultaneously serving as a strength and conditioning intern. Boyd is CSCS, SCCC, RSCC and CPT-certified, and she has presented at the Illinois NSCA Conference.