Exercise selection is king when it comes to an effective program. With limited time and resources, you need the most bang for your buck. Some exercises exist in your program because you saw someone else do them. Others you continue to do because you saw solid results as a beginner. Still, the reasons for some moves in routine defy explanation and, in some cases, persist despite the emergence of research indicating their futility.
If you’re going to do an exercise, you want it to work for you – not against you. Here, we break down five of the most common exercise choices of the lifting masses and offer you some more beneficial alternatives. If you have been spinning your wheels, watching others grow and get stronger while you get cozy in plateauville, give these five exercise replacements a shot.
EXERCISE: Dumbbell kickback - REPLACEMENT: Dips
Studies in recent years have shown the dumbbell kickback to be one of the most effective exercises for activating your triceps. But with good form, even light weights are a challenge. So while striving to continually increase resistance, eventually, you will sacrifice technique. Momentum, shortened range of motion and outside muscles assisting eventually nullify the benefits typically gleaned from this movement.
The principle of overload states that a greater than normal stress or load on the body is required for training adaptation to take place (i.e. to get bigger and stronger). Performing kickbacks week in and week out and adhering to this principle is not likely to happen.
Instead, opt for the good, old fashioned parallel bar dip. Even for new dippers, strength gains come quickly because of the amount of muscle involved and the resultant spike in muscle-building hormones. And once your bodyweight isn’t enough to bring about failure at the rep range desired, it’s very easy to add weight. For muscle hypertrophy, do a Google search on weighted dips; many of the results will refer to this exercise as the “king” for the chest and the triceps. In addition, countless strength and physique athletes swear their allegiance to dips. Science speaks.
EXERCISE: Lat pulldowns - REPLACEMENT: Chinup
There are a number of reasons to opt for the underhand chin-up over any variety of lat pulldown. Remember, big lifts equal big strength gains and big fat loss. Chin-ups are a closed kinetic chain exercise so they are much more functional and, of course, work more muscles than lat pulldowns. Another benefit is the release of large amounts of anabolic hormones like growth hormone and testosterone.
Looking for another, more aesthetics-based reason to chin? Strength coach Brett Contreas says, “When I conducted my EMG studies, I was shocked to find that the bodyweight chin-up led to the highest levels of lower rectus abdominis activation. It surpassed every ab exercise imaginable – even ab wheel rollouts and hanging leg raises.”
Furthermore, chin-ups are a catalyst for bicep growth. Look at the back development of athletes like gymnasts that use chin-ups as their primary means of strength training in comparison to the physiques of basketball players that use lat pull downs. Physique enthusiasts envy the upper back development of gymnasts. Very few feel the same way about basketball physiques.
EXERCISE: Instability work - REPLACEMENT: Stable platform work
Performing dumbbell and barbell movements on unstable surfaces might have a fitting place in the Moscow Circus but when it comes to the acquisition of size and strength, this makes about as much sense as going in the roughest Irish Bar in South Boston and yelling, “St. Patrick was an Englishman!”
Opt for a stable surface instead. In 2010, James Kohler, of California State University Northridge (CSUN), led a study that showed training with heavy weights on stable surfaces overloaded and best recruited core muscles. Both prime movers and stabilizers were assessed. Thirty subjects with serious strength training experience performed both barbell and dumbbell shoulder presses on stable and unstable surfaces for three sets of three, with what equated to equal intensity.
The same procedure was used for the bench press. Core muscle activation was measured by using electromyography, which shows the electrical activity of muscles. As the instability of the surface increased and less weight was used, the recruitment of core musculature decreased.
Beginners, in particular, are subjected to the myth that training on unstable surfaces recruits more muscle and is therefore better for strength gains and weight loss. This couldn’t be further from the truth and any true changes to strength or body composition should be addressed by training from a stable base.
EXERCISE: Leg curls - REPLACEMENT: Romanian deadilfts
Not very often in life will you lie on your stomach and curl your heels to your butt. Powerful hip extension, on the other hand, can transfer from the bedroom to the football field, not to mention more effectively work the hamstrings, so opt for the Romanian deadlift over the ubiquitous leg curl.
The Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research published a study comparing the leg curl, Romanian deadlift and good morning exercises at 85 percent of 1RM to see which one could produce the most intense muscle activation. Muscle activation was measured via electromyography (EMG). Surprise: the Romanian deadlift reigned supreme. And since more muscle is used during the RDL, strength gains are often much more rapid, meaning that you can gain muscle faster.
EXERCISE: Leg press - REPLACEMENT: Squat
The leg press, regardless of design, has a preset motor pattern determined by the manufacturer. Very few people fall into what the manufacturer considers an “average person”. Some evidence suggests the leg press makes athletes more prone to lower back problems, because at the bottom position, they are very deep into flexion – the knees get close to the chest, and many times the back is raised off the pad.
Because the leg press is built to optimize leverage and there is no stabilization involved, much more weight can be used than with a squat, making the compressive forces in this unnatural position with heavier weights potentially much more dangerous. This is because trunk stability is no longer a factor. The end game is that the forces transmitted on leg muscles and joints are much greater than the body could naturally transmit during the squat.
So instead, opt for the full squat. Numerous studies show that not only are squats safe, but are a significant deterrent to knee injuries. Squats increase stability in the knee by increasing strength in the muscles around the joint, along with connective tissue. Squatting prowess has been shown, in study after study, to correlate with sprinting and vertical jump ability. Not to mention the squat’s unrivaled ability to produce an anabolic hormonal spike which is beneficial for total-body muscle growth and fat-burning.
All this sounds great but what about working the actual muscle? A study by the University of North Dakota compared muscle recruitment during a leg press and a free weight barbell squat. The study used male and female subjects, both trained and untrained. With equivalent loads in both exercises, subjects’ electromyographic (EMG) activity was recorded from the lower back, glutes, vastus lateralis (VL) and hamstrings. Across the board, the squat elicited significantly more EMG activity than did the leg press in the lower back, glutes and hamstrings. A significant difference in the quad (vastus lateralis) activity was not observed between the two exercises, but squats still had the upper hand.
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