Sissy Exercises That Aren't
The other day I listened to an interesting internet radio interview from the always-entertaining TC. In the interview he aptly described us weightlifter-types as "Men whose unstated purpose is to pursue what in their eyes constitutes a masculine ideal. And they fall woefully short."
He then continued, "Today's idea of masculinity is hitting your finger with a hammer and you don't cry."
Even though his comment was circuitously directed towards me – you know, being a fellow meathead and all – I couldn't help but chuckle; not just because it's a funny comment but also because, well, it's also very true.
As a collective whole, we meatheads will go to extreme lengths to uphold a tough-guy image. This false sense of bravado can manifest in many different ways, such as trying to work through pain, bragging about injuries, or scoffing at certain exercises that we deem to be "sissy."
For a meathead, there's nothing worse than being perceived (mainly by fellow meatheads) as a pussy, so if there's a chance an exercise may be perceived as such, we immediately scorn it in favor of something we consider to be more "manly," whatever that means.
Most of the time the derision is well-deserved (i.e., the good girl/bad girl machine), but sometimes, this scorning may be a little premature, and we end up discarding valuable exercises that may be stigmatized as being wussy, but in reality are very productive exercises from a strength and muscle-building standpoint – that can also be progressed to be damn difficult.
Here are a few such exercises that you may want to reconsider nixing from your toolbox.
The first time I heard about inverted rows they were actually referenced to me as "fat man pull-ups," so I immediately wrote them off before ever giving them a try.
I'll be damned if I was going to be seen doing an exercise for fatties. What next, Zumba?
Plus, I could already crank out lots of pull-ups, so I didn't see the point of doing what I figured was a regression anyway.
Instead I stuck to machine rows and dumbbell rows. Oh yeah, and barbell and T-bar rows done with so much cheat that you could barely decipher what exercise I was trying to do.
Is it row? Is it an upright row? Is it a shrug? Is it some sort of messed up power clean? Is he having a seizure? Should I call an ambulance?
One day I was in the gym by myself testing out my new blast straps that I'd bought for push-ups and on a whim decided to give the inverted rows a shot.
With my feet on the floor they were as easy as I'd expected, but once I elevated my feet on a bench they were actually quite challenging, and with a 25-pound plate on my chest I could only muster 5-6 reps. Talk about being humbled.
What's more, I didn't feel them at all in my lower back like I did with heavy free-weight rows, and better still, I felt them much more in my upper back. You know, where you actually want to feel rows.
Ever since then, inverted rows have been a staple exercise in my program and have easily become my favorite rowing variation. They're especially great for people like me who have lower back issues, or for those looking to save their lower back for things like deadlifts and squats.
The key to making them a viable strength and muscle builder as opposed to a foo-foo exercise is that you have to treat them as a strength and muscle builder. Duh.
That just means that rather than going through the motions, you have to push yourself and get progressively stronger over time. Again, duh.
The most basic form of progression is obviously adding weight. I'll add weight by either stacking plates on my abs or using weighted vests. Weighted vests make it a little easier if you have them, but both options are great; and in fact, using the plates increases the core demands, which is a nice bonus.
After going heavier, I also like to end with a higher-rep burnout set, which is something I wouldn't recommend with free-weight rows due to safety concerns for the lower back.
When using plates, I'll often end with a drop set, which will leave your upper back and forearms burning like crazy.
When using weight vests, after doing my heavy sets I'll drop down to just bodyweight or a lighter vest and just see how many I can do.
My current best is 25 with a 30-pound vest. Holy upper back pump!
Beyond just adding weight, you can also progress to more difficult variations such as doing them one arm at a time or using "1.5" reps, just to name a few.
I've got about 20 different variations that you can sift through on my YouTube page if you're interested in finding new ways to challenge yourself, but I think you'll find the basic version to be plenty hard enough at first.
Sliding Leg Curls
I've always considered Romanian deadlifts (RDLs) and glute-ham raises to be my two favorite exercises for the hamstrings. Recently though, sliding leg curls with Valslides have snuck onto that list as well. I say "snuck" because I was initially resistant to them, mostly because I thought Valslides were gimmicky things that chicks used to get "toned."
Boy was I wrong. After using them extensively for the past couple years, I'd say sliding leg curls are very comparable to glute-ham raises. Fact is, I might even like them a little more.
When you break both of the exercises down, they're quite similar; the glutes fire to extend the hips while the hamstrings work concentrically to flex the knee and eccentrically to control knee extension.
Surely though, the glute-ham raise must be harder than those silly little slide pads, right?
To quote Lee Corso from ESPN College Game Day, Not so fast my friends!
I figured the same thing at first, and if you're just comparing the basic sliding leg curl to a bodyweight glute-ham raise, then yes, the glute-ham raise is harder. But upon messing around with the slide pads for a while, I realized that with a little imagination and creativity, sliding leg curls can be progressed to be every bit as hard as glute-ham raises, if not harder.
Remember that this is coming from an avid glute-ham raise lover that's been adding resistance to them in almost every way imaginable, so I don't say that lightly.
I wrote an entire article showing various ways to perform sliding leg curls from beginner to advanced here, so I strongly suggest you start there and work through the progressions. If you're still not convinced they're worth your time and/or are beneath you, give the version below a try and get back to me.
If you're at home or can't add weight for whatever reason, try "1.5" reps.
I'm willing to bet you'll be singing a very different tune afterwards. Now go back and read that article and start from the beginning like I originally told you.
I'm not trying to pooh-pooh the glute ham raise because it's still one of my absolute favorites. I'm merely trying to broaden your horizons and open you up to new things you may not have seen or may not have given a fair shake.
And if you don't have a glute-ham raise in your gym – which I know many of you don't – or you can't seem to get comfortable on the glute-ham bench for whatever reason, this is certainly a fantastic alternative.
If you take them seriously, sliding leg curls will quickly go from something you scoff at to something you dread doing because they're so damn hard, but your hamstrings and glutes with ultimately thank you for it.
The Goblet Hold
This isn't one particular exercise, but any leg exercise that uses the goblet hold.
My first exposure to the goblet was through Dan John championing the goblet squat as a means to teach the squatting pattern. At the time I was a decent squatter strength-wise, but I knew my form needed some work if I wanted to take it to the next level because my squats just never felt quite right and I knew poor form was to blame.
I value Dan John's opinion so I figured goblet squats might help, but I was worried that the meathead gods might strip me of my man card if I was seen squatting a measly dumbbell.
So in a valiant effort to save face amongst my meathead brethren, I compromised and picked up the biggest dumbbell my gym had and went to town.
I was shocked and pleasantly surprised to see how quickly my squat form cleared up after just a few sets, and even more pleasantly surprised to see that the form carried back over to barbell squats.
I was also shocked how friggin' heavy they felt considering the dumbbell couldn't have been much more than 100 pounds.
Along with working the legs, it was one hell of a workout for the anterior core and upper back.
I've since used the goblet hold for single-leg work like split squat and lunge variations and love it. Not only does it help teach and ingrain good technique, it also provides one hell of a core workout while simultaneously blasting the legs. No matter how strong you think you are with unilateral work, a heavy dumbbell will have you rethinking your opinion as you struggle with a weight that "should" be easy.
A hundred pounds in the goblet hold is much harder than holding two 50-pound dumbbells at your sides or putting a 100-pound barbell on your back, or even holding a barbell in the front-rack position.
After testing it extensively, I think just about anyone can benefit from the goblet hold.
For beginners it's a great way to learn the exercises, and I'd recommend using the goblet hold exclusively until you've maxed out the dumbbells in your gym, or it becomes too cumbersome to get the dumbbell into position (this last part only applies to smaller individuals as big dudes shouldn't have a problem).
For stronger lifters, it's a great way to hone in your form, get some core work in, and hammer the legs all at the same time. Do it after your heavy sets for some technique work, or pick the heaviest dumbbell you can and rep out with it at the end of your workout for a fun little challenge. I think you'll be pleasantly (or maybe unpleasantly, depending on how you look at it) surprised at just how challenging it is.
If you aren't doing any of these exercises, I think you're missing out on some gems, no matter how "hardcore" you think you are.
It doesn't really matter what I think though; ultimately you have to make your own judgments based on what you feel works best for you, and we're all different. I just ask that you be open-minded and at least try them a few times before rushing to judgment. I bet you'll like what you find.
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Ben Bruno graduated Summa Cum Laude from Columbia University. He currently trains athletes at Mike Boyle Strength and Condition in North Andover, Massachusetts and publishes a blog at www.benbruno.com.