Bicep curls while standing on a BOSU is a great example of an exercise trainers hate. And rightfully so, because people do it with the false belief that any resistance training exercise is universally made better by standing on an unstable surface.
But not all exercises trainers hate really deserve it. Here’s a list of the most maligned ones, and the reason why they’re actually not bad… at least, they don’t HAVE to be.
1 – Burpees
Trainers hate mindless exercise programming, and burpees are notoriously used by group instructors as their default tactic to make people tired. They have clients burpee themselves to exhaustion while buying time to figure out what they’re going to do next in the workout.
But don’t blame the exercise for its poor application. Misusing the squat doesn’t make squatting a bad exercise. It just means we keep the blame on the individual for doing them wrong. Burpees are no different.
Why They’re Not Bad
The research on burpees is actually pretty cool. Unfortunately, discussions about them are often full of strong opinions based on sloppy thinking, and they usually ignore the science. But a 2014 study published in the Journal of Strength & Conditioning Research did a comparison of responses to sprint interval cycling versus burpees and the findings were interesting.
The study was done on U.S. Army Reserve members who had at least one year of preplanned, supervised exercise a minimum of 3 days per week. The cycling group did “all-out” bursts against resistance for 30 seconds. During the 4-minute active recovery period after each sprint, they cycled against no resistance.
The burpee group performed as many burpees as possible for 30 seconds, followed by 4 minutes of active recovery involving stepping in place at a self-selected pace. Both groups repeated this cycle 3 times for a total of 4 sets.
The results of this study suggest that “the cardiovascular strain elicited by a single session of low-volume, high-intensity intermittent burpees may be sufficient to confer cardiorespiratory and metabolic adaptations equivalent to those reported in studies using sprint interval cycling.” (1)
Another important finding: participant perceptions of exertion were significantly different. Although the self reports ranged from “hard” to “very hard” and the perceived exertion of both exercises was “vigorous,” the subjects thought the burpees were easier.
The researchers said this may be because sprint-interval cycling primarily involves the leg flexor and extensor muscles, whereas a greater amount of whole-body musculature is active during burpees.
The researchers thought these findings should be of specific interest to strength & conditioning pros who want to provide clients with a vigorous whole-body aerobic and anaerobic conditioning alternative to traditional running, cycling, or swimming. Unlike cycling that requires specialized equipment or a running protocol that requires a place to run or a treadmill, burpees are free, accessible to all, and can be done anywhere.
This research demonstrates that burpees may be a more tolerable conditioning option (which can increase exercise adherence) based on perception of fatigue.
Try Them Like This
I recommend gorilla burpees:
Start with your feet slightly farther apart than shoulder-width. This is different than the standard way with feet closer together. Then, you’re lowering and raising your torso by mainly bending and extending from your knees and your hips, which places more emphasis on the lower body.
Burpees are commonly performed by bending over mostly from your lower back and placing your hands on the floor in front of your feet, involving less contribution from the lower body and placing more stress on the lower back.
2 – The Hip Thrust
With glutes being the new biceps, you can’t scroll through social media without seeing them. As a result, lifters and coaches are tiring of hip thrusts just like football fans are tiring of seeing the Patriots win.
The exercise is embedded in a cliché of the insta-famous fitness “influencer” and self-proclaimed model who’s long on booty pics but short on any technical competency. She’s an expert in taking gym selfies, but severely unqualified to provide safe and reliable training info. Or she’s done a single show and is now a “prep coach” for bikini girls.
Why Hip Thrusts Aren’t Bad
Just because an exercise has become part of a cliché doesn’t make it bad. Heck, everyone and their dog is doing deadlifts on their social media page, but no one says deadlifts are overrated.
Now, some coaches have argued that hip thrusts can be risky if you go too heavy on them relative to your strength level, or substitute lumbar extension for hip extension. True! But none of these points apply exclusively to the hip thrust. Any exercise becomes more risky when you lift beyond your strength capacity or use poor technique.
That said, if you trained with me, we wouldn’t do barbell hip thrusts, but not because I think it’s a bad exercise. I simply prefer to do single-leg hip thrusts because it doesn’t take nearly as much time and equipment to set up. Here’s how to do a bodyweight variation with a hip shift:
Doing single-leg hip thrusts, by nature, prevents you from going too heavy, and I’ve found it’s easier to monitor your technique when doing them one-legged. Bonus: You can focus on bringing up your weaker side.
3 – Seated Adductor Machine
This exercise has come to represent the false idea of spot training – that training the “inner thighs” in this case will “tone” that part of the body.
Plus, add in the notion many trainers hold that seated, single-joint focused (isolation) exercises are “nonfunctional,” or that any benefits from isolation exercise can be gained from multi-joint exercises, and you can see why the seated hip adduction is commonly on a trainer’s hit list.
Why It Isn’t Bad
You can’t spot reduce, but you sure as heck can spot enhance! Hip thrusts are a great exercises to spot enhance (i.e. build) your glutes, but any hip adduction exercise won’t slim down (reduce) your inner thighs.
That said, there are potential performance and injury risk reduction benefits to using isolated hip adductor training exercises. Let’s look at some research:
- A 2015 systematic review (a study of studies) published in the British Journal of Sports Medicine found that hip adductor strength was one of the most common risk factors for groin injury in sport. (2)
- A study on pro ice hockey players found that they were 17 times more likely to sustain an adductor muscle strain (groin injury) if their adductor strength was less than 80% of his abductor strength. (3)
- A review investigating the barbell squat found that a greater hip external rotation position (feet turned out) along a wide stance of the feet, as well as an increased load will increase hip adduction activation during this exercise. (4)
- The adductor muscle activity levels in the wide-stance squat (5), single-leg squat, and the lunge are relatively low compared to exercises that focus primarily on the hip adduction movement. (6)
So, doing lots of hip abductor strengthening, such as pushing your knees out against hip loop bands, hip loop band lateral shuffles, etc. without also doing exercises to strengthen hip adduction exercise may increase your risk of groin injury. And, isolation adduction exercises may add a training benefit not offered by compound lower-body exercises.
So, my recommendation is do both compound and isolation exercises for your adductors just like you’d do for other muscle groups.
Also, the idea that just because a given exercise is performed seated and focused on a single joint action doesn’t mean it can’t or won’t offer “functional” performance benefits. For example, research on elite soccer players had both groups use the exact same strength and conditioning programs with only one difference between groups.
One group had additional, specific hamstring training using the lying hamstring curl machine and the other did not. The results showed that the addition of the lying curl increased sprint speed and decreased the risk of suffering a hamstring strain injury. (7)
4 – Leg Press and Smith Machine
Trainers hate the leg press become it has come to represent dudes who stack every plate they can find on it to perform quarter presses.
They hate the Smith machine because the dictated bar path it provides on movements like squats isn’t a great way to improve your free weight squat performance since the two movements involve different mechanics.
Why They Aren’t Bad
Not everyone in the gym wants to be a powerlifter, and not everyone judges every lower-body exercise by how it relates to their barbell squat performance.
They’re simply looking for effective exercises that fit within their current ability and injury history. And both the leg press and Smith machine squats are great ways to train your legs.
5 – CrossFit
Okay, so it’s not a single exercise. But for many trainers it represents sloppy, thoughtless, and potentially risky exercise programing.
For example, doing technical lifts like barbell snatches for high reps (often with general populations who have limited shoulder flexibility), doing endless amount of burpees simply because they make people tired, sacrificing exercise form in the name of racing against the clock, using completely arbitrary rep schemes such as 100 of this and 200 of that simply because they’re a round and very high number, promoting the idea that good workouts are “hardcore” workouts that leave you crawling out of the gym and feeling pukish, etc.
Why CrossFit Isn’t Bad
Many people will complain CrossFit instructors only need to take a weekend certification to teach when most all personal training certifications, even those from the most established and respected certifying organizations, require no more than a weekend.
That said, CrossFit is like any other type of training; it’s instructor dependent. There are great CrossFit instructors who are great at programming and maximize training safety, and there are not-so-great ones. Just like there are great and not so great trainers certified by other training organizations.
6 – Crunches and Other Spinal Flexion Exercises
Crunches also represent the false idea of spot training – feeling your abs burn means burning more belly fat, plus it’s isolation training. Trainers also hate crunches because they represent inefficient training and simply not knowing what you’re doing. You can’t go into a gym and not see people flailing around on the ground for endless reps while yanking their head forward and thinking they know how to exercise.
Stack all that on top of the fact that people sit in a forward flexed position all day then come to the gym and repeatedly flex forward doing crunches and you can see why many trainers cringe when they hear the word “crunches.”
Crunches represent almost everything trainers think is wrong with mainstream fitness practices in one exercise.
Why Spinal Flexion Exercises Aren’t Bad
I don’t program standard crunches, but not because I think they’re bad. I just prefer spinal flexion exercises that allow you to train through a larger range of motion, such as crunches on a stability ball where you stretch over the ball at the bottom of each rep. (After all, I’m not going to do biceps crunches instead of full-range biceps curls.)
Plus, these types of exercises are more time efficient. They provide a sufficient training stimulus without the endless reps, which is also why I don’t use crunches. I also use spinal flexion exercises in conjunction with anti-spinal movement exercises.
Many trainers are against any sort of spinal flexion exercises and exclusively use anti-spinal movement exercises. They take this approach because they argue that spinal flexion exercises are inherently dangerous, bad for your posture, non-functional, etc.
I’ve debunked these common false beliefs on T Nation before (see the related links below) but here are a few more scientific points.
Research has shown the basic crunch elicited around 2,000N of compression on the spine at L4/L5 (8). It’s because of that level of spinal compression that many trainers say those exercises should be avoided. However, many of these same trainers will proudly recommend exercises like kettlebell swings and bent-over rows.
Interestingly, spinal loading at the beginning of the swings when using a 16kg kettlebell created 3195N of compression, 2328N at the middle of the swing, and 1903N of compression at the top of the swing (9).
And the bent-over row was shown to create 3,576N on the spine, which is also significantly higher than the compression created on the lumbar spine during a basic crunch (10). So, as Bret Contreras said, “Many coaches vilify certain exercises based on the levels of spinal loading they produce only to prescribe alternative exercises that exceed the levels reached in the exercises they discourage.”
Now, some will argue by saying that crunches involve spinal flexion, which is the problem, but the kettlebell swing and the bent-over row don’t involve any lumbar flexion. They say to just keep your spine in a safer position to deal with these levels of compression. Unfortunately, this common belief has also been falsified in multiple studies.
There’s a multitude of research showing that lumbar flexion occurs when performing a variety of common lifts, even when lifters are cued to maintain a neutral spine while under the watchful eye of experts such as Dr. Stuart McGill:
- Kettlebell Swings: 26 degrees (9)
- Good Mornings: (which involve a very similar positioning at the bottom to a bent-over row) – 25-27 degrees (11,12)
- Squats: 40 degrees (13)
Two studies on squats using men and women found that in every case, as soon as a loaded bar was placed across the rear shoulder region prior to the commencement of the downward phase of the squat, the lumbar spine lost its normal or natural curve (14,15).
Another soon to be published thesis paper titled, “Lumbar spine kinematics and kinetics during heavy barbell squat and deadlift variations,” out of the University of Saskatchewan, showed 50% and 80% max flexion on squats and deadlifts respectively.
It’s impossible for the lumbar to stay in spinal neutral (which is more of a range than a specific spinal position). That’s nothing new, as it was demonstrated by biomechanists in 1994 (16). Note how it looks neutral but it’s still flexed.
It looks neutral despite it being 22 degrees of lumbar flexion, which is around 35% of max flexion (17). Researchers suggest that what appears to be a neutral-looking lumbar spine position (when it’s actually flexing) is in reality the thoracic spine being more neutral (18).
Another reason could be due to normal human variations in pelvic shape, which makes it difficult to accurately determine pelvic posture. Research shows there’s considerable morphological variation between pelvises. It’s possible that differences of up to 23 degrees in the ASIS-PSIS angle (and 22 degrees in the pubic symphysis-ischial spine angle) could reflect differences in morphology rather than differences in muscular and ligamentous forces acting between the pelvis and adjacent segments (19).
This isn’t at all saying there’s no need to coach or attempt to maintain a stiff, lordodic lumbar position when you perform these types of exercises. You certainly want to attempt to control your spine and maintain the strongest position you can because you can change the amount of lumbar flexion a little.
It’s simply highlighting the fact that some level of lumbar flexion is unavoidable, even when you’re trying to actively prevent it. And some level of lumbar spine flexion is going to occur no matter what. You can’t accurately call lumbar flexion a reliable risk factor to avoid when it’s a normal and unavoidable aspect of many functional movements and common lifts.
- Gist, Nicholas & Freese, Eric & Cureton, Kirk. (2014). Comparison of Responses to Two High-Intensity Intermittent Exercise Protocols. Journal of strength and conditioning research / National Strength & Conditioning Association. 28.
- Jackie L Whittaker, et al. Risk factors for groin injury in sport: an updated systematic review. Br J Sports Med 2015;49:803-809
- Tyler TF, et al. The association of hip strength and flexibility with the incidence of adductor muscle strains in professional ice hockey players. Am J Sports Med. 2001 Mar-Apr;29(2):124-8.
- Pereira GR, Leporace G, Chagas D, et al. Influence of hip external rotation on hip adductor and rectus femoris myoelectric activity during a dynamic parallel squat. J Strength Cond Res 2010;24:2749–54.
- Clark DR, Lambert MI, Hunter AM. Muscle activation in the loaded free barbell squat: a brief review. J Strength Cond Res 2012;26:1169–78.
- Dwyer MK, Boudreau SN, Mattacola CG, et al. Comparison of lower extremity kinematics and hip muscle activation during rehabilitation tasks between sexes. J Athl Train 2010;45:181–90.
- Askling C, Karlsson J, Thorstensson A. (2003), Hamstring injury occurrence in elite soccer players after preseason strength training with eccentric overload. Scand J Med Sci Sports. 2003;13:244-250. doi:10.1034/j.1600-0838.2003.00312
- Contreras, B. and Schoenfeld, B. (2011). To crunch or not to crunch: An evidence-based examination of spinal flexion exercises, their potential risks, and their applicability to program design. Strength and Conditioning Journal, 33, 4, 8–18.
- McGill SM, Marshall LW. Kettlebell swing, snatch, and bottoms-up carry: back and hip muscle activation, motion, and low back loads. J Strength Cond Res. 2012 Jan;26(1):16-27.
- Bret Contreras. The Contreras Files: Volume II. Published online 01/17/12.
- Vigotsky, A. D., Harper, E. N., Ryan, D. R., & Contreras, B. (2015). Effects of load on good morning kinematics and EMG activity. PeerJ, 3, e708. doi:10.7717/peerj.708
- Schellenberg et al. (2013) Schellenberg F, Lindorfer J, List R, Taylor WR, Lorenzetti S. Kinetic and kinematic differences between deadlifts and goodmornings. BMC Sports Science, Medicine and Rehabilitation. 2013;5:27. doi: 10.1186/2052-1847-5-27.
- Potvin JR, McGill SM, Norman RW. Trunk muscle and lumbar ligament contributions to dynamic lifts with varying degrees of trunk flexion. Spine (Phila Pa 1976). 1991 Sep;16(9):1099-107.
- McKean MR, Dunn PK, Burkett BJ. The lumbar and sacrum movement pattern during the back squat exercise. J Strength Cond Res. 2010 Oct;24(10):2731-41. doi: 10.1519/JSC.0b013e3181e2e166.
- McKean, Mark & Burkett, Brendan. (2012). Does segment length influence the hip, knee and ankle coordination during the squat movement?. Journal Fitness Research. 1. 23-30.
- Dolan P, Earley M, Adams MA. Bending and compressive stresses acting on the lumbar spine during lifting activities. J Biomech. 1994 Oct;27(10):1237-48.
- Greg Lehman. Reconciling Spinal Flexion and Pain: We Are All Doomed to Failure but Perhaps it Doesn’t Matter. Published online April 2, 2018.
- Dolan P, Mannion AF, Adams MA. Passive tissues help the back muscles to generate extensor moments during lifting. J Biomech. 1994 Aug;27(8):1077-85.
- Preece, S. J., Willan, P., Nester, C. J., Graham-Smith, P., Herrington, L., & Bowker, P. (2008). Variation in pelvic morphology may prevent the identification of anterior pelvic tilt. The Journal of manual & manipulative therapy, 16(2), 113-7.