When we talk about exercise selection, we typically talk about exercises you should do, but that's not enough. We must also address the other, equally important side of the coin: exercises you should NOT do!
Think about it, you can be doing all the right exercises, but if you're doing even one exercise that you shouldn't – because it's ineffective or unsafe – your results are going to suffer. At best, a bad exercise wastes your recuperative ability.
Far worse, poor exercise selection can lead to injuries which force you to take time away from the gym. In case you didn't get the memo, you can't make physique and performance progress when you're at home nursing an injury.
Here are five exercises you should drop like a bad habit... right now!
1. Behind-the-Neck Shoulder Press
Quick question: Would you jump off the roof of your house to activate the maximum number of motor units in your quads? I'm going to assume the answer is no.
Although you'd likely achieve more quad recruitment with roof-jumping than with anything you've ever done, it wouldn't really matter. You'd be too occupied with things like a) crying like a schoolgirl, b) calling 911, and c) looking for your kneecaps to be able to enjoy the awesome depth jump you just did.
Along the same lines, there's no doubt that behind-the-neck presses are good at stimulating the deltoids, specifically the anterior delts. But just because an exercise is good for your muscles doesn't necessarily mean it's good for your joints.
The main problem with behind-the-neck presses is that the movement has to be done with the shoulders in extreme external and horizontal abduction. In other words, you're required to do the movement at the very end range of motion for the shoulder joint.
Although it's normally safe to take your shoulder to its end range of motion if you're in the club "raising the roof," it becomes far less safe when you do rep after rep, set after set, with a loaded barbell in your hands.
While it's true that the shoulder joint (aka: glenohumeral) is the most mobile joint in the body, it's also the most unstable. So, just because you can actually get a barbell behind your head doesn't mean that you should do repeated movements, against a load no less, in that same position.
It's much, much safer to press overhead with the humerus moving in the scapular plane, which is about 30° forward of the frontal plane.
To find the scapular plane, raise your arms straight out to the sides (in the frontal plane) until they're parallel to the ground (as in the top position of a lateral raise). Now bring your arms forward about 30°. Your humerus is now in the plane of your scapula. This is the position your upper arms should be in when you do overhead presses.
Sure, there are some people who can do behind-the-neck barbell presses for years and never have a shoulder problem. Likewise, there are people who can smoke cigarettes for decades and never get lung cancer. But in both cases, you're gambling... and with odds that are not in your favor.
2. Barbell Upright Rows
You should never do barbell upright rows. Period.
As with behind-the-neck presses, barbell upright rows do a good job of stimulating muscles (upper traps and medial delts). Unfortunately, they also do a good job of causing or aggravating shoulder impingement syndrome (SIS).
Shoulder impingement occurs when the tendon of the supraspinatus (a rotator cuff muscle) gets inflamed as a result of being repeatedly pressed against the bony acromion above it.
To test for impingement syndrome, doctors place the shoulder in positions that impinge, or pinch, the supraspinatus tendon. Then, if the patient demonstrates pain, the doctor has a good idea that there's some inflammation involved.
Neer's Test is one of the main orthopedic tests used for SIS. Here's how to do it: Forcefully elevate an internally-rotated arm in the scapular plane, causing the supraspinatus tendon to impinge against the anterior inferior acromion. In case you're unfamiliar with the motions described with Neer's Test, it's essentially the same motion as barbell upright rows.
Did you get that? The movement that doctors use to intentionally impinge the supraspinatus is basically the exact same motion as the barbell upright row!
Hopefully, a bell went off in your head: "Hmm, maybe upright rows aren't good for my shoulders."
For those of you who are going to do upright rows anyway, at least use dumbbells that allow you to widen your grip as you come up. This will be less insulting to your shoulders than the standard narrow-grip version done with a barbell.
3. Shrugs with Shoulder Roll
Back when Michael J. Fox was joyriding in a DeLorean in Back to The Future, it seemed that everyone who did shrugs did them with a roll, either rolling their shoulders forward or backward after each vertical shrug. Sadly, I still see some people doing this, so let's set the record straight.
We do shrugs to build our upper traps, right? Well, the primary function of your upper traps is to shrug or elevate your shoulders. So it makes sense: shrugging upward against resistance builds your upper traps. We're good so far, but now let's look at the rolling component of "rolling shrugs."
Once you're in the top position of a shrug, rolling your shoulders forward from that point actually moves the line of force anterior to and away from the upper traps, just the opposite of what you want to do.
So not only does rolling your shoulders forward during shrugs fail to work better, it's actually worse. The only thing forward-rolling shrugs do for you is let everyone around you know that you have no idea what you're doing in the gym.
If you insist on doing your part to keep rolling shrugs in style, at least roll your shoulders backward when you do them. That way you can say you do it to give your scapular retractors (rhomboids, middle, and lower traps) a little extra work. No, it doesn't work them well at all since the resistance is going down and your retractors pull back, but hey, at least it's something.
4. Twisting Sit-ups
Many people do twisting sit-ups to target both the rectus abdominus (abs) and the obliques at the same time. Killing two birds with one stone? Makes perfect sense, but there's a problem.
When you do a sit-up – or a full crunch where your lower back doesn't stay flat on the ground – your lumbar spine rounds forward, which is called flexion. The problem is, spinal flexion puts a lot of pressure on the intervertebral discs.
But there's one specific motion that's far more dangerous to discs than flexion: flexion combined with rotation. Unfortunately, that's the exact motion you're doing when you do sit-ups with a twist.
Flexion with rotation pushes the nucleus pulposus – the jellylike center – of the disc posterolateral (back and to the side), which is precisely where discs tend to herniate.
Unless you actually want a herniated disc – and experience the numbness, tingling, and excruciating pain that goes with it – avoid sit-ups with a twist, or any spinal flexion combined with rotation.
5. Stiff-Legged Deadlifts with a Rounded Back
As I mentioned above, spinal flexion (rounding your lower back) really puts a lot of undue stress on the nucleus pulposus of the discs. In addition to flexion with rotation, there's yet another type of stress that's even worse than flexion alone: flexion with compression.
Flexion with compression could also be stated as flexion under load. For example: doing a barbell stiff-legged deadlift with a rounded back. (Just picturing that as I type it makes me cringe!)
It's one thing to round your back while you're bending over to touch your toes, but it's a far more dangerous situation when you do that with added resistance! The compressive forces of the weight exponentially increase the force placed on those poor, poor discs of yours.
Doing a stiff-legged deadlift with a rounded back is basically asking for a herniated disc!
And don't think just because you've done that before and didn't herniate a disc that you never will. Disc herniations are essentially repetitive-use injuries that occur gradually over time. That's why it's so important to protect your lower back from the very beginning of your training career.
Besides stiff-legged deadlifts, people tend to round their backs on squats, bent-over rows, and low-cable rows. No matter the exercise, make sure to keep your back flat during every movement, especially if there's added resistance involved.
Remember, an exercise that may be good for your muscles may be damaging to your joints. The above five exercises have no place in your routine if you have long-term results in mind!
- Shoulder Impingement Syndrome