Good, But Misused Exercises
Most exercises aren't inherently bad. When used with the right people, for the right objective, they can serve their purpose. But they become dumb exercises when used inappropriately.
Such exercises are often meant to be used with athletes – specifically for performance improvement. They require a higher level of motor skill, training experience, mobility, and coordination. The impact on body composition is limited. They're not good to help you build more muscle nor are they great for fat loss.
They're designed to be done for short duration sets focusing on either speed or precision. Unfortunately, a lot of coaches turn them into fat loss tools and have clients go at them for longer durations, which leads to all kind of problems.
Why Are Coaches Using These Exercises?
Three main reasons:
- As a marketing tool: Clients are often attracted to coaches who use exercises like these. But we know that athletes don't look the way they do because of these drills, but rather because of years of hard work, playing sports and doing conditioning work for hours each week.
- To look smart: Instead of selecting a tool that'll help a client get better results, some coaches pick exercises that'll make him seem innovative.
- Self-interest: Some coaches would rather be training athletes. So even when they're working with an out-of-shape client, they'll choose exercises that would only be fitting for an experienced athlete.
Sure, these coaches probably mean well. They may believe that athletic moves will yield the best results. Their hearts are in the right place, but their brains aren't.
The Five Most Common Misapplications
1 – Plyometrics for the Overweight
Jumps can have a positive impact on body composition, but not enough to justify using them with out of shape people. The risk isn't worth the reward.
I blame The Biggest Loser for this though. They had obese people doing high-rep jumping drills on national TV, so surely it must be a sensible practice, right?
Just put yourself in the body of an obese client:
- You're self-conscious. Just getting to the gym and staying there is a challenge. You feel like you're on display and don't want to attract any attention.
- The extra weight makes it harder to move and it's risky for your joints which have to absorb more force. If you have knee and lower back pain from just walking you can imagine what jumping around does.
- You likely don't have a background in sports and as a result your coordination is poor.
- And now you're being asked to do a variety of jumps? No way!
Jumping on a box, over hurdles, side to side bounding, and anything of the sort does nothing but create a spectacle for the coach. There are no real benefits for you, unless you're already fit and somewhat coordinated.
If you're overweight and self conscious, think of what happens when you jump up and down. The fat also bounces up and down too. And that's the kind of situation that'll decrease someone's motivation to keep going back to the gym. And physically speaking, imagine how destructive jumping around will be on the joints of someone who has very little muscle and a lot of weight to move.
If jumping drills were vastly superior to other exercises that stimulate fat loss, then sure, there'd be a good reason to include them. But they're not. The caloric expenditure from jumps isn't higher than other forms of more appropriate exercises.
2 – Ladder Drills for the Uncoordinated
Sure, watching a motor genius or elite athlete doing ladder drills is impressive. But even in the world of strength and conditioning the real usefulness of ladder/footing drills is questionable, outside of being a good warm-up.
Why do them with an average Joe who doesn't have the motor skills to do ladder drills with any kind of intensity? I often see out of shape guys and gals with no coordination doing ladder drills. The thing is, they have zero speed; they're basically walking through the drills and have such poor coordination that they have to look down to see where they're stepping. As a result, they lose control over their posture.
What does that accomplish? Nothing. They aren't moving around fast enough to have any impact on activating the nervous system or ramping up caloric expenditure, so it's not even a good warm-up.
And if you're working with an average Joe who just wants to look and feel better, is improving agility going to be among your priorities? Really? Yet I see coaches spending 15 minutes of a 60 minutes session on these drills.
And even if the clients get better over time, the return for their investment is probably not in line with their goals – fat loss, muscle growth, or health.
3 – Overhead Squats for the Out of Shape
If you're a CrossFit athlete, training the overhead squat is useful since it's often used in WODs and competitions. And it can help you be more efficient at the snatch, which is a key lift in CrossFit.
Likewise, if you're an Olympic lifter it can help you get better in the catch position of a snatch, which can transfer into better performance if hitting that position is a weakness.
If you're an athlete, it might even have some value to improve the capacity of the body to work as a unit and strengthen the core while improving active mobility. And light overhead squats can be an okay corrective or diagnostic exercise.
But one thing it shouldn't be is a tool to build muscle or lose fat with an average person, regardless of how cool it looks. Why do it? For leg growth? The overhead squat is the worst squat for that purpose. Any other type of squat is superior since the limiting factor on the overhead squat is holding the weight overhead, not leg strength. You'd use a lot more weight and be able to do more reps with conventional squats, Zercher squats, or front squats.
What about to strengthen the core? Sure, but there are better options. Zercher squats are vastly superior for core strength, and so are Frankenstein squats.
You can also use a method like the hanging band technique on squats or front squats. In all of these cases you're not limited by upper body mobility, as with the overhead squat. You'll also use more weight which plays a role in core activation/strengthening.
But don't overhead squats simultaneously build the lower and upper body? Possibly. Remember, one of the benefits of overhead squats is making the whole body work as a unit. But to believe that this would lead to significant hypertrophy is a stretch.
When you do a proper overhead squat, the overhead position is only a support. The delts and triceps don't work that hard because you're "bone in bone," meaning they're supported in large part by the skeletal system and the tension is spread over all the upper-body muscles. It's the movement's greatest benefit for an athlete, but it makes it inferior as a muscle builder.
Proper Overhead Squat
The load is divided over so many muscles that none actually work at a level high enough to stimulate maximum growth. Not to mention that the average Joe won't have the mobility, skill, and coordination to use much weight. It'll take a heck of a long time to build these up to a high enough level so that the overhead squat could stimulate muscle growth. I'm not saying that it can't build muscle, but that it's a very inefficient way to do it.
And most average lifters have bad overhead mobility. It's hard enough to get them to back squat with perfect technique. And you want to have them squat with the bar in a position they have a hard time even reaching? Stop that!
4 - Olympic Lifts For Those Who Can't Hinge
I'm a former Olympic weightlifter. Did it full time for six years. The simpler variations have many benefits for athletic performance. Regardless, they're some of the most misused lifts around.
I see a lot of coaches, who often have no formal experience with Olympic lifting themselves, throw these into a client's program blindly, as if they're just another lift. They aren't. Even the simpler variations are high-skill moves. They require a higher level of coordination than your regular barbell lifts and they're also dependent on acceleration and timing.
If you don't have the coordination, timing, and capacity to explode you won't be able to use enough weight to create a training effect, and you might risk injuries.
There are three prerequisites for learning the Olympic lifts:
- Be able to do a perfect hip hinge under load, bringing the bar down to at least below the knees with perfect form. If you can't do that with your 0.7 x bodyweight (women) and 1 x bodyweight (men) for at least 5 reps, you have no business even thinking about learning the Olympic lifts.
- Be able to do a technically perfect front squat. Use a clean grip with the elbow held high (and ideally a full grip, not a finger tip one), chest up, straight back, and full range of motion. Under load of course.
- Be somewhat efficient at jumping. Height isn't the most important thing here, but what I'm looking at is "jumping strategy." Does the body stay in a biomechanically correct position during the various phases of jumping?
Does the person need to squat down low to jump or do they take a short dip, which is better for Olympic lifting than a long, slow dip? How is the transition from the dip down to the jump up? Slow, fast, or violent? If the person has a slow transition they're not ready to learn the Olympic lifts. How can you be explosive with a barbell if you can't be explosive with only your bodyweight?
If you can't do these three actions with a high level of efficiency, you shouldn't do the Olympic lifts.
5 – Olympic Lifts for Those Wanting to Get Huge
Olympic lifting is simply not an efficient way to build muscle:
Even among elite Olympic lifters, very few are muscular.
There are more guys who look like average Joes than muscular lifters. And we're talking about guys who lift 400-plus pounds over their heads and do tons of weekly volume.
You won't be able to lift enough weight to stimulate growth.
When you add the Olympic lifts, the limiting factors will be technique, timing, and capacity to accelerate. It will take a long time until you can lift weights that take full advantage of your strength. For example, if you can squat 400 pounds and deadlift 475 (good but not amazing lifts) a normal power clean would be 265-275 pounds and a normal power snatch would be 225-235.
If you lift less than that on the power clean, you're not using your full strength potential because of improper technique, timing, or explosiveness. Until you can lift to your full potential it'll be hard to trigger growth. If very few elite weightlifters are jacked when they can clean and jerk 400-500 pounds, why would you get jacked lifting half that?
The time under load is too low to trigger maximum growth.
You shouldn't do sets of more than 5 reps on the simpler variations of the Olympic lifts (power clean from floor, hang, or blocks; power snatch from floor, hang, or blocks). And you shouldn't do sets of more than 3 reps on the full squat variations. Since the movements are so fast you'll be under load for less than 12-15 seconds, which isn't optimal to trigger hypertrophy.
Furthermore, the time you spend producing maximum force is even lower than that because in each rep you're exploding for a few tenths of a second. The rest is submaximal work (the first pull is essentially a deadlift with 30-50% of your max).
There's very little eccentric tension.
Accentuating the eccentric (negative) activates mTor the most and has the greatest impact on hypertrophy. If you take out the eccentric component of a rep, you greatly diminish the muscle-building potential.
The Olympic lifts are the opposite of constant tension.
It's all about exploding for a brief moment, then the muscle tension is greatly released. Constant tension, if done long enough for lactate to accumulate in the muscle, is the second trigger for muscle growth. You also don't get that from O-lifts.
You won't get much muscular fatigue.
And that's the third trigger for muscle growth. You also don't achieve that in an Olympic lifting set (or at least you shouldn't). When you miss a rep, it's not due to muscle failure, but because you can't accelerate the bar enough.
None of the three main ways to trigger hypertrophy are present, which means the Olympic lifts are very inefficient at building muscle mass. That's especially true when dealing with people who have little technical efficiency since they won't even be able to overload their muscles.
Variation Is Still Valid
I'm all for exercise variation. While not everybody needs it, most of us like to spice up our training from time to time. But when you add something to your program you must make sure that it'll be effective. Be objective enough to recognize if it's helpful for your goals or not.