That Guy Was Wrong!
For years, there's been this one strength coach who always says that there's really no such thing as a bad exercise, only bad applications of good exercises. That coach was... me. Turns out I wasn't completely correct.
While most exercises can serve their purpose when used for the right reason, there are still a few that don't have any rhyme or reason. At best, these exercises will waste your time and energy. At worst, they'll interfere with your progress because they constitute "garbage volume" that will steal away your recovery resources.
Here are the five exercises I consider completely worthless:
1 – Dumbbell Shadow Boxing
This is the stupidest exercise on the planet. If there are life forms on other planets, and those life forms work out, then this is the stupidest exercise on those planets too.
It literally does nothing good. I can't even believe this one still exists! I really think it's only done by people who want to look tough or attract attention in the gym, because there's no logical reason to do it.
First, you're doing a horizontal movement (punching forward) against a vertical resistance – the dumbbell only provides vertical resistance because of gravity. So the resistance doesn't even overload the action you want to strengthen.
Second, it just teaches you to be slow. If a movement is overloaded and speed decreases by 10% or more, it will have a negative impact on the performance of the unloaded movement. I'm talking about explosive movements here. So, punching with dumbbells makes you a slower puncher. (And the same is true for weighted bats in baseball, often used as a "warm-up.")
I'm not saying that slower speed exercises to increase strength aren't beneficial. I'm saying that doing the SAME movement as the explosive exercise, but slower, will mess up your motor pattern and make you slower.
A friend of mine was a high level sprinter. He hired this guy who fancied himself a track & field guru (although he never trained any elite sprinter). He had my friend do most of his sprinting with weighted insoles in his shoes. Not heavy either, just a few ounces. In a few months his 60 meter time slowed by 3/10ths of a second! And when filmed we could see a severe disruption of his running mechanics.
Gaining strength with basic barbell lifts can improve your power and speed potential. But overloading the same movement you're trying to make faster will actually make it slower.
When I was getting my Masters degree I did an experiment. I had people do a vertical jump, then do a set of 5 vertical jumps with a weight vest that was 20% of their bodyweight, then test their vertical again. (There was enough rest to avoid the fatigue effect.)
I asked them, "Did you jump higher before or after the set with the vest?" They all said they jumped higher after. Well, they didn't. They all jumped lower after the set with the vest. They thought they jumped higher because of the difference in perceived speed. They felt so much faster when compared to the vest set that they thought they got faster.
Yes, some professional boxers still shadow box with dumbbells, but that just shows you what amazing athletes they are. They can do dumb things and still perform at the elite level. You can't. Be smarter than the guy who gets punched in the head a lot.
2 – Lunge Combo Exercises
This is basically just combining a lunge with an upper body movement. For example, lunging and curling when you're in the low position of the lunge, or lunging and overhead pressing.
I get it. You're trying to work everything at the same time. The problem is, you're making the lunges pretty much worthless. If you can curl a pair of dumbbells they're very likely too light to provide an overload for the lunge. Same thing with the overhead press.
Even dumber are people curling or pressing at the same time as they're lunging down. When you're curling you have to lift the dumbbells up. Well, when you go down at the same time, it means you don't have to lift the dumbbells up as much, so the biceps work less. And now you have an exercise that doesn't overload either the legs or arms.
Do these exercises separately. You might think you're killing two birds with one stone, but in reality you're throwing one stone away.
Sure, sure, it might burn a few extra calories. But you're certainly not building or strengthening anything, unless it's your first day in the gym.
3 – BOSU Ball Curls
This is idiotic. Why? You simply can't lift as much weight when you're on an unstable surface. You also lose a lot of the mind-muscle connection when your attention and CNS resources have to be divided into two different motor tasks.
As such, you're losing both the capacity to overload the biceps and to improve the mind-muscle connection when you add the BOSU ball to the equation.
"Yeah, but you're improving stability and core strength!" Maybe. But there are better ways of doing that. And those methods don't involve making another exercise (curls) less effective.
But let's play pretend for a moment. Let's pretend that BOSU ball curls are effective at building the biceps while improving core strength and stability. They would still represent a progression from more simple balance and stability work.
After all, adding a second and completely unrelated motor task to a balance exercise makes it a lot harder to maintain balance. First because you're dividing your attention and CNS resources, and second because the curling action changes the combined center of mass which forces you to reactively contract some muscles to force your body to stay stable.
Curling on a BOSU ball is more challenging for balance than squatting (without weights) on that ball, which is more challenging than just standing on the ball. Yet most people who curl on the BOSU ball can't even stand for 45 seconds on the ball without having some movement. And they all look like they're surfing if they try to squat on it.
So even if it were a good exercise (which it isn't) it would be at the end of a balance progression. Yet most people who do BOSU curls have lousy balance. They look like a Parkinson patient on the Titanic! What good is that? If you can't do the exercise while being almost perfectly stable you're simply not ready for it.
In the end, you have an exercise that makes the curling portion largely ineffective at building the biceps, and a balance drill for which you're not ready for. Great combo, huh?
4 – Side Bend with Dumbbells in Both Hands
Do I really need to explain this one? Probably, because I still see it every week.
Listen folks, it's simple mechanics: holding one dumbbell in each hand negates the need for the muscles to do the job. Instead of having to use your obliques to lift the weight from one side up, you simply rely on the weight in the other hand to counter-lever your way up.
It's like a teeter totter. If you have a tiny kid on one side and a fat kid on the other, the tiny kid will have a hard time making the fat kid go up. He'll have to use muscular effort (slamming himself down the seat) to do the job. But if both kids are the same weight it requires almost no effort to get started, and once started pretty much no effort is needed.
Side bends, even when properly done (one side at a time) are an overrated exercise anyway and could be potentially risky for the spine. Try the side-plank crunch instead.
5 – "Jumping" Pull-Ups
Over the years I've been a defender of CrossFit and many of its exercises, like kipping pull-ups, which have their place for advanced competitive CrossFitters.
But one exercise I just don't understand is the jumping pull-up. I'm not taking about jumping from the floor to grab the bar then pulling yourself up, which can have some value. Here's what I'm referring to.
In some CrossFit classes you have the option to "scale down" if you can't do an exercise as prescribed. Let's say you have pull-ups in a WOD. If you can't do pull-ups, instructors normally have you do banded pull-ups. But some people are too weak (or heavy) for those. What do they do then? They put a box below the pull-up bar. The person stands on the box with his or her hands grabbing the pull-up bar. They're instructed to "jump and pull" until their chin is above the bar.
The problem is that because of the height of the bar, most people don't have to do any pulling work to get their chin over it. They're basically just standing on the box and hopping while holding the bar.
This doesn't do anything, though I suppose it requires more calories than sitting the exercise out. But the small hops aren't intense enough to build power, and the upper body doesn't do any work. It has nothing to do with the original exercise, the pull-up.
There are much better options. Can't do pull-ups or banded pull-ups? Do barbell, dumbbell, or band rowing... or even inverted rows. You're at least respecting the initial spirit of the exercise.