People love majoring in the minors, especially when it comes to "functional training." I get it. Bullshit functional training is easier than actually busting your ass to get stronger. But even lazy lifters eventually get sick and tired of wasting their time and getting poor results.
Sure, there's a time and place for using small and strategic exercises to improve a weak link in strength, function, or physique, but there are also some exercises that people have been brainwashed into doing – stuff that should be avoided like bad seafood.
Here are some of the worst culprits, along with better alternatives that will actually give you results.
1 – Banded Shoulder External Rotation
Over the last few decades, the banded-external rotation exercise has become one of the most overused and under-performing forms of "resistance training" to battle shoulder pain and strengthen the rotator cuff that we've ever seen. This exercise is also the perfect metaphor for the ever-growing gap between a highly theoretical, academic-based biomechanical model and the reality, which is real world, battle-tested, functional strength training.
You could write a dissertation on the multi-level problems of the banded external rotation and its lack of efficacy, but it all comes back to mismatching the targeted muscle (the infraspinatus or external rotator cuff) with its primary function.
The rotator cuff is comprised of four musculo-tendinous units that surround the head of the humerus. While the infraspinatus, supraspinatus, subscapularis, and teres minor all have, in theory, unique isolated muscular action, they don't work in isolation. Instead, they work as an integrated unit that acts to initiate primary stability at the gleno-humeral joint upon elevation.
What does this mean for our training? An exercise like the shoulder external rotation done with the arm down to the side and a 90-degree elbow flexion is useless for a vast majority of people trying to rehab shoulder pain. The rotator cuff is a stability-based unit and not a dynamic mover, as this exercise assumes it is.
It's time to put an end to endless banded external rotations that aren't doing jack shit for your shoulder health and instead use a more effective method to build up strength and function in this region.
Do This Instead: The Face Pull-Apart Combo
Since we're targeting the rotator cuff to improve its stability action, it makes sense to do exercises that initiate stability at the rotator cuff. This can be achieved through a tri-set of banded shoulder exercises that coaches Charles Staley and Christian Thibaudeau have graciously coined, "The Rusin Shoulder Warm-Up."
This sequence combines three movements to target both static and dynamic stability at the shoulders, along with authentic movement and stability at the shoulder blades and thoracic cage:
- Over & Backs x 8-12 reps
- Pull-Aparts x 10-15 reps
- Face Pull-Aparts x 10-15 reps
Complete this as a tri-set with minimal rest between exercises and 30-45 seconds rest between sets. Repeat 2-4 times.
For shoulders to be pain-free, they don't need to be more mobile; they need to be more stable. And stability is a skill that's improved with frequency and high volume practice. Place this tri-set into your warm-up every single day before training. You'll quickly feel the activation and pump.
2 – Wrist Curls & Extensions
People have enough problems keeping their elbows healthy without cranking out short range-of-motion wrist extensions and curls on a regular basis. More times than not, the minor muscle-building benefits of direct wrist and forearm flexor and extensor work don't exceed the possible muscular and tendon stress and general waste of training time.
The use of these minor movements with nearly no long-term loading capacity or ability to stimulate localized hypertrophy doesn't make a whole lot of sense. There are far superior methods to build the forearms while getting big and functionally strong in the process.
The musculature of both sides of the forearms that control flexion and extension of the wrists and fingers are anatomically and biomechanically designed to execute two actions:
- Fine motor skills with the hands
- Isometric force production
When looking at function in this way, adding a dynamic component to these muscular groups doesn't match their primary actions, which makes this type of training counterproductive at best, and injurious at worst.
Instead of cranking out endless reps of direct forearm training that most likely hits the tendons harder than the actual muscles, instead start adding wrist-centric movements into your biceps and triceps work.
Do This Instead: Wrist-Centric Curls & Pushdowns
One of the primary reasons that direct arm work is added to strength-based programming is to more efficiently link up the hand (which is usually in contact with a barbell or dumbbell) with the shoulder complex in order to better transfer force throughout this kinetic chain.
When attempting to maximize the training effect of biceps and triceps work from that perspective, adding small but strategic wrist-centric movements into curls and pushdowns can be one hell of a training tool.
In order to achieve the highest levels of activation at the forearms, upper arms, and movement patterns in general, use slight flexion and extension during your biceps and triceps work.
In a traditional curl, start your wrists off in slight extension at the bottom range of motion. As your biceps take over the movement to curl the weight up, use a slight flexion at the wrists to finish off the movement at the peak of that contraction.
The same can be done with triceps work. Start off your beginning range of motion with the wrists in flexion, and finish off the triceps extension with a slight extension at the wrists to maximize the contraction.
If you do these small movements correctly, you'll feel an instant increase in activation and contraction quality. But remember, a small range of motion at the wrists goes a long way.
3 – Weighted Neck Extensions
Old-school direct neck training has once again become new. Recreational lifters and strength athletes are doing it more often now, probably because they saw a video of their favorite athlete doing it. But the difference between strategic neck programs used too reduce concussion rates and cranking out ugly neck extensions with a leather harness is vast.
Unless you plan in taking part in activities that involve mandatory head trauma, there are better ways to build up your yoke. The truth is that most lifters are after a hypertrophy and strength response in the traps, and working the smaller segmental stabilizers or dynamic movers isn't going to get them there.
Do This Instead: Trap Bar Deadlift with Shrug
To target the neck directly without placing the cervical spine at risk for acute injury, recognize that the main action of the trapezius muscle (all three diverse regions of muscular fiber orientation) is to stabilize the shoulder blade and upper back.
The traps respond extremely well under shorter range-of-motion exercises under more intense loading, so the use of isometrics and slight range of motion movements are ideal for building a strong and stable yoke. One of the most effective ways to do this is with the trap bar deadlift and shrug.
You can program it two different ways: add shrugs to the tail-end of a set of trap bar deadlifts, or do 3-5 shrugs between reps of trap bar deadlifts.
Both of these methods can be effective, but to ensure proper loading and targeting of the traps, you may want to use straps so that your grip doesn't give out before your upper back and traps.