I just typed “Bad Exercises” into google and got 268 million results. Now, I can’t say I read all 268 million of them, but I clicked on quite a few and had a good scroll.
What I found was a lot of repetition, with the same exercises coming up again and again. Which could mean everyone is copying each other out of laziness. Or, alternatively, that we have very different ideas about what constitutes a bad exercise. Because I saw plenty of exercises there that I would happily use with clients. So, are they actually bad exercises? What makes an exercise bad?
Ineffective or Dangerous…
These are the two obvious reasons to bin an exercises. Does it cause harm? Is it ineffective?
With this in mind, let’s take a look at three of the most cited “bad” exercises.
1 – Sit Ups / Crunches – Probably the number one offender if these lists are to be believed. The main reason tends to be safety for the lower back. This is largely thanks to Dr Stuart McGill, a prominent spine expert who wrote a couple of books in the 2000’s that became incredibly influential within the fitness industry.
The books are interesting and informative and deal with the complex subject of back pain and spine health. Unfortunately, the fitness industry massively overreacted to it, taking an oversimplified version of the book’s message and preaching it as gospel. That message was: avoid spinal flexion during exercise. Sit ups and crunches were out, planks were in.
This was, as with many trends in the fitness industry, a huge overreaction.
In fact, here are two quotes from a paper McGill himself wrote on the crunch.
“If maximal muscular development is the primary goal, including the crunch and/or its numerous variations, together with other exercises, may help to enhance desired results.”
“If flexibility is more important to the client, the personal trainer may want to select full-range curl-ups and crunches, and reduce heavy loading.”
So if the man who was responsible for the crunch being demonised for two decades is acknowledging their usefulness, maybe we could all calm down a bit too.
As ever, the issue is over prescription and/or misapplication.
There are many ab exercises, and a balanced program should incorporate variations. Planks, side planks, rotations, rollouts and, yes, crunches, all have their place.
2 – Leg Extensions –
Mainstay of bodybuilding programs everywhere, but deeply uncool among trainers.
One argument you’ll hear it is that it isn’t functional. But functional for what? The leg extension is an isolation exercise, specifically targeting the quads rather than integrating them with the hamstrings, glutes etc (as in a squat or lunge). This may have less direct transfer to specific sports, but that doesn’t make it useless. What if the goal is just to build your quads? If that’s the case they absolutely have their place.
As far as safety, every exercise has a cost/benefit ratio. The leg extension produces sheer force at the knee that may make it problematic if you’ve had ACL issues. But it always comes down to appropriate loading. Extremely heavy and frequent leg extensions might not be great, but they’re rarely applied like this anyway. I’m far more likely to include 2-3 sets of 15-20 leg extensions, usually after all those other, oh-so-functional squats and lunges. Best of both worlds.
This would all be moot if the exercise was ineffective. But it’s not. Contrary to common industry mantras about the superiority of compound, multi-joint exercises, you must learn to isolate a muscle if you want it to grow. There are plenty of strong squatters with no quad development, because they’ve never learned to isolate their quads. And when it comes to the quads, nothing is as effective at isolating them as the leg extension.
3 – Behind The Neck Lat Pulldowns –
Isn’t it odd that people say they’re going to train their back but would never say they’re going to train “front”. They’d say chest, or shoulders, or abs. It speaks to the general publics downgrading of the back of the body in terms of training importance. The “mirror” muscles tend to be prioritised while the back is neglected.
The muscles of the back of the body are complex and can perform a huge variety of movements. All of which is to say that the more angles you can train them from the better. So the behind the neck pulldown is definitely a useful exercise that uniquely targets that lat muscles. You just have to try it and you’ll feel it straight away.
The question is, is it dangerous? The answer, as it almost always is in fitness, is: It depends.
A good rule of thumb is if you can’t move a joint to a position unweighted then don’t use a weight to force it into that position. Can you lift your arm straight overhead so that your bicep is in line with your ear, without straining or overly extending the lower back? Then you’re probably fine to do lat pulldowns behind the neck. If your upper back is quite rounded and you have limited shoulder range of motion then it may cause problems.
We shouldn’t force ourselves into exercises that don’t fit our bodies. Instead we should choose exercises that fit our bodies, while continuously working on flexibility and mobility. But that’s not the same as saying that a particular exercise is “bad”.