I recently worked out at a public gym for the first time in a long time, and it didn’t take long for me to remember why I never go to one:
1) People doing things the wrong way.
2) Trainers “teaching” people to do things the wrong way.
3) The wrong exercises being done incorrectly.
There is a veritable cornucopia of catastrophic muscular massacres taking place at any public gym at any given time. From seated machine work to the “look at me” guy grunting at the top of his lungs who has to scream to talk to people because his mp3 player is so loud he can be heard on Mars.
This is exercise gone wrong at its worst. Even if people have the best intentions, we all know what the road to hell was paved with. If you are doing things wrong, you won’t get any gains.
So, inspired by my latest foray into exercising with the huddled masses, I’ve created a list of the top five exercises that I like the least and why.
Public Enemy #1: The Leg Press
Go into any gym, and you’ll see some goon with 500-1000lbs on the sled, knees wrapped, leather belt so thick it looks like an entire heard of bovines gave up their lives for it, with form so bad it hurts just to watch.
This exercise is supposed to give you the same benefit of the squat, and it will. If your goal squatting is to do something that is completely non functional that won’t help at all, while destroying your lumbar spine in the process.
In his book “Low Back Disorders,” Dr Stuart McGill says this of the leg press:
“The leg press rack causes the pelvis to rotate away from the back rest when the weight is lowered. The resultant lumbar flexion produces herniating conditions for the disc.”
Any time you put the words “herniation” and “disc” in the same sentence, it isn’t good. Given that McGill is considered by most to be the leading authority on spine biomechanics in North America, I’ll buy what he’s selling.
Another reason I hate this exercise is because people can rarely squat or deadlift half of the weight they can put up on the press. I know this first hand because I’ve put up 1000lbs for sets of 10, but have only pulled 281lbs off the floor once in a deadlift. Completely. Non. Functional. Exercise.
Public Enemy #2: Olympic Clean and Overhead Press
Now, before you go nuts here, I think this is a very good power exercise: for experienced lifters or high level explosive field and court sport athletes. So why did it make my list?
Think about this motion and the general population. Sedentary, seated office workers, and the like.
Even endurance athletes have started doing this for some unknown reason. And, in all honesty, when, while riding, running or swimming do you perform anything that even remotely resembles this movement pattern? Other than never, I can’t think of one.
Plus, most endurance athletes don’t posses the appropriate level of either shoulder mobility or stability to do this. This doesn’t even take into account the lack of appropriate thoracic spine mobility that is very common in this population.
This lift requires an incredibly high level of movement skill to do three things (deadlift, barbell clean and an overhead press) perfectly to do one motion correctly. If one of the three individual motions break down, so too will the lifter at some point.
Most people won’t put in the time to learn this exercise the right way, let alone program correctly in a periodized routine. Hence the second exercise on the list.
Public Enemy #3: Sit Ups/Crunches with the Feet Held, Locked, Strapped In, Etc
Crunches and sit ups, yes. One of the most popular ab exercises on the planet. Touted as one of the most effective ways to flatten your stomach in infomercials.
This exercise that hits the rectus abdominis (the “6-pack” portion of the abs) has very little functional carry over and does little to actually stabilize the spine.
“If you try to justify the the crunch in terms of human function, its hard to make a case. Your body has hardly any need to bend forward at the waist while your lower body is anchored,” Lou Shuler, “The New Rules of Lifting.”
McGill takes this further by saying crunches in this fashion “activate the hamstrings and create a hip extensor moment, and crunches require hip flexion. During this type of movement, the psoas is activated to even higher levels to overcome the hamstrings and produce a net flexor movement.”
This is a fancy way of saying that by anchoring the feet, you activate the hamstrings as they try to extend the hip to stabilize the anchoring load on the ankles, which then forces the psoas to over activate so you can perform the crunch motion. McGill also found that situps, on top of causing higher psoas activation, also induce high levels of compressive loads in the low back.
Throw in the ever popular twisting motion while crunching and you then introduce even further lumbar compression. And yet, this is exercise is prescribed from the training room floor to PT clinics and places in between to strengthen the abs and “protect” the back.
Besides most people are in this position seated in a desk all day, longer if they ride a bike, why would you strengthen this position?
Public Enemy #4: Prone Hamstring Curls
Very high potential to hyper extend the lumbar spine under load while doing nothing to functionally train the hamstrings. Hip extension is the primary function of the hamstrings, not decreasing the angle from the heel to the hips.
Plus, as people do this, you inevitably see hips popping up off the bench as they try to get more leverage in this motion.
What’s actually going on here is the body is trying to counter this hip flexion with lengthening of the hamstrings to perform the exercise. Keeping in mind the goal of this movement is to shorten the hamstrings to bring the heel to the hips it is easy to see why this doesn’t make sense.
“What needs to be understood first is the primary function(s) of these muscles is not only concentric contractions (which is what machine training focuses primarily on). The hamstrings must also function isometrically and eccentrically during gait patterns and the other dynamic movements of life and sport,” Noah Hitner, “Hamstring Machine Compensation.”
Want to train the hamstrings more effectively? Do kettlebell swings, stability ball hamstring curls or straight leg deadlifts.
Public Enemy #5: Pushups on the Knees
This is was a tough one to not list first. There are several reasons as to why this is counter productive.
When do you perform a functional press pattern with the hips in flexion, hamstrings in flexion with your knees on the ground? You don’t. The typical press pattern is usually standing, with hips and hamstrings in flexion. Think pushing on a heavy door to get it to open so you can walk through.
If you can’t do pushups on the floor, the way we’ve found at INTEGRATE to be the most effective  to progress someone to the floor is to start with your hands elevated on a bench, chair, desk, etc and eventually work your way down. This is a much more effective way to tie in the hip extensors, lower abdominal wall and shoulder stabilizers to produce a push patter movement.
Another great way is to just perform the “negative” or eccentric portion of the movement. This is the lowering phase of the exercise. It requires a lot more stability and strength in the upper body, but is very effective.