At its deepest level, exercising is a form of personal expression. Specific training methods, the level of intensity, the tools used – each of these variables can be tweaked to reflect elements of your personality.
Arguably the most significant display of this expression is with exercise selection. Tell me the exercises that form the foundation of your training and I’ll be able to make a fairly accurate assessment of your skills, your experience, even your physique.
Just as telling are the exercises you intentionally avoid. As we get older, our bodies change. Lifters with more than a decade of training under their belt will likely have learned which movements best suit their needs. And while I don’t necessarily believe in “bad” exercises, there are definitely some I have swapped out over the years. Here are two I never perform myself or prescribe to any of my clients.
I like to think of the bench press as the lumbering schoolyard bully of the weight room. Its reputation as the baddest lift in town is completely undeserved, inflated by egocentric goofs who value brawn over everything else. Of course deep down inside, underneath all that bluster, there exists a fine strength-building exercise. It’s just that, like all bullies, the bench press is riddled with insecurities owing to years of abuse and mistreatment.
From a practical perspective, I’ve always found the bench press to be a pain in the butt. Proper setup and execution all but demands the participation of a spotter, and a good spotter is about as common as an honest politician. In fact the set-up itself is the main reason why I avoid benching; in order to move the most weight possible (the ostensible purpose of the exercise), one must stabilize the shoulders by pinning the scapula to the bench. This prevents the shoulder blades and upper arms from working together, as they naturally should. Disrupting this “scapular rhythm” can lead to issues with the rotator cuff as well as the shoulder itself.
Do this instead: It’s my humble opinion that dips are a significantly more impressive feat of upper body strength than the bench press, especially once you add some external loading to the mix (this is where weighted vests come in handy). Dips can be performed in a variety of ways, depending on the intended goal and level of experience. I recommend beginners start by using an assisted dip machine (almost every gym will have one) until they’re comfortable and confident with the technique. From there, you can progress to parallel bars, a single horizontal bar and finally gymnastics rings.
Another option: Standing cable press. This exercise mimics the movement of the bench press without any of the negative features mentioned above. Compared to free weights, cable machines offer a more consistent form of tension throughout the entire range of motion. The standing position also gets the core involved a little more, which is never a bad thing.
One of the more annoying aspects of gym culture is the lack of a universal terminology. Take the lunge (a.k.a., the forward or stepping lunge, not to be confused with the walking or travelling lunge), for example. It should be self-evident that the lunge is forward-moving in nature (“She lunged at her assailant with a knife…”), and yet I constantly see the split squat – an exercise that involves no forward motion – being labelled a lunge by trainers who don’t seem to appreciate how language works.
Like the bench press, the lunge is largely misunderstood. From an exercise science perspective, the main point of the lunge is training the body to decelerate while moving forward. A whole lot of people lack the co-ordination, balance and motor control skills needed to accomplish this. Rather than softly placing their foot on the floor in front of them, they stomp forward like they’re squashing a grape. What should be a smooth, controlled movement instead become a rapid, spastic sort of full-body convulsions that wreaks havoc on the knees.
Do this instead: Reverse lunges train the same quality (deceleration) in the same plane of motion, but with much less shearing force on the knee. It’s been my experience that people are able to exhibit more grace with a backward step. More grace means more control, more control means a higher degree of quality movement.
Another option: Lateral lunges. Rarely do we see anyone outside of a sporting environment move in a side-to-side motion. By adding a bit of lateral movement to your training, you’re strengthening the lower body in a much-needed manner, hitting nearly every major muscle group in the legs and hips. Just be aware that lateral lunges produce a comparable shearing force in the knee as the traditional lunge. Translation – if you have cranky knees, stick with reverse lunges.
Paul Landini is a personal trainer and health educator in Kitchener, Ont.