1. UPRIGHT ROWS
Conventional upright rows (performed with a straight bar or EZ bar, a narrow grip and pulling up to the chin) are a surefire way to aggravate cranky shoulders. The exercise almost perfectly replicates the clinical test for impingement syndrome: touch your hand to your opposite shoulder and lift your elbow up. If you feel pinching or tightness, that means you’ve got something going on in your subacromial space (which could be caused by a handful of things) and upright rows are not in the cards for you.
Either way, it’s best just not to do upright rows at all. It’s not worth the potential shoulder irritation and there are plenty of other ways to build big delts and traps.
WHAT TO DO INSTEAD: HIGH PULLS
Widen your grip, use some aggressive hip extension and pull no higher than the nipple line for a more effective and less detrimental exercise. A wider grip and not pulling as high means less internal rotation at the shoulder and less chance for impingement. Adding explosive hip extension helps you blast through the bottom part of the movement, taking some stress off the shoulder joint while still allowing you to hit the shoulders and traps hard.
Plus, high pulls let you use a ton of weight, which is hardly ever bad.
A lot of people friggin’ love pistol squats – and more good reason. They require a ton of ankle and hamstring mobility, core strength and coordination to perform correctly. And that’s exactly why I think they’re overrated – they require so many strength/mobility/stability prerequisites, yet the return they provide in terms of strength and hypertrophy just aren’t that great.
Rather than spend months and possibly years working up to a single bodyweight pistol squat, opt for a more user-friendly single leg exercise that allows you to better overload the target muscles.
WHAT TO DO INSTEAD: PETERSON STEP-UPS
Peterson step-ups hammer much of the same areas as pistol squats (inner quad, ankle mobility) but are much easier to progress/regress. You can start completely unloaded on a low box and work your way up to a higher box while adding weight via dumbbells, a weight vest or even a trap bar.
This exercise lets you get the necessary knee flexion to target the vastus medialis (inner quad muscle essential for knee stability and often woefully underdeveloped) without the nasty lower back rounding most people get when doing pistols.
We used a TON of Peterson step-ups when I interned at Xceleration Sports Training in New York. The athletes that put in the time and progressed to a higher box with added weight always got faster, more explosive and showed improved knee mechanics when landing from a jump (i.e. knees don’t cave in).
3. MOST ROTATOR CUFF EXERCISES
I’m not gonna be a tough guy and tell you not to train your rotator cuff. The cuff is important, whether you want to throw a baseball 90 miles an hour or bench 315 pounds. But for every person who takes the time to work their cuff properly, there are 100 people who hit the cuff with such awful form that they do more harm than good.
The biggest crime against shoulder integrity is the isolated internal rotation. I have never come across a situation where an athlete, lifter or average Joe needed to work on the internal rotators of their shoulder. Almost everyone hangs out in internally rotated posture all day, creating short and stiff pecs and lats that lock the shoulder into further internal rotation. Plus most popular weight room exercises (bench presses, pushups, pull-ups, rows) all internally rotate the shoulder too. If there’s any direct cuff work worth doing, it’s external rotations – NOT internal. Don’t feed the dysfunction.
Unfortunately, external rotations with bands or dumbbells are two of the most popular cuff exercises. They’re also two of the most useless. Band ERs go against the natural strength curve of the cuff. The muscles of the cuff lose mechanical advantage toward the top of the movement, and bands get tighter the more you pull them. So, band ERs get harder at the point where the cuff is weakest – the exact opposite of what you want for a weak, under-trained muscle.
Dumbbell ERs aren’t much better. Most people sling the weight so much that there’s no time-under-tension, and hence no stimulus for increased strength. Most people internally rotate too much at the bottom of the movement, which can lead to anterior humeral glide and impingement pain. And don’t even get me started on standing ERs with your elbows by your sides. Hey genius, it’s called gravity and you’re doing it wrong. You wouldn’t do a bench press standing up, would you? Of course not. You have to match the pull of gravity to the line of pull of the muscle.
WHAT TO DO INSTEAD: CABLE EXTERNAL ROTATIONS AND FACE PULLS
I’ll almost always recommend free weights over machines, but in the case of the cuff, the cable wins. You need superb control and perfect positioning to effectively train the cuff, and cables let you do that. Also, most cable machines are constructed in such a way that the resistance is constant throughout the range of motion, so the exercise doesn’t get too hard/too easy when it counts.
Do your cable ERs with the arm in multiple positions and keep your elbows high during face pulls to beef up your cuff and keep your shoulders happy.
A strong lower back is part of a strong core and is essential for hoisting big weights on the squat, deadlift and overhead press. But 45 degree back extensions miss the boat when it comes to proper body positioning for optimal lower back training.
You see, most athletes and lifters live in a constantly-extended position. What this means is that the lower back has an exaggerated arch, which looks good on a stripper but bad on an MRI. A hyperextended lower back can be caused by tight hips, weak glutes and abs, poor breathing mechanics, or constantly arching the back during squats, bench presses and deadlifts. This can lead to lower back pain and eventually injure the vertebrae and discs.
The way 45-degree back extension stations are made require you to hyperextend your lower back to hit the target muscles. But, like I just said, most of us don’t need any extra help with that. I said it before, but it bears repeating: don’t feed the dysfunction. There’s no point in training your lower back if it’s not working in unison with your glutes and abs.
All you need to do to fix 45 degree back raises is get rid of the “45 degree” part. Do them on a Roman chair or glute ham raise and you’re golden.
You see, by positioning your body parallel to the ground, you end up contracting the muscles of the lower back with your torso in line with your legs, allowing you to keep a more neutral spine. This reduces the need to hyperextend your spine and won’t grind on your lower back like the 45 degree variation.
The guy in the picture is extending too much. Stop each rep when your body forms a straight line. Keep your lower back in check by flexing your abs and glutes the whole time.
What to do if you don’t have a Roman chair or GHR? Simple. Throw a portable bench under the back end of a 45 degree back raise, lifting it up to effectively create a Roman chair. I learned this old school bodybuilding trick from my professor and former national-level bodybuilder Fred Dimenna.
5. JUMPING ROPE
Don’t get me wrong – I like jumping rope. No disrespect to Mohammed Ali and Mike Tyson, but jumping rope isn’t the killer conditioning workout that it’s cracked up to be.
A great low level warmup exercise? Yes. Good for coordination? Yes. Burns a ton of calories and melts fat? Not so much. You see, research shows pretty definitively that jumping rope doesn’t require much oxygen consumption and therefore doesn’t burn many calories unless you’re skipping wicked fast. In fact, a landmark study on the metabolic cost of various exercises found that you need to perform 135 jumps per minute – that’s over 2 per second – to exercise at 12 METs. That’s the equivalent of about 42 milliliters of oxygen per minute and is similar to running at about 8 miles per hour.
So you mean you’ve gotta jump rope like Floyd Mayweather Jr. just to get the same stimulus as running at a brisk pace? Seems like a lot of work for not a lot of return.
Keep in mind, every time you trip over your own feet, you slow down and burn fewer calories. Good luck.
I’m confident Ali and Iron Mike honed their legendary physiques with strict dieting and tons of time in the ring. Jumping rope likely played a minimal role.
WHAT TO DO INSTEAD: SPRINTS, SPRINTS AND MORE SPRINTS
If you’ve read my site before, you know that I’m a believer in the magical fat-melting powers of sprinting. If you want to get results, you’ve gotta go hard and you’ve gotta go fast.
Sprint on flat ground. Sprint up a hill. Push a sled. Pull a sled. Sprint on a bike. Whatever. Just sprint.
Go really fast and really hard for a bit, rest, catch your breath and repeat. It works. No double Dutch required.
I always ruffle some feathers whenever the topic of overrated things comes up. Alex Rodriguez, AC/DC, Blue Moon and Angelina Jolie (What can I say? I can’t like a girl who likes skinny-ripped guys) are all on my list. And so are these exercises.
If you’ve been fooled by the false promises of these exercises, try out the presented alternatives for awhile. I’m sure you’ll be happy with the results and you’ll never look back.