Wednesday, August 3, 2011

3 Exercises I Have Omitted from My Programs

I'm getting older. Period.When I was 22 and bustin' ass in the gym--I felt like alot of the cool cats that you read about today. I was lifting like there was no tomorrow--spending 2-3 hours in the gym belting out tons of presses, squats, and pulls. Next day, I'd wake up and only think about hitting the gym again. Now in my late 30's, time is very precious to me. Unlike my early twenties when all I cared about was choosing a  shirt that made me look big and wondering where to take my date on Friday night; today I have more responsibilities. Because of my added responsibilities as a home-owner, husband, business owner, and overall caring fun-loving guy....I need more time outside of the gym. This doesn't mean my love for weight-lifting and fitness is any less than it was 20 some-odd years ago; it just means I need to make my workouts more effective and more efficient.

And because of this I need to cut out certain exercises that really don't do me any good or have similar movements that can be loaded in a more effective way.

I have eliminated certain exercises because frankly, I have found them conducive to over-training or generally wasting time. We typically relate over-training to the frequency of a particular exercise used in a program. For instance, we think that if one performs too many bench presses or too many curls that it leads to shoulder or elbow problems. For example, a painter can paint a wall with a brush, then go into another home and place wallpaper up, and then go home and fix a door frame. He then experiences shoulder pain. What activity is to blame for this acute sign of chronic things to come? Is it the brush, wallpaper, or door frame? However, the excessive and repetitive movement is to blame. Anything performed frequently and excessively can cause wear and tear on the body. This continuous and 'purposeful' stress needs a balance. And that balance comes from routine maintenance in the form of scheduled massages, body work, self myofascial release, rest, and relaxation.

My goal with this article is to have you realize that it is not necessarily the exercise, but the movement that poses a risk to over-training or program monotony. The exercises I have chosen to eliminate may be different than the ones you would choose. It depends on the total content of each personalized exercise program. However, the ones I have chosen are generally common movements that you find in everyday exercise programs. To make exercise programs more effective for myself and my clients, I need to eliminate the “fillers”, and concentrate on the key ingredients.

Here are some of the OBVIOUS exercise omissions:
  • Behind the neck pulldowns
  • Behind the neck presses 
  • Upright rows
Simply put, these exercises are omitted from my personal workouts as well as all my clients' programs. With clients that demonstrate poor posture and shoulder discomfort, the excessive 180° forward flexion with excessive 180° abduction and excessive 90° external rotation, with otherwise unhealthy rotator cuff function and scapula weakness, is a bad idea.  

Here are some other exercises I have omitted from my programs. I am sure there are some of you that still can find use for them, but for me, personally, I feel they need to be cleaned out of my library. 

Isolated Calf Raises 
 I know what you are already thinking. How can you grow great diamond-shaped baby cows if you eliminate the one exercise that targets them? Back in the day, my favorite calf exercise was the Standing Calf Raise machine and it was usually loaded up to 500 lbs. for some bouncy little things called "calf raises". From a performance perspective, if you are using compound exercises like squats and lunges—you are also hitting the calves--not in isolation, but in.  The calf muscle is made up of the gastrocnemius and the soleus. Both muscles perform plantar flexion (propulsion), but the gastroc is affected by knee position. When performing the standing calf raise, it is important to stabilize the chosen knee position and avoid excessive knee extension. The exercise becomes “iffy” because initiating plantar flexion is often achieved through a bouncing action at the end of the eccentric portion. These excessive motions should be avoided, in particular, to cut down on overtraining the Achilles tendon. 
Although this tendon is designed to withstand maximum loads and function, it is still subject to injury and wear, especially when isolated under extreme loads. My preference? I rarely perform any isolated calf work. Unless the goal is muscle growth (hypertrophy/competition), I leave my explosive jump shrugs or power cleans to add bulk to my lower leg and single leg work to integrate the lower body with the rest of the kinetic chain. I chuckle when my clients comment at how their calves have grown when we integrated single leg work into their program. The CNS stimulation alone increases muscle firing and gets those calves involved. I also recommend plyometric drills for advanced trainees to target total leg development. Again, these explosive and power exercises should not be “in addition” to target the calves. The Achilles tendon can rupture from such force if the tensile properties are inadequate. Therefore, limit the amount of total work performed that overstresses excessive plantar-flexion under loads. For those of you not interested in performing these power movements, stick with split squats, lunges, step-ups and single leg drill.

Front DB Raises
I honestly don’t know what people want to achieve with this exercise. The anterior deltoids are a small portion of the muscle group that is involved in virtually all upper-body sagital plane movements. Horizontal adduction (flexion) is involved with such exercises as the bench press (flat/incline/decline), shoulder press, and with varying degrees: flyes, cross-overs, and lateral raises. The anterior deltoid also works as a stabilizer during most isolated arm work. With all these movements involving this small muscle, what is the intention of isolating it with front raises? Better “tie-ins”? I think not. It is a classic “toning” exercise popularized in group classes and utilizes brightly-colored dumbbells that offer nothing to the user except 8 minutes of wasted time and excessive forward flexion with possible risk of subacromial impingement. Most people that perform this exercise perform it beyond 90 degrees of shoulder flexion; and without any retraction and depression of teh scapula. This is not entirely dangerous for you, but if you possess a Type 2 (less risky) or Type 3 (more risky) acromium process, you may be eligible for some shoulder pain. The impingement begins with lack of scapula strength and lack of glenohumeral stability by the rotator cuff muscle group. Once these two factors are present, those individuals with Type 3 acromiums, may heighten their risk of impingement with continued use of excessive loaded forward flexion, or close-pack positions, or overly trained muscles.

Barbell Shrugs  
Okay…I like shrugs, more specifically dumbbell shrugs, for the trapezius. However, I include them as an auxiliary exercise every now and then. I prefer dead lifts, rows, and scapula movements (resistive retraction, W, Ls, and face-pulls) to isolated trap work. The funny thing is the traps are singled out because we can see them standing in front of a mirror. The thing that many people forget, including some personal trainers, is that the trapezius muscle is rather large and is mostly located in the back. The trapezius is a fan-shaped muscle that attaches on the spine from the base of the skull to T-12. Various portions are responsible for elevation, retraction, and depression based on the fiber direction and direction of resistance.
Many gym-goers tend to perform “circle” shrugs because of the stretch they feel makes them assume they are recruiting more of the muscle. “Circle” shrugs involve un-resisted retraction and assisted depression and are virtually a waste of time. I have found that the greatest portion of the traps, and the most advantageous to adding posterior strength and optimizing posture, is the lower to mid portion of the trapezius. With that in mind, I have added Low Trap Raises to my programs as a staple.

I use the Low Trap Raises for many of my desk-sitting clientèle---which enables them to contract a portion of the muscle that is typically over-stretched and tense from poor posture.

Since omitting these exercises and using others in moderation, I have kept my upper body free of any discomfort and pain for the last 3-5 years. What has saved your joints from excessive lifting? Anything that should be omitted that I haven't mentioned? Comment below.


  1. I agree with all. I never thought about the anterior deltoids being overused so much. I'm guilty of doing those ( front fb raises) to my clients and myself to warmup sometimes to tone.

  2. Thanks. Since having shoulder surgery in 2002, I really don't like "extra" work with my shoulders. Its kept them healthy and strong.

  3. I've eliminated curls and substituted supinated grip pull-ups. Curls do bad things to my elbows and pull-ups seem to make them healthier. Also, it's a far more functional exercise, I get plenty on biceps work (I'm not a bodybuilder) and I hate doing curls whereas I love doing pull-ups.

  4. Thanks for the shout out in routine maintenance in the form of Massage Therapy. Spot on. So important for us to realize that beyond the fitness training we need to take care of ourselves and keep our bodies ready and able to put in a full energy workout.

  5. Thanks for reading. trust me, I have no problem endorsing massage therapy. I get a message monthly on a regular basis for the last 4 years!

  6. I'm in full agreement about behind the neck pulldowns and presses.
    Versions of upright rows can be amazing delt stimulation - safe versions done with either dumbbells or, in my case, taking advantage of the cambered squatting bar. In both cases the UR is more like a controlled high pull with elbows well to lateral or side position. For further efficacy, I do them as J-rep/Zone training, emphasizing delt contraction over crazy pulling. That emphasis is achieved by means of muscle-control or mind-muscle volitional contract with relatively light weight yet intense movement. Front, lateral, and posterior delt work is done the same way.

    Your concerns about iatrogenic training are well taken. As such, I don't intend to contradict you sage advise, rather suggest a basis for safely doing such movements; however, the expense - or investment - includes mind and neural specific training, with the caveat such training includes benefits associated with the brain's neural plasticity - a kind of redistribution of function, including hippocampus, motor cortex, and left-prefrontal activation occur - with measurable shifts in distribution of gray matter.

    Retraction and relaxation of the scapula is highly important. I teach that as the first part of pulldowns and rowing movements. Some years ago a physician friend whose work includes teaching at a highly valued medical school told me of an immense problem medical students encounter with cadaver dissections. Their anatomy books exhibit well structured drawings of rhomboids, lower traps, some associated cuff related muscles (teres) - while as they peel back tissue to find those muscles, they find nothing. Sarcopenic atrophy among elders is so profound those items appear to be connective tissue only. I've noted training people my age (67) and older, it can take upwards of six long weeks at three training sessions weekly to learn overhead scapula retraction. They're literally innervating and redeveloping decades of atrophied tissue! I've had folks in their 50s in equally pathetic degenerative condition. So, John, start them young with corrective action that becomes the best preventative medicine around. Good stuff, amigo...real good.
    You might find my FB pages interesting for the photos from the Weider Physical Culture Museum dedication of just 2 weeks ago.
    warm regards,

    Ken O'Neill

  7. Great post John, funny especially to see women doing extra trap work like dumbell shrugs.


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