The new year brings a lot of people to gyms which unfortunately also brings a lot of bad habits. These habits start out when you see the muscle guy over at the squat rack squatting 400 lbs with his back arched and his knees buckling. But you see it and hear his grunts and stare at the sheer amount of weight he’s lifting. You say to yourself, I can do that. You look at videos online and see similar muscle men with horrendous form and copy it at the gym (Ok, not all muscle men have bad form, but you get the picture).
Now these exercises aren’t entirely bad. I’m just saying that sometimes, the risks outweigh the rewards. It also means that you can be doing something a lot better to hit those muscle groups that you want to improve. So here are 3 exercise upgrades that you can try in the gym.
Back squats are described as the best exercise to build overall mass and strength. How can you not when you can lift more than twice your body weight when you train for it. However, this comes at a price and your back usually pays for it. Most regular people (non-elite powerlifters) will do squats to work the thighs and glutes. Though back squats are great for this, the amount of stress the spine endures with this exercise makes it just too risky. Instead, I invite you to try front squats.
Front squats are a great alternative because it keeps the torso vertical throughout the entire movement and directly hits the quadriceps more than back squats do. Sure you won’t be able to lift a building and it doesn’t hit the quads and hamstrings as much but you can do better exercises for those muscle groups like different variations of the dead lift. I like the single leg romanian dead lift the most. The biggest gripe about front squats is that it’s painful to the wrist. You can easily solve this by gripping a towel or some strong straps like the picture below.
Please people, If I see another crunch in the gym and you’re not a boxer or martial artist, I’ll personally escort you out. I’ve discussed this in detail in a previous post so I won’t dwell on it. The thing that you need to remember is that the lumbar spine (lower back) was not designed for flexion or mobility. It was designed for stability. By doing numerous crunches, we are subjecting our lumbar spine to repetitive flexion that will ultimately decrease the mobility of your hips and T-spine and will leave you looking like this.You don’t want that.
Instead of crunches do the numerous variations of the plank (front, side, back) and if you want to add some rotation, you can try one of my new favorite toys, the Rip Trainer. This tool puts you in a standing position while working your core and abdominals which is a lot more functional position than lying down. This tool uses anti-rotation which forces your core to fire to stop the reverse pull of the contraption.
I used to be guilty of this (and all the other exercises in this list for that matter) and I stopped as soon as I realized that I was doing such a useless exercise that it should be banned completely. My old high school basketball coach taught us this exercise. Looking back, I had an inkling that it was useless but decided to say nothing and save me some suicide runs. Why do we do this? clearly it’s supposed to be a strengthening exercise for the back but we put so much compression forces on our spine when we do it. And really again, why? I just don’t see a real world setting where this will be applicable.
If you want to strengthen your back, and shoulders, then do some horizontal rows on the TRX or jungle gym. These work the muscles of the back while maintaining a neutral spine. Kettle bell swings will also take care of strengthening the lower back.
Sure, it’s pretty badass if you can hold a long side plank but once you go past the 45s barrier, then there really isn’t much more you can do here. It pains me when I see “longest plank” contests because holding a 10 minute plank with awful form will just wreck all sorts of back muscles and joints. Now for the side plank, although it is a great exercise, most people get stuck at this exercise and forget to progress to a more functional one. Instead we progress by adding more seconds on the clock which isn’t the way to properly do it.
You can progress the side plank by lifting the top leg up, lifting the bottom knee to your chest, lifting the hand up or placing your feet on top of a low step. These are good but if you want to make it more functional and mobile, try the offset squat or the offset walkling lunge. By holding only the weight on one hand, you force your obliques and core to work hard at keeping everything aligned. This works your core in a real world setting and progresses core training the right way.