If you’re going to do an exercise, you want it to work for you – not against you. Here, we break down five of the most common exercise choices of the lifting masses and offer you some more beneficial alternatives. If you have been spinning your wheels, watching others grow and get stronger while you get cozy in plateauville, give these five exercise replacements a shot.
1. Dip It
EXERCISE: Dumbbell kickback
Studies in recent years have shown the dumbbell kickback to be one of the most effective exercises for activating your triceps. But with good form, even light weights are a challenge. So while striving to continually increase resistance, eventually, you will sacrifice technique. Momentum, shortened range of motion and outside muscles assisting eventually nullify the benefits typically gleaned from this movement.
The principle of overload states that a greater than normal stress or load on the body is required for training adaptation to take place (i.e. to get bigger and stronger). Performing kickbacks week in and week out and adhering to this principle is not likely to happen.
Instead, opt for the good, old fashioned parallel bar dip. Even for new dippers, strength gains come quickly because of the amount of muscle involved and the resultant spike in muscle-building hormones. And once your bodyweight isn’t enough to bring about failure at the rep range desired, it’s very easy to add weight.
For muscle hypertrophy, do a Google search on weighted dips; many of the results will refer to this exercise as the “king” for the chest and the triceps. In addition, countless strength and physique athletes swear their allegiance to dips. Science speaks.
The triceps consist of three heads: the lateral, long and medial. In Per Tesch’s book Targeted Bodybuilding, he studied over 60 exercises using MRI scans to examine muscle activity. Close-grip bench presses were considered the go-to triceps exercise. When Tesch compared dips and close-grip benches, both worked the lateral and the medial heads to a similar extent, but long head activation was far greater during dips. In other words, the total payoff was higher when doing dips.
2. Squat Strong
EXERCISE: Leg press
The leg press, regardless of design, has a preset motor pattern determined by the manufacturer. Very few people fall into what the manufacturer considers an “average person.”
Some evidence suggests the leg press makes athletes more prone to lower back problems, because at the bottom position, they are very deep into flexion – the knees get close to the chest, and many times the back is raised off the pad.
Because the leg press is built to optimize leverage and there is no stabilization involved, much more weight can be used than with a squat, making the compressive forces in this unnatural position with heavier weights potentially much more dangerous.
Brian Dobson, owner of Metroflex gym, says, “My daughter can leg press 800 pounds, yet she struggles to squat 115.” This is because trunk stability is no longer a factor. The end game is that the forces transmitted on leg muscles and joints are much greater than the body could naturally transmit during the squat.
So instead, opt for the full squat. Numerous studies show that not only are squats safe, but are a significant deterrent to knee injuries. Squats increase stability in the knee by increasing strength in the muscles around the joint, along with connective tissue.
Squatting prowess has been shown, in study after study, to correlate with sprinting and vertical jump ability. Not to mention the squat’s unrivaled ability to produce an anabolic hormonal spike which is beneficial for total-body muscle growth and fat-burning.
All this sounds great but what about working the actual muscle? A study by the University of North Dakota compared muscle recruitment during a leg press and a free weight barbell squat. The study used male and female subjects, both trained and untrained. With equivalent loads in both exercises, subjects’ electromyographic (EMG) activity was recorded from the lower back, glutes, vastus lateralis (VL) and hamstrings.
Across the board, the squat elicited significantly more EMG activity than did the leg press in the lower back, glutes and hamstrings. A significant difference in the quad (vastus lateralis) activity was not observed between the two exercises, but squats still had the upper hand.
3. Step Up to the Bar
EXERCISE: Lat pulldowns
“Strong back equals strong man,” said the legendary Bill Kazmaier. And we hate to burst the bubble here but the most well-developed backs of all-time have not be a byproduct of the lat pulldown.
There are a number of reasons to opt for the underhand chin-up over any variety of lat pulldown. Remember, big lifts equal big strength gains and big fat loss. Chin-ups are a closed kinetic chain exercise so they are much more functional and, of course, work more muscles than lat pulldowns. Another benefit is the release of large amounts of anabolic hormones like growth hormone and testosterone.
Looking for another, more aesthetics-based reason to chin? Strength coach Brett Contreas says, “When I conducted my EMG studies, I was shocked to find that the bodyweight chin-up led to the highest levels of lower rectus abdominis activation. It surpassed every ab exercise imaginable – even ab wheel rollouts and hanging leg raises.”
Brian Dobson, Metroflex Gym owner, says, “Deadlifts and chins built (eight-time Mr. Olympia) Ronnie Coleman’s back. Chin-ups are king for upper back development. Chin-ups are the upper body squat!”
Adding to the “cool” factor of chins, let’s not forget the fact that Special Forces and other elite organizations use chin-ups as a testing standard.
Furthermore, chin-ups are a catalyst for bicep growth. Look at the back development of athletes like gymnasts that use chin-ups as their primary means of strength training in comparison to the physiques of basketball players that use lat pull downs. Physique enthusiasts envy the upper back development of gymnasts. Very few feel the same way about basketball physiques.
4. Get Grounded
EXERCISE: Instability work
REPLACEMENT: Stable platform work
Performing dumbbell and barbell movements on unstable surfaces might have a fitting place in the Moscow Circus but when it comes to the acquisition of size and strength, this makes about as much sense as going in the roughest Irish Bar in South Boston and yelling, “St. Patrick was an Englishman!”
Opt for a stable surface instead. In 2010, James Kohler, of California State University Northridge (CSUN), led a study that showed training with heavy weights on stable surfaces overloaded and best recruited core muscles. Both prime movers and stabilizers were assessed. Thirty subjects with serious strength training experience performed both barbell and dumbbell shoulder presses on stable and unstable surfaces for three sets of three, with what equated to equal intensity.
The same procedure was used for the bench press. Core muscle activation was measured by using electromyography, which shows the electrical activity of muscles. As the instability of the surface increased and less weight was used, the recruitment of core musculature decreased.
A 2012 Norwegian study published in The Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research measured the force output of leg and core muscles in isometric squats performed on a stable surface (floor), power board, BOSU ball and balance cone.
The study examined states from stable to extremely unstable. An isometric contraction simply means the muscle does not move while force is being produced. In this case, the athletes squatted with maximal force against a bar they were unable to move, with their thighs slightly above 90 degrees. The bar contained an electronic device that measured the amount of force the athletes could produce. The electrical activity of muscle was also measured. This insured there was no chance of bias or an incorrect formula being used.
The results showed force production decreased 7 percent on the power board, 19 percent on the BOSU ball and 24 percent on the balance cone. If you recall, this is a contraction where the athlete is not moving. Add movement and transition phases like a true squat and I believe force production would decrease further with instability. Quadriceps had the greatest electrical activity with stable surface.
Beginners, in particular, are subjected to the myth that training on unstable surfaces recruits more muscle and is therefore better for strength gains and weight loss. Any one of the above studies shows that this couldn’t be further from the truth and that any true changes to strength or body composition should be addressed by training from a stable base.
5. Raise the Dead
EXERCISE: Leg curls
REPLACEMENT: Romanian deadilfts
Not very often in life will you lie on your stomach and curl your heels to your butt. Powerful hip extension, on the other hand, can transfer from the bedroom to the football field, not to mention more effectively work the hamstrings, so opt for the Romanian deadlift over the ubiquitous leg curl.
The Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research published a study comparing the leg curl, Romanian deadlift and good morning exercises at 85 percent of 1RM to see which one could produce the most intense muscle activation. Muscle activation was measured via electromyography (EMG). Surprise: the Romanian deadlift reigned supreme. And since more muscle is used during the RDL, strength gains are often much more rapid, meaning that you can gain muscle faster.