Good Exercises Gone Wrong
Most exercises and training methods have their purpose and work great… unless you try using them for something else. Here are the worst examples.
Very few exercises are inherently bad (except BOSU ball curls). Any exercise is typically better than no exercise. And any type of exercise done with enough effort and intent to progress can lead to physical improvements.
Yet many exercises go from acceptable and useful to “mostly dumb” because they’re used the wrong way for the wrong purposes. A hammer is a great tool until you use it to saw a wooden plank.
I’ve seen a lot of misused exercises in my life, but the popularity of social media has accelerated that trend. CrossFit is also to blame for turning pretty much any lift into a conditioning tool.
The problem? Misusing a training tool or exercise increases the risk of injury and turns an exercise (or method) that could be good for one thing into one that sucks for something else.
Sure, thinking you can take a strength move and use it for conditioning is appealing. It makes you believe that such a hybrid approach gives you strength and conditioning simultaneously. Super appealing. But, in reality, you turn it into something less effective and, in some cases, injurious.
Here are the most flagrant misuses of training methods and exercises:
1. Turning Every Machine Into a Butt-Builder
I’m waiting for the day that an Insta-babe finds a way to use the pec deck machine to work her glutes. Is it really more ridiculous than using the leg extension, weighted chin-up, or standing calf machine to train your glutes? These are all things I’ve seen.
Machines were specifically designed for a single purpose. You’ll get an inferior stimulus if you use them for a different purpose. Period.
But for some people, “likes” and followers are more important than results. What’s wrong with the RDL, squat, leg press, hip thrust, split squat, lunge, back extension, reverse hyper, glute-ham raise, or cable hip extension? I mean, between all of those exercises, if you can’t build your glutes, it’s not some bozo Frankensteining of a machine that’ll suddenly do the trick!
And if you want to use machines, you know they make machines specifically to target the glutes, right?
2. Olympic Lifts for Conditioning or Hypertrophy
I love the Olympic lifts and their variations. I come from a weightlifting background. I used these movements while training for football, and I competed in the sport. They can be valuable tools for training athletes for power and the capacity to absorb force.
But I cringe when I see people using them to either improve endurance (CrossFit) or hypertrophy. Using variations of the Olympic lifts, such as the clean & jerk or the snatch, to develop endurance can potentially lead to problems.
Here’s why they’re not great for endurance
Olympic lifts are highly technical and require significant skill and practice to perform properly. Trying to do them repeatedly for endurance without proper form and technique can increase the risk of injury.
Even among skilled lifters, technique suffers as fatigue sets in and they reach a state of oxygen debt. I’ve seen lifters with solid technique turn into spasmatic dolphins when doing high-rep Olympic lifts!
FATIGUE AND INJURY RISK
Performing Olympic lifts repeatedly for endurance can lead to fatigue, increasing the risk of injury. This is especially true if proper rest and recovery time isn’t allowed. That happens while making a higher-rep Olympic lift variation part of a WOD.
Using Olympic lifts for endurance may increase the risk of overtraining, negatively impacting performance and overall health. Why? Because of the very high elevation in adrenaline that comes from this approach.
Factors that increase adrenaline production while training include: volume, level of effort, psychological stress, level of neurological demands, and density of work. Using an Olympic lift variation includes most of these factors to a high degree.
The explosive, high-force, high-coordination nature of the Olympic lifts already leads to high adrenaline production. But if you add to that the high density, higher volume, and effort level that comes from very high reps, you turn it into an adrenaline bomb.
While that might feel good, it can quickly downregulate the beta-adrenergic receptors. When that happens, your response to your own adrenaline gets a lot weaker! This can decrease both performance (power and strength, but also endurance) as well as drive and motivation. This is essentially what causes what many call “overtraining.”
Why they’re not great for hypertrophy:
LOW TIME UNDER TENSION
Olympic lifts are performed explosively and involve lifting a heavy weight for a short period of time. This means the time under tension for the muscles is relatively low, which isn’t optimal for muscle growth.
LIMITED RANGE OF MOTION
It’s kinda weird to talk about a limited range of motion when talking about the Olympic lifts. The distance traveled by the bar is one of the longest of all lifting movements. But no muscle group actually works over a long range of motion, and pretty much none reach a stretched position (especially if talking about the power variations), which is extremely important for maximizing hypertrophy. Olympic lifts involve specific movements with a limited range of motion, which may not stimulate all of the muscle fibers in any given muscle group.
DIVISION OF THE NEURAL DRIVE
The higher demand (for coordination, balance, and the large number of muscles involved) divides the excitatory drive going from the central nervous system to the muscles in such a way that no muscle receives a large enough signal to maximize the stimulation of a muscle. For hypertrophy, it may be more efficient to focus on exercises that are easier to perform and allow for a greater focus on the trained muscle.
I’ve explained central fatigue in my Thib Talks Training group before. Essentially, central fatigue refers to a weakening of the excitatory drive from the CNS to the muscles.
A strong signal is necessary to recruit the high-threshold motor units (fast-twitch fibers). If the signal is too weak, you can’t maximally recruit and use the fast-twitch fibers, resulting in a much smaller hypertrophy, strength, and power stimulus. Central fatigue is an inhibition of the signal caused by afferent information sent to the nervous system from the muscles, tendons, fascia, etc.
Pain, discomfort, and effort levels are the “information” that inhibits the signal. In the Olympic lifting variations, more muscles are involved, so more potentially inhibitory information is sent to the CNS. When doing higher-rep work on the Olympic lifts (which would be necessary for hypertrophy), the discomfort is huge, adding a very strong inhibitory signal.
LACK OF ECCENTRIC TENSION
Except for a brief period when using lifts from the hang (lowering the bar down to the knees before exploding up), no significant eccentric tension is produced during the Olympic lifts. That removes a significant – arguably the most important – growth stimulus. Add the lack of stretch-induced hypertrophy simulation, and you have a very poor growth promotion.
Olympic lifting can be a great tool, but its purpose is to build power and, to a lesser extent, strength. When using them to build endurance or hypertrophy, you lose out on their original intent while providing a poor stimulus for what you’re trying to use them for.
3. EMOMs for Strength
EMOM stands for “Every Minute On the Minute.” It’s a training method commonly used in functional fitness and CrossFit workouts. During an EMOM workout, you perform a specific exercise or set of exercises at the start of every minute and rest for the remainder of the minute. When the next minute starts, you do them again and rest for the remaining time, and so on, for the specified number of rounds or minutes.
For example, an EMOM workout could involve performing 10 kettlebell swings at the start of every minute, resting for the remainder of the minute, and repeating this for 10 minutes. Another example: doing 5 pull-ups and 10 push-ups at the start of every minute and resting for the remaining time, repeating this for 20 minutes.
EMOMs are popular in CrossFit because they’re easy to program in a group setting. You can prescribe an exact duration of work to easily structure your training session to last an exact time period. Another positive is the high density of work. The rest periods are short (compared to traditional training) and the work-to-rest ratio is high BUT also automatically adjusts to someone’s fitness level.
Psychologically, it also gives you a sense of urgency that can help keep you in the zone.
All of this is beneficial when used for conditioning, specifically with metcon-friendly movements like kettlebell swings, Assault bike, rowing ergometer, loaded carries, sled pull, ski ergometer, etc. These movements are low-skill and aren’t dependent on strength.
My main issue with EMOMs? When someone uses them as part of a strength protocol. For example, doing 3-5 reps with 80%+ of your 1RM for 10 minutes. Even worse, and yet super popular in CrossFit, would be an EMOM ladder where you add weight at every minute until you reach your max (or your max for the prescribed reps).
The problem? Strength work requires a lower work-to-rest ratio to be effective. If rest periods are too short, you accumulate central fatigue from minute to minute, gradually decreasing your capacity to recruit the fast-twitch fibers, making each set less effective.
You can also build up peripheral (muscular) fatigue – not great if your goal is to lift heavy weights since it can easily lead to compensations and poor technique. Another key point is that the more peripheral fatigue you accumulate when doing strength work, the more likely you are to cause excessive muscle damage. That delays the recovery time post-session for the muscles involved and decreases muscle growth.
In CrossFit competitions, ladders are a popular event. I get that. But that doesn’t make this type of event an effective training method.
If your goal is to maximize strength development, aim for at least 3 minutes between heavy sets. At best, an EMOM for strength gives you 50 seconds, which is vastly inferior for strength development, according to studies.
4. Lifting to Lose Fat
While lifting can increase muscle mass, there’s a risk of losing muscle if the body isn’t properly fueled with nutrients and calories. In extreme cases, excessive weight training without adequate nutrition can lead to muscle loss, slowing down the metabolism and making fat loss more difficult.
This is the problem with the “I’m going to add lots of training volume to burn more calories” approach. Yeah, more lifting volume burns more calories, but it’ll also cause a lot more muscle damage and central fatigue.
Contrary to what was taught for a long time, muscle damage is not a trigger for muscle growth. In fact, the more muscle damage you cause, the more protein synthesis you need to repair that damage, leaving you less potential protein synthesis to add new tissue. (And a natural lifter can only increase protein synthesis so much. He or she is limited by natural levels of anabolic hormones.)
If muscle damage is too great, fiber repair might be impossible because you now need to REGENERATE fibers – a much slower process that can lead to muscle loss.
Furthermore, excessive muscle damage also leads to inflammation and oxidative stress, which can further contribute to muscle breakdown and loss. This can be particularly problematic for those already in a calorie deficit or with insufficient protein intake since the body may use muscle tissue for energy.
To avoid excessive muscle damage and potential muscle loss, it’s important to balance exercise intensity and volume with proper recovery, nutrition, and rest. For fat loss, your caloric intake will be lower, decreasing your capacity to recover from intense training. There’s also a good chance that your sleep will be affected after weeks of dieting, which also decreases your recovery capacity.
Adding more volume in that situation backfires by making you lose muscle, which makes you look worse and decreases your metabolic rate. This makes it even harder to lose more fat.
5. Burpees for Anything
Burpees were not created as a training exercise. They were originally invented in the 1930s by American physiologist Royal H. Burpee as a simple and effective way to assess fitness levels. The exercise was originally known as the “four-count burpee” and consisted of four movements: a squat, a push-up, a jump, and a return to the starting position.
It was used to assess someone’s cardiovascular health by measuring:
- Heart rate elevation
- How rapidly the heart rate came back down after the exercise
Burpees weren’t really a test of endurance since few reps were done in the test, but a test of how much the heart rate would go up and how fast it would come down after the exercise. Being able to quickly return to a slower heart rate is a sign of being in shape.
Burpees were invented not because of their high demands but because the rapid change in body position led to a rapid increase in heart rate.
See, rapidly going from lying down to standing up can increase heart rate. This is known as orthostatic or postural tachycardia. When you stand up, your body has to work harder to keep blood flowing to your brain and other vital organs against the force of gravity. To do this, your heart rate typically increases and your blood vessels narrow to maintain blood pressure.
In some cases, this response may be exaggerated, leading to a more significant increase in heart rate and a drop in blood pressure. This causes symptoms such as lightheadedness, dizziness, or even fainting. People with certain medical conditions or who take certain medications are more prone to this type of response.
Basically, if someone had excessive heart rate elevation while doing the test, it indicated poor cardiovascular health and was grounds for dismissal.
Burpees are actually an inefficient way to build endurance, resistance, or conditioning. They feel like they’re a lot more demanding than they are because of the drastic increase in heart rate (and thus breathing rate) – an increase that far exceeds the actual physical demands of the movement.
Burpees feel as hard as any metcon movement out there, maybe even harder, so it’s easy to interpret that feeling as effective conditioning. This prevents you from doing enough volume to really improve endurance.
There are dozens of more effective and less dangerous options out there. The only thing burpees are really good at is sucking the life and joy out of your workout.
A Gentle Reminder
Think of exercises and methods as tools. Using tools for their true purpose is crucial for achieving anything great. While it may be tempting to try the latest fad that seems impressive or looks cool, consider whether it suits your goals, fitness level, and lifestyle.
Using a method or exercise the wrong way can be ineffective and may lead to injury, burnout, or simply a lack of progress.
Using training methods and exercises for their true purpose can help you reach your full potential and enjoy the journey of improving your fitness, physique, and performance.