The Single Worst Exercise

8 Exercises That Suck, Plus Better Options

Do you use any of these silly, injurious, worthless exercises? Read this before your next workout.

The Question

What’s the single worst (or most useless) exercise in existence?

TC Luoma – T Nation Editor

Bosu Ball Curls

Ordinarily, I wouldn’t have thought that BOSU ball curls were actually a thing that people do in gyms. Complaining about them would be like complaining about cats wearing yoga pants because you don’t generally see cats wearing yoga pants, and getting all bothered about it would be a waste of psychic energy.

But I’ve been trying out different gyms lately and sure enough, I see people doing BOSU ball curls fairly frequently. I want to pee on their shoes.

In case you haven’t seen anyone doing this bastardized exercise, they stand on an upside-down BOSU ball with a pair of dumbbells and do dumbbell curls. In order to keep their balance, they alternate arms and pump them really fast. The effect is kind of similar to one of those spinning-top toys that toddlers play with – if the top slows down, it falls over and splashes pabulum on the kitty. Same thing with the BOSU ball curlers – if they slow down their arms, they fall over and do a header onto the glute/ham raise machine.

I have no g-damn idea what muscles or skills they’re actually working. Maybe their ankles get stronger, but I’m not sure. They sure as hell aren’t working their biceps to any appreciable degree. Either they have to use ridiculously low poundage so they can still maintain balance, or they use heavy weight and curl it really fast for that spinning-top effect, which allows them to use pure momentum and very little muscle strength to curl the weights.

I suppose most of them would say they’re working their core, which also makes me want to pee on their shoes. You know who gets a lot of the blame for that core crap? Powerlifter Fred Hatfield. “Dr. Squat.” He’s the one who said, “You can’t fire a cannon from a canoe.”

What the hell does that even mean? I guess lifters thought it meant that you need to build up your lower trunk muscles in order to lift big, but maybe Dr. Squat just fell off a BOSU Ball, conked his head, and thought he was a canoe paddler in the French and Indian wars. In any event, he started a core craze that exists to this day, to the exclusion of all common sense.

Granted, BOSU ball curls “work” the arms and they “work” the core, but it’s the workout equivalent of washing your clothes in raw sewage. Sure, you’re using water, kind of, and even dirty water cleans things, sort of, but you’d be far better off using a different method.

For curls, work your arms with reasonably heavy weight on good ol’ terra firma, without momentum. For your core, do roll-outs or any one of hundreds of suitable movements that just might give you some powerful abs in the process.

Christian Thibaudeau – Strength Coach

The Step-Up on a Fairly High Box

Nobody does it right, nobody coaches it right, and as a result, it’s usually not productive. If you can use a significant amount of weight, you’re likely not doing it right. Unless you can squat at least 500-600 pounds using a high-bar style it should be very hard to do proper step-ups with a lot of weight.

What muscles should a step-up train? The quads, glutes, and hamstrings of the leg that’s on the box. But what’s actually being trained? The calf of the leg on the floor and the lower back.

Here’s why. Most people start the movement by pushing the floor with their foot on the floor. This is instinctive unless you force yourself to keep the toes of this foot elevated at all times (which pretty much nobody ever does). Sure, the front leg may also produce some force, but not much.

This initial push brings the lifter about halfway up, at which point he’ll bend his torso forward to gain a mechanical advantage, then extend the back and leg simultaneously. So while the front leg does perform a bit of work, it’s far from being the prime mover in the exercise, maybe in the last third of the range of motion.

The other issue: you can’t do a proper eccentric (lowering) phase in a step-up. Most people simply step off of the bench and let the back leg drop back down to the floor. So when you step off of the box, your center of mass (the source of resistance) is far back from the point of your base of support (your front foot).

The unsupported portion of the body (pretty much your whole body except the front foot and ankle) is a lot heavier than the supported portion which means you simply can’t control the movement on the way down. To do so you must bend forward a lot to bring your body back over the base of support. It just doesn’t work.

So you have a movement that’ll do ZERO to build muscle. The target muscles are never significantly loaded and you can’t control the eccentric. Plus studies have shown that concentric-only movements deliver a lot less growth than exercises with both concentric and eccentric tension.

A better option is the single leg squat on a lateral box/bench. You could also call it a “side step-up” because the box or bench is at your side, not in front of you.

Single-Leg Squat on Lateral Bench

Three important points:

  1. Elevate the toes of the foot that starts on the floor. This will minimize the participation of the straightened leg.
  2. Keep both feet aligned. The straightened leg (foot on the floor) is lower than the working leg (on the box) but they line up together. Neither foot is further forward as it would be with a regular step-up.
  3. Do the eccentric slowly. You’ll be able to do this because your body is over the base of support, not outside of it like it is in a regular step-up.

Mark Dugdale – IFBB Pro Bodybuilder

It’s got to be Wrist Curls

If you lift any appreciable amount of weight on any back exercise your flexors get plenty of simulation, even with wrist wraps. Don’t believe me? Ask Matt Kroczaleski about what Kroc Rows do for grip strength. Wrist curls are the most useless exercise because they’re a waste of time. Time is a precious commodity. Train your back with some poundage or add in the farmer’s walk, then skip the wrist curls.

Charles Staley – Strength Coach

The Plank

Honestly, I’m a bit mystified about the apparent affection so many people have for it. Given the goals that almost everyone has (more muscle and greater strength), the garden-variety plank is a terrible tool to bring to the job. I suspect the reason that many trainers have their clients do planks is for the same reason martial arts instructors have their students do jumping jacks – it’s an easy way to burn time.

First, the plank is a static, not dynamic drill. That means its potential to stimulate muscular hypertrophy is pretty much zilch. As for strength development, the plank also earns low marks, since it’s essentially an endurance drill for the core musculature.

Granted, if you can’t easily hold a static plank for 60 seconds, maybe it’s worth adding to your program (or better yet, consider seeing a physical therapist). But if holding a plank for a minute is easy, it’s time to move on to better drills, of which there are many.

One of those better drills is ironically a dynamic version of the plank called “stir the pot.”

Assume a standard plank position, but with your forearms positioned on top of an inflatable gym ball. From there, you draw imaginary circles with your forearms while simultaneously maintaining your balance on the ball. This is an effective way to challenge your core muscles and turn a plank-like position into a useful exercise.

Dr. John Rusin – Doctor of Physical Therapy, Performance Expert

The Seated Ab/Oblique Rotation Machine

In the first two semesters of physical therapy school, a portion of the curriculum includes the foundations of biomechanics. The one point that was absolutely reiterated over the course of that year was avoiding the worst possible situation for the longevity and health of the lumbar spine. Above all else, avoid moving through the terrible triad of lower back movements: simultaneous flexion, rotation, and side bending, especially under loading.

In other words, avoid the seated ab rotation machine! This machine supposedly targets the internal and external obliques on opposite sides simultaneously. But everything from positioning to safety, efficacy, and effectiveness is wrong with this abominable waste of space.

The seated position isn’t advantageous for the aesthetics of your waist or your orthopedic health. The force plains just don’t match up. In order to target the obliques in this machine, spinal flexion must be incorporated into the movement. (Remember that thing about the terrible triad of positioning for lower back health?)

If you want to argue that this dynamic rotational movement targets the deepest layer of the abdominal wall, think again. Though the transversus abdominis fiber orientation is indeed horizontal in position, this muscle is responsible for tonic contractions, meaning it wouldn’t be optimally activated or stimulated during the violent rotations you’d go through on this machine.

When cranking out reps on the ab rotation machine, you actually fry the neural system that would normally stabilize the spine properly. You then lose the dynamic stabilization your spinal segments and core need to protect themselves against the external load.

A better alternative? The Pallof press.

To target the entire core, give the Pallof press a shot. This anti-rotation movement will challenge your static and dynamic stability of the pillar all at once.

Ben Bruno – Strength Coach

Good Mornings

Unless you’re a competitive powerlifter using good mornings as an assistance exercise for the squat or deadlift, there’s no good reason in my mind to include them.

Will they work the posterior chain? Sure, I guess, but the substantial risk to your lower back doesn’t outweigh the reward when you’re training for general fitness and physique purposes. Instead, do RDLs, regular deadlifts, or literally anything else.

Joel Seedman, PhD – Strength and Performance Expert

The Straight-Leg or Stiff-Legged Deadlift

It’s not only the most useless exercise in existence, it’s also one of the most counterproductive things you could do. The straight-leg deadlift is a bastardized variation of a proper hip hinge movement. It places an enormous strain on the vertebral column due to faulty mechanics in the lumbo-pelvic-hip complex, and can lead to tears and avulsions in the hamstrings.

Some lifters think that because they feel a stretch in the hamstrings they’re stimulating strength and hypertrophy. This couldn’t be further from the truth. Instead they’re limited the tension that could be placed on the hams and posterior chain. This exaggerated and unnatural stretch creates excessive trauma and micro-ruptures to the hamstring tendon-insertion, which is highly vulnerable to injury.

I’ve seen a strong association between straight-leg deadlifts and hamstrings tears among the athletes and bodybuilders I’ve worked with. Once we eliminate this movement and they start hinging at the hips correctly using an RDL (with soft knees) instead, hamstrings and glutes gain more strength and size. And incidentally, injuries in their posterior chain and low back become almost non-existent.

RDL With Soft Knees

It gets even worse. The straight-leg deadlift reinforces a faulty hip hinge. You can actually train yourself to bend over the wrong way and then keep doing it in your everyday life. Imagine yourself picking up furniture or a kid and using this straight leg form. You leave yourself vulnerable to low back and sciatic issues not to mention tweaks and pulls to the posterior chain. Nearly every low back-related issue I’ve ever known of can be traced back to faulty hip hinge mechanics.

Luckily the RDL is a highly functional way to avoid the drawbacks with a similar movement.

Paul Carter – Strength and Bodybuilding Coach

Stability Ball Squats

Or hell, anything done standing on a Swiss ball or some kind of surface that’s unstable or wobbly.

Taking a squat, one of the greatest meat-and-potato movements, and doing it while standing on a ball makes as much sense as taking a perfectly prepared filet mignon and dipping it in pig shit, then claiming it’s better that way.

A lot of this started with the movement that emphasized “core” training and stability. Supposedly, the more unstable your training surface, the harder the core had to work. Same for strengthening stabilizer muscles. If you were constantly having to balance on a wobbly surface while moving a barbell through space, then you’d increase the firing or strength of the stabilizing muscles. It sounded good in theory, but in real world application it was a total failure.

When you’re training with a barbell your body already has to stabilize. And on a solid surface you can generate torque and power so that things like progressive overload has a higher ceiling. Also – this is going to blow you away – it’s safer than using an unstable surface.

Sports are generally performed on a field of some sort. Football, rugby, track and field, basketball, baseball, etc. All done on the ground. Not a single athlete competes on top of a ball or moving surface. If you’re in the gym to improve your physique, strength, or ability on the athletic field, train like it. You’re not a circus bear.