By Carl Valle
Like an old toy you say goodbye to, some exercises need to be put into storage or given away. Removing a few exercises from the toolbox each year is a difficult endeavor, as it feels emotionally empowering to stockpile them “just in case” we need them later. I’m not a fan of using any of the exercises below as primary solutions for training, but I have no qualms about keeping them in storage. Placing exercises on the chopping block is a tough ordeal, as it forces you to put even those exercises you like on trial.
In this blog, I cover 10 exercises that athletes shouldn’t use at the frequency I see promoted. This analysis should change your mind on a few exercises, and it may even encourage you to do the opposite and use them more if the circumstances are right. The goal of any critical review of exercises and their value is not to ban a movement—but to fairly evaluate what is appropriate and what may just be popular fluff.
Read This First Before You Judge
If you skipped ahead to check out the list before coming back to read this section, I don’t fault you. If you don’t read the entire article but are already cracking your fingers, poised to write a rebuttal, I still don’t blame you. I have used nearly every exercise here myself at one time or another, and I actually like performing some of the exercises even today. In no way am I saying you should never do any of these exercises and you should burn them from your list, but I recommend reducing their use or cutting them out altogether if you find a better option. At least try alternatives or experiment with not using them, as staying with the same train of thought without rethinking other options is a bad idea.
Many of the exercises that are teaching tools should be used just a few times if truly needed, but exercises that are seen as “big rocks” may just be tiny pebbles. Most of the exercises are safe—I won’t stoop to fearmongering to get people to change their opinion on an exercise—so don’t worry that you are hurting athletes if you use the movements. I just question their overall value to performance.I recommend rethinking exercises that fail to pass common principles of training, says @spikesonly. Click To Tweet
Another point is to be careful with subtle differences, as a variation of the exercise may be perfect. Other exercises may be excellent for fitness enthusiasts looking for a good workout. Again, I utilize some of the exercises, but find myself using them less after hearing from other coaches about their limitations and better alternatives. Some exercises were hard to remove, as they are either popular or very convenient. Other exercises only needed some experimentation to confirm they were never useful to begin with.
The last point is that if you feel the exercises have merit and you want to continue using them, I won’t lose sleep. Prove to yourself why you use them besides for giving an athlete variety or a different challenge. On the record, I don’t hate exercises as they are just inanimate objects, but I know that most of what I list below does not pass my own test to be a key training tool. Maybe I will change my mind and see more value, but each year I let go of the exercises more and more.
Single Arm Snatches
I have voiced my opinions on single arm snatching; specifically, the use of light loads for speed. What has dramatically changed over the last 10 years is coaches accessing force plates and encoders to help evaluate movements. The single arm snatch is the best example of bad math, as it’s an illusionary unilateral motion with bilateral reality.
If a coach was interested in single leg snatching, I would give them some credit in at least making a reasonable conclusion to available science. The truth is a bitter pill: Single arm stabilization benefits are fine for some athletes, but as a developer of power, dumbbell snatching isn’t a cerebral idea. I am not a big fan of single leg Olympic lifts with heavy loads, especially if they lead into a step-up box, but at least they follow the law of overload. Instead of including single leg cleans to a high lunge, the single arm snatch was more deserving of elimination.
Let’s start with some fundamental concepts. A good athlete can snatch their body weight if properly trained, and that means a 200-pound athlete can snatch 200 pounds. Obviously, gender, experience, body type, and experience all interact with that number, but snatching your body weight is a good estimate. Snatching 50 or even 100 pounds is either 25% or 50% of body load, and if you follow the evidence to what really creates power in sports training, on paper it makes sense. Even if you use a super heavy dumbbell, placing an asymmetrical load to one side isn’t ideal.
I understand that the Detroiter movement in figure skating is seen as an example of functional strength to some, but keep in mind the pairs actively work together to be propped up. Pairs figure skating is an event of collaboration, hardly analogous to emergency responders or the military saving someone who is unconscious or injured.
Some coaches will argue that light dumbbells are good teaching tools and I support that conclusion, but eventually you need to get to the bar and learn to grip and manipulate it. An athlete with a steady diet of medicine ball throws and pressing vertically will have no trouble skipping the dumbbell progression and will start loading carefully nearly immediately. I have nothing against coaches using the exercise to serve as a very short bridge, but with so many coaches not using it, it makes me think we can leave the dumbbell snatches alone.
The goblet squat is loved and used constantly for teaching newcomers—mainly kids or those new to weight training. I watched two coaches arguing about the inclusion of the exercise, and I rooted for the goblet squat as it was really useful for teaching. I have used the goblet squat myself and it worked like a charm, so I felt that the argument was more ego than best practice. But, again, I was wrong.
The experienced coach explained that the goblet squat was a great way to bilaterally move, but it worked too well. His opinion—one that I later agreed with—was that the goblet squat was a balancing tool that artificially recruited muscles and joint systems to self-correct. I found it strange that he didn’t like the idea of squatting with ease, and I suspected he was stuck in his old ways.
The important reason why goblet squatting is far from perfect is that you eventually have to use a barbell for loading. This is the reason I don’t teach barbell or dumbbell movements until an athlete has at least 1-2 years of formal strength training. What may complicate the matter is an athlete who is very slight (ectomorph) and finds barbells to be uncomfortable, but then again, you can use SkinTech or weight vests. Beginners use the goblet squat because they may not be strong enough to do single leg exercises, but this is not a great rationale. Medicine ball squats and plane squats are better alternatives to dumbbells because they can be used in movement circuits during warm-ups and bypass the sterile goblet squats.Learn from coaches who have gone against the grain and found better ways to teach #squatting, says @spikesonly. Click To Tweet
Alan Bishop uses a brilliant progression of teaching full-range motion, balance, and proper hand positioning with a four-part sequence.
- Hands-free cyclist squat
- Hands-free front squat
- Front squat
- Back squat
At first, I didn’t think it was necessarily special, but I gave it a fair try. The results were felt weeks later when we were loading heavy. Based on both general maximal strength from isometric testing and the skill of squatting, everything jived together later. I have seen some great uses of sandbags and teaching progressions that are excellent options, and I encourage learning from coaches who have gone against the grain and found better ways to teach squatting. I still goblet squat laterally, but not for the conventional squat.
Landmine Drop Split Jerks
I am not in love with landmine exercises and avoid them like real landmines. A few of them have potential, but overall, I see a lot of coaches gravitate to them for the wrong reasons. Some coaches have educational resources devoted entirely to the exercise, so you can see going against the grain may not be popular. I will take the near-middle ground and say you can use landmines for some exercises, but for power I would be very careful. I recommend rethinking exercises that fail to pass common principles of training.
The essential points to consider with power training are that load, velocity, and impulse matter. Transfer is another big question, but that is another article altogether. Low load jerks don’t develop power or even express it well, and the single arm options I see just don’t make a difference. With the Pentagon Bar article, I covered the jerk and found the option to be good for scaffolding, but many athletes can screw up the exercise if they are not coached on it well. I don’t worry if a soccer athlete isn’t using the jerk, but would rather coaches just attack simple options like strength and not pretend with light loads.
Another issue with landmine exercises is that they are arc motions, so as the lift completes, the forces changes, and not necessarily for the better. Therefore, if you drop and press the weight because it’s light (under body weight), it won’t make a big difference to a bilateral leg exercise. Thus, you’re wasting time.The #landmine drop split jerk is good on paper but doesn’t add any bang to your buck, says @spikesonly. Click To Tweet
Let’s talk about the split versus a “symmetrical” stance, something that coaches in weightlifting will debate endlessly. While a split position looks athletic, I would rather see something more explosive as a rebound versus sticking a low force movement. Looking at the forces, a split with very little drop is not a feat of eccentric ability, even if looks better to the eyes than a squat-style landing. I like in-place squat jumps; I just prefer to separate them and get more out of the movement instead of adding a barbell and shuffle dance. The exercise is good on paper, but really doesn’t add any bang to your buck besides maybe breaking a sweat.
Some athletes, such as offensive linemen and other football players, may benefit from loaded carries once in a while. Perhaps in the beginning of the training year, walking with a set of heavy dumbbells or strongman implements will be fruitful, but I see a lot of slow and weak athletes resembling toddlers plowing through wet snow. Some coaches believe that bottoms-up kettlebell walking will recruit a lot of stabilizers of the shoulder, while others believe the core is working functionally.
Shoulder health is not my target fault here—my gripe is with general sports performance with the lower body. I just see an athlete walking with heavy resistance, not sprinting or cutting, or even training the legs with a decent range of motion. I appreciate the value of hard work, but we need productive exercises with the time we have. On the list of priorities, farmer’s walks are so low I hate even talking about them. I like them for fitness, as they add some spice to those needing a good session idea to keep things interesting, but they’re not a great performance option.I like farmer’s walks for fitness, but they’re not a great performance option, says @spikesonly. Click To Tweet
Another issue I see with farmer’s walks is that athletes tend to lock up and look like zombies from the Thriller video. Stiff, slow, and unathletic. I have seen, with horror, entire turf strips resemble Boston traffic before the Big Dig, complete with athletes who need speed building up lactate to feel like they are working hard or fighting pain.
Klokov marching up steps with weight or an athlete walking out of a rack during heavy squats is adding up the exposure to loaded stepping, and expanding on that quality seems excessive to me. I am sure grip training and other points will be brought up by coaches who love them, but if you have just a few hours to train an athlete, heavy walking vertically isn’t the best use of time and coaching access. Instead of tossing this exercise out, think about demoting it all the way down to the bottom of the barrel.
There was a last-ditch effort to save the farmer’s walk in loaded carry research by Stuart McGill, focusing on the asymmetrical loaded carry or super yoke model. The research team didn’t do EMG readings on the quadratus lumborum and only modeled it, so it was assumed that single contact walking would create lateral stabilization force, but their own data didn’t really show enough motion or contraction characteristics. Modeling the deeper muscles of the pelvis, it appears that we need to be careful about absolute size and focus on the other variables that have relationships with performance.
Based on research, I think small but rapid lateral contractions are best prepared with free motion or rapid motion, not slow restricted forces. You can decide yourself with experimentation, but so far walking heavy and slow doesn’t seem to be putting athletes on the podium.
Heavy Prowler Pushes
When I see some linemen or strength sports using prowlers, I nod and have simpler conclusions. When I see athletes using heavy sleds to get faster, thinking that specific or special strength will connect the dots, I get frustrated. Horizontal force, single leg strength, and accelerative posture are all points of contention for the use of heavy sled pushing.
I am not denying those qualities, but I feel other options exist that, in conjunction, add up to a better result. Like the wall drill, coaches love the way heavy pushes look because everyone succeeds visually at low speed and low complexity. I would say prowler pushing for velocity is socialized speed—everyone is treated the same, but excellence at the top is near impossible. Lighter pushing with sleds that are low to the ground is also questionable, as the carryover is low and the postures are cringeworthy.Prowler pushing for #velocity is socialized speed—all treated the same, with distinction difficult, says @spikesonly. Click To Tweet
What about pulling heavy sleds? I have eased up my “resistance” to the use of heavy sleds that are heavy enough to be considered a strength exercise versus a speed session. Sometimes an athlete has limited options, so if the exercise fits the bill, do it. Pulling heavy loads uses the arms, and the force vector is usually aligned to the posture of the body better than sleds. Using the arms, while perhaps a little overstated, is just a good way to coach introductory mechanics to athletes who are thirsty for motor skills with locomotion. Again, the heavy sleds may have merit in some cases, but they are not as effective for speed development as we want them to be.
I personally have nothing against the TGU (Turkish get-up), but the exercise is not a top option for developing an athlete. I do fully respect the core recruitment, but an entire core program will cover the basics of spinal strength. So, what is my beef against the exercise? It’s been looted and pilfered from kettlebell experts and shoved down the throats of coaches who just simply want to help athletes and not be forced to do something that is just an option.
This is a great, if not perfect, fitness movement. So, if it’s great for fitness, why not for performance? If a veteran athlete in the pros needs a break from a mind-numbing routine after 16 years of professional play, I am all for it. The problem is that high school athletes who are likely underdeveloped need more pull-ups and push-ups, and not kettlebell-specific exercises. If you have the time and want to add it in, you can, but if you are not interested in using the exercise, don’t feel pressured to use it. Where were all the Turkish get-up fans 20 and 30 years ago? I ask that because I have squatted for decades and believe it has value, but how many promote and prescribe a training idea after only a few weeks of using it?The Turkish get-up is great for fitness, but we need evidence that it helps performance or rehab, says @spikesonly. Click To Tweet
A fair question is whether I have tried them. Yes, I have, and I like them because they are challenging and similar to swings, and they give an adult something fun to do instead of doing a pec deck in a chair. However, they are still options that are generally good for all humans, but they can’t be—like any singular exercise—seen as must-haves. We need more research and deeper evidence for the claims of the TGU helping with athlete performance or rehabilitation, as most of the studies are observational or looked at trapezius activity. My only warning is that brute strength of the legs is a priority for most non-contact injuries, and I don’t feel that TGU variants really push the load side of the equation versus mobility and stability requirements.
I have seen some great rehabilitation programs after surgery use clamshells, but a healthy athlete has other options to challenge their medial glutes. I am not a purist; meaning, if you get results from direct isolation work and are not training on your feet, I don’t fret. On the other hand, if you spend a lot of time on a muscle the size of a deck of cards with isolation movements, I wonder how much an athlete is not doing with their time.
My biggest issue with isolation training is not the isolation, but the thought process behind it. When looking at a muscle’s role, think locomotion as much as possible. Walking without a medial glute is possible and the amount it actually contributes is rather small. In fact, the faster you walk, the less contribution it provides with gait analysis. When coaches talk about slings or anatomy trains, I understand how complex the body is, but we don’t need to make it more complicated.Single leg squats are good movements and recruit the lateral hip better than isolated #clamshells, says @spikesonly. Click To Tweet
One of the reasons coaches and therapists like the clamshell is because you can’t really mess them up. Nobody gets hurt, and they may be good options after surgery. Some coaches worry excessively that after a knee injury or procedure, the glutes will shut off. I do think the posterior chain requires support work, but being fixated on the gluteus medius is just overzealous. Single leg squats are good movements, and they apparently recruit the lateral hip better than isolated clamshells or even band walks. It’s not that being on your feet or one leg is more functional, it’s that more demanding forces tend to be smarter than the simple movements we saw in the fitness studios of the 1980s when we didn’t know any better.
Dowel Hinge Drills
Hinge movements matter, so I am not against hinging or bending with coordination. What I do worry is that we overthink and over-coach way too often. Like goblet squats, hinge drills have entered the arena as teaching exercises. The question is, what are we teaching, or better yet, what is the athlete learning?
I am not a prop guy; meaning, I hate teaching with external equipment. It may work easily at first, but I really don’t see the athlete learning on their own. Sometimes a good task makes the process easy and we shouldn’t worry about it, but I don’t like quick fixes that depend on artificial interventions unless the case is really good. Hinging is important, but do we really need a dowel?I was told to teach to the needs of the athlete and not cut an exercise into unnecessary pieces, says @spikesonly. Click To Tweet
Outside of dowels, some coaches will force hinge motions with the use of cables or elastic bands. I think those are actually better for athletes who need regressions. Again, if you have to use something that is a step forward, do whatever you need to get the job done. Just keep in mind that the athlete must evolve past training wheels and start lifting heavy plates.
A fair argument is that teaching Romanian deadlifts is following the “wrong” train of thought for dowel options. True, the athlete uses external equipment while learning, but the hinge is not the end goal—it’s a means to an end. I am in no way rushing coaches to start lifting heavy quickly, but I do think a load teaches the athlete with natural feedback, reducing the need to perform endless regressions. Not using a load to train athletes is almost a badge of “movement quality” rather than just coaching the exercise.
I was told to teach to the needs of the athlete and not cut an exercise into unnecessary pieces. The hinge drill with a dowel isn’t a sign of failure, but it’s not the best or only way to teach motions an athlete should know.
Medicine Ball Slams
I love medicine ball training, but I almost hate medicine ball slams. Now, if I was a caveman and needed to open up a coconut, perhaps I would throw it on the ground like a medicine ball, but even that would be done with some degree of intelligent movement. Sometimes slamming a medicine ball on the ground releases some bad energy and I would rather see that than athletes expressing frustration or anger in unhealthy ways, but throwing medicine balls on the ground for core training or rotator cuff “stabilization” is stretching it a bit too far. Sure, EMG readings exist, but we need to see EMG and outcomes of performance or rehabilitation, not just that it activates a muscle that is trendy.#MedicineBall training is primal, but intelligent and skilled. Throwing up is more useful than down, says @spikesonly. Click To Tweet
Throwing medicine balls up is more useful, but because ceiling height is an issue, we see coaches wanting to throw balls and switch the direction with their athletes. The question is whether throwing in another direction will help. It’s more than possible to develop the arm and body power for throwing or overhead sports without medicine balls, but I would rather see more rotation or skilled throwing forward or up. Most coaches have walls that are suitable for throwing against but not high enough ceilings. Throwing outside with partners is far more fun, and the load needs to be much lighter for forward overhead throws—near the 1- to 3-kilo range, depending on the athlete.
The main point I am making is that medicine ball training is primal, but it’s still intelligent and skilled. Throw up, throw far, but throwing down has little value outside a few theoretical core and shoulder benefits. I do agree that benefits may exist, but the differences between the results of only one exercise and an array of training elements are likely to be little to nothing.
High-Rep Speed Deadlifts
I don’t like when athletes use speed deadlifts as a primary way to get better for sprinting. The deadlift is a pulling exercise and not a great fit for lowering the weight eccentrically; otherwise, the accentuated deadlift would be all the rage. Coaches know better. What does concern me is the use of high repetition deadlifts using a bounce from the ground. That defeats the purpose of the exercise, as a deadlift literally means from a dead stop! Bouncing barbells is great after dumping a lift with cleans or snatches, but deadlifts that are high repetition work are not my cup of tea.
What about high repetition hex bar squatting? The same thing. In fact, I am more disappointed in the use of bouncing squats because they should employ an eccentric contribution. Bouncing off the chest or off the ground is just bad technique and defeating the purpose of great lift-off modes or conventional exercises like the squat. We are seeing bouncing with a lot of lifts, even the hip thrust exercise.Sometimes athletes use velocity to cheat or attempt a load they’re not ready for, says @spikesonly. Click To Tweet
I am not scared of training with velocity. It’s just that sometimes athletes use velocity to cheat or attempt a load they are not ready for. Eccentric strength isn’t everything, but removing it from a program for the tribal feelings of hardcore training is fool’s gold. I recommend using a flywheel and keeping yourself honest, as the momentum qualities enable the athlete to be challenged without getting reckless.
Use Sparingly or Not at All
If you are upset with these selections, remember I have never personally had a bad experience—I just found other options to be more useful. I, too, have employed the exercises and simply found that, over time, they had less value in my own toolbox. I am not killing off movements for attention or for controversy, I just believe the value of a lot of exercises is overinflated in general, and some are much more hype than substance.