Ever notice how cyclical the fitness industry is? Exercises that are part of every trainee’s regimen eventually fall out of favor only to reappear in workouts many years later. For example, chin-ups are once again a mainstay for trainees of all levels now that boot camp workouts and obstacle course competitions are so popular. Deadlifts are also making a comeback. However, some exercises that formerly were barbell basics continue to be shunned by trainers and athletes who believe the exercises are either ineffective or highly risky. That’s too bad – because some of those perceptions are unfounded.
To set the record straight, here are five movements with undeserved bad raps. These are valuable exercises you should consider when writing your programs.
1. Dips. In the pioneering days of bodybuilding and athletic fitness training, dips were a mainstay exercise – every gym had dip stations. Gymnasts would perform tens of thousands of dips in their athletic careers, and bodybuilders and powerlifters would perform them with large amounts of additional resistance. Among the most notable dippers was Marvin Eder, who placed third in the1951 AAU Mr. America. Eder, who weighed 198 pounds, and could perform 7 reps with 400 pounds! In terms of muscular endurance, Jack LaLanne completed 1,000 dips in 35 minutes without leaving the bars!
The bench press is the most popular exercise today for working the anterior shoulders, pectorals, and triceps. Dips work these same muscle groups, and according to MRI research by Per A. Tesch, PhD, dips are superior to close-grip bench presses for developing all three heads of the triceps. As a bonus, the trapezius and many other back muscles are involved in dips to provide stability.
2. Hack Squat. The early form of barbell lower body exercises could best be described as a deadlift with the bar positioned behind the body. It’s claimed that the name of the exercise comes from the German word hacke, which in English is “heel.” It was popularized by Georg Karl Julius Hackenschmidt. It lost much of its popularity to the leg press, and because some individuals found it to be too stressful on the knees. Most likely, the primary reason it is seldom performed is that it is brutally hard!
The hack squat was often used by pioneering bodybuilders to develop the vastus medialis, the teardrop-shaped muscle of the lower leg. One EMG study found that both the hack squat and the back squat produce similar effects on the vastus lateralis (outer quad muscle), but the hack squat more strongly works the glutes and biceps femoris (the hamstring muscle involved in knee flexion). As for the lower back (erector spinae), the hack squat produces less involvement than the squat produces but more than the leg press.
Hack squats can be performed using a machine designed for this purpose. Using a barbell instead of a machine makes the movement uncomfortable and reduces the amount of weight that can be used – pro bodybuilders have used close to 1,000 pounds on some variations of hack squat machines.
3. Good Morning. The good morning remains a key exercise for glute, erector spinae, and hamstring strength in weightlifters, although in recent years its popularity (among US lifters) has been exceeded by the Romanian deadlift. Many other Iron Game athletes have been proponents of the good morning; in his strongman days 1959 Mr. Universe Bruce Randall could perform this exercise with 685 pounds (knee flexed, back parallel to the floor).
The good morning begins from a position of advantageous leverage, as opposed to the deadlift, which begins from a position of disadvantageous leverage. The good morning also involves a countermovement and starts with an eccentric contraction, as opposed to the deadlift, which does not have such a countermovement and begins with a concentric contraction.
The key to safely performing this exercise is to pivot from the hip and keep the knees slightly bent. Do not round your lower back to increase your range of motion – this is asking for trouble. Due to the high levels of posterior shearing stress on the spine, you must use extremely light weights (such as the empty barbell); obviously this exercise should not be performed by anyone who has disk issues or who experiences pain when doing this exercise.
4. Pullover. The pullover was a key exercise in the early days of the Iron Game. In addition to working the lats, the pullover develops the pectoralis major and pectoralis minor, as these chest muscles are involved in many shoulder movements. It also works the serratus muscles, which are attached to the ribs. Also, the rectus abdominus is activated during pullovers, primarily contracting isometrically.
In the 1970s and ’80s the pullover became popular thanks to the late Arthur Jones, who developed a machine to perform this exercise. Jones’ pullover machine required users to push with their elbows rather than pulling with their arms. Although some individuals claimed that the exercise was too stressful on the shoulders, a likelier scenario is that the pullover simply became a forgotten exercise when gyms stopped purchasing pullover machines.
Two basic types of pullovers are straight-arm and bent-arm. Considerably less weight can be used with the straight-arm pullover; with the bent-arm pullover it’s especially important to anchor your feet to maintain balance. Many early bodybuilders advocated the use of high-repetition squats supersetted with pullovers to expand the rib cage by lengthening the costal cartilage (the latter effect, however, is physiologically unlikely because the costal cartilage gradually ossifies as adolescents mature, and therefore exercise has little effect on lengthening the cartilage in adults). In any case, pullovers merit attention for their effectiveness in developing the lats, pecs, and other muscles.
5. Lat Pulldown. Chin-ups are getting more attention due to the current popularity of boot camp programs, and have often replaced lat pulldowns.
Pulldowns are simply not as effective as chin-ups, but they can offer variation to your training, especially because you can perform them with many different types of grips (such as wide, narrow, pronated, supinated). They also are effective exercise variations for rehabilitation and for overweight individuals who struggle with chin-ups. However, the behind-the-neck pulldown can be especially stressful on the shoulders, especially those with rounded shoulders, and as such some individuals should avoid this variation.
It’s time these five exercises got some respect. Consider adding them to your programs and see for yourself what they can do for you!