Isaac Newton once said:
“We build too many walls and not enough bridges”.
Today I’m going to burn a few bridges by calling out three of the most pointless exercises you (and I) have ever done.
But before I do, we’ve got to talk about something that Newton is a little better well known for: gravity.
Now I’m no physicist, but other than mastering the art of fountain pen ink flicking, I picked up a thing or two in my GCSE physics class. One of the lessons I learned was that gravity is the force between two objects with mass
And because the earth is a big ass mass compared to you, me and even those heavy iron plates us lifters love to throw around in our spare time, it has an equally big ass gravitational pull.
This gravitational force pulls free weights directly down towards the earth with a force relative to their mass.
Because of this, when using dumbbells, barbells or any other form of free weight, our muscles contract to act against this downward force.
And with that semi-sciency stuff out the way, we can get on with those pointless exercises I was telling you about.
#1 The Svend Press
This exercise has been said to ‘take your chest day to the next level’
But in reality, that’s pretty misleading as it isn’t much of a chest exercise at all. Kind of like how it’s misleading that orcas are know as killer whales. They aren’t actually whales at all; they’re dolphins. But that’s a completely different tangent and I don’t really know why I brought it up.
So let me explain more about the svend press …
It’s performed by holding a plate against your chest whilst standing up and then pressing it out in front of you as you squeeze the plate together.
Now, because gravity is pulling the weight downwards, the muscles doing most of the work here are the ones that stop your arms from dropping down towards the floor as you press the weight out.
And as you can see from the video below, that sure isn’t the function of the chest.
Primary function of the chest
Excuse the cheesiness; this was the best video I could find.
In reality, the muscles doing the work here are primarily the shoulders (anterior delts), which work to raise your arm upwards and therefore prevent them from dropping as you press the weight.
Primary function of the anterior deltoid (front muscle of shoulder)
“But Tommy, I can feel a real good squeeze in my chest when I do the svend press”
Well yeah, sure; you’re squeezing the plate to stop it falling out of your hands. That squeezing activates your chest. Thing is, you could get the same effect by doing the exercise with no weight whatsoever and just squeezing your palms together.
^^^Reckon that will get you jacked? Na, didn’t think so.
So all the weight does is get the front of your shoulder working, making the svend press a pretty pointless exercise if you want to grow your chest. That is unless you want to lie down to do the exercise.
Lying down would mean that your chest has to do most of the work to stop the weight dropping. If you like your teeth, I advise you not to do that though and just give the svend press a miss altogether; you’re much better off sticking to variations of bench presses, machine presses, and flys.
#2 Standing Dumbbell External Rotations
These are often used to warm up the shoulder muscles that act to externally rotate the arm at the shoulder joint (ie: the rotator cuff).
Any issues you can think of by using the dumbbells?
Let’s break it down:
- The muscles we’re trying to target here rotate your arms outwards at the shoulder joint.
- So to work these muscles, we need resistance going in the opposite direction (ie: trying to pull/rotate the arms inwards towards the body).
What direction does the resistance from the dumbbell go?
Yup, that’s right; downwards.
So whilst the intentions of using the dumbbells are great, it’s pretty pointless using them in this fashion to help warm up your rotator cuff.
What’s really happening when you do external rotations with dumbbells is your shoulders are externally rotating against little resistance whilst your biceps are working isometrically (ie: contracting but not changing length) to resist the dumbbell from dropping down.
So what should you do instead?
Simple: do the exercise lying on your side so your shoulder muscles are working against the downward force of the weight. This will mean you have to work one side at a time.
Or you could do it standing up using a resistance band or cable machine.
Let’s move on.
#3 Dumbbell Kickback
For this one, we need to have a quick look at the science again:
When using free weights, the hardest our muscles have to work is when they contract to move the dumbbell/barbell directly upwards (ie: parallel to gravity).
The least they have to work is when they contract to move the free weight perpendicular to gravity (ie: at a right angle to gravity).
Take every bro’s favorite exercise, the bicep curl, for example. When your arms are flat against your sides, your biceps aren’t being challenged.
For the first few inches of the curl, they’re also not doing a great deal of work as they are contracting to move the dumbbell close to perpendicular to gravity.
However, as your elbow nears 90 degrees, you reach the point where you’ll be moving the dumbbell parallel to gravity and therefore your biceps will have to work hardest at this point.
In fact, stand up now and do some curls for me. Use a book, bag, or whatever else is heavy enough to make it somewhat challenging.
Now, as you pump away at the curls, do you notice how it gets more difficult the closer your elbows get to 90 degrees?
Yup? I thought so.
This is the sticking point, and the reason you see people do a load of dodgy looking hip thrusting and leaning back after the first few inches of heavy curls; it helps them get past this sticking point where the dumbbells move parallel to gravity.
It is also why you feel preacher curls working your biceps more at the bottom of the exercise than regular curls; they cut out the first few inches of the movement where your biceps don’t have to do a great deal of work.
With that said, well executed curls (ie: minimal use of momentum/dodgy hip thrusting) are a great exercise to target the guns. So curl away.
Now back to dumbbell kickbacks:
The main muscle group at work here are the triceps, which work to straighten your arm at the elbow.
For the first few inches of the kickback exercise, your triceps are working to move the dumbbell almost perpendicular to gravity. So they’re hardly being challenged at all at this stage. As you pass 45 degrees they have to work harder until they’re challenged maximally when the dumbbell is moving parallel to gravity (when the arm is fully extended).
So whilst you will obviously get some tricep action doing kickbacks, they’re hardly working for half of the movement.
A better alternative is to just switch the dumbbell for a cable machine or use bands. This changes the direction of resistance and will lead to more consistent tension on the triceps.
If you don’t have access to a cable machine, then I suggest you swap out the kickbacks for other isolation exercises such as skull crushers or overhead tricep extensions. These will work your triceps over a greater range of motion, enabling you to apply a greater amount of tension to your muscles.
“Ok, that’s all cool Tommy, but I don’t actually do any of those exercises anyway”
Ok, ok. I get it; these exercises probably aren’t all that common amongst a lot of us lifters.
But the main purpose of this blog wasn’t actually to single out and demonise individual exercises anyway (which I guess I kind of did, so my bad).
The main purpose was to get you to think more about the exercises you’re doing and how they’re targeting your muscles.
- Is the resistance and the direction it’s coming from putting tension on the intended muscles?
- And are there slight tweaks you could make to improve your form or to zone in on a particular muscle?
Not sure? Then fire over a message to firstname.lastname@example.org and I’d be happy to help you out.
References and reading
(1) ExRx – Mechanics In Exercise: Angle of Pull
(2) ExRx – Common Resistance Training Mistakes