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Ninety Percent of the Exercises You Do at the Gym are a Waste of Time: The “Gym Fit” Problem

Posted by on Feb 10, 2012 | 82 Comments

This post was inspired by a post written by Tucker Goodrich on Barefoot Ted’s Huaraches Google Group here.

Some exercises people do in the gym are absolutely worthless… except training you to do that exact exercise.

Idiot Exercise

The question: what exercises fit into this “worthless” category?

I’m a huge fan of functional fitness, which is based on the idea of using exercises that mimic the movements we make in our day-to-day lives.  Pete Kemme, one of the thought leaders of functional fitness, recommends functional fitness “…order to keep my body usable in a natural way.”  It’s also the idea behind Erwan LeCorre’s MovNat program, which is “based entirely on using the full range of our natural human movement abilities such as walking, running, balancing, jumping, crawling, climbing, swimming, lifting, carrying, throwing, catching, and self-defense.”

Compare this idea to a typical workout routine you see in a gym.  People using machines that move weight on a single plane.  Doing exercises that isolate one specific muscle group, like biceps curls.  People “running” on a elliptical machine (quotes intentional).  In short, you see a lot of people doing shit that involves movements you only see… well, in a gym.  The movements don’t generalize to real life movement.  In fact, a good argument could be made that these isolationist exercises create muscle imbalances that could lead to injury.

Worthless Machine

So back to the original question- what exercises fall into this USELESS category?

Leave your votes in the “comments” section.  Also feel free to comment on other people’s votes.  ;-)

 

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82 Comments

  1. Barefoot Running University » What is the Ideal Weight Training Program for Ultrarunners?
    February 13, 2012

    [...] Weight Training Program for Ultrarunners? Posted by Jason on Feb 13, 2012 | No Comments In my last post on weight training, I was purposely vague in order to stimulate discussion, though it was implied the question was [...]

  2. strength training advocate
    February 12, 2012

    Educated weight lifters understand quite well what is referred to as ‘core’ training these days. The main focus of most serious weight training routines are large compound movements. In fact, Deadlifts and Squats are two of the “Big 3″.

    Isolation exercises are even referred to by some as ‘assistance’ exercises. They can have their purposes, but should by no means be the focus of a proper strength training routine.

    At least as far back as Arthur Jones (inventor of Nautilus) many weight trainers have used full body workouts. Jones understood that the body as a system, and put trainees through total body workouts, starting with the largest muscles, legs, back, etc.

    Weight training is about much more than genetically gifted and/or drug assisted freaks of nature. Most every day ‘bodybuilders’ will not even begin to approach that kind of mass, its genetically impossible. Whether the average lifters goals are primarily aesthetic or not, if properly executed they will build lean body mass.

    Hypertrophy specific workouts that build lean body mass would be beneficial to anyone. A runner that doesn’t crosstrain isn’t “healthier” simply because they’re “thinner”.

    A fireman that tires quickly on the job may need a better understanding of the type of fitness his job requires, and shifts some of his focus to cardio/endurance, but his failings are not the result of weight training.

    • Erik
      February 13, 2012

      Well put STA.

      • strength training advocate
        February 13, 2012

        Thanks Erik. There is a lot of misunderstanding these days about weightlifting. Which is really unfortunate since it is a simple, efficient, and relatively safe way to get in shape, and prepare our bodies for the trials of aging.

        Many of today’s popular “functional” strength training exercises introduce quite a bit of momentum and gravity, which adds little more than an increased likelihood of injury. Strength training should be performed in a controlled manner(both raising and lowering) in order to be efficient, safe and effective.

        The idea of mimicking movements in strength training exercises really goes against scientific understanding of motor learning. Although, that fact is lost on many athletes and even coaches.

        To quote Dr Ellington Darden:

        “The study of motor learning is vast, but the key area to focus on is TRANSFER . . . the transfer of what you do in practice to what you do in competition.

        Positive transfer occurs best when what you do in practice is exactly and precisely the same as competition.

        Negative transfer occurs when what you do in practice is “almost the same” as in competition. Slight changes in motor pathways from almost-the-same situations can cause damaging results in performance skills.

        Indifferent transfer best occurs when what you do in practice has little or nothing to do with what you do in competition. For example, riding a bicycle has nothing to do with shooting pool or playing ping pong. Thus, riding a bicycle doesn’t inhibit, and it doesn’t facilitate, pool or ping pong. It’s effect is indifferent.

        Indifferent transfer is where strength training should fit into the concept of getting stronger for sports. But few coaches or athletes are even aware of indifferent transfer.

        The idea is to get stronger in the best possible way . . . which happens to be by moving slowly and smoothly against progressively heavier and heavier weights. Fortunately, this has nothing to do with any sport or competition. And, if you try to make your repetitions resemble throwing, hitting, kicking, or running . . . you risk moving into the area of negative transfer.”

        • Erik
          February 13, 2012

          Interesting analysis STA. Thanks. I was unaware of these categories, but this is more or less what I do/have done in practice. I was lucky that 30 years ago, when I first started doing weights, my older brother had some Weider books laying around. The basic principles outlined there, which you have also described, have served me well to this day, whether for general fitness or in karate. I think there is merit in functional fitness, but there seems to be a lot of misunderstanding about weight training. I especially don’t understand when it’s stated as a choice: either you do that or your do something else. Strength training should be tailored to one’s goals, of course, but to dismiss it out of hand is silly and fadish.

          • strength training advocate
            February 14, 2012

            “Strength training should be tailored to one’s goals, of course, but to dismiss it out of hand is silly and fadish.”

            EXACTLY!

  3. Sam H
    February 12, 2012

    I like this topic. I’m a firefighter and there’s what I call being “gym strong” and being “work strong”. I work with a few guys who are ripped to shreds because of the work they do in the gym. They haven’t had to do work in the real world because of inexperience, background etc… Many of these guys poop out early on the fire ground. Not cool.

    Then there are guys I work with who look horribly out of shape. They can’t do a squat or bench with flawless form and don’t care if they ever will. When it comes to doing “real” work, they excel because they know what’s important and have had to work hard since they were teens.

    Case in point. When I was a mechanic, people would be surprised at my grip strength. Work strong. At one point in college I wanted to be a bodybuilder and had big but worthless biceps. Gym strong.

  4. Pete Kemme
    February 12, 2012

    One last comment Erik (for now). There are very few “new” exercises on my site. The only thing I think I have over other resources is the variety. Hundreds of workouts both for at home and at the gym. Also some 12 week programs to help get you started. Plus I don’t charge anything.

    And if you’re really bored you can read my posts on this and that. I’m guessing you can’t be that bored :)

    • Erik
      February 12, 2012

      The Slosh bar is new to me, but yes the variety is impressive. I only check out two blogs, this one and MGBGs, due to time constraints, but I may have to add yours as a third. And yes, I am kind of bored; I’ve been reorganizing my library, bibliography and note-taking system with a mild head cold for the last few days … :(

      • Pete Kemme
        February 12, 2012

        I love fellow nerds! Jason and I would spend hours talking about history and sociology. I even wrote a history book once. Sorry to call you out Jason! :)

        • Erik
          February 12, 2012

          Yah, as I like to say, I’m a geek trapped in a jock’s body … Good to meet a kindred spirit. If you’re ever in the Twin Cities, let me know.

  5. Tom
    February 12, 2012

    ” Skull crushers, crunches, and toe raisers = close to useless.”

    Only if your a Pencil Neck. Tell that to die-hard Bodybuilders that have used those movements to excell at adding muscle & defining with those movements. To each his own.

    NATURAL BB, Nutritionist & NASM CPFT

    • Erik
      February 12, 2012

      Read the prior sentence. It becomes clear that Jason is saying those exercises are useless for runners. He doesn’t say anything about bodybuilders.

      It’s debatable if bodybuilders are fit in a complete and/or functional sense (as defined by Pete Kemme below), although it’s laughable when people (no one on this post) say they aren’t really strong either. I’ve worked out with bodybuilders–those cats are fricking strong.

    • Pete Kemme
      February 12, 2012

      bodybuilders are strong.

      weight lifters are strong (I use this term to add in more Olympic lifts).

      Runners have great cardio and are usually thinner, therefore healthier.

      Any exercise (done safely) is good.

      The point here is that if your goal is to be a better runner or have well rounded, total body, fitness that helps you avoid injury and be efficient, then bodybuilding should not be your goal. Bodybuilding’s goal is a body that is built up to a certain look. You know…er…”body building.”

      • Pete Kemme
        February 12, 2012

        Sorry, add in to be stronger as well.

      • Erik
        February 12, 2012

        Yah, it’s funny though, once in a while I’ll hear someone say something like ‘yeah, those bodybuilders are big, but they’re not really strong,’ as if their big, cartoonish muscles were somehow filled with air or something.

        • Pete Kemme
          February 12, 2012

          Pavel Tsatouline will argue though that the density of those muscles are less than you would think compared to muscles working together with proper neural connections. See Dragondoor.com for his books. So in a way, Pavel is saying they are filled a touch with “air” so to say. Just throwing that out there, not sure about the science myself though.

          • Erik
            February 12, 2012

            Well, it’s been 30 years since I switched from being a bio major to an anthro/linguistics guy, but I don’t think muscles work that way. Just like it’s a common misconception that you can ‘tone’ a muscle with low weight/high reps, I’m not sure you can make them more ‘dense.’ If you can find any peer-reviewed articles on the subject, I’d be interested. I have a friend in biochemistry, I guess I could ask him.

            I know some people refer to ‘tough’ muscles, which basically means they have good aerobic capacity/endurance, like a boxer or wrestler, but I don’t think that has anything to do with strength training. And though I haven’t read a Weider book for almost thirty years, I’m pretty sure bodybuilders do high reps when they get close to their beauty contests to get that “Gray’s Anatomy” look.

            I just checked out your site by the way: very nice! I’m not completely convinced that some of the exercises with kettlebells/clubbells are a whole lot different from what a lot of us do with traditional dumbbells, and things like one-handed push-ups/pull-ups are hardly new, but I will definitely be incorporating some of your ideas into my routine. Thanks for making this available free online.

    • Jason
      February 12, 2012

      As Erik noted- I said they’re useless for runners. If muscle hypertrophy is the goal, all three are useful.

  6. Shane D.
    February 11, 2012

    You know what, nowadays if any one is doing anything in the the gym, functional or not, its better than nothing. With obesity rates sky rocketing,I credit the individuals who are still even going to a gym to workout as opposed to going to buddies house to play video games or to facebook for hours! Sad as it is, whats it going to look like in another 20 years…

  7. Pete Kemme
    February 11, 2012

    I love this thread…thanks Jason. One additional comment. Jason talks about kinetic chain (good job). A chain we all know is only as strong as its weakest link. This obsession with the core is popular now, but is an age old concept.

    If all your muscles (and the proper neural connections) are working together, you will be stronger and more powerful than if you make one muscle, even a large one like the bicep, bigger and stronger. It is a chain and the brain does not recognize muscles, but only movements.

    • Erik
      February 11, 2012

      Right, just doing isolation exercises would be dumb, even for body builders. But, just as practicing scales and arpeggios has its place in music, there are benefits to training the muscle in isolation, and then reintegrating it in larger movements – ‘melodies,’ to continue the musical metaphor. I’ve always emphasized big movement stuff (I think my initial example of curls got us a bit off track), but isolation exercises have their place, and anyone who integrates them properly will definitely see benefits. I don’t see the need to choose, but I like the concept of functional fitness as you’ve outlined it, and that’s more or less what I’m doing anyway, but I will see if there’s some FF stuff I could include profitably in my routine. Thanks.

      • Pete Kemme
        February 11, 2012

        I have to say, you paint great pictures when you explain things by using very appropriate metaphors. :)

        • Erik
          February 12, 2012

          The analogy isn’t exact, but I’m glad it helped get my point across!

  8. Erik
    February 11, 2012

    As Pete points out, there seems to be some confusion in this discussion between training as goal in-and-of-itself, for fitness, and training to improve performance in some kind of competition, like running, martial arts, tennis, etc. If you fall into the first group, then do whatever helps you accomplish your fitness goals, be they agility, strength, endurance, all of the above, or something else. Functional Fitness looks like a great new option, especially if you need variety to stay motivated, but more traditional stuff, done the right way, is probably just as good, and may even be the same thing. You may even want to mix in a little traditional functional fitness. It’s called sports.

    If you fall into the latter group, however, then look at what the pros do. There’s a lot at stake, and the margin between winning and losing is extremely small, so it’s safe to assume they’ve got it right, or as right as is possible given our current knowledge. If top runners or martial artists use Functional Fitness or MovNat, then copy them. If they don’t, they’re probably useless too.

    • Karen P.
      February 11, 2012

      Most sports are far from “functional”. They contribute to the idea that specialization is ideal and they rarely contribute much to functional strength.
      I just had a conversation this morning about how Michael Phelps is built for the water, but he ain’t built for land. He may have gold medals, but they won’t help him in an emergency situation where he might have to run, climb, and jump to save himself.
      I just don’t think we can use the word “functional” unless those skills/movements are applicable to a wide range of uses and applications.

      • Pete Kemme
        February 11, 2012

        I agree. You can be “functional” for a specific activity, but Functional Fitness as a workout program/life style is about being prepared for daily activities and “emergencies.”

      • Erik
        February 12, 2012

        Karen,
        I’m probably idiosyncratic in this, but for me, sports are athletic games, not athletic competitions. So basketball, soccer, tennis, etc., fall into the category, but swimming, running, weight-lifting, etc., do not, because there are comparably few strategy and tactics involved in the latter. Most sports, as I define them, will give you a pretty good workout. Maybe not as complete as a Kemme workout, but I think it’s fair to characterize them as functional fitness practices nonetheless.

        • Erik
          February 12, 2012

          P.S., in an emergency situation, I’d bet on Phelps over the guy doing kettle bells any day of the week. Most fitness experts agree that swimming is the single best overall exercise you can do. Too bad I’m a lousy swimmer!

  9. Justin
    February 11, 2012

    Different strokes for different folks dude. Some people (bodybuilders) want to build muscle mass through traditional strength training. Who are you to judge someone’s strength/training goals?

    • Pete Kemme
      February 11, 2012

      Your goals are you own and feel free achieve them in the best possible way. Personally I feel that there are healthier goals, but we all have our own thoughts about how we want to look/feel.

      I feel a better balanced approach is good in many aspects of life, including fitness, so that is why I am a pain in the butt preacher of Functional Fitness.

      And and I believe Jason is mostly talking to runners who are heading into the gym, not knowing how to achieve their goals, which is most likely not body building. Therefore those exercises are useless for them.

      • Jason
        February 11, 2012

        Indeed, the post was implicitly geared toward runners. Using a body builder’s workout as a supplement to running would be just plain stupid. Too many weaknesses in the kinetic chain.

  10. Chris Vu
    February 11, 2012

    @Erik, I’m not sure having a big bench will help you have a strong jab. You don’t punch with your pecs, you punch with proper kinetic linking from the ground and strong core rotation. I’ve found that benching is one of the most useless exercises for functional fitness, even to the degree that I barely do it anymore in my weight lifting program. In my experience, even when applied to my BJJ or Muay Thai training, shifting from benching to something like kettlebell lifting, the Oly lifts, and barefoot running (*wink* *wink*) has been much more beneficial for my performance than traditional gym-goer weight lifting.

    • Pete Kemme
      February 11, 2012

      I agree completely. Do some 1 Arm Push-ups instead!

    • Erik
      February 11, 2012

      Chris, that was my experience, 20 years ago. Of course, strength training by itself won’t do much for your martial arts. It is supplemental to skills and sparing, which are primary. Your fish oil analogy is very apt here. I recall seeing “Total Recall” at the time and marveling at how Arnold didn’t know how to throw a decent roundhouse; he had exaggerated form and the movement was very tight. But all other factors being equal–speed, skill, determination–the stronger guy wins the fight. And I know my kicks became a lot more explosive once I started doing dead lifts and power cleans. One of my friends at the dojo (this was in Japan) had a Bruce Lee build, and was quicker and more skillful than me, but I could often get the better of him by closing the distance. Then one of my low kicks, body blows, or throws would devastate him. I had to be much more cautious about getting close to a stronger guy. Most of my aerobic training came from sparing drills and, interestingly, BFR in the hills behind Kobe.

      And Pat, I wasn’t saying curls ALONE will help you pick someone off the floor; obviously most lifting is done with the legs and back. But I don’t think you have to actually train lifting people up as if they were unconscious in order to be able to lift someone like that in a real emergency situation. A standard strength-training regimen working all the muscles, both in isolation and in bigger movements, will do the trick. And my understanding is that most serious gym rats are doing ‘core’ training these days, whether it’s part of a Functional Fitness regimen or straight strength-training. Still, bigger muscles are stronger muscles, and whether you want to look like a body builder or not, we can benefit from the science that has developed around this “sport.” It has shown that isolation exercises with proper form are best for really ripping the muscle. I’m a stronger believer in the principle that extreme practices (like ultra-marathons) can teach those of us with more moderate or well-rounded fitness goals a lot.

      I agree that you can get a good workout at home. I used to live close to my university’s gym, but now I live far, so I have a basic set of weights and cables in my garage, a Concept II rower, and some nice routes for running barefoot just outside my door and along nearby lakes and river paths. It’s probable a MovNat dude could climb a tree better than me, but I doubt they’d be much more fit, given an equivalent amount of time training at a similar level of intensity. It would be interesting to do a comparison study. Not that these newer fitness programs are without merit, and I must admit, I find them intriguing, I just think the claims are exaggerated, and more traditional workouts too easily dismissed. That said, I wouldn’t be surprised if come spring, I’m out in the yard doing bear crawls with my kids from time to time. And climbing a tree again sounds like a blast.

  11. Chris Vu
    February 11, 2012

    I agree that many gym exercises are VERY useless, especially the single-joint machine movements. I’ve always been a proponent of focusing on “movements, not muscles” and training your whole body…you don’t eat just for your biceps one day and sleep for your back the next. You eat for your body…as such, you should train your body as a whole. That said, I believe single-joint movements DO have their place in a well-rounded training regimen. I’ll use something like my Brazilian Jiu Jitsu training, for example. I can do something like rows or pull-ups all day to develop my pulling and gripping muscles together; however invariably, my grip and biceps will fail before my upper back muscles either in grappling or while training back. I don’t think it’s a bad idea to supplement my weight lifting with some additional curls or some forearm work, if that’s the case. I believe the problem lies wherein people use single-joint movements as the bulk of their workouts to “isolate” this and that, rather than doing compound lifts to strengthen their bodies as a whole. I see single joint movements as something like taking fish oil pills…I’ll eat my food for nourishment, but I know I don’t get enough fatty fish to provide an adequate amount of omega-3′s, so it’s ok to pop some fish oil everyday to go along with.

  12. pete kemme
    February 11, 2012

    i think Jason and I agree on this. Running a lot without crosstraining is not the healthiest. However be careful on how you crosstrain. Adding in weight lifting or the wrong strength program is not as helpful as you think.

    This is what I believe Jason is getting at by calling the typical gym exercises as useless.

    • Erik
      February 11, 2012

      Hey Pete,
      If you have a minute, please summarize the differences between FF and MovNat. In my comment above I wrongly treated them as if they were the same thing. Also, I called you Pat, sorry about that.

      • Pete Kemme
        February 11, 2012

        Ok, in practice they are somewhat similar from what I have seen about MovNat. The goals are also similar, which is to get your body into a perfect natural state to allow you to do things more effeciently and to be healthier and avoid injury as you age.

        Now, FF is still a generic term, while MovNat is a specific site like Kemme Fitness. Also Kemme Fitness is more general in allowing people to work out anywhere. It is difficult to be more natural outside when you live in Michigan like I do.

        Further, I do believe MovNat has defined some natural movements and trains to match. Functional Fitness is a bit more generalized to simply work as many muscle pattern movements as possible to be as well rounded as possible. One Arm One Leg Romanian Deadlifts are not quite a natural movement, but are great in a FF program because it works many muscles together. Clear as mud?

        Simply put, MovNat would fall under the umbrella of Functional Fitness, but is a specific brand name that is hugely popular. Just as Kemme Fitness is somewhat specific in what we do (although there is a large amount of variety and options with KF). The problem is I am no where near as cool as Erwan!

        • Erik
          February 12, 2012

          Thanks for taking the time to explain. I’ll be checking out your website for more info.

    • Jason
      February 11, 2012

      Exactly, Pete. ;-)

  13. Pete Kemme
    February 11, 2012

    Bare with me, as I’m condensing 4 chapters of ideas into a comment:

    Functional Fitness as I define it: Core-centered, works movements not muscles, is more than just strength (think agiligy, timing, endurance, power, coordination, etc), and FF may (not necessarily) include High Intensity Interval Training or HIIT.

    All exercises in a gym serve a purpose. The question is what is your goal. You trying to build up a few muscles to look good, or are you trying to get your body to work together. Strength is a major component, but you are neglecting too much if you focus on that.

    Strong people have to be core strong or are weaker than they think. Also if they don’t have agility and coordination, they may be more inclined to get injured as they age.

    Runners = functional fit, but they don’t have Functional Fitness (capitals means to me a very specific idea, not a general use of the word). You can be functional if all you need to function is get a beer. You are Functional Fit if you can perform real life activities your whole life while minimizing injury and increasing ability.

    Example: Preacher curls gives you nice bicep. But you don’t pick stuff up off the floor by curling it. You have to squat down, use your back, use tons of other muscles in your arm, etc.

    Great exercises: bodyweight, use of physioball, medicine ball, Olympic lifts such as deadlift, other core centered equipment such as slosh tube or clubbell. Don’t forget kettlebells. Pull-up bars are important also. I can go on, but I hope you get my point so far.

    You can do it at a gym, or you can do it at home!

    • Brian G
      February 11, 2012

      Pete, “trying to get your body to work together” is a very good explanation of FF. How about throwing in the concept that to achieve that goal compound movements which utilize 2 or more joints are better than single-joint movements? I.e., training motor patterns to improve your body acting as a unit.

      I figure the only time single-joint exercises are useful is during rehab for an acute injury. Outside of that, they’re kind of worthless.

      • Erik
        February 11, 2012

        “trying to get your body to work together”: you mean play sports? :)

        • Jason
          February 11, 2012

          For me, this includes technical mountain trail running… much different animal than road running.

          And the games played in the bedroom. ;-)

          • Erik
            February 11, 2012

            No doubt! Having a new baby has really affected my functional fitness adversely in that area. :(

  14. Mo
    February 10, 2012

    Driving anywhere to ” work out” is the most useless exercise in stupidity I can think of. :)

  15. Brian G
    February 10, 2012

    I get the feeling the phrase “functional fitness” came about as a means for some folks trying to sell new ideas and products to make a name for themselves without any clear definition or benefit to what functional is. Kind of like motion control in running shoes.

    Personally, the only functional exercises I absolutely need are those that help me stand up, walk to the fridge, open a beer, and pour it down my throat. Anything beyond that is worthless, at least on a Friday evening.

    • Curb Ivanic
      February 10, 2012

      Pitcher curls. Make sure its full.

  16. pete kemme
    February 10, 2012

    oh wait til i get to a real computer to reply!!

  17. Jeff
    February 10, 2012

    One of my pet peeves is when someone says they “ran” on the elliptical. Sorry, but you didn’t actually run 3.5 miles in 20 minutes. You ellipticaled them.

  18. strength training advocate
    February 10, 2012

    If you want to improve a particular athletic skill, you practice it.

    If you need more physical strength for performing that skill you look for a proper strength training program.

    That’s what professional athletes do isn’t it? I find it hard to imagine where this idea that strength gained by lifting weights isn’t “functional”. Do you honestly believe that muscle developed through heavy squats and deadlifts is of no benefit to a runner?

    Most Americans go to the gym for fitness purposes. Over the past few years even the mainstream media and medical community have been stressing the importance of proper strength training. Especially as we age. As we age we automatically lose muscle mass, particularly women, without proper strength training.

    The Mayo Clinic for instance stresses the importance of strength training to develop strong bones, control weight, reduce risk of injury, boost stamina, manage chronic conditions, and even sharpen focus in older adults.

    And here’s the divisive jab back at this divisive post….If a person is only going to do a minimal amount of exercise in the average week, most medical professionals would agree that a proper strength training routine would have more overall benefit than just running…..

    • Jason
      February 11, 2012

      Heavy squats and deadlifts = excellent exercises for runners. Skull crushers, crunches, and toe raisers = close to useless.

      I’m a HUGE proponent of strength training, but I’m also a fan of tailoring the strength training to the desired activity. In fact, a major part of my barefoot running book is dedicated to weight training.

      I also agree- if you’re going to do one physical activity, weight training should be it.

  19. Erik
    February 10, 2012

    Baited.

    It might be useful to distinguish between functional fitness and functional training.

    Functional fitness is doing some anaerobic stuff, some aerobic stuff, for all the body parts. As long as you not using equipment that forces unnatural movements (most Nautilus-type machines), choose whatever you find enjoyable so you stick with it. A bicep curl with dumbbells done with a natural arc is fine, for example. It’ll help you pick up someone off the floor in an emergency.

    Function training, with a specific performance goal, is entirely different. But it’s silly to think that doing isolation exercises or cross-training won’t help with that, even if it involves movements that don’t exactly mimic the functions involved in the performance. If you want a strong jab, you gotta do some benching along with your bag work and sparing, for example. If you’re fighting big guys, it’s probably functional to sacrifice a little speed and bench even more.

    • Jason
      February 11, 2012

      The problem with isolation exercises- by definition they only strengthen one specific body part. Do too much of that and you end up with some areas of strength and some weak areas, which exasperate injuries.

      FWIW- I do dumbbell curls to simulate carrying a water bottle for 24+ hours. In my n=1, it proved to be useful.

      • Erik
        February 11, 2012

        Right, “do too much” = wrong. Do together with other kinds of exercises = right. I had a friend in Chicago who only lifted for his upper body. No legs, and no aerobic. He looked like a bird, very imbalanced, and got hurt a lot. Another guy, part of the same group of friends, did curls with a straight bar and jerked his whole body as he did. He didn’t isolate the bicep, was doing too much weight, so probably very little benefit. And yeah, dumbbell curls have real world application for me too: carrying my kids!

  20. mike
    February 10, 2012

    shoulder shrugs. look completely useless to me. same with those, i don’t know what they’re called, sit down and move your legs in and out. work the inside and outside thighs or something.

    • Jason
      February 11, 2012

      Nice to watch the ladies on those machines, though. ;-)

  21. Mike Dixon
    February 10, 2012

    I rock the elliptical/bike anytime I get injured…but that’s about it. I can see how using these machines ‘all the time’ could possibly create problems, but if I need to lay off the pounding of the roads, I’ll take it. If we’re training the heart, I doubt the heart knows the difference whether you are temporarilly on an XT device or outside running. But I’m all for ‘functional fitness’. Haven’t done pushups/situps in a long time and I still have my core strength, mostly from trail running. Never needed to do a crunch or a push on the ground during a race ;)

  22. Rob Y
    February 10, 2012

    What’s a “Gym”? ;)

  23. briderdt
    February 10, 2012

    I’d say pretty much any resistance movement that uses a machine is useless. Except rows on a low-pulley. Maybe.

  24. jeff
    February 10, 2012

    It’s hard to decide what exercises are “useless” until we’ve defined what makes an exercise “useful”.

    If an elliptical machine is “useless”, I’d imagine a bicycle is too. I guess it really comes down to your intended use (goal).

    • Jason
      February 11, 2012

      Useful = enhances running ability. ;-)

  25. Jeff Gallup
    February 10, 2012

    How about that “shake weight” workout… thats worthless… no.. wait.. :-)

    • Jason
      February 11, 2012

      *like*

  26. Nick
    February 10, 2012

    I don’t quite agree that the elliptical machine is worthless completely. I think it is a great machine for those with limitations that cause them to not be able to run or do other cardio type exercises. Now is it useless to some, maybe. I do agree that there are things we do in the gym that don’t translate well to the movements in the real world. For most of us, we don’t do much in the real world though other than sit at a desk or work on a computer or some other sedentary job.

    I personally think it is great that there are things like the elliptical machine in the gym helping those non-elite and maybe chubby people get fit. Sometimes people think to much and miss the big picture. If it doesn’t help you specifically, don’t use it. Simple. I knew a guy while I was in the Army who lost 60 pounds on the elliptical. Gotta give him mad props for using that and losing all that weight. Let me tell you what, he could hump a hundred pound pack farther than most up those mountains in Afghanistan thanks to using that “worthless machine” as you deemed it.

    • Jason
      February 10, 2012

      The elliptical was the most controversial machine I could think of. :-)

      I think it does serve a useful purpose for those recovering from injury or the morbidly obese. But the lack of impact limits the usefulness in regards to strengthening joints and bones.

      • Nick
        February 10, 2012

        I guess what I was getting at is that it all depends on your goals. Most people don’t run like you do or like a lot of your readers do, or even like I do, which is no where near your level. Most use it as a means to an end, ie. if I run I will lose weight, if I use the elliptical for so many minutes I will lose weight, oh no I’ve got to lose 10 pounds so I can fit in that wedding dress so I need to exercise etc… I do agree that depending on your goals there may be equipment that is useless for you though, but it’s a personal preference.

        • Karen P.
          February 11, 2012

          Of course it’s personal preference. But you mention ends, so then what ends are we talking about? There are no ends to an elliptical trainer. For losing weight? Sorry, that’ll only get you so far without dietary overhaul (and I mean revolutionary overhaul). Calories-in/calories-out is an outmoded model, rendering the elliptical useful for next to nothing.

          • Erik
            February 12, 2012

            I disagree Karen. The only times I gain weight are when I don’t exercise. A good diet is of course crucial for good health and well-being, but I gain weight even with a healthy diet (I’m about 90% Paleo) if I don’t engage my organism in motion and movement with vim and vigor.

  27. Curb Ivanic
    February 10, 2012

    Oh my, functional exercise. You’ve opened a nice can of worms here. Going to be interesting to read the lay people’s responses…this debate’s been going on in the strength & conditioning/fitness arena for a decade. But I’ll guess most responses will say something like squats and lunges are functional for running while leg extensions and leg curls aren’t. Short answer, none of these are “functional”. Let the debate begin…

    • Jason
      February 10, 2012


      This topic is going to open a can of worms?

      :-)

      • Erik
        February 10, 2012

        Open can of worms = increased web traffic?

        • Jason
          February 10, 2012

          More like “Jason’s bored, and the topic interest me” sort of thing. You guys always bring up great points. It’s entertaining and I tend to learn a lot from different perspectives. ;-)

          • Erik
            February 10, 2012

            Yah, I enjoy these posts quite a lot. Thanks for providing the forum. :()

          • Erik
            February 10, 2012

            Opps, failed smiley laugh.

      • Curb
        February 10, 2012

        I’m used to reading this topic on coaching/training forums and it’s always a heated debate.

        But to answer your question specifically I don’t think there’s any truly useless exercise. It’s all situation & individual dependent.

        You’ll see functional training “experts” criticize people doing bicep curls but then they’ll do them on a stability ball because it’s more “functional”.

        There was a study done a few years ago in which they replaced 30% of running training with strength exercises which improved performance. The strength exercises they did were machine based (extensions, curls, etc)

        The only truly functional exercise for running is running. That doesn’t mean other exercises can’t be useful but one should not confuse skill based training with other forms of training.

        • Erik
          February 10, 2012

          Curb, I would say we could break down functional training into two categories: your skill-based training, as well as performance-based training. Dead lifting may not improve one’s running skills for example, but may improve performance.

          • Curb Ivanic
            February 10, 2012

            Definitely agree Eric. And that’s my point. Many people confuse function with skill. Just because an exercise doesn’t mimic your activity doesn’t mean it can’t help. So deadlifts and even leg extensions can benefit runners.

            But on the other hand, trying to get too creative and perform all this unstable type training thinking it transfers to running is misguided. (Standing on a ball won’t improve your running).

            Plus I was trying to stir the pot a little…it really works my core.

  28. Erik
    February 10, 2012

    (1) the Head Turn and (2) the Furtive Glance. These nearly universal gym exercises burn very few calories, and do almost nothing for overall fitness, but have wide real-world application. Probably the most natural MovNat movements besides breathing.

    (BTW, I disagree with you completely that isolation exercises are worthless, but I can’t think of a funny way to put it).

    • Jason
      February 11, 2012

      I appreciate the fact that comedic effect plays into your commenting decisions. :-)

      • Erik
        February 12, 2012

        Apologies for later reconsidering!