By Scott Abbett
When I was young and devouring the words of bodybuilding magazines, I kept reading about how terrific free-weight squats are for building leg size. It was as if doing this bodybuilding exercise would nearly guarantee bigger thighs and not doing it would doom my underpinnings to their then-current resemblance of chicken legs. This was (and is) touted as the Holy Grail of ‘bodybuilding exercises.’ To not do free-weight squats is like saying you don’t really want to get bigger… right?
Well, I did those free-weight squats. I bowed at the altar of and mastered this king of ‘bodybuilding exercises.’ I performed my squats with heavy weight, deep form, and weekly consistency while pushing my body to its limits as a natural bodybuilder. And what did the near-worshipping of this daddy of all ‘bodybuilding exercises’ do for me? Surprisingly, not very much; in fact I’ve fared better without it. I still do squats, but with much better results on a Body Master machine. And as if that’s not anti-dogma enough, some of the ‘bodybuilding exercises that are traditionally labeled as “shaping moves” have brought me some of my best size gains.
With my squatting experience as the backdrop, let’s go over what I’ve observed to be the most overrated bodybuilding exercises in existence. Then I’ll name some that I think are underrated. Keep in mind that this is opinion. I should probably state that up front before getting some reader’s panties in a bunch for breaking these sacred cows.
1. Free Weight Bench Presses
Okay, I can hear the groans of protest already. After all, this is the king of all torso ‘bodybuilding exercises’… right? “If we go heavy on bench presses“… we’re told, “we’ll be using a weight that will build size in all our upper body muscles” Besides, it’s big compound moves like bench presses that release testosterone… blah, blah, blah… on and on.
Many aspirants who are trying to build muscle size don’t have the genetic predisposition to respond positively to traditional free-weight bench presses – plain and simple. In order to build pectoral size, these people need to isolate the muscles with heavy flyes.
In addition, many bodybuilders need to ask themselves this question before repeatedly plopping themselves down on the bench press: “Am I body building or power-lifting?”
Don’t worry – done with enough intensity, flye movements will release plenty of testosterone. This should be taken as reassurance to those who think testosterone release during a workout is important. Funny… I always thought it was during recuperation between workouts where it would really matter… huh.
2. Alternating Dumbbell Curls
If someone could please explain the logic behind this bodybuilding exercise, I’ll gladly listen. By alternating between a left hand/right hand curl, the trainee is essentially taking a rest-pause between each respective curl. If this is really of value, the logical extension would be to do it for all muscles: alternating leg presses – alternating triceps dumbbell extensions – alternating dumbbell bench presses – alternating lat pull-downs… etc.
My advice: dump the alternating dumbbell curls and replace them with an exercise that puts more continuous tension on the biceps.
3. Standing Calf Raises
There’s nothing inherently wrong with this exercise in its ability to build calf size. It simply places unnecessary stress on the lower back. This unneeded strain on such a vulnerable area is all the more avoidable considering that donkey calf raises work the same muscles as do standing calf raises but without the lumbar back stress.
Interestingly, I’ve gained more calf size after completely replacing standing calf raises with donkey calf raises.
4. Standing Barbell Curls
Like free weight squats, this is purported to be a kind of cornerstone movement of bodybuilding exercises. However, I’ve made my best biceps size gains after long-ago dumping this exercise in favor of other ones. Standing barbell curls do work the biceps. I’ve just found that they don’t provide the continuous tension on this muscle that makes it respond optimally.
5. Free Weight Squats
Of course, I mentioned this one at the start of the article. Yes… this can be a great movement for building overall strength and balance. If you’re a power-lifter, it’s an absolute must. However, I’ve found that the natural bodybuilder can easily over-train with this exercise and thwart muscle size gains by doing so.
In short, to say that leg presses can’t build muscle size like squats can is ridiculous. If one bodybuilder does squat workouts haphazardly while inadvertently over-training and another bodybuilder does leg presses with stellar attention to the correct muscle breakdown/recuperation ratio – I’ll bet on the leg press bodybuilder to build bigger legs.
Now that I’ve dispensed with what I think are the most overrated bodybuilding exercises, let’s go over some that I’ve found to be underrated. These are often said to be “shaping movements.” Yet I’ve combined them with intensity to acquire some of my best size gains with them.
1. Extended-Arm Pec Deck Flyes
Any machine that has you sitting upright with arms extended while performing flyes for the pecs can allow incredible isolation and continuous tension on these muscles. As unorthodox as this sounds, I’ve built much more pectoral size with the ‘Life Fitness Machine’ pec deck than I’ve ever built with endless sets of bench presses.
2. Supine-Positioned Pulley Biceps Curls
Lying down on the bench of the pulley machine designed for seated rowing is how these are performed. With arms at shoulder width on a straight bar, curling with the biceps will create continuous tension on those muscle. These have helped my biceps get out of a previous growth plateau.
3. Horizontal Leg Presses
Done with intensity and attention to detail, these can put some size on the thighs. What I like best about this among all the ‘pressing’ leg movements is that it’s very easy to use different foot positions on these machines. This makes targeting different areas of the upper legs a lot easier.
4. Seated Pulley Rows (underhand grip)
When it comes to bodybuilding exercises for a thicker back, T-bar rows seem to get most of the attention. Yet T-bar rows lend themselves to excess cheating; piling on “show poundage” and using momentum and other muscles to perform the movement.
Doing seated pulley rows with an underhand grip, less weight, slow control, and a ‘rolling backward’ motion of the shoulders can do wonders for upper back thickness.
5. “Split Reps” for Delts and Arms
I’ve personally smashed through bodybuilding plateaus by “splitting” the full motion of an exercise into as many as three partial repetition exercises with each partial motion considered as its own exercise. For example, if I’m on a seated triceps extension machine, I’ll do sets of the first one-third of the movement, followed by sets of the middle-range motion, followed by sets of the final one-third of the extension. This seems to be especially effective for biceps and triceps movements.
Performing an entire movement as three separate partial-rep-motion bodybuilding exercises takes a bit more time, but it’s been well-worth the investment; my arms have been blowing up like never before.
Scott Abbett is the author of HardBody Success: 28 Principles to Create Your Ultimate Body and Shape Your Mind for Incredible Success. To see his personal transformation, visit http://www.hardbodysuccess.com/
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