by Christian Thibaudeau T-Nation
Here’s what you need to know…
- Behind the neck presses are the most effective shoulder-building exercise you can do. They don’t cause shoulder problems; they highlight preexisting ones.
- Crunches and sit-ups are a staple for those with defined abs, but exercise nazis recommend “safer” less effective movements instead.
- Exercise nazis warn against anything that’s not full range of motion. But a partial range of motion can help with strength and hypertrophy gains.
- Exercise nazis say dips are hazardous, but they’re a better chest-builder than bench presses.
- Nothing compares to squats and deadlifts for systemic muscle growth, but many say it’s safer to focus on unilateral work.
Knowledge Vs. Experience
Knowledge is important. But it’s the application of that knowledge, and more importantly, what you learn from that application that makes you a great lifter.
There are plenty of things that shouldn’t work in theory but produce great results in reality. And while learning as much theory as you can is admirable, if you can’t validate it in the trenches with results it’s worthless.
Many theoretical experts wouldn’t have you do much lifting at all to avoid risk of injury. Being cautious is important; being too cautious is a great way to castrate your gains.
Those who are excessively careful and critical about exercise selection are also those who tend to train half-assed. They’re too conservative with their efforts and too conservative to force the body to adapt and change.
There’s no disputing that some exercises carry a greater risk for injuries than others. A snatch is more of a risk than a calf raise. But all lifts are risky if done with improper form, excess weight, or when performed with a pre-existing injury.
Here are the most effective training tools that are treated unfairly by exercise nazis.
1. The Behind the Neck Press
What Exercise Nazis say: ”It destroys the shoulders!”
Behind the neck presses are one of the best shoulder-building exercises there is, and it used to be a staple among bodybuilders from the 50s up to the early 80s.
It’s the most effective pressing exercise for overall shoulder development. This is found both in the trenches and in the lab.
Among the three main pressing options – barbell press from the front, behind the neck barbell press, and dumbbell press – the behind the neck press has a significantly greater activation of all three heads of the delt.
There’s no doubt that the behind the neck press is superior to the barbell military press (seated or standing). It’s not even close.
When comparing the standing versions of behind the neck presses with dumbbell presses, the dumbbell press hits more of the anterior delt, but the anterior delt is usually over-stimulated with all the bench pressing we do.
And when comparing the seated versions of the behind the neck press and the dumbbell press, once again, the behind the neck press is the clear winner.
What About Safety?
Someone with a normal posture and no shoulder mobility issues should have no problem doing the behind the neck press safely.
There are only two kinds of people who will have problems. 1. Those with a pronounced kyphosis (a rounded upper back and hunched shoulders) and 2. Those with shoulder mobility issues.
If you’re unable to do the behind the neck press comfortably, that’s a sign you should work on shoulder mobility. In fact, the behind the neck press is a good diagnostic tool to see how functional your shoulders are.
It’s not the behind the neck press that’s the problem. It’s the fact that it can highlight pre-existing shoulder issues.
If you add it to your training, make sure that you don’t lack mobility or have a shoulder injury. Start light until you find your groove.
Who Does Behind the Neck Pressing?
Olympic lifting powerhouse, Dmitry Klokov, for one. He does it in various forms: wide grip, narrow grip, strict, and with a push. Many even call the wide-grip behind the neck press a Klokov press.
Klokov once suffered a serious shoulder injury attempting a 265-270 kg jerk from the racks in training. Afterward he started to emphasize various overhead pressing movements.
Now, if a lifter who suffered a severe shoulder injury can do behind the neck presses with over 315 pounds, that’s a sign that if you have proper mobility it’s a not an inherently dangerous exercise.
T Nation contributor Paul Carter is a monster presser, having done 365 pounds in the strict behind the neck press. Paul has a permanently separated shoulder. Despite that, he can still handle monster weights in the behind the neck press.
Ted Arcidi, one of the first to officially bench press 700 pounds, used the behind the neck press as his main upper body builder. He too was able to handle hefty loads without compromising his shoulders.
The world of bodybuilding is full of examples of people who built their delts with heavy behind the neck presses, from Reg Park to the Barbarian Brothers (David and Peter Paul). But that was a time where bodybuilders were more athletic than today and didn’t have mobility issues.
2. Crunches and Sit-ups
What Exercise Nazis say: ”Avoid all trunk flexion exercises for abs.”
With the ever growing influence of rehab experts, we’re seeing more and more people claim that trunk flexion exercises are dangerous and should be avoided for building abs.
The “safe” ab exercises are all about anti-rotation, like the Pallof press, or planks, side supports, and abs rollouts. While these exercises are great for building a functional core, some people want more than a functional core.
Some want a deeply separated six-pack, and that requires a significant thickening of the rectus abdominis muscle. Yes, the functional core exercises activate the rectus abdominis, but I’ve never seen them hypertrophy that muscle.
Those movements lack the concentric and eccentric actions for the rectus abdominis that are necessary to stimulate muscle growth.
You’ve heard the advice, “don’t do abs, just do big compound lifts” or “don’t do flexion movements, just do functional core work.” Well, I’ve tested those out and lost ab definition every time I stopped doing rectus abdominis flexion work.
Abs are one of my best developed muscles but they only progress when I do frequent trunk flexion work. My favorite is a superset of cable crunches and Swiss ball crunches.
All things being equal, a bigger muscle is a stronger muscle. If you increase the thickness of your “six-pack” you’re making it potentially stronger.
Saying that strength built via trunk flexion won’t help core strength is like saying that increasing your triceps strength with dumbbell triceps extensions won’t help your bench press. So why do most powerlifters do direct triceps work?
Shut Up. It Works!
And even if it didn’t help, so what? As long as it doesn’t make things worse, if you are doing it for cosmetic reasons, who cares?
It seems that admitting we train to look better is heresy these days. If you’re training to perform better, be stronger, be healthier, and be more functional, that’s great. All worthy motivations.
But if your goal is to look better then you’re a “superficial egotistical douchebag.” That’s absurd. Even those training for performance are happy to look better.
It’s perfectly fine to do an exercise simply to look better as long as it doesn’t hurt you and the rest of your training. So get over it, exercise nazis!
And despite what functional training gurus would like us to believe, trunk flexion exercises like Swiss ball crunches, cable crunches, serratus crunches, and even trunk flexion machines develop the abs.
Bodybuilders have been using trunk flexion since the 40s to develop their mid-section and we’re still doing them today. Must not be that worthless if people have been doing them for 80 years!
3. Partial Range of Motion
What Exercise Nazis say: ”Ass to grass!”
Exercise nazis see no value in an exercise unless it’s done with a full range of motion. Sure, full range of motion makes the most sense most often, and if you’re a competitive lifter, it’s required.
But I’m sick and tired of the form-fanatics who proclaim loudly that anything but full range of motion is worthless, it’s cheating, and it makes you unworthy of being in the gym.
Under certain circumstances, partial movement is actually more effective than full range of motion.
A CrossFit athlete I’m working with had the greatest improvement in his front squat from doing heavy half front squats from pins (down to about 100 degrees).
His maximum full front squat went from 315 to 365 in three weeks of focusing on super heavy, half front squats. His power clean and snatch also went up faster than at any time in his career.
Bodybuilders frequently use partial range of motion on their big lifts. Many stop an inch short of the chest and 1-2 inches short of the ******* when doing bench or incline bench presses to keep their muscles under tension.
If your goal is to build muscle and strength, an exercise’s purpose is not to go from point A to point B; it’s to load muscles optimally. And sometimes not doing a full range of motion is the best way to load the muscle.
Granted, it’s still nonsense when someone “squats high” just to load more weight onto the bar. I have no problem with someone doing a half squat with 600 pounds. I do have a problem with that person saying that he “squatted 600 pounds” when he didn’t do a full squat.
The Purpose of Partials
To strengthen a specific part of the range of motion.
This is based on the principle of accentuation, which means doing an exercise only in the range of motion you wish to strengthen. This is more common in the world of athletics.
In track and field, quarter/half squats are very popular because they overload the specific range of motion required in their sporting activities. Once you’ve built a solid base of overall (full range of motion) strength, overloading the specific range of motion can transfer to performance.
It can also be used in powerlifting to strengthen a sticking point in a movement.
To create a large overload.
Using supramaximal weights can lead to strength gains over the full range of motion by desensitizing the Golgi tendon organs and strengthening the stabilizers and fixators as well as the prime movers.
Just because you’re doing a partial movement doesn’t mean that the muscles aren’t working. You’re still placing the muscles and tendons under a tremendous load that can strengthen these structures.
It also helps you psychologically: handling supramaximal weights will make maximal weights feel lighter. Thus you’ll have less psychological inhibition when attempting heavy lifts.
To increase muscle loading.
This is the “keep the muscles under tension” approach used by bodybuilders. This concept is about utilizing a multi-joint exercise to isolate a specific muscle.
No, you aren’t truly isolating it since other muscles will come into play, but the target muscle will be put under constant tension similar to an isolation exercise. The main difference is you’ll be able to use more weight.
Do this by keeping reps only in the range of motion where the target muscle is doing most of the work by itself. You want to avoid going into the “transition” zones where other muscles start to take over so that maximum tension is maintained on the target muscle.
Here’s an example with the shoulder press.
Notice he’s only doing the mid-range portion of both the behind and front presses –stopping just before the triceps would take over.
The best rep style to use is “low momentum” meaning that while you aren’t trying to go slow, you try not to accelerate the weight to a high degree so that you avoid creating momentum that would release some of the tension placed on the muscle.
Doing only partial lifts is dumb, but properly used partial movements certainly have their place in a solid training program. Don’t let the 135 pound exercise purists tell you otherwise.
What Exercise Nazis say: ”They’re even more dangerous than behind the neck presses!”
But dips are the best chest-builder there is – properly done dips, that is.
Old-school bodybuilders built their chest with them. Vince Gironda, the first bodybuilding guru, even prohibited his lifters from bench pressing for the pecs. His go-to movement? The dip.
Marvin Eder, a bodybuilder from the pre-steroid era with a chest that would rank highly even today, was able to do a dip with an additional 435 pounds. He also did 305-pound behind the neck presses. He was a very strong overall presser, but he was mostly known for his performances on dips.
Another thing: How many gymnasts have built solid upper bodies by doing mostly dip and pull-ups variations? Few athletes have healthier shoulders than gymnasts despite the amazing volume of work imposed on that joint in training.
Shoulder problems when doing dips come from bad technique or pre-existing shoulder issues. Don’t blame the exercise that revealed the problem. Blame what caused it or blame yourself for not fixing the issue before it became serious.
With dips the most important thing is to keep the shoulders in their socket. The biggest mistake is to have the delt move forward out of the socket. That’s what causes problems: bad technique or a lack of mobility that forces your body to compensate by moving the shoulder out forward.
If you’re doing dips to build the chest, your torso should be angled forward and your feet should be in front of you.
If you’re doing dips to build the triceps, your torso should be upright and your feet should be below or behind you.
The shoulder should have no horizontal movement and your torso angle should not change during the lift.
If you keep the shoulder in its socket, maintain the selected torso angle during the whole movement, and only go down as low as you can maintain a proper position, the dip will be one of the most effective movements you can do.
5. Squats and Deadlifts
What Exercise Nazis say: ”They’re bad for your joints! Do unilateral exercises instead.”
People have forgotten the root of strength training. That is, to build strength. And to build strength you have to place the whole organism under a heavy load. The more weight imposed on the whole body, the more strength is built, period.
Sure, you can overload a specific muscle with a smaller exercise, but you can’t build as much overall strength because your whole body isn’t put under as much systemic loading.
Every time you do an exercise it has both local and systemic effects. The local effect is the impact of the exercise on the target muscle or muscles. The systemic effect is the impact that the exercise has on the whole body.
You can have a maximal local impact with more isolated exercises, but because these use a lesser load, the systemic effect is small. That systemic loading is very important for building overall, usable strength.
When systemic stress is higher, the nervous system works harder, the skeletal system is under greater loading, the postural muscles and fixators/stabilizers work harder, etc.
I’m not saying that unilateral exercises (which use much less loading) and isolation work don’t have their place. But they can’t possibly replace the big basics to build overall strength. Even if you do plenty of unilateral work you still need the big basic barbell lifts if you want to reach your maximum strength potential.
Bodybuilding guru Chris Aceto says, “The exercise in which you can use the most weight will build the most muscle.”
Lunges, split squats, and other unilateral movements are excellent tools. They can correct imbalances, improve activation of “lazy” muscles, build muscle, and improve stability. But saying that they can replace squats or deadlifts to get optimally strong is preposterous.
A friend of mine was a sprinter. He did lots of squats, power cleans, power snatches, push presses, and deadlifts.
When he became “educated” by physical therapists, he started to overthink everything and design programs to target every single muscle in the lower body. He would do about 12 exercises on his leg day, none of them being a squat, deadlift or Olympic lift variations.
All his training was done with cables or light dumbbells. He got a lot weaker and also a lot slower on the track.
Learn the purpose of the best training tools out there, and then use them based upon your objectives and abilities.