Some Exercises are Just a Waste of Time

I try not to let things that bother me get to me.  In fact, for the most part I try to keep completely ambivalent about what other people are doing when those things would otherwise fire me up.  But at the gym, it’s a different story.  I’m not sure if it’s due to a chemical change around my brain from heavy weight lifting or if it’s maybe the confined spaces that the gym often presents, but I get my gitch all in a knot when I see someone exercising in a way that, IMHO, is a waste of time.

I am aware of the consequences, of course, for expressing my frustration to another individual - that he or she is spending their time at the gym wastefully.  Not everyone who does this is a skinny, off the bus freshman.  There are times when I watch an obviously serious muscle-head doing something that baffles my mind.  But let’s just say that I know how to pick my battles.

And I don’t only see in-gym time wasting by members.  Amazingly enough, these things happen quite often with an assumingly well equipped and experienced trainer at their side.  Good grief!  It’s no wonder why so many people get discouraged by their efforts. Yes, ladies and gents - it’s likely because what they are doing at the gym is simply wasting their time.

So which exercises cause my stomach to turn inside out?  Here are three exercises that I commonly see at the gym that are more or less completely worthless.

  1. Wrist Curls.  For the overwhelming majority of people, wrist curls are worthless.  Are you a professional arm wrestler?  Do you need to hold a dozen full beer steins in one hand?  Yes?  I’d first argue that you’d be better off with another exercise anyway, but it’s likely not the case, If you’re focus is in gaining overall mass, losing weight, getting ripped, etc… then spending 10 minutes of your precious hour at the gym on this is foolish.  Pullups, presses, cleans, kettle bell exercises - these are all things that provide a far more effective workout for a larger number of muscles, have significant;y more movement involved and also effect the same muscle groups,   I have never done a wrist curl in my life and when I setup in a false grip for a muscle-up, my forearms explode.
  2. Behind the back… anything.  I see people occasionally doing behind the back wrist curls or what I could possibly compare to deadlifts.  And I’m dumbfounded.  The same reasoning applies as in #1 above, but with the addition of even more criticism.  When holding a barbell behind the back, your body will get into an entirely funkified position - poor posture, inappropriate stress on some joints, and the amount of possible movement for a behind the back exercise is significantly diffused.  For those of you thinking you’re stepping it up a notch by performing your <insert exercise here> behind the back, just a heads up that there are probably some other people at the gym watching you and thinking, WTF?  Is there a substitute for a behind the back exercise?  Yes - and that is virtually anything else, including drinking beer.
  3. Shoulder shrugs.  Again - we’re looking at a very isolated, muscle specific exercise here.  If you’re doing shoulder shrugs, then I’m assuming you are a professional body builder, have completed every other exercise out there, it’s been a solid 4 hour workout and you have some extra time to kill.  If that category does not apply to you then here are some suggested substitutes: high pulls and cleans.  Those two exercises not only work the same muscles as the shoulder shrug, they require huge movement which works your entire body and provide some excellent cardiovascular stress at the same time.

The three above mentioned exercises all have the same thing in common - they are localized exercises and target very specific muscle groups.  The movement involved is minimal and the same muscle groups can be as effectively worked out during more compound exercises.

My take is simple - if an exercise involves a limited movement, constrained by body position or lack of leverage, it likely isn’t an exercise worth your time.  Concentrate on more compound exercises.  Not only will you see better results, but you will cut down the time it requires to get in a good workout.

10 Comments, Comment or Ping

  1. Brian

    Just a small comment about shoulder shrugs — please do not judge without context. After a neck and back injury many physical therapists send folks out to their gyms with just that exercise. From a “get in shape” perspective it might be a waste of time, from a “repair damage” perspective it is an ideal tool.

    Remember it is all about context… and judging another person’s workout is exactly the kind of stuff that keeps hundreds of people out of the gym in the first place.

    January 7th, 2010

  2. Jamie

    Thanks for the comment Brian. I don’t want to offend anyone here or be overly judgmental (although admittedly this post totally frames me in that light). Trust me - I’m one of the least judgmental people out there and I certainly don’t want to scare people away from the weights.
    To put things in context though (and perhaps I should have been more clear on this), I’m not referring to anyone specializing in something - be that oly lifting or rehabilitation, or whatever. But if one’s goal is weight loss, getting ripped, building muscle mass, leaning up, or increasing overall fitness, exercises like the shoulder shrug are more or less using up gym time that could probably be better spent doing something else - dumbbell snatches, cleans, definitely high pulls, maybe pullups, seated rows, dips, even lat pulldowns and shoulder presses - targeting a larger proportion of muscles, including those that are worked during a shoulder shrug. I have never done a shoulder shrug in my life, so maybe I shouldn’t be commenting on it at all, but I don’t have a problem suggesting that while I don’t do them, I still have some considerable meat on my shoulders.
    All I really want to say is for the average Joe looking to hit the gym this New Year, if your workout program includes shoulder shrugs or behind the back anything, I beg them to find a different program.
    Thanks again for the comment. It’s nice to see some critical opinions in the comments.

    January 7th, 2010

  3. I would suggest everyone to stay maximum 2 hours at the gym, I stay 1 hour since it’s enough, 2 hours is too much, and I’m a bodybuilder.

    Nice article you got there Jamie, it’s pretty true and good.

    January 9th, 2010

  4. David Piersol

    Wow, seriously? Strength might not be the major thing you’re looking to develop here, but wrist rolls are THE most effective way to hit their muscle groups. Brooks Kubik has given them his official endorsement multiple times, as well as Bob Whelan, Ross Enamait (one of the best conditioning coaches in the world) and others. Shrugs have the endorsement of Dave Tate (and just about everyone at Elite Fitness Systems), Brooks Kubik, Jim Wendler, and Paul Kelso, who are all successful powerlifters. Multiple strongmen have used them, both now and in the past.

    Behind the back exercises were also endorsed by arguably one of THE strongest men ever, Arthur Saxon. If you didn’t know, Arthur Saxon was one of few lifters in history who could say he put up as much weight with one hand as almost any other could with 2.

    Here are his records:

    On top of all those endorsements for strength development, the use of these exercises is proven to be incredibly useful for developing real strength that can come in use in REAL situations. If you’re being assaulted and grab your assailant by the shirt, what use is strength training if they break your grip? If your back isn’t conditioned and strengthened from odd angles then in a real situation all the cleans and deadlifts in the world may just fail you. Odd angled training is an injury prevention tool when you take it seriously.

    January 28th, 2010

  5. Steve

    Have to agree with David here.

    If you want to look at exercises that are a waste of time why not target long bout of aerobics, the so-called “functional” exercises, or the lame exercise gimmicks offered on infomercials? Considering that some of the strongest men in history have used some or all of those exercises you mentioned, I would tend to agree with them.

    February 13th, 2010

  6. Jamie

    Steve, David - I do agree with what you’re saying here, but I still have to stand by what I’m arguing here. Perhaps I didn’t put enough effort into giving the proper context. Let me rewind a little bit.

    If you are going for all out strength - to be one of the strongest in the world, or you want to build forearms and grip strength so you can rip a phone book in half, then by all means, you will need to specialize - work those specific muscles. If, on the other hand, your goal is to be fit, or lose weight, get ripped or increase your general athleticism, and not spend your life in the gym, each day focusing on a specific muscle group, then I stand by what I’m saying here and shoulder shrugs and behind the back wrist curls are a waste of time.

    Bosu balls and clocking hour after hour on the treadmill are also likely not the greatest use of your time.

    If you have 20 minutes during your lunch breaks to hit the gym and you spend any amount of that time doing wrist curls and your goal is to lose body fat, then you are uninformed and should do some research or talk to a trainer.

    For the majority of people, these things are not necessary. The majority of people are not going to be World’s Strongest Man competitors. For the overwhelming majority, getting fit is less specialized. It is functional and practical. It’s gaining overall mass or losing weight or improving athleticism and although the strongest people in the world do specialized exercises to focus on particular muscle groups, it’s because they really need to in order to reach their particular goals.

    However, if you have a goal and are convinced that these things are the road to reaching that goal, then follow the plan you need to get there. If you are unsure of your goals or do these exercises purely because you saw someone else do them or simply because someone told you it was one of the best exercises to do (without, themselves, knowing what you would like to achieve), then at least take a moment to consider your goals and if these exercises will help you get there.

    February 13th, 2010

  7. David Piersol

    For developing strength, the grip is the single most important part of the body. The grip is the single most important part in self defense and it is a severe biological need to at least be strong.

    I’ll make it clear, I am interested in turning my weapon into a body in order to compete in mixed martial arts. For this purpose, grip and forearm work is the most important part of strength training, alongside low back and leg work. This is not conjecture or theory, this is something that’s been proven OVER and OVER. Wrestling and all forms of grappling boil down to the grip, low back and legs/hips, and as such all forms of combat or self defense require it.

    And as far as aesthetics, the shrug is an incredibly useful tool. Not only that, but it has all those shiny endorsements because if you really shrug heavy your back is loaded to an incredible level isometrically. On top of that, keeping the rest times down will make your traps grow, which is a major aesthetic goal. (This is because hypertrophy works like this: training load>time, basically if your training load is heavy and you rest less you will get bigger.)

    Also you apparently have never heard of abbreviated training programs of the sort Dinosaur Training laid out, where-in you can hit every single muscle group in your body in less than even an hour and fourty five minutes every week.

    February 18th, 2010

  8. Jamie

    David - I appreciate your comments and I understand why you train your grip.

    I really wish that I had put more context around this article. I should have titled it “Some Exercises are a Waste of Time, for Most of You”. Like I’ve said in my previous replies, if you have a specialized need to concentrate on certain muscle groups, then you need to do what you need to do.

    But in a general sense - for the majority of people who are looking to get fit or strong (and I’m not talking about hypertrophy here - if you’re a serious body builder, every little muscle counts and you devote a huge part of your time to making sure you hit every single muscle) I’m still honestly not convinced.

    Bench presses, cleans, deadlifts, any heavy weight lifting, pullups, muscle-ups, kettle bell work, farmer walks, all those things are going to increase your grip strength. Perhaps not as much as specialized grip strength exercises, but the added bonus is that with these other exercises there is a power involved that works a large group of muscles at the same time. And more muscles in shorter durations is going to significantly be a better approach than sitting and performing wrist curls. Besides, we aren’t all looking to use our fists as weapons. And even if we were, one’s fist is only going to be as effective as the body its attached to.

    I guess one could also look at this from an 80/20 rule. There are only so many hours in the day, so much time to work out. What will give you the most bang for the buck? 80 percent of your gains are going to come from only 20 percent of your training. Cut the fat and unless you have a specialized need for doing these things, then focus on exercises that have a significant effect.

    If my Mom comes up to me and says, “hey Jamie, I saw some guy doing behind the back wrist curls in the gym today and was wondering if I should start doing them”, I’d respond with a resounding “Hell No”. And 99 out of 100 people who come up to me with the same question, I’d respond with the same thing.

    But all that said, I am interested in the Dinosaur Training method you pointed out. I’m up for trying anything and if it’s as effective as clean and jerks and muscle-ups, then I’ll buy in and add aspects of that method to my regimen no problem. If you have a link or something, I’d definitely be interested.

    ps. the passion you guys have about this stuff blows my mind. Very impressed. Keep the comments coming!

    February 18th, 2010

  9. I agree apart from the shrugs, only do shrungs if yjou have big weights.

    People standing with 5k dumbells are just wasting time.

    Step it up to 25k in each hand and shrugs start do something.

    Cheg out for some advice on gaing the extra with dumbells.

    April 27th, 2010

  10. Mon

    Yup, there are some exercises that focuses on specific small muscles that you could do without when working for health and not as a Professional bodybuilder but having shoulder routine as one of my favorites, I still think that shoulder shrugs contribute to the total shape and strength of the whole shoulder, well maybe I’m just justifying it but I believe it is since it doesn’t really take much time to complete a shoulder workout with shrugs..

    April 30th, 2010

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