Nick Mitchell is a leading body composition expert and the founder of the Ultimate Performance global personal training gym. He is based in Los Angeles.
Let me start by saying that I love all types of training. My training history has focused on bodybuilding, but I love all reasons for weight training, as well as climbing, running, swimming, yoga, pilates – whatever gets you moving is a good thing with me.
And I love all exercises. None are intrinsically bad, each serves a purpose and, if performed properly, they will have a beneficial effect on your body. But when it comes to the best lifts for building muscle mass not all moves are created equal. Here are my five most over-rated exercises commonly included in workout programmes designed to improve body composition that I think you should ditch for better alternatives.
Deadlifts are a great exercise, a fantastic move. They have the potential to be the foundation of any strength and conditioning training programme, without question. But a lot of people will claim they are an essential move for sculpting a better physique and should be included in any bodybuilding-style programme. It’s fashionable to say that deadlifts build better bodies. I disagree. I’ve seen more problems caused by deadlifts than great physiques built by them.
Firstly, to perform a deadlift properly you need to have really good movement pattern and for the right muscles to fire at the right time in the right order. It can take months if not years of practice to really master the deadlift.
What’s more, and purely from a physique stand point, if you are oblique dominant then it’s almost impossible for you to prevent your obliques from taking over as you lift the bar. The result is a much thicker waist, which might be great for powerlifters, but it is an absolute curse in the illusion-creating world of bodybuilding. I’d estimate that the deadlift results in a thicker waist for around 75% of lifters. And there’s nothing you can do about it really – it’s about biomechanics.
I genuinely mean it when I say that more great physiques have been built by avoiding regular deadlifts than doing them. Why? The art of bodybuilding is to force a certain muscle into performing very targeted and specific work. The more focused you can target a muscle, the more it has to work, and the more it will grow. The deadlift is a total-body move, which is great for strength and conditioning, but not so great for targeted hypertrophy.
I prefer rack deadlifts – they are far better targeting and recruiting the upper back, rhomboids, traps – and Romanian deadlifts, for better focus on the lower back, glutes and hams.
I am as guilty as anyone is the over-prescription of chin-ups in muscle-building programmes. Again, like the deadlift, it is a great exercise, and if I could only ever do three moves again for the rest of my life then these two lifts would probably be in there. Luckily, that’s not the case.
The problem is that hardly anyone can do chins properly. They often get lumped into back workouts, but they are not a great back move for the majority because a) most people can’t properly initiate the move with their lats – they don’t have the strength or neural connection to do so effectively, and b) they work the biceps more than back. Chins, therefore, become simply an elbow flexion exercise. That’s fine for building the biceps, but not great for back development.
The problem also extends to pull-ups. Most people struggle and strain to pull their chins up to bar level. But the movement should be focused on driving the elbows back so that the chest hits the bar, not the chin. That’s the way to fully engage the back. Again, most people don’t have the strength to achieve this. That’s fine if you want to kip yourself up and down as quickly as possible, but if that’s you then stick to CrossFit and forget about building a better physique.
3 Bench press
If I almost lost you with the sacrilege of slagging off deadlifts and chins, then criticising the bench press is a bridge too far. But bear with me.
If you perform the bench properly then you work your anterior delts and triceps. That’s just the simple biomechanics of the lift. It’s impossible for most people to get a full and hard contraction of the pecs when bench pressing. One of the main purposes of the pecs is to draw your humerus (upper arm) across the front of your body. This simply does not happen when pressing a bar straight up and down.
One preference for better chest development is the flat bench dumbbell press. You get a far better range of motion, you can get a full contraction in your pecs because of the extra movement of the upper arms, and it’s safer.
One of my favourite movements for a bigger chest is an exercise I hardly ever see done, and it’s ring press-ups, especially with feet elevated. It’s one of the most under-utilised movements but it’s fantastic for stimulating pec development because it works your chest through its full range of motion and you can get a good stretch and full and hard contraction.
Ring press-ups might sound easy, but I dare you to give them a go. I truly believe that this move can have a place in the programme of even the most advanced individual.
4 Alternating dumbbell curls
I don’t like any form of alternating dumbbell biceps move, whether straight curls or hammer curls. The reason is simple. You get far too much rest in between reps.
By all means do alternating curls once you have reached fatigue lifting both weights at the same time, but starting a set with alternating curls significantly reduces the demands you place on your biceps.
So always do any form of biceps curls with both arms at the same time. I should add that this doesn’t mean I don’t like unilateral, or single arm, exercises because I do.
Completing all the reps of a set with one arm before switching is perfectly valid, because there is not the excessive rest that occurs when alternating arms.
5 Dumbbell front raise
I know I started this article by saying that all exercises have a purpose, but if there is one lift I would dump into Room 101 it’s the front dumbbell raise. It’s pointless. Your front delts get worked in every single pressing movement you do, whether that’s flat bench or standing shoulder or anything in between.
I have never, ever, seen anyone with under-developed front delts compared to their side and rear delts. Yet the opposite scenario in seen in every gym in the land. Not only does this not look good when trying to build a physique, it’s also a dangerous muscular imbalance, both from a performance and postural point of view.
If you want to forge a V-shaped torso with capped delts, then ditch front raises and dedicate more time to building up your side and rear delts instead. This is the only way to build an impressive set of shoulders.