When it comes to finding the right exercises we’re told to always question why we’re doing something before doing it. And the most basic advice is: if you can’t answer sensibly, then throw it out with the dishwater!
The question then becomes: how do you know a movement is overrated and fit for the landfill site, and how do you know a movement is a keeper?
Let’s get into the meat & potatoes!
The purpose of this post is to reshape your thinking in regards to the moves you do in your training. You could be over-valuing an exercise to the detriment of your long term progress, without knowing. The examples you will see towards the end of the post are a nice mix of common moves we all love, but those are by no means exhaustive; any move can be over-rated dependent on the context, as I hope to show you.
‘Over-rated’ – a dictionary definition……
‘Rated or valued too highly’.
In application to exercise and movement, I would deem this to encompass anything that leads you down a short path with a dead-end.
Basically, movements which have little carryover to others and very little carryover to improving movement in general. I guess the age old phrase, ‘a party trick’ could apply?
It’s human nature to do what we like and avoid what we don’t. We gravitate to those we like, we let them get away with anything (yep, the joys of soft spots, huh?) and we tend to do more for those we like. In contrast, the opposite is true for those we don’t. This applies to movements and so many more aspects of life, as well.
Before we start looking at actual case studies, let’s also cover the principle of applicability………
‘The quality of being relevant or appropriate’.
Otherwise known as the relevance meter. Some moves are relevant now but won’t always be. Other moves will have benefits for years to come and a potential progression scale so broad, they will never stop serving you.
Some exercises are there to be ticked off in order to build your base but no longer serve you as much as other alternatives – context is king here!
Within the examples to follow I will include cases where the moves are relevant and the point at which they become less so, including superior alternatives.
Over-rated movement #1 – THE MUSCLE UP
This may make you spit your tea all over the screen if you’ve seen any of my content over the years or followed me for a while, but YES, the muscle up will have to go down as OVER-RATED.
Don’t get me wrong it pains me to do this but it’s a battle between logic and that soft spot we mentioned earlier. Having probably done thousands of strict muscle ups on both the bar and rings, and with decent amounts of added weight, I can honestly say past a certain point they carryover to very little besides well, the muscle up itself.
Context again is important and muscle ups are a very admirable goal for a beginner within bodyweight training, and are a very impressive display of pulling power and upper body coordination.
They don’t address weaknesses and don’t really build front lever strength or one arm pulling power. In the past I’ve said I thought the strict bar muscle up carried well to the front lever but upon reflection, I’d have to say it does but only to a certain point and then that carryover tails off.
I honestly believe there are movements within calisthenics that ‘bypass’ the muscle up, if you will. The front lever row is a good example of this. The one arm pull/chin up progressions are another.
Sure, they will not guarantee you a muscle up but they require more raw pulling strength than the muscle up – and that strength is very transferable to the muscle up. It will only be the technical aspects of the muscle up that limit you, but these are easy enough to learn once the sheer power/strength is there.
Over-rated movement #2 – THE DEADLIFT
No surprise this move has made this list, huh? I’ve repeatedly expressed my lack of affection for the conventional deadlift over the years but no matter how many times I re-evaluate my thoughts and stance on the matter, I always seem to end up at the same conclusion: the deadlift is overrated for the most part.
YET AGAIN, context is KING. There ARE times when the conventional deadlift is the right choice and is beneficial: If you’re a powerlifter, weightlifter, in some sports strength blocks, and in the case of those new to exercise learning basic lifting mechanics (think rounding the back to pick things off the floor vs hinging at the hips/knees).
Although past a certain point I STILL believe the deadlift from the floor takes more than it gives. You can get the hypertrophic (muscle growth/development) benefits of the deadlift from other lifts. You can increase your deadlift without deadlifting and doing other lifts instead, and you can do all this while swerving the immense fatigue a decently heavy deadlifting session forces upon you.
The Romanian deadlift is one such move, where you get a stretch reflex (top down as opposed to bottom up in nature) which cuts out the sheer force needed to move a DEAD weight off the floor. You can make this lift tougher by using a snatch grip or even doing single leg Romanian deadlifts – the benefits of which are massive athletically speaking!
Unless you’re gunning for a massive deadlift or need it for your sport, I honestly think there’s many better and safer ways to get equally as good benefits.
EXPERIMENT FOR YOU: Do 1-3 sets of 5 near maximal deadlifts while resting however long you need (3-as high as 10 minutes if need be) and see how strong you are in all other lifts for the upcoming 7-10 days……….you’ll find you’re not particularly strong at all and can feel seriously sluggish and fatigued, and you don’t even need to grind it out all that hard to suffer this way.
Over-rated movement # 3 – The PARALLEL BAR DIP
This was a tricky inclusion to the list for me as context is very important to understand here. I love the parallel bar dip and it’s an absolute fundamental upper body compound exercise for any beginner I ever work with.
But much like the muscle up, it has a limited carryover long term. I’ve built up to a near enough 100kg dip myself and I didn’t see any benefits to my planche, handstand push up or even much else for that matter. In fact, even things like my back lever got worse as my shoulders ended up tighter than ever in extension, from all the work I had to do to get big numbers!
Again, please understand: I’m speaking from the perspective of most carryover to other skills within bodyweight training, not general upper body strength or hypertrophy.
The dip is touted as a must for muscle up success and it is, but not the parallel bar dip. The ring dip and straight bar dip are the real players here. They’re the ones you should be focusing on past a certain point of strength within the parallel bar dip.
The parallel bar dip is also listed as a handstand push up carryover exercise for some unbeknownst to me reason. I’ve never seen an ounce of carryover and I’ve had 90+kg dips and barely 1-3 wall facing handstand push ups with good form, so go figure…..
Better alternatives are the planche/forward lean push up, the ring dip and the handstand push up progressions, once you’re past a good baseline of strength to begin with. There are countless real world examples of people straying from the weighted dip for months or even years, while working on any of the moves above, to then try weighted dips for shits and giggles and find their max has gone up!
The reverse isn’t true at all though. We’ve all seen the guys with respectable ‘gym dips’ who have a stab at ring dips for the first time and end up looking like severe Parkinson’s sufferers. And we’ve seen the same guys try straight bar dips for the first time and fall back off the bar as their balance isn’t up to it!
So again, the dip isn’t bad at all but past a certain level you’re just going miles and miles down a dead end road, when you could get down that road anyway while travelling further down other roads.
Plus, if you train them heavy enough the shoulders can get quite beaten up and tight. This won’t happen if you’re carefully using a full depth/range of motion but if you aren’t (and it’s very easy to shorten the range slightly at big weights), you will find you could lose flexibility through the chest. (RELATED: NEVER Let THIS Happen To You As A Calisthenics Athlete).
Over-rated movement # 4 – THE BACK SQUAT
You must be noticing a theme here? I’m
picking on featuring all the classical ego lifts. And in that I mean lifts you tend to tie your self value into.
The back squat, like the deadlift, is a powerlifting move and one that’s often used an athleticism marker – and for good reason – it’s a display of complete lower body strength AND spinal/core strength too.
However, at a surface level the back squat is a move within multiple moves; there many styles, many ranges of motion and many ways to cheat the lift.
Traditionally the back squat is thought to be more hip dominant (glutes, hamstrings & lower back) as opposed to knee dominant (quads), but it can be quad dominant too if you squat high bar style and even more so if you elevate the heels with a relatively close stance.
And accordingly, there will be a massive discrepancy in poundages as the low bar, hip hinge style squat to parallel will allow far more weight to be moved compared to the high bar, knee flexion ‘ATG’ (AZZ-GRAZZ) style squat. But ‘on paper’ they’re the same lift.
The back squat is another heavily spinally loaded lift too and with that comes a lot of fatigue, particularly when trained heavy! And as a result, when you start getting stronger and stronger, you’ll often find you end up shifting your style without realising from a more upright, deeper squat to a higher, more tipped forward squat. The implications of this are often overuse of the posterior chain at the expense of the quads.
Which basically means more and more load on the spine, which also means more CNS (Central-Nervous-System) stress. I’ve found from experience back squatting heavy can reduce your active mobility too. You get very strong in a limited range and deep squats can feel alien.
Unless you’re sport is powerlifting I think there are so many better choices for compound lower body exercises. Moves that build and maintain mobility with less overall stress and fatigue on the system.
Front squats, Bulgarian Split squats, step ups, pistol squats, front foot elevated reverse lunges, cossack squats and shrimp squats, to name only a few.
The loads are forced lower, the spinal stress is reduced, the weight tends to be more evenly distributed and many of those moves indirectly build mobility through the hips, be it in flexion or extension, or both in many cases!
The point of this article is to get you thinking differently. It’s to get you thinking outside the box and asking why you’re doing what you’re doing. Just doing moves because you enjoy them is fine but when you get down about a lack of results or not being where you want to be, this is most likely why.
Don’t get too attached to any move and aim to master movements with the most carryover to the big picture; the big picture being the strongest and most athletic version of you. Overuse injuries and muscular imbalances are no fun, especially when they’re just down to sheer attachment and personal identification with said movement.
Always be forward thinking and question why you things and where you want to go. More often than not, there’s a better way to do things.
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