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Bill Geiger, MA


It seems rather obvious that to build muscle, you have to push directly against gravity. But we found some popular movements that defy that law—and they’re worthless as a result!

Sure, you may have avoided physics in high school but that doesn’t mean you’re altogether unfamiliar with the fact that accidentally dropping a 25-pound plate means you need to move your foot, fast. But sure as an apple falls to the ground from a tree, all too many bodybuilders unknowingly fail to account for gravity in any number of exercises.

            How so? Well, when you lie on a bench press, you push more or less directly upward; aside from using a seated machine, you wouldn’t dream of sitting upright with free weights doing the same bench-press motion directly forward! Gravity is pulling your dumbbells downward, so your real fight is with your front delts to hold them up—not unlike a front raise! Not a great chest builder!

            In the spirit of showing you some of the bigger mistakes we found gym rats making that would make Sir Isaac Newton gasp, here are five that caught our attention.

1. Weighted Body Twist

We know what you’re trying to do—build and strengthen your obliques—but the problem is that holding a heavy weight doesn’t negate the fact that the resistance of air is still pretty negligible. Whether you hold the weight close to you or away, it’s the shoulders that are working (rather isometrically). That’s why we do cable wood chops, which in fact allow the resistance to come from across your body and thus better target the obliques! Some gyms also have seated rotary machines in which you rotate at the waist against resistance. You’re no Don Quixote, so stop tilting at windmills.

2. Multi-Joint Barbell Curls

Just about all of us, in an effort to bring the weights higher when curling, allow our elbows to creep forward away from our sides. Just watch other folks at the gym and you’ll see what I mean. But that not only recruits the front delts in this now-multi-joint movement but also all too often enables you to position your elbows directly below your hands—stacked, if you will. When that happens, there’s almost no tension on the biceps via gravity, but the front delts are going through a workout to keep your elbows (with weights) in position. If you instead lock your elbows by your sides, that can’t happen (or use cables, which minimize the problem by changing the direction of pull).

3. Dumbbell Kickback

Just because you can take an exercise further in the range of motion doesn’t mean you should. In the bent-over position when doing dumbbell kickbacks, your working-side elbow should be locked by your side, upper arm more or less parallel with the floor. As you lower the weight on the eccentric motion, go no further than the 6 o’clock position; that is, when your forearm is pointing directly downward. If you go past this point, you start raising the weight up (which is an arm-flexor movement—i.e., biceps and brachialis), and when you finally reverse direction, the triceps are gaining momentum working with gravity, not against it. The problem is highly accentuated if you do the exercise from a semi-standing position and your elbow drops significantly (upper arm no longer parallel with the floor). That’s pretty much a hammer curl.

4. Rotator-Cuff Exercises with Dumbbells

We’ve called this one out before, and we’ll do it again here. The direction of the line of pull is critical to work your muscles, and with rotator-cuff movements (whether internal or external rotation), it must be coming from across your body. Read that again: across! When you’re just standing there with a dumbbell at your side, gravity pulls downward! My physical therapist calls this an isometric biceps curl! Fix it by doing the movement on a cable (adjust the pulley to waist height) or using a band (again, coming across at waist height). If you’re lying on your side on the bench, it is possible to do external rotation with a dumbbell.

5. Svend Press

I stumbled across this gem while perusing the Bodybuilding.com library, and it’s horribly overrated. At best, you get an isometric contraction (which is of some benefit for the inner pecs), but because you do the movement standing, it misses just like the weighted body twist. (There’s a reason you don’t do dumbbell bench presses from a seated position as mentioned in the intro!) In fact, it’s the shoulders that have to work to keep your arms (and weights) elevated. However, if you did this lying on a flat bench or possibly even an incline bench, you could turn this into a winner. (And would someone tell Svend to put his name on another exercise?)