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Dan’s Top Ten ‘Least Functional’ Resistance Exercises

If you're struggling to decide what exercise to use with your personal training clients then here are a few examples of commonly used exercises you'd do well to avoid...

In another article on ptdirect we looked at what this often (mis)used term 'functional training' actually means.

Now there are literally thousands of resistance training exercises available for you to use with your personal training clients, many of which are very questionable in their ‘functionality’.  Here are my picks of ten of the least functional, commonly used and downright stupid exercises that I believe personal training clients should never be exposed to (please feel free to express an alternative opinion...).

Again I must add a qualifier – this is my list and by no means ‘gospel’! It is a based on exercises that I consider to be amongst the least likely to help any of your personal training clients achieve the major, common goals most have for training at a gym, namely; to lose weight and/or fat, or to build muscle and/or strength.


1. Hip Abductor / Adductor

personal%2520training%2520hip%2520abductor%2520-%2520adductorCan you tell why this exercise is known amongst fitness professionals as the ‘yes / no’ machine?  It has to be my number one pet hate – why would we expose our clients to an exercise that if it wasn’t seen in the fitness industry would only be seen publicly in the adult entertainment industry?

Ok so just as the tricep pushdown only targets one small area so does this machine – and it targets an area that many women in particular want to firm and tone.  But most clients want to firm and tone all of their thighs, not just one small part.  Not only is this exercise ineffective in achieving this purpose it exposes anyone doing it to be ogled at, perved at and giggled at while they are doing it, which is hardly likely to encourage clients to want to repeat it.  As personal trainers we have an obligation to protect (or at least consider) our clients’ dignity as well as ensure the exercise they do is safe, effective and enjoyable. 


2. Tricep Kickbackpersonal%2520training%2520tricep%2520kickback

Now isolation exercises are certainly not as functional as compound exercises in terms of; burning calories to achieve fat and weight loss, and stimulating the thickening, and strengthening of lots of muscle, so if you’re going to use isolation exercises with clients make sure your clients find them easy to learn and progress with. 

The tricep kickback is a classic example of an exercise with very little merit that is actually quite hard for clients to learn and as soon as incremental load is added the correct technique easily disappears.  What commonly happens is clients simply end up swinging their arms up to complete the exercise rather than just extending the elbow.  As a personal trainer you’ll simply end up wasting lots of precious time correcting technique on an exercise that has very little functional benefit.


3. Squats standing on a Stability or Bosu Ball

personal%2520training%2520squats%2520standing%2520on%2520a%2520stability%2520or%2520bosu%2520ballAnother of my pet hates!  Many self proclaimed ‘functional exercise specialists’ will consider this exercise very functional – but functional for what?  Aside from clients who live in particularly earthquake prone parts of the world, or who are training to be tight-rope walkers what is the function of improving your ability to stand on an unstable surface?

The functional exercise specialists will say that adding instability requires the stabilizing muscles of the body to work harder to counter the instability, but this negates the fact that progressively adding load to exercises that are performed on a stable base also requires those stabilizing muscles to work harder to protect the active joints and provide a stable platform for the prime moving muscles to act on. 

When a client tells you that they want to get stronger – will they be more impressed when they see the total weight they lift increasing consistently, or will they be more impressed by being able to do tricks that are more akin to being a circus monkey? 

And lastly – does whatever purported benefit of performing such an exercise as this outweigh the obvious and significant injury risk of slipping off the ball or having the ball burst during the exercise?


4. Seated Calf Raisespersonal%20training%20seated%20calf%20raises

As with other isolation type resistance exercises try to select and only use the best versions for your clients.  At least with a standing calf raise with a weight on the shoulders your client will benefit from load going through the entire skeletal system and the core muscles will be used to keep the spine in neutral.  As soon as this exercise is performed sitting down these extra benefits are negated. 


5. Abdominal Hollowing Activities

personal%20training%20abdominal%20hollowing%20activitiesWhen you anticipate or prepare your body for impact – say absorbing a punch in the mid-section or jumping off a bench onto the ground, do you naturally find yourself sucking your belly in?  I bet you don’t.  So why do so many personal trainers insist on teaching their clients how to activate their core muscles by hollowing or sucking in their stomachs?  They do so under the misguided notion that this activates one deep abdominal muscle (the transversus abdominus) in particular, and that this muscle is the most important stabilizer in the region. 

Unfortunately this ignores the fact that there are numerous muscles in the core region, and that stability is provided when these muscles work collectively to ‘brace’ or lock the lumber spine into neutral when it is vulnerable

So the abdominal hollow serves very little function other than wasting time and teaching clients a movement that simply doesn’t achieve its intended function in the first place.  For a little more information on this topic check out our 'Client Back Care Video' here at


6. Pec Deck machinepersonal%20training%20pec%20deck%20machine

The ‘yes / no’ machine of the upper body!  As it is an isolation machine the majority of clients that use it will struggle to burn the calories or stimulate the quantity of muscle they need to actually achieve the results they typically desire with this piece of equipment.

So not only is it significantly limited in effectiveness, for most people it’s actually very uncomfortable to use as the width of the pads or handles only suit the dimensions of a few people – and as I hope you’re aware – your clients will come in all shapes and sizes!


7. Lat / Front Raise

personal%20training%20lat%20front%20raiseFor many this is a favourite exercise for suposedly toning and bringing out definition in the shoulder muscles.  But as those of us in enlightened positions will know – this can only occur when the superficial layers of fat covering the muscles are burnt off and the muscle underneath is developed.  As an isolation exercise of a small area of a small muscle there will simply be very few calories ever burnt with this exercise. 

More calories would be burnt and the same muscles stimulated by an upright row or better still, any combination of pushing and pulling exercises.


8. Suspension Push Ups / Pulls Ups

personal%20training%20suspension%20push%20up%20pull%20upThese are further examples of personal trainers embracing the misguided notion that adding instability to an exercise makes that exercise more ‘functional’ – it doesn’t. 

An exercise is only truly functional when it relates directly to the specific goals of the client, the client is capable of performing it, capable of progressing with it, and likes it enough to keep doing it.

For most clients a full push up is challenging enough without adding instability, and progression can be safely and effectively achieved in numerous ways other than adding instability.  Just as you should consider the inherent injury risks of adding instability to an exercise you should also consider the risk of clients feeling and looking unco-coordinated and clumsy attempting to perform these exercises – do the apparent (and questionable) benefits outweigh the obvious risks for your client?


9. Exhaustive Plyometrics

Tpersonal%20training%20exhaustive%20plyometricshe overall function of plyometric exercise is to produce fast powerful movements.  Plyometrics are very beneficial for athletes in sports such as basketball, netball, rugby and athletic pursuit that require explosive power such as sprints, high jump and shot-put.  One of the fundamental aspects of power training though is that it is 'non-exhaustive'.  There are two major considerations for this, namely safety and effectiveness. 

In regard to effectiveness – as soon as the ATP-PC energy system is exhausted (typically after 10-15 seconds of maximal or near maximal activity) then the ability of the body to produce powerful contractions diminishes rapidly.  Power oriented training with a depleted ATP-PC energy system is quite simply ineffective at producing power.

If you need a recap on the human energy systems and their properties then please go to the energy systems folder at where you can review all about the energy systems.

In regard to safety – plyometric activities such as box jumps as shown here involve loading the elastic properties of muscle significantly prior to contracting the muscle in order to develop as much power as possible.  This is reasonably safe as long as the client taking part is ‘reasonably’ well conditioned and not fatigued.  As soon as fatigue enters the equation the risk of injury rises dramatically.  Unfortunately with the often unchallenged perception amongst personal trainers that ‘every set must continue until the client fails/is exhausted’ we’re seeing more and more in-effective and downright dangerous exhaustive plyometrics, from which only physiotherapists and orthopedic surgeons will ultimately benefit!


10. Smith Machine Squats / Swiss Ball Squats / Wall Squats

personal%20training%20smith%20machine%20squatsAnd lastly yet another pet hate of mine!  These exercises are often prescribed to clients as an ‘easy’ way to learn how to squat or as a way to target and tone the butt muscles – both of which are completely wrong!

A correctly performed squat requires the client to balance their centre of mass (mid point of the body – typically around the belly button area) directly over their base of support (their feet in this case).  Look at where the centre of mass sits in relation to the base of support in either of these pictures – its way behind the base of support.  All these exercises do is teach the client to lean back against the bar or ball for support – take the bar or ball away and the client would simply fall over.

personal%20training%20wall%20squatsThis is not an easy way to introduce clients to squatting, it’s a completely ineffective way because it doesn’t require the client to learn how to balance themselves correctly, let alone prepare them to add load and progress the exercise.  There is no better way to prepare a client to squat that by performing body weight squats on and off a bench or chair.

Rather than targeting the butt muscles this exercise actually almost eliminates them from working at all! The shorter the 'moment arm' that works around a joint is the less work the muscles that act on that particular joint will do during a movement.

A moment arm runs from the active joint to the line of force (essentially gravity) that runs down through the centre of mass to the ground.  As you can see here the knee moment arm (in green) is much longer than the hip moment arm (not shown) would be.  This means that there is much more load on the knees than on the hips, and as the butt muscles only work on the hips then they don’t have to work nearly as hard as the quadriceps muscles that work on the knee.

So in reality the butt muscles work much more with a conventional squat where the client focuses on balancing their centre of mass directly over their base of support.  With such a squat the length of the hip moment arm is typically longer than the length of the knee moment arm, meaning the big butt muscles actually work a little harder than the quadriceps muscles.

And lastly…by placing the base of support so far forward of the centre of mass this exercise disproportionally increases the load that is placed on the knee joint and adds a lot more 'shearing force' (this is bad by the way) on the knee as shown by the yellow line on the previous picture.  So this is actually a great exercise to completely destroy your client knees!  What really is the function in that?

Ok, so there's a critique of many commonly used resistance exercises - so if these are the questionable ones then what are the most functional exercises? Well here's a link to (in my opinion anyway) the top ten most functional resistance exercises that you can use day in and day out with your personal training clients.

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