Exercise Choices: Don’t Get Stuck in the Folk Tales and Myths

Humans have a long history of having beliefs that were later proven to be incorrect. For example, prior to the 16th Century, people generally believed that the Sun revolved around the Earth (known as “geocentrism”). The prospect of the Earth revolving around the Sun (known as “heliocentrism”) had been proposed by a number of scholars dating back to the 3rd century BC, but it was ridiculed and dismissed. At the time, the notion that the Sun was stationary, while the Earth circled around the Sun, seemed like a radical idea—even preposterous. It took two thousand years for people to finally believe it. Today, no one disputes it.

There are five primary reasons why false beliefs are so prevalent in the fitness industry, and it’s important to identify each of them so we don’t fall into the trap of embracing “bad” exercises. Placing our faith in an exercise that is NOT optimally productive and safe results in compromised benefit, working harder than is necessary, wasting time, and risking injury. In fact, many traditional exercises that we have dogmatically embraced over the past century, are actually “bad”—defined as “not optimally productive, not optimally energy-efficient, and not optimally safe”.

Reason # 1 Tradition:  Exercises like DeadLifts, Overhead Press, Bent Over Barbell Row, and Upright Rows have been around since the late 1800s, so people assume that they’re “good”. However, when those movements (and many others) are analyzed from a biomechanics perspective—using physics, anatomical motion, and neurological conflicts—we can see significant flaws.

Reason # 2 Appearances: When someone with a fantastic physique or particular muscle group performs a particular exercise, we tend to assume that that particular exercise is responsible for that person’s unusually good development. That’s a mistake.

In fact, genetics plays a huge role in how our muscles develop. Sometimes, people have one especially “good” body part, due entirely to genetics. One example of this is Larry Scott (Mr. Olympia 1965 and 1966). His biceps were enormous and very “full”—meaning that there was almost no gap between the end of his biceps and the “crook” of his arm (the bend of the elbow). Larry Scott favored Preacher Barbell Curls, so observers fervently believed that that exercise produced that result. However, millions of other people have performed Preacher Barbell Curls and have failed to achieve the same result.

Boyer Coe (1970 Mr. Universe), was also known for his magnificent arms, and was (unfortunately) also known for the absence of “definition” in his abs. When he was asked which exercises he did for his magnificent arms, Boyer wisely said, “it doesn’t matter what I do…every exercise I do makes my arms grow”. When he was asked what he did for his abs, Boyer wisely said, “it doesn’t matter what I do…every abs exercise I do fails to produce the result I want.”

Genetics plays a very significant role in the way a physique develops, so we mustn’t be so quick to attribute the exceptional development of one person, to a particular exercise that person does. The way a physique looks—by itself—does not accurately reflect which exercises are optimally productive, and which ones are not.

Reason # 3 Miseducation: 

Generally speaking, we trust those who came before us. We expect champion bodybuilders and trainers to know the truth about fitness and resistance exercises, and we trust them when they pass on those “truths” (beliefs) to us. Unfortunately, that’s often a matter of the blind leading the blind. Some of the information that has been passed on by predecessors has been incorrect for multiple generations. For example, almost every gym in the world has an Incline Bench, which is used for Incline Presses (barbell and dumbbell) and meant to “develop the upper pectorals”. However, that would defy the laws of physics. 

Moving the arms in an “Incline direction” (i.e., above the shoulder line), would move them at an angle toward the chin, indicated by the white and red arrows below). However, there are no pectoral fiber origins on one’s chin. The highest pectoral fibers that are on the sternum and the clavicles pull the arms in the direction of a “flat bench” (dumbbell or barbell) press. In fact, the pectoral muscle moves the arms mostly in a slightly decline direction.

Another long-held belief, although false, is that Leg Raises “develop” the lower abs. However, the abs (i.e., rectus abdominis) do not even connect to the legs, so it is certainly NOT the abs that are lifting the legs. Rather, the abs merely hold the spine steady, while the hip flexors raise the legs. Although the abs assist (isometrically) during Leg Raises, they do much less of the work than do the hip flexors. This is explained in greater detail in “The Physics of Resistance Exercise”.

Reason # 4 Over-commercialization: 

Almost everyone wants to have a more attractive body—most people want to have less body fat and bigger muscles, and to be stronger. And they want that very much. This presents a huge commercial opportunity for companies to sell to those consumers, training methods (information) that will supposedly help them achieve their goals. However, very often those methods are not very effective.

Consumers are so eager to look and feel better, that they are willing to pay—collectively—hundreds of millions of dollars annually, for products, services, and information that will help them achieve those goals. That creates an open invitation for a lot of “overly optimistic” (i.e., false) advertising and fraudulent or unproductive products and information. If a profit can be made by selling false hope, there are always unscrupulous people willing to take advantage of that opportunity.

Reason # 5 Trends (The “100 Monkey Effect”):

People tend to follow the masses. The more people who are doing a particular thing, the more likely it is that you will also do it. In fact, people are so likely to do what the masses are doing, that advertisers often use the line “used by over a million happy customers” (even if that’s not true). The “100 monkey effect” refers to the fact that the rate of acceptance of a particular behavior drastically increases once the majority of people are following that behavior. In those cases, critical thinking goes out the window. People don’t question the behavior, even if it doesn’t feel right. They just follow the masses. They follow the trend.

The solution to this problem is to use logic and science in order to know what is sensible and what is not. The human body is a mechanical system: bones are “levers”, joints are “pivots”, and muscles are essentially “pulleys”. Thus, resistance exercise follows all the standard rules of physics (“classical mechanics”). Once we understand what makes an exercise “good”, we are less likely to be misled by dogma, trends, or the “conventional wisdom”. It’s the difference between driving with your eyes open, versus driving with your eyes closed, and relying entirely on “faith”.

Every resistance exercise (i.e., free weights, bodyweight, cables, etc.) involves physics, anatomical motion, and a few basic neurological factors. For an exercise to qualify as “very good”, it must follow criteria that fall into three broad categories.

1.     The ideal anatomical motion for each skeletal muscle: The exercise should mimic the precise function of a target muscle. As such, it would move the limb (to which the target muscle is attached) directly toward the target muscle’s origin, with the greatest possible range of motion. The ideal exercise does not twist nor distort a joint in an unnatural manner nor beyond its safe capacity.

2.   The ideal direction of resistance for each ideal anatomical motion: The exercise would provide a direction of resistance that is on the same plane as (in line with) the direction of anatomical motion. That would provide proper alignment and also the proper “line of force”. In turn, that allows the target muscle to receive the greatest percentage of the weight being used. In addition, the ideal direction of resistance would create the ideal “resistance curve” for the muscle. This means that it would provide slightly more resistance in the early part of the range of motion, and slightly less resistance in the latter part of the range of motion, thereby matching the “strength curve” of most skeletal muscles.

3.   The avoidance of certain neurological triggers which cause interference (i.e., muscle weakness):  There are several situations that occur during certain exercises that trigger “conflicts of interest”. Some of these are neurological in nature, and some are mechanical. “Reciprocal Innervation”, “Bilateral Deficit”, “Active and Passive Insufficiency” are the neurological mechanisms, which compromise a muscle’s participation. Either a muscle is “shut off” by the central nervous system, or its strength capacity is reduced. Unfortunately, the full explanation of this would be too lengthy for this article. Nevertheless, it’s important to know that these conflicts DO occur, and they do significantly diminish the effectiveness of many traditional exercises, which have naively been revered for decades.

The Search for Better Information

It would be nice if this one article could provide ALL the necessary information so that you could understand precisely which exercises are good or bad, and why they would be rated that way. However, that amount of information cannot possibly be squeezed into one single article.

Nevertheless, that does not diminish the importance of knowing that that information DOES exist. That information is completely logical and scientifically sound, and provides a much more sensible way of determining which exercises are best, as compared with using dogma, trends, and misguided recommendations.

The link below will take you to an article I wrote called “Evaluating the Efficiency of a Resistance Exercise”, and will allow you to see that exercises CAN be evaluated very logically and sensibly, once you understand the factors involved.


The wide variety of exercises that “could” be done for a particular muscle group are not all equally efficient, equally productive, or equally safe. They all have different degrees of value, based on their individual “profile”—the direction of anatomical motion, the range of motion, the direction of resistance, and the neurological circumstances that sometimes occur during the simultaneous participation of non-target muscles.

In fact, each exercise could be rated on a scale of 1 to 10 (“very bad” to “very good”). Using an exercise that rates a “5” on that scale would produce some degree of benefit, but not as much benefit as an exercise that rates “9” or “10”. That exercise might also require more effort (i.e., that more weight be used) without the target muscle being loaded any more than would occur with a “better’ exercise that requires less weight to be used. That exercise might also strain the joints much more than is necessary, and more than a “better” exercise would. The wisest approach, naturally, would be to use only the exercises that are most productive, most efficient, and most safe.

We should seek to get the best “R.O.I.” (Return on Investment) from the resistance exercises we use—the most benefit with the least wasted effort and the least injury risk. We should NOT be seeking to move the most amount of weight, simply because it allows us to feel as if we’re in “beast mode”—or because it impresses observers. There are numerous examples of once-great bodybuilding champions who are now nearly crippled—having had spine, shoulder, hip, and knee surgeries to repair the tremendous and unnecessary abuse they incurred because they were not well informed.

If we refuse to accept the possibility that we might not be training as wisely as we could, and that there may be better methods of training, then we are being dogmatic—stubbornly defending what “people have been doing for a long time”, even though better information is available. 

 It’s human nature to resist change, and to “defend” our beliefs — what we have believed is true. We feel uncomfortable not knowing what is true (“fish out of water”), so we are quick to embrace beliefs without much evidence. Then, we “identify” with our beliefs. The manner in which we’ve trained for the past X number of years surreptitiously becomes part of our identity, without even being aware of it. However, it’s foolish to close our eyes and ears to better information, simply because we prefer to stay in our comfort zone.

World-renowned physicist, cosmologist, and Lucasian professor of mathematics Stephen Hawking once said, “The greatest enemy of knowledge is not ignorance. It is the illusion of knowledge.”  There is a tremendous amount of “illusion” in the fitness industry—people believing certain exercise methods are ideal, when (in fact) those methods are not ideal at all. Let us not be like those people who naively believed that the Earth was at the center of the Universe, simply because that was the common belief for many years. Let us be willing to look behind the curtain, and use logic and science to find the wisest approach for choosing the very best resistance exercises.

About the Author: Doug Brignole

Doug Brignole is a former Mr. America and Mr. Universe winner, with a 43-year trajectory of bodybuilding competition. He is the author of numerous articles, the co-author of “Million Dollar Muscle” (a university sociology book), and the author of “The Physics of Resistance Exercise”, which is widely regarded as one best books ever written on the subject of biomechanics in resistance training.

Disclaimer: This content is for informational purposes only and is not meant as medical advice, nor is it to diagnose or treat any medical condition. Please consult your physician before starting or changing your diet or exercise program. Any use of this information is at the sole discretion and responsibility of the user.