As paying gym members, we trust our trainers blindly. Push-up this way? Deadlift that way? Sure, you’re the boss.
Well, in fitness, everything is actually open for debate—and your trainer’s directions might not always be on the winning side of that argument. So how do you know if what your trainer says it really up-to-snuff?
We asked top strength coaches, kinesiologists, and physical therapists to share both sides of the biggest debates that go down in gyms. Read on before you follow your trainer’s golden “don’t let your knee go past your toes” rule ever again.
1. Squatting Below Parallel
The Pros: “By squatting deep, you take your legs through a fuller range of motion, which will in turn build strength more efficiently and more functionally,” says Beverly Hills-based personal trainer Mike Donavanik, C.S.C.S. “You work your quads and glutes much more, granted you maintain proper form and don’t sacrifice form for depth.” More importantly for guys worried about knee pain, going a bit past parallel puts less stress on your knees compared to stopping exactly at parallel, explains strength coach Tony Gentilcore, C.S.C.S., co-founder of Cressey Sports Performance in Florida.
The Cons: “Some people aren’t meant to squat deep based on either their anatomy or previous injuries,” Gentilcore says. For instance, when Minnesota-based exercise physiologist Mike T. Nelson, Ph.D., C.S.C.S., dissected cadavers last year, he found that not every skeleton was meant to squat ass-to-grass. “Even when all the muscle and tendons were removed and the only thing left was the hip capsule and the hip joint itself, some could go well past parallel and some could just barely get past parallel,” he says.
2. Lifting Heavy
The Pros: “Lifting heavy allows you to build strength and lean muscle,” Donavanik says. “The heaviness of the weight is what’s going to allow your muscles to microtear then repair themselves so you get stronger. Lifting light won’t do that.”
The Cons: “Heavy has different meanings for different people, so ‘lifting heavy’ can get misconstrued,” he says. So, lift more than you’re ready for and you could easily wind up injured. Also, as you age, it’s important to start to scale your weights appropriately. Lifting heavy at 40 might not look the same as lifting heavy did at 20, and that’s OK.
3. Following a Low-Carb Diet
The Pros: For general weight loss, lower-carb (not to be confused with no-carb!) diets have their place, Gentilcore says. They can help control blood sugar levels and result in weight loss, especially if you’re cutting out refined carbs.
The Cons: “If performance is the goal, you are going to be hard-pressed to make a lot of progress by following a low-carb diet,” Gentilcore says. Carbs are your body’s go-to when it comes to high-intensity and explosive exercise—and if you cut them out, your energy, speed, and strength will suffer. Plus, if you eat the right ones, and in healthy amounts, carbs won’t make you fat. “Plenty of people follow a higher-carb diet and are shredded,” he says.
4. Performing Lat-Pulldowns Behind Your Head
The Pros: “The shorter range of motion may allow for an increased time under tension of the muscles, as well as allow for the meat of the upper back to be worked at a different angle than it is used to, thus presenting a different stimulus to the muscles and forcing them to adapt, says physical therapist Jeff Yellin, D.P.T., C.S.C.S., regional clinical director of Professional Physical Therapy in Long Island and Queens.
The Cons: “They aren’t safe, efficient, or even necessary for most people,” Donavanik says. That’s because it puts your shoulder, which is already pretty unstable, as far as joints go, into a compromised position, putting you at risk for impingements, joint compression, and degenerative changes within the socket. “And, for people with poor upper body flexibility and a history of shoulder problems, the exercise also may cause increased stress on the cervical spine,” Yellin says.
5. Letting Your Knees Move Past Your Toes
The Pros: Your ACL is less susceptible to injury from shear force when the knee is bent, like in a squat or lunge, than when it’s straight, says kinesiologist and medical exercise specialist Dean Somerset, C.S.C.S., from Alberta, Canada. And, more importantly, forcing your shin perfectly vertical will result in you having a massively wide stance for squats or much more stress on your low back, Nelson says. “Essentially, keeping the knees behind the toes to save the knees from injury makes the back more likely to be injured,” Somerset says. “In many studies, doing a deep squat that involves the knees going past the toes actually shows a beneficial effect on the knees, the low back, and even the ankles in terms of maintenance of joint mechanics and overall health,” Somerset says.
The Cons: “If the knee goes past the toes, the shear force acting on the knee increases, and a lot of studies have linked shear force with injuries to the ACL in the knee,” says Somerset.
6. Lifting Your Heels When You Squat
The Pros: If you have stiff ankles, it could help you squat deeper, Gentilcore says.
The Cons: “If your heels come off of the floor, more weight is going to be placed in your toes and the balls of your feet, which will shift the focus of the squat into your quads and diminish the contraction of the glutes,” Donavanik says. What’s more, it doesn’t address the underlying issue (why you have limited mobility) in the first place, Gentilcore says.
7. Exercising on an Empty Stomach
The Pros: You’ll burn a higher percentage of calories from fat than from carbs, Gentilcore says. And if you’re doing steady state, low-intensity cardio, you can probably maintain a decent weight-loss pace in the morning before eating, Donavanik says.
The Cons: While you’ll burn a greater proportion of calories from fat, you’ll burn fewer calories overall, and possibly even fewer calories from fat, than if you were fueled and able to exercise at a higher intensity, Gentilcore says.
8. Slowing Down Your Reps
The Pros: “One of the more effective ways of strength training is increasing a muscle’s time under tension,” Donavanik says. “Essentially, performing the movement slow and steady.” Plus, if you’re a fan of high-intensity or ballistic movements, you still have to learn to crawl before you can learn to sprint, he says.
The Cons: “You can’t always train slow and steady though because that’s not how you move in regular life,” he says. You need to also train your body to move explosively.
9. Performing Kipping Pull-Ups
The Pros: Heave-ho kipping pull-ups allow you to generate explosive strength in a pull-up. From a functional standpoint, it also gets your entire body involved in a single movement, which is pretty cool, says Donavanik.
The Cons: It’s hard to do correctly, and if your shoulders aren’t strong enough to get you through at least 10 strict pull-ups from a full-hang position, the ballistic movement is likely to cause injury, according to Donavanik, Somerset, and Yellin. (We’ve got a major consensus here.) “And, in terms of strength development, it doesn’t produce the same benefits of a strict pull up,” Somerset says.
10. Bench Pressing Past 90 Degrees
The Pros: Bending your elbows past 90 degrees helps you perform the bench press through a greater range of motion, meaning you’ll work more muscle fibers in each of the muscles worked, including your pecs, deltoids, triceps, and biceps, Donavanik says.
The Cons: “If you have any shoulder injuries, bending your elbows past 90 degrees could potentially exasperate them,” he says. And if you’re tall or have longer extremities, it could put your shoulders in a comprised position.
11. Performing High-Volume Training
The Pros: In experienced lifters, higher training volumes (typically, lifting more than 30 reps per set) can be an important part of developing max muscle strength and size, according to Somerset.
The Cons: In beginners, pretty much any training volume, high or low, will work. And lower-training volumes may be easier for beginners to recover from, he says. Meanwhile, even experienced lifters can benefit from integrating some low-volume training (often with heavier weights), into their workout routines.
12. Performing Strength Work Before Cardio
The Pros: The biggest benefit is that you’ll be able to hit your weightlifting hard, and won’t be tuckered out when you get to the squat rack, explains Nelson. He notes that studies suggest that performing cardio workouts interfere more with subsequent strength workouts than vice versa.
The Cons: When you climb on the treadmill, your legs may already feel heavy or shaky, so you shouldn’t expect to run your best mile ever immediately after a strength workout, he says.
13. Using Strength Machines
The Pros: Strength machines are good for extreme beginners because they teach proper movement patterns and don’t rely on the exerciser knowing much about proper form. And, in newbies and veterans alike, machines are great in that, by isolating single muscle groups, they can help you focus on the specific muscle you want to work, Donavanik says. “Because their path of movement is ‘predetermined’ or ‘fixed,’ your stabilizer muscles don’t have to work very hard to control the weight or keep it from wobbling.” That means that your prime mover, or agonist muscle, does pretty much all of the lifting—so in a biceps curl, your biceps.
The Cons: Machines’ fixed paths have a downside. After all, taking your stabilizers out of the equation isn’t always a good thing, Donavanik says. That’s especially true if you want to improve your overall strength and joint stability, or just get a good calorie burn.
14. Doing the Bench Press with Dumbbells
The Pros: Because they don’t bang against your chest, but instead drop by your armpits, dumbbells let you go deeper into the bench press than do barbells. And, since dumbbells load each arm separately, your strong arm isn’t able to compensate for your weaker arm, Donavanik says. The result: You shore up muscle imbalances between your right and left sides.
The Cons: You are always going to be able to bench press more weight with a barbell than you can with dumbbells. That’s because, when you have a two-hand grip on the barbell, your arms support each other and your stabilizers don’t have to work as hard to keep the weight from moving from side to side, Donavanik says.
15. Eating within the “Anabolic Window”
The Pros: Eating immediately after your workout can prevent you from getting super hungry or experiencing dips in blood sugar, Donavanik says. Meanwhile, getting a mix of protein and carbs sometime after your workout can aid in muscle synthesis and growth (anabolism), Nelson says.
The Cons: “It is a myth that the anabolic window will slam shut on you at exactly 47 minutes and 13 seconds,” Nelson says. “Your body is not that fragile.” If it works out that you can eat within an hour of working out, great. But if you meet your macronutrient needs on a daily basis and get a mix of protein and carbs at every meal, you don’t need to worry about getting those nutrients within an hour of working out, at least from a muscle-building standpoint, according to Donavanik.
16. Performing Compound Exercises, Not Isolation Ones
The Pros: By working more muscles at once, compound movements burn more calories, build more muscle, and cause your body to release more testosterone than do isolation exercises, Donavanik says. Plus, your body is designed to work as a whole. Training it that way can do a lot to improve your performance in both sports and daily life, he says.
The Cons: While compound moves will make you stronger overall, they won’t do as much as isolation moves will to increase the size or strength of the specific muscle you want to work, he says.
17. Performing Exercises Through a Full Range of Motion
The Pros: Going through a full range of motion help you recruit a greater length of muscle during each exercise, Donavanik says. Plus, it can greatly increase your joint health and help you train hard into your senior years, according to Somerset.
The Cons: It also slightly reduces tension in the muscle, Donavanik says. Also, your muscles are capable of producing much less force when they are fully extended or contracted, Somerset says. “So if you’re using a very challenging weight, going to full range of motion may not be possible or could increase the risk of injury.“
18. Avoiding Deadlifts for the Sake of Your Back
The Pros: “Although many personal trainers and doctors will shy away from certain exercises once a person says they have lower back pain, if patients perform them properly, deadlifts may reduce back pain as well as your risk of injury,” Yellin says. That’s because deadlifts work your entire body, including your back, abs, and glutes, all of which help get your spine into proper alignment, according to Gentilcore. And by working all of those muscles at once, it’s also awesome for burning calories, sculpting your body, and improving your performance at virtually any exercise.
The Cons: With improper form, you put yourself at a pretty good risk of injury, especially if you are hoping to move serious weight, Yellin says. And depending on any pre-existing injuries, some variations or weight loads may be better for your back than are others, Donavanik says.
19. Soaking in an Ice Bath for Post-Workout Recovery
The Pros: Many athletes and trainers love it for relieving immediate pain, swelling, and soreness all over the entire body at once, Yellin says. “The cold temperatures decrease the body’s ability to relay the pain signal to the brain, and the constriction of the blood vessels is thought to decrease the amount of swelling in the affected areas which may then reduce the amount of tissue breakdown that occurs.”
The Cons: “Unfortunately, there is not much evidence to back up these claims, and there is even a growing number of people who feel icing any over-used area is detrimental to the healing process,” he says. “In addition, ice baths don’t feel very good.”
20. Performing Single-Leg Work
The Pros: Called unilateral work, strength training that works just one side at once, helps shore up muscle imbalances while training your stabilizer muscles to improve your balance and joint stability, says Gentilcore. Those are two things that a lot of guys need.
The Cons: Bilateral, both-sides-at-once exercises allow you to handle more weight at once because you don’t have to worry about keeping your balance, he says. That means that performing them can result in bigger strength and muscle gains.