Back in 1999 I did a lot of testing to determine the relative intensity of dozens of common exercises.
It always irks me when I hear someone say “Such and such is the best triceps exercise or the best ab exercise.” I always want to ask him, “By what measure? Exactly how was that determined?” I shouldn’t let it bother me, we live in a culture where people accept all sorts of things without questioning. But in the case of exercise it’s so easy to test these premises and basically anyone can do it.
I used a few dozen bodybuilders and had them do lifts on different machines and free weights over a couple of months. I wanted to know which exercises delivered the highest intensity of overload to the muscles being targeted. I define “intensity” as the amount of weight lifted per unit of time. So it could be pounds per second or kilos per minute or tons per hour; those are all measurements of weight per unit of time.
I already knew that intensity decreased as time increased. (You know it too. It’s why you can always run faster for 100 meters than you can for a mile.) So I measured how much the test subjects could lift in one minute on each exercise. This was done very simply and you can do it yourself if you want to verify my results.
For example, on an AB machine – the kind you sit on and lean forward against a pad to raise a weight stack – the test subject would perform as many heavy reps as he could in one minute. If he went to failure and had to stop before the 60 seconds were up, he could rest a few seconds and then grind out a few more reps before the minute was up. We always chose a weight that worked the test subject at his limit so he couldn’t just breeze through the exercise with weight that was too light.
Then we would total his weight to know the intensity of lifting per minute. So if he did 20 reps with 100 pounds his intensity on that machine would be 2,000 pounds per minute. Simple, right?
On other days the test subjects (for abs) did exercises like Hanging Knee-ups (where you hang from a high chin-up bar then raise your knees to your chest) or weighted sit-ups in a Roman chair or on a slant board. We tested all common AB exercises on dozens of test subjects. (No, they didn’t do them on the same day. We tested over a couple of months, remember?)
You get a lot of data when you do that and it takes a long time to go through it all. But it’s still pretty basic math. Several test subjects use each machine so you get a pretty good average on each exercise. And the results are very obvious. The numbers just don’t lie. Some exercises really suck when it comes to delivering high intensity. And they suck for all of the test subjects, not just a few of them.
For example, that expensive AB machine with the weight stack generated 56.7% of what the best AB exercise could deliver. Those Hanging Knee-ups delivered 60.7% and the weighted sit-up in a Roman chair generated only 73.2% of the best exercise.
Plus, with the weighted sit-ups you have a heavy, uncomfortable plate on your chest. And to make progress you have to keep increasing the plates. Yikes! Who wants to balance slippery 45, 25 and 10 pound plates on his chest while trying to do an inclined sit-up? (74.3% on the incline slant board.)
Once you know the mathematical facts regarding which abdominal exercise delivers the most intensity, why on earth would you dink around with the other exercises? To what purpose? Why deliberately deliver less overload during a strength workout? It would be like buying iron plates filled with helium so they’re lighter. Yet personal trainers recommend these sub-maximal exercises all the time. And infomercials are full of machines made to make these exercises even less intense. Go figure.
Hey, want to know the #1 abdominal exercise? It’s the weighted crunch using a low pulley. That’s why I put it in my e-booklet, SuperRep Abs – The World’s Fastest, Most Intense Abdominal Workout.
As I’ve said many times over the years, there is a lot of myth and gym lore floating around that just isn’t based on any evidence whatsoever. Exercise science is not rocket science…it’s pretty easy for anyone to go into a gym and test the truth of what someone says, including me…or especially me, since my advice so often runs 180 degrees opposite from what people are doing in the gym and what you read in magazines and online. (who else recommends fewer exercises, fewer reps, shorter workouts, fewer workouts, more rest, etc.?)
Once you know the best (highest intensity) exercise for each major muscle, why would you use any other exercise to develop that muscle?