I typically see a lot of recreational athletes in my office. Because these individuals are likely very active and on some sort of exercise regime, I’m frequently being asked, “Is [insert exercise] okay for me?” or, “What can I do to work on strengthening [insert muscle/region]?”

First and foremost, I stress seeking a qualified fitness professional to at least monitor and critique what’s being performed in the gym.

Often, I’ll make suggestions of alternatives to offer, but so much is dependent upon proper execution of a movement/exercise and it’s not always realistic or flat-out possible to coach and properly cue an exercise that may involve equipment. Again, this is where the qualified fitness pro comes in.

I’ve observed that many are still using body-building principles (training muscles in isolation) as their main method for strength training, when the primary goal is not ripped muscles, but to perform better at their respective sport or activity.

With all this being said, I decided to put together a short video and write-up of my Top 5 Conventional Exercise Alternatives. The goal with this is to make a few of the exercises that everyone has performed in the gym – at one time or another – more effective by modifying it to induce full body control and stabilization, delivering significantly more bang for your buck.

1. Bench Press vs. Single-Arm Bench Press

The classic upper body strength exercise, which is often executed as if you were competing in a powerlifting meet, can be integrated into a full-body, global pattern by simply “benching” just one dumbbell. This is great for any rotational athletes due to the anti-rotation (ability to resist and control rotation) required to complete the press.

Key Points – If you’re training the right side, only your left side will be on the bench, with the right hanging off the edge. Dumbbell is in right hand and right foot on the ground as a “kick stand.” Do not arch the back. Make sure to breathe low and slow into the abdomen. Place plate or platform under your foot if the bench is too high.

Why? By having one side of your body (side w/ the dumbbell) hanging off the bench, your core connection between upper and lower body is forced to resist twisting in order to hold the dumbbell at ready position; ultimately, pumping the iron. Your butt on the same side of the dumbbell also gets worked as you will use it to help you stabilize, opposed to aggressively arching your back. The actual bench does the stabilizing for you in the traditional bench press exercise.

2. Cable Row vs. Elevated Bear Pull (Single-Arm)

This is the same idea as the bench press, but set-up for a pull exercise. This and the Single-Arm Bench Press above are a great 1-2 punch for rotational athletes that are accustomed to the traditional versions.

Key Points – Setup like you would a bear crawl but with hands placed flat on a bench in a neutral spine position. Without losing the quality of your setup, pull the kettlebell (dumbbell, ham sandwich, whatever) from the ground with one arm.

Why? By stabilizing on only three points (i.e. both legs and one arm), it requires a great deal of control to resist your body from twisting, due to the weight of the kettlebell. This is in opposition to sitting in a machine that locks down your lower half, requiring minimal to no core control to move the weight on the cable row.

3. Biceps Curl vs. Single-Leg Curl (Single-Arm)

Though I don’t believe doing any sort of curl is worth your effort, doing it with one arm while standing only on the other leg in an athletic position is at least worth your time as it requires significant balance and control to establish a stable enough base to generate force for curling the weight.

Key Points – Grab a weight with one hand, stand in an athletic position on the opposite. Keep the toes relaxed, breathe low and rep it out, bro!

Why? Well, likely because you like curls enough to keep doing them, so I’m offering the best modification! This mod is most ideal because you are loading in a contralateral pattern (i.e. opposite arm, opposite leg) like a runner while getting your arm pump on. This engages all of your postural and prime mover muscles within the chain that connects your arm to your opposite leg, including glute activation (thanks, Tiger (Woods)).

4. Crunches vs. Stir-the-Pot

This may ruffle a few feathers: the only thing crunches are effective at accomplishing is causing back problems. Dr. Stu McGillhas written extensively about the research surrounding low back pain. The cyclical flexion and extension forces that the spine is subject to will cause problems – not a question of IF but WHEN. Seriously, if you want a disc herniation and related “sciatica,” keep doing them. If you’re doing it for competition, fine, but be content with knowing you are deliberately putting yourself at risk. If “abs” are what you want, the time is better spent on your diet! If you think you’re working your “core,” you’re not. I could write a series of blog posts of what the true core is and the myriad of core exercises that are substantially superior to crunches.

Stir-the-Pot is one of Stu McGill’s go-to exercises to train the core safely and is much more difficult than it looks.

Key Points – Perform a neutral spine plank on an exercise ball. Slowly move your arms along the ball in a circular pattern, or if you get bored you can brush up on your A-B-Cs… Make sure to maintain a solid, semi-hollow plank position: chin tucked, back flat, breathe through the abdomen, shoulder blades down toward back pockets and press ball away from your chest.

Why? Performing a plank on an unstable surface of an exercise ball, alone, forces your core to reflexively activate in order to stabilize, to maintain your balance on the ball. Adding the small arm circles further enhances this influence because the ability to stabilize on the unstable surface is a prerequisite to initiating that movement. This resembles and similarly trains what your core has to do in sport: reflexively stabilize.

5. Lat Pulldown vs. Active Shoulder Hang

Pull-ups seem to be all the rage now – which is a good thing – but the old school exercise of pulling the bent bar on a cable while your legs are locked into a hunk of metal, foam and greasy faux leather can still be seen performed in the gym. Many can’t do a pull-up and some are doing too many of the ballistic pull-ups with a poor foundation and/or compensated stabilizing strategy. This alternative suites both parties well.

Key Points – Hang from a bar as setting-up for a pull-up. Pull shoulder blades down into back pockets. Lift legs so knees are parallel with the hips. Breathe into abdomen.

Why? A lat pulldown eliminates the body’s requirement to stabilize to move the weight. Catching the theme here? Stability, stability, stability. Also, I can’t think of many real world scenarios where you will need to pull something down toward your body from overhead like that. A pull-up makes sense in the real world scenario because many more times than not will you be pulling your body up toward your hands (e.g. climbing). When executing the active shoulder hang correctly, you are grooving the stability required to execute a satisfactory pull-up. Even if you are a self-proclaimed pull-up aficionado, by peeling back and working on your foundation, you will notice an improvement in your endurance and overall ability to perform pull-up variations.

Want to improve your pull-ups or would like to be able to do at least one? Give this video a peak.

Bonus. Leg Press vs. Split Squat

After shooting the video and during this writing process, I realized I had forgot a staple “leg day” exercise. To make up for it, I’m throwing this in as a bonus. Six for the price of five – not too shabby! Anyway, the only good thing about working the leg press machine is the illusion of being able to press way more weight than you would any variation of free weight squat.

Key Points – Check out this video.

Why? Barbell back squats would be a logical alternative; however, they are great only if you possess the prerequisites to execute them with quality. It’s a complex, multi-segmental movement that requires all working parts to move in concert. Many people are doing them under heavy load when they can’t even do it well unloaded. An awesome alternative to the alternative is the split squat.

Split squats effectively challenge your ability to balance, control and stabilize in a squat pattern, without classically squatting. This is a superb exercise as a part of a strategy to improve, strengthen and/or work up to the squat. Challenge your stability even more by narrowing your stance, holding only one dumbbell (by your side, rack position, pressed overhead), increasing the weight, slowing the cadence, or a combination of all. Looking for progressions/regressions/lateralizations or interested in single leg work? Check this out.

I hope you got some good stuff out of this article. If you like these traditional exercises, give the alternatives offered a try then drop us a line to let us know what you think!