I do not believe that there is a “bad exercise” except for that which does not help you in accomplishing your goals or meeting your needs. How you train should be based on your goals and unique needs (sometimes unique–functionality is not a unique need). Do you want to be the attractive car that runs well or the attractive car that has mechanical issues that cannot be seen from the outside? (Don’t argue with me on the attractiveness issue–you are beautiful (ladies) or handsome (gentlemen) in your own unique way–the way you were created and engineered to be, regardless of what you may think.) I want to be the one that functions well, and I am pretty sure you do as well, since you’re living in that “car” known as your body. It isn’t going anywhere.
When strength training for function, engage your core as much as possible and move through as great of a range of motion as is safe and that you are physically capable of performing. I am not Functional Movement Screen (FMS) Certified, but have had my share of experience with the FMS and training individuals with poor movement patterns and researching corrective exercises. While strength machines have their place (and in my opinion, it’s more of a physical therapy or bodybuilding-type regimen), I do not consider them ideal for the general population. If you’ve read my previous posts on getting that Olympian physique, you should understand that I firmly believe there are much better ways to train than bicep curls and crunches. When it comes to core lifts and lower body work, I rank a few exercises that are commonly done in a gym, explaining their purpose and benefit (why people should do them, and if that isn’t what you’re looking to accomplish, continue moving down the list).
SO: Performance/Function progression—least useful to most useful and why:
Muscle Group Isolation:
Leg Extension: Isolating the quadriceps has no real functional value unless you are in a physical therapy setting and, due to surgery or injury, need to strengthen your quadriceps and/or patellar tendon.
Leg Curl: No real functional value outside of a physical therapy setting unless you have a strength imbalance. Most women have overdeveloped quadriceps and underdeveloped hamstrings, which leads to knee problems. Deadlifts and Romanian Deadlifts (straight-leg deadlifts) will help to correct this if you have no low back problems, as they are hamstring and glute-dominant movements.
Lying Down Leg Press: Unless you have back problems or are a physique athlete, this move does not actively engage your core in a way you will be using it day-to-day, and thus does not teach your body to move as one functional unit. It’s good to have strong legs, but if those strong legs do not work synergistically with the rest of your body, your risk of injury increases. It’s not often that you have to push a weight away from you using your legs, unless you end up pinned underneath something that is at a perfect 45° angle to the ground. 🙂
Seated Leg Press (You push a seat away from the platform as opposed to the Lying Down Leg Press): This is a step up in the realm of functionality, as you are moving your body away from a platform. Your core is slightly more engaged. This is a good option if you have low back problems and cannot squat or deadlift.
Squat: To do this lift properly is difficult. Ideally, one moves through a full range of motion, from standing with a bar supported either on one’s back (known as a “back squat” and typically what one thinks of when performing a squat is referenced) or across one’s chest and shoulders (known as a “front squat”). The core must be engaged to support not only the bodyweight, but also the bar. This will create a situation in which more muscles must be engaged for the purpose of stability, and the lower one gets into a squat position, the lesser the stability. It is easier for most people to get into a deep front squat vs. a deep back squat, for various reasons—the top two being hip and calf/calcaneal (Achilles) tendon flexibility and strength.
Deadlift: The most functional of the exercises, as we perform this movement anytime we are picking an object off of the floor or a surface below our waist. The deadlift is also the most versatile of the exercises as one can use one or two dumbbells, perform it straight-leg or from the floor (different starting points), and using a bar. This is a great lift for those with knee issues, as the stress on the knee joint is minimal due to the movement being glute/hamstring dominant and thus it being a pulling movement versus a pushing movement, which will almost always result in lesser joint stress. This is a total body lift, as the legs are the dominant movers, while the core stabilizes and the upper body must hold onto the weight. This will likely be the lift you are using the most weight for, so your whole body is working hard to support a lot of weight!
Before you being squatting or performing any variety of the squat or deadlift, it would be beneficial to ask a trainer for assistance. They are qualified to instruct proper technique in the lift and should be able to recommend any auxiliary exercises to help with weak points in your squat or deadlift. These will likely not replicate the lift, but will strengthen muscles you use in the lift. For example, pullups will help to increase bench press strength. The straight-leg deadlift will help to develop low back strength for the deadlift. The auxiliary exercises break down the movements and help to strengthen specific muscles that are engaged during a lift in which they may not be the prime mover (the main muscle(s) used during a given lift).
Functional movements not only help you feel good, they help you to look good. Take a look at any athlete who is competing at an elite level. My (educated) guess is that they are not doing a workout comprised of bicep curls, glute extensions, leg abduction/adduction. They are doing squats, deadlifts, cleans, snatches, pushups, and pullups. They have amazing physiques, are strong, and (if properly trained) have good movement patterns with a large range-of-motion—and the way they train is the reason. The opposite could be true as well, but that is likely the result of improper training and an emphasis on strengthening before flexibility/range of motion. This is why recruiting a qualified professional to assist you is crucial at the very least in the initial stages of a workout regimen.
Function will trump vanity any day. You could have a great looking car, but if it doesn’t function well–if the transmission is terrible, the engine is worn, the hinges creak–it’s more of a frustration than anything because you have to explain away the fact that yes, it looks good, but it runs like trash. Don’t let your body become simply something that looks good–train it to function well!