4 exercises standing the test of time lat pulldown

4 Exercises Standing The Test Of Time

Walk into any gym, anywhere in the world and you’ll likely spot the exercise of the month. They attack like bouts of the flu in the middle of winter – once someone brings it home, everyone’s doomed to get it. It starts when one unsuspecting soul stumbles across a new exercise in their travels, decides to try it out, then suddenly everyone is giving it a go.

Some of the exercises are incredible, and it’s disappointing to see people fall back into old habits and stuff their new-found fun in the gym bag. Others should be kicked to the kerb and left there to be washed away by the next good thunderstorm (behind the neck pulldown, anyone?)

But there’s another group of exercises that have stood the test of time. You’ll find these staples of strength training in most good programs today, just as you would have when Arnie was a boy. They cop some flack from time to time, but they never die, for good reason.

Barbell Back Squat

In 2009, world-renowned strength coach Mike Boyle announced he no longer prescribes the barbell back squat to his clients. Fast forward to 2014, and he was still standing by his decision. Boyle suggests the back squat shouldn’t be included in athletic programming due to increased risk of lower back injury and advises there are more effective exercises for training legs – such as the raised split squat (Cannon, K. 2014).

As someone who suffers from chronic back pain, I agree with him in part. I don’t squat consistently, and when I do, I generally opt for a front squat to reduce the tension on my back extensors. For people with back or lower body injuries, it’s important to consider if the reward from the barbell back squat is worth the risk – for me, it simply isn’t.

However, there are many positives of the back squat, which it’s why it’s had a place in bodybuilding programming since the beginning of the sport.

  1. The squat is one of the most functional exercises we can do because the majority of the world’s population squat in some form every single day.
  2. In the western world, one of the major causes of lower back injury is bending at the hip to pick up heavy items. Back squatting promotes increased leg strength and improved technique which can be utilised outside of the gym.
  3. From a bodybuilding perspective, when performed in the right rep and set range, the barbell back squat is a significant contributor to hypertrophy of the quads and glutes.

Programming the Barbell Back Squat

It’s best to perform the barbell back squat at the beginning of your session, followed by isolation movements such as lunges. At the beginning of a session, your core stabilisers not fatigued, so you’re you’re more capable of completing the lift safely.

4 exercises standing the test of time bench press

Barbell Bench Press

Type ‘barbell bench press’ into your favourite search engine, and you’ll encounter plenty of discussion on whether the barbell bench press is an exercise worthy of sitting atop the pedestal alongside the other big lifts. It seems the controversy has become so laughable, some fit pros are even resorting to posting April Fools jokes to fight for their right to bench press.

Some professionals in the industry truly believe the bench press shouldn’t exist in a well-rounded strength training program, citing concerns about its functionality and whether it’s a productive use of time in the gym (Smith, M. Unknown Date).

Others, like Nick Tumminello from Performance University International, straddle the line in the stand. He still programs the bench press for some athletes but avoids it for others where the injury risk is too great, such as baseball pitchers and football quarterbacks (Tumminello, N. 2012).

While there are some concerns and also alternatives to barbell bench pressing, the exercise has plenty of positives.

  1. When you’re pressing regularly, your push strength improves. The strength of supporting muscles, such as the anterior deltoid and triceps, also improves with regular bench pressing.
  2. When you perform the bench press in the appropriate rep range, the result is hypertrophy of the chest muscles.
  3. It’s also a great intermediate exercise when stepping up from machines and starting to lift free weights. Where a chest press machine allows for movement on only one plane, the barbell bench press creates a level of instability, to which the lifter must learn to adapt. The bar still provides limited support which can help the lifter to improve confidence and stability before stepping up to the dumbbell press.

Programming the Barbell Bench Press

Many people start their chest day with the barbell bench press. It’s a great warm-up for more isolated movements, and in some instances, it’s a great opportunity to test your strength. However, one of the biggest challenges with bench pressing when you’re fresh is fatiguing your supporting muscles before you’ve appropriately stressed your chest. The triceps, for example, are much smaller muscles than your pectoralis major. So if you always start chest day with a barbell bench press, try switching it up. Start your session with chest isolating exercises such as the floor chest fly (See below), then follow up with the barbell bench press to get more bang for your buck from this traditional exercise.

Front Lat Pulldown

Unfortunately, many people use an incorrect technique for the front lat pulldown, sending them down the well-beaten path to a shoulder injury. There are also concerns about the functionality of the exercise. Realistically, where in life do we sit with our legs locked in place, reach above our head, and pull an object towards us? Generally, gravity does that job. As a result, many experts, such as Mike Robertson from Robertson Training Systems (Robertson, M. 2004), suggest there are many better exercises for improving latissimus dorsi strength and size.

However, there are still many positives that make the front lat pulldown an exercise that continues to surface in any great training program.

  1. While having your legs locked in place can be seen as a negative, the seated position allows for effective isolation of the lats when compared to ‘more functional’ exercises. The pull-up, for example, often involves a closer grip and increased chest and biceps activation to compensate for the increased weight. Using the lat pulldown machine, you can lift less than your body weight, allowing for a more controlled contraction of the lats.
  2. The lat pulldown is also a great exercise for people who are unable to complete many (or any) pull-ups, whether it’s due to lack of strength, injury or fatigue. While there are many other latissimus dorsi focused exercises, many of these focus on a rowing movement. While some studies suggest “rowing = growing”, it’s important to have a balanced program, and the inclusion of the lat pulldown in any program can provide this balance.

Programming the Front Lat Pulldown

Because the lat pulldown is performed in the seated position, it’s a great starter exercise to pre-fatigue the lats before moving into strenuous exercises (such as the bent over row). Alternatively, it’s a great finisher exercise to push your lats to failure at the end of a workout. To do this effectively, increase time under tension. Pull down slowly, hold at the bottom of each rep, then slowly return to the start position (a 3330 tempo is ideal).

Chest Fly

Jeff Cavaliere at AthleanX.com is a vocal opponent of performing the dumbbell chest fly on a bench for two reasons. He believes the risk of tearing the pectoral muscles far outweighs the reward of the exercise, and he feels there are far better exercises you can complete to increase chest size and strength. (Cavaliere, J. 2014)

However, a quick look at Arnold Schwarzenegger’s training program for the 1975 Mr Olympia competition, and you’ll see this exercise has been popular for decades (Unknown, D. 2012). Walk into any gym today, and you’ll discover it’s well and truly stood the test of time, maintaining its place in most chest workouts.

Many supporters of the chest fly claim this exercise provides greater stretch than many chest exercises, and thus, greater stress on the muscle. The idea being, greater stress equals greater gains. Cavaliere explains this ‘extra stretch’ feeling comes from stretching the cortical brachialis (not the pec) at the bottom of the lift. That said, he acknowledges the chest fly has it’s place in a great program when performed correctly.

Programming the Chest Fly

Cavalier recommends completing the chest fly on the floor with a slight arch in the back, allowing for appropriate pec stretch while creating a safety net (the floor). This position enables you to lift heavier than you would on a bench, completing the eccentric (down) phase of the lift knowing you can only move your elbows to the floor. Then if you’re unable to complete the concentric (up) phase, you can move into a chest press position to return to the start point. (Cavaliere, J. 2016).

By utilising a chest fly technique with an inbuilt safety feature, you can program the exercise to pre-fatigue the pecs at the start of a session (as previously suggested) or take the pecs to failure to complete a workout.

4 exercises standing the test of time db fly


While many experts have varying opinions on these exercises, ultimately, you’re the expert on your body. If any of these exercises cause you pain, start by consulting with a medical professional as you may have an underlying injury. If you continue to experience pain, don’t do the exercises which create it. I have a back injury which is exacerbated by deadlifts, so I no longer deadlift, despite it being a staple strength training exercise. It’s simply not worth the risk. With any strength training exercise, it’s important to weigh up the risk to benefit ratio. If the risk is too high, choose a more appropriate exercise from the thousands of options that are available.

Alternatively, if you’re uninjured and unimpaired, crack on with these exercises as part of a well-rounded strength program that will stand the test of time.


Cannon, K. (2014). Are back squats safe? [online] Men’s Health. Available at:

https://www.menshealth.com/fitness/a19536080/are-back-squats-safe/ [Accessed 20 Oct 2018].


Cavaliere, J. (2014). Top 5 worst exercises (Stop doing these!) [online] YouTube; Athlean-X. Available at: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=O6Y3WDY1tUo&t=178s [Accessed 20 Oct 2018].

Cavaliere, J. (2014). Top 5 worst exercises (Stop doing these!) [online] YouTube; Athlean-X. Available at: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=S298ziysRdI [Accessed 20 Oct 2018].

Robertson, R. (2004). Wanna grow? Gotta row! [online] T-Nation. Available at: https://www.t-nation.com/training/wanna-grow-gotta-row [Accessed 20 Oct 2018].

Smith, M. (Unknown). 5 reasons to stop doing the bench press. [online] Awake & Alive. Available at: http://iamawakeandalive.com/5-reasons-to-stop-doing-the-bench-press/ [Accessed 20 Oct 2018].

Tumminello, N. (2012). The truth about the bench press. [online] T-Nation. Available at: https://www.t-nation.com/training/truth-about-the-bench-press [Accessed 20 Oct 2018].

Unknown, D. (2012.) Arnold Schwarzenegger’s Workout Routine for the 1975 Mr. Olympia. [online] CalorieBee. Available at:  https://caloriebee.com/workout-routines/The-Arnold-Schwarzenegger-Workout-Routine-How-He-Trained-For-the-1975-Mr-Olympia [Accessed 20 Oct 2018].

About the Author

Tara Fitness (yes, that’s her real last name) is a freelance writer who works with fitness businesses, producing their blog content and copy so they can focus on the most important tasks in the business - getting results for their clients. Tara is a qualified personal trainer and nutrition coach. Find more of her work at www.tarafitness.com.au.