7 Gym Exercises You Need to Avoid

By Mike Howard

2959-gym-exercises-to-avoid.jpgFor most of my adult life, I’ve held to the belief that there is no such thing as bad exercises – only bad ways to do good exercises.

You can take the most effective exercises and make them useless and compromising just as you can turn an ineffective exercise into a safe and functional one.

That said, some exercise machines and movements are just flat-out awful.

Here are the “Unlucky 7”: exercises where the risks far outweigh the benefits.

Inverted Leg Press:

129-db inverted leg press.jpg

  • The angle on most of these machines can cause injury due to the awkward position of the hips and spine.
  • It is very difficult not to push the lower back into the backrest in this exercise. Doing so places stress on the disc when loaded.
  • Straightening out the torso (as in a squat) gets full recruitment of the hamstring and butt muscles. The leg press keeps your upper body fixed, which takes this out.

Better Alternative: Squats (barbell or dumbbell)

Smith Machine:

132-db smith machine.jpgAny way you slice it this machine (AKA “the expensive towel rack”) is biomechanically horrendous.

  • Like any other machine, you have to conform to a fixed movement – which doesn’t take the lifters natural mechanics into consideration, and doesn’t allow for subtle mechanical adjustments.
  • This can cause problems in the knees and lower back if used to squat.

Eric Cressey, who is the king of smith machine debunking, gives these 10 good uses for it (hint; none of them include squats or bench presses.

Better Alternative: Any barbell or dumbbell alternative

Back Extension:

130-db hyperextension.jpg

  • This machine promotes putting the back into a forced hyper-extended position.
  • Combine the undesirable end position with the typical way in which people perform the movement (read fast and jerky) and you risk damaging joints in your spine (facet joints).

Better alternative:On all fours – raising opposite arm/leg simultaneously (birddogs/pointing dogs).

Ab Twist Machine:

127-db ab twist.jpgOr any exercise whereby your lower
body is fixed and your upper body is rotating against great force.

  • The abdominal muscles are designed to prevent rotation, not encourage it.
  • Furthermore, your rotation is coming almost exclusively from the lumbar spine – an area that is prone to injury when placed in such a position.

Better alternative: Short range twists with tubing or cable – allowing for some hip movement

Upright Rows:

133-db upright rows.jpg

  • Due to the grip and the nature of the movement, upright rows place stress on the shoulder joint by causing a bone-on bone collision with every rep.
  • Eventually, this may lead to rotator cuff tendonitis.

Better Alternative: Lateral dumbbell raises

Shoulder Press Machine:

131-db shoulder press.jpg

  • The positioning and the plane of movement of the arms when pushing above the head is highly individual.
  • When your grip and movement are locked in one plane of movement, you may be asking for trouble over time.
  • Having the arms too far in front of you or too far back can place stress on the shoulder joint.

Better Alternative: Dumbbell shoulder presses

Sit Ups (especially on a ball):

128-db ball sit ups.jpg

  • Again, the architecture of the big abdominal muscles dictate that it is not meant for big movements as in a full sit-up on the ball.
  • Further, sit-ups promote an often undesirable flexion of the back (rounding).
  • In fact the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH) recommends a limit of 3400 newtons of force to keep the back safe. Sit-ups contribute 3413 newtons.

Better alternative: Short range crunch, tabletops, prayers.

Bottom Line

So while we need to take individual training factors such as; ability, goals and experience into consideration when determining the value of an exercise, I don’t think there is much place for any of the above in a safe, yet effective weight training routine.

107 Comments

  1. T. Kallmyer

    Walking up and down hills is great for your abs and core… pretty easy on those with bad backs too.

    Reply
  2. Jennifer

    I have a degenerated spine from severe disk and bilateral facet disease from lifting people for a living and being rear-ended in car accidents, ect. Doing crunches kills my back. I am losing strenght, what is the best abdominal exercised for a crummy old arthritic spine and old injured lumbar disks, spondolosis. I am still young at 50,I suffer daily severe chronic daily pain.?

    Thank you,

    Reply
    • Matt

      I’m not a doctor FYI but this guy Stuart McGill is a doctor and specialist in spine stuff. There’s this exercise called a curl up. It’s basically like a sit up that keeps your back straight and you only go 2 inches off the ground. Sounds easy, but with good form is extremely strenuous. Also, front planks are good. Check out that guys name on the web and you’ll find lots of good exercises.

      Reply
  3. James King

    I remember during I enroll myself to the gym. They are lots of rules on doing lifting some dumbbells. And to protect yourself put some lifting gear.

    Reply
  4. johny

    One of the exercises that have become quite popular is
    exercise ball. If you are looking for results that you
    can easily do the routines at home and get surprising
    results. exercise ball I thanks full to your commenting and sharing.

    Reply
  5. Lana

    I agree with you if you perform lateral raises with thumbs pointing down. lateral raises are much safer and much less likely to cause any kind of impingement if you keep your thumbs and palm parallel with the floor at the top of the movement.

    Reply
  6. Lana

    That is why you use a squat rack. You should not be lifting the bar above your head its dangerous.

    Reply
  7. lana

    That is true at my university. I am going for a degree in kinesiology. A few of the essential courses required for my degree are not required for the students in the Education Stream getting a bachelors of education and minor in kin so they can become a gym teacher. For example they are not required to take “advanced resistance training”, or “biomechanics”. So that does not surprise me that a lot of the above exercises were mandatory at your school.

    Reply
  8. Lana

    An athletic therapy prof ordered the gazelle for my school. I am not sure why. In a group study session we ended up not studying just insulting the gazelle the whole time. There is a whole host of things wrong with it. It is a piece of crap. Perhaps that is why this prof ordered it to show us the crap out there.

    Reply
  9. Filip

    I cant do squats without smith its to heavy to lift barbell over my head.

    Reply
  10. Irshad A wani

    Thanks for this information. I I wll now qiut all these exercises and wll concentrate on others. I dont to harm myself.I, as a good trainer alse advice all my fellows to avoid all types of such exercises as there are lot more exercises to concentrate on.

    Once again thak you for this fruitful article.

    Reply
  11. steve

    The machine pictured in the back extension point is not only for back extension. It can also be used as a great hamstring exercise. The difference is the rounded piece where you put your quads, so its not only for lower back.

    Reply
  12. Bob Gaudio

    Free weights are definitly less expensive than machines, but all modalities have advantages and disadvantages. Combining modalities sensibly gives you the best of all worlds.
    However, as someone who suffered a back injury and 2 surgeries as a result of a work accident, I personally lean more towards machine exercises. Let me first state that the choice of resistance type (body weight, freeweight, machine, tubing) depends upon your goals, abilities, and limitations.
    Due to restrictions on the amount of “weight” I am allowed to lift, free weights do not meet my exercise needs- machines do, as well as matching my exercise goals.
    Not all machines are created equal, however. In the 30 years I’ve been in fitness, part-time and full-time, I have seen some very effective, safe, equipment engineered with the human body in mind. I’ve also, unfortunately, seen, and had to work with, equipment that was poorly designed, badly made, and downright dangerous to use, having been purchased mostly because the price was right and it looked good.
    Bottom line, listen to your body as far as what feels most comfortable, enjoyable and gives you rsults with minimal risk. Above all else, if it hurts, stop.

    Reply
  13. Personal Trainer

    Good list, you forgot a couple exercises which are worse, but those exercises are definitely crapola, thanks alot for posting.

    Reply
  14. Timbo

    You didn’t mention any scientific sources. You just made this up, didn’t you?

    Reply
  15. kent

    Thank you! I’m starting my third month of regular gym workouts and have been having quite a bit trouble on the Precor shoulder press machine. It just doesn’t allow for the way my arms and shoulders work. I’m grateful for an alternative.

    Reply
  16. billybob

    I only do squats, dead lifts, bench press, and overhead press. Also push ups and pull ups. No machines ever. Don’t need them ever. They are not natural. I haven’t had an injury since I quit using them.

    Reply
  17. m3mc

    Thanks for the helpful list on machines/exercises to avoid at the gym! (The debate was very insightful too). Especially good to find out about the #4 Ab twist and #6 shoulder press machines, since I’ve been working those into my strength training program in an attempt to target my upper body. I think I will have to find alternatives. Would love to hear you describe the tabletop/prayer and other exercises that you recommend for the upper body (pictures would be much appreciated too).

    Reply
  18. Ab Workouts

    Great article. I often wondered about how many of those machines were bogus. Especially when you can feel it working muscle groups it’s not meant to focus on. Thanks for the explanations as well.

    Reply
  19. Nutrition

    Great tips! Very true about the machines and the awkward positions. It has happened to me too especially in the hack squat and my lower back.

    This gets you thinking, “Why do gyms like LA Fitness still use these time of equipments”.

    Reply
  20. Joe

    Agree with all the above , how ever the leg press, you may use, just don’t over load yourself, but it is great for definitions.Have been working out for ove 30 yrs. never been injured and have a 21 ” arm, 34 waist and massive cut-up legs, and last but not least I am 60, not taking roids, however did take them years ago.
    I believe evry exercise you do just be careful, and do whatever your body allows you to. Don’t try to imitate or compete with someone else, thats how you get hurt.
    Good Luck to everyone…

    Reply
  21. Ego

    There is already far too much avoidance in the fitness industry of movements that can help you on a functional level outside of the gym. Yes, you want to be safe but you also need to perform some of those “taboo” exercises in safer ways to make sure that your body can handle those unavoidable and unplanned stimulus that we encounter on a day to day basis. I can’t even think of how many times I have been working on my car and had to move into some weird twisting position for long periods of time that put undue stress on my spine. As a whole we all have these different stimuli in our every day life and if you’re only performing concentrated movements that require more conscious activation rather than responsive activation your central nervous system will not have the necessary conditioning required to be able to handle these situations. I’m not saying that you should use these exercises every day or even every other day but having them in your routine for conditioning exercises will drastically help you overall.

    The main key to fitness is really finding a way to include everything you possibly can in the safest way possible. Just a quick example; doing bench press down to your chest and up. I passionately HATE when I see this done with heavy weights because your rotator cuff really can’t handle that kind of pressure. When done with light weight, though, you can help keep that ROM safe for your chest/shoulders/triceps and make sure that your kinetic chain, as a whole, maintains good muscular balance.

    Like I said, Mike, if you could just delete my previous post it would be much appreciated and I truly have enjoyed the discussion thus far.

    Reply
  22. John

    Wow! This is absolutely true, yet only a cross section of the hundreds of exercises people do that damage their joints and tendons every day. If you want to train like the pros and avoid injury you should check out http://ww.sportsciencelab.com.

    Reply
  23. Mike

    You forgot the worst exercise of all time “good mornings”

    Reply
  24. sanjay pillai

    hey thts cool….i mean now i know why i had longlasting shoulder aches…

    Reply
  25. Tim

    You are sooooooooo full of crap!

    Reply
  26. BobThePeeHole

    does doing work out planks make you shorter

    Reply