Proper form is paramount.
The human body contains about 650 muscles, all of which actively support movement and the activities of daily living. Exercise can help keep all of these muscles strong. There can be pros and cons, though, to many of the most popular ways we’ve developed to work out various muscles.
Whether you’re using body weight, resistance bands, free weights or machines — form matters. You need to know how to execute a movement properly to avoid injury.
Machines aren’t always safer.
Exercise machines might seem like the safest option, but Cary Raffle, a personal trainer based in New York City, explains that “machines do not necessarily reduce the risk of injury. In many cases, machines can actually increase the risk of injury because they force the body to move in a fixed path of motion.”
That fixed path can help stabilize muscles. However, it can also force the body to move in a way that’s not optimal, depending on how you’re using the machine and whether you have any conditions that limit that range of motion. And while many exercises and machines work for some, they may not be the best fit for all.
In the list that follows, experts share the exercises — both machine-based and not — that they tend to avoid because these approaches are often ineffective or carry an increased risk of injury. Instead of doing any of the potentially pointless or damaging exercises, try the substitutions these experts offer to get better, safer results.
1. Leg extension machine
Julia Connolly, a doctor of physical therapy with Fusion Wellness and Physical Therapy in Los Angeles, says that while the leg (or knee) extension machine isn’t necessarily bad for everyone, “I don’t prefer this exercise for my patients to engage in during recreational gym use.” Most of the time, she says, folks use too much weight to isolate the quads to gain strength and bulk.
This type of movement could, for instance, help a soccer player exert more force on the ball when shooting on goal. “(But) for the rest of us,” Connolly adds, “it may add undue strain on the knee that may benefit more greatly from a different exercise, such as a leg press.”
Instead, try the leg press. That’s the machine where you sit up straight, bring your knees toward your chest and plant your feet flat onto the plate that’s attached to a weight stack. This exercise is better, Connolly says, because it fires the core and the calf muscles along with the glutes.
2. Behind-the-neck lat pulldown and military press
Moving weights above your head is a delicate proposition, and Raffle says that behind-the-neck lat pulldown exercises are a total no-no. You can “kiss your rotator cuff goodbye” if you use these obsolete exercises, he adds.
“They have been shown to cause injury or impingement of the rotator cuff muscles over time,” he explains. “In addition, they provide no meaningful advantage to other exercises.”
Robert Herbst, a personal trainer, world champion powerlifter and Olympic official based in New York City, agrees that any exercises that involve bringing a weighted bar behind the neck, such as lat pulldowns or a military press, are a bad idea. “These movements are popular because they are supposed to give full development, but both exercises put too much torque on the shoulders and can cause injury.”
Connolly explains that if you lack the proper mobility in your shoulders and cervical spine, “the barbell sitting at the seat of your neck could cause undue compression on the spine if there’s a lack of support given from the arms.” It’s also really easy to lose good form when pushing the barbell up if you don’t have quite enough strength for the movement.
It’s not much better on the return either, as it’s easy to lose control of the bar and hit yourself on the skull or the back of the neck and damage the cervical or thoracic spine, Connolly adds.
Instead, try bringing the bar in front of your face. “Doing versions where the bar goes in front of the face are great,” Herbst says. Simply moving the neck back in line with the spine and pulling the bar down in front of you can remove a lot of risks and get you much better results.
3. Hip adductor
Dave Candy, a doctor of physical therapy and owner of More 4 Life, a physical therapy clinic in St. Louis, says the hip adductor machine is one to be wary of. “This is a machine where you sit with pads on your inner thighs and push the pads together,” he explains. “The idea of this machine is to strengthen and tone the inner thighs.”
While this exercise might be appealing to those seeking to slim their thighs, it doesn’t really work that way. “Thinner, toned thighs are achieved more through diet and general cardiovascular exercise than through specific hip adductor training,” Candy says.
Instead, try the hip abductor machine. This is the machine where the pads are on the outside of your knees and you push outward. You can build the muscle on the outside of the hip that helps you raise your leg to the side. Keeping these muscles in shape is key to maintaining mobility as you age.
4. Triceps dips
Justin Tardif-Francoeur, the co-founder of Montreal Weights, an at-home exercise equipment company based in Quebec, Canada, says that while triceps dips are “popular to target the triceps, there’s room for error that can end up overloading the shoulder’s rotator cuff and leading to injury.”
Instead, try triceps pushdowns. Using a cable machine or executing triceps pushups — like a regular pushup, but you keep your elbows tucked in by your sides as you move through the motion — is a safer way to target the triceps muscle.
Tardif-Francoeur also notes that the standard advice of using light weights with high reps may not give you the results you’re looking for. “There’s a common misconception out there that doing many reps with light dumbbells will give women that ‘toned’ look without getting bulky,” he explains.
However, while this approach increases muscular endurance, it “doesn’t help the muscles grow or become stronger, which is what you want in order to achieve a toned look,” he says. “Instead, lift heavier weights with a rep range of about eight to 12, and progressively increase the weights as you start to become stronger. Over time, the muscles will grow, which gives you more definition.”
Tiffany Ryder, an emergency medicine physician associate with the University of Maryland and founder of Lucent Wellness, an integrative wellness coaching practice based in Annapolis, says that deadlifts can be problematic because achieving the proper form isn’t always easy.
When performed incorrectly, deadlifts can put too much strain on the lower back and can lead to painful spasms or worse. “We treat these patients (with lower back pain) in the emergency room on a weekly basis, and often the only treatments that can be offered are anti-inflammatories and analgesics (medications to reduce pain) while their body begins the slow process of healing itself,” Ryder says. “These treatments don’t really solve the problem and simply provide partial symptomatic relief.”
What’s worse, she says, the back pain often comes back later on, “even if the deadlift is removed from the patient’s workout routine.”
Instead, try glute bridges and hip thrusts. Ryder says these exercises “are extremely effective and much safer than traditional deadlifts. These can be done with or without added weight, making them more versatile too.”
Situps are another exercise often considered a waste of time, says Ryan Olson, a doctor of physical therapy and clinical director at Capitol Physical Therapy in Madison, Wisconsin.
“There is good research that demonstrates that ‘spot training’ your abdominals by doing situps to reduce stomach fat and waist size does not actually help with either of these,” he says. “(Plus,) frequent spinal flexion may lead to or exacerbate low back pain, so it’s best for individuals who may have low back problems to consider avoiding situps.”
Instead, try planks. “Planks engage your entire body and can easily be modified for fitness level by dropping to your knees and/or elbows and altering the time spent engaged,” Ryder explains. “They train the lower back as well as the abdominal muscles and are effective in beginners and athletes alike.”
Or, as Olson notes, try heading into the kitchen to get those washboard abs. “A well-rounded exercise routine paired with an appropriate diet is a more effective way to improve the stomach region,” he says.
7. Back extension machine
“There aren’t a lot of people with truly weak back extensors,” Candy says. “In fact, most people with chronic back pain tend to have too much tone in their back muscles rather than not enough.”
Nevertheless, he sees lots of people using the back extension machine with too much weight on it, leaning too far backwards into the extension or moving too fast. “These factors could all lead to back injury, and as a physical therapist, I’ve seen several patients who have been injured using a back extension machine,” he says.
Instead, try ditching the extra weight. “I feel a better choice for most people is to use a back hyperextension bench with little to no added weight,” Candy says. “With this machine, you lean over the pads, and then the weight of your torso is the resistance.”
If you feel you must add weight, hold the plate against your chest, and never on your neck or head, Raffle says. “The spine is made to support the head, not the head plus 35 pounds. The potential for major and minor injury is literally endless from doing this move,” he explains. Those injuries could include whiplash, nerve impingement or disk damage.
Raffle notes that “most of the extension should come from the hip joints by squeezing your glute muscles. Your abdominal muscles should stay tight throughout the movement as you move into hip extension, not lower back hyperextension as the name of the machine implies.”
7 exercises trainers would never do.
— Leg extension machine.
— Behind-the-neck lat pulldown and military press.
— Hip adductor.
— Triceps dips.
— Back extension machine.
More from U.S. News
A Guide to Exercise After Surgery
Best Exercises for Preventing Falls in Older Adults
Exercises Trainers Would Never Do originally appeared on usnews.com
Update 03/15/23: This story was previously published at an earlier date and has been updated with new information.