Poor exercise choices will not only fall short of getting you desired results — like the flexing fellow pictured here — but can ultimately lead to a debilitating injury. It’s a double whammy you want to avoid.
Here are five of the all-time worst exercises along with five super substitutes. Out with the bad, in with the good!
1. Standing Dumbbell Pec Flys
These exercises are performed in many body sculpting classes and I’ve even seen personal trainers use them with their clients. They are supposed to work the chest muscles (i.e. pectorals). The problem: they don’t work the pecs at all! In order for a move to be effective, it must oppose gravity. In this exercise, the motion is horizontal to the ground while gravity is, of course, vertical. All you end up with is a very inefficient way of isometrically work the front delts.
Super Substitute Exercise: All you need to do in order to target the pecs is perform the exercise lying down on a bench, a stability ball, or even the floor. This allows you to work in the direction of gravity and really develop those chest muscles!
The good-old sit-up is a staple in most gym classes from pre-school to college. It’s also one of the worst exercises for maintaining lower-back health. Forces on the lumbar region go through the roof each time you lift your lower back off the floor to a seated position. Making matters even worse, the hip flexors tend to dominate the movement, taking the focus off the abs. And when hip flexors get overly developed in relation to the lower back muscles, lumbar health is further compromised. End result: chronic lower back pain.
Super Substitute Exercise: The crunch and any of its variations are ideal for targeting the abs without overly stressing the lower back. For added intensity you can perform the move on a stability ball, which really gets those core muscles firing!
3. Behind the Neck Shoulder Presses
People often perform the shoulder press with a barbell or body bar, starting with the bar held behind the neck. Bad idea. This places the shoulder joint in a position where it is simultaneously abducted and externally rotated — a condition that can cause impingement of the rotator cuff and possibly a tear of the associated muscles and tendons. What’s more, the shoulder joint ligaments can become overly stretched with repeated use of the move. Over time, the ligaments can become so loose that surgery is required to reinstate stability, setting back your training efforts for months.
Super Substitute Exercise: Go with a dumbbell press. Dumbbells allow the shoulder to work in its natural arc, providing a safe and effective workout. As an alternative, consider the Arnold Press where you begin with your palms facing your body and then turn them as you press the weights up so that, by the finish of the move, they’re facing away from you.
4. Behind the Neck Lat Pulldowns
Go into any gym in the world and you’ll see people yanking down lat pulldowns behind their neck. This is dangerous on two levels. For one, it places a great deal of stress on the shoulder capsule, which can cause damage to surrounding connective tissue. What’s more, there is a tendency to pull the neck forward during performance, increasing the prospect of injury to the cervical spine and corresponding muscles and ligaments. There is even the danger of vertebral trauma if the bar is pulled down too hard. Ouch!
Super Substitute Exercise: Perform lat pulldowns to the front, where the bar is brought down to your upper chest at the finish of the move. Not only will this spare your shoulder joints, it has been shown to be more effective in building muscle than the behind-the-neck version. If you don’t have access to a gym, you can also perform dumbbell rows to work the back muscles.
5. Alternating Superman
You might not know the name of the exercise, but you’ve probably seen it performed countless times. A person lies face down on the floor and then lifts the right arm and left leg simultaneously, then repeats with opposite side. The problem here is that the legs are much heavier than the arms. When you lift opposing limbs (i.e. right arm/left leg) at the same time, there is a tendency to twist the torso and, correspondingly, place undue torsion on the spine. You end up doing more harm to your back than good.
Super Substitute Exercise: Simply perform The Superman with all limbs together at the same time. Alternatively, you can perform hyperextensions and reverse hyperextensions on a stability ball to really engage the core muscles.