You may know strength machines may not be the best choice to get fit and reach your goals if you have limited time in the gym. You may have read that these machines neglect your core musculature and don’t allow you to train key stabilizer muscles.
So, you spend your time doing a combination of free weight and cable exercises that you have picked up reading magazines, seen on YouTube, watching others in the gym, or possibly even made up on your own. Although you may be on the right track, one thing you must realize is that not all exercises are created equal and it’s even possible you could be doing more harm than good.
My best piece of advice is to master the basics such as squats, deadlifts, pushups and pull-ups and then find the next appropriate progression before heading to the Bat Cave to make up your own, potentially dangerous, exercises. There is a reason that training certifications and studies exist, as it takes a great deal of background to fully understand the full scale of what you are doing and how it could be affecting in your body.
Until then, here are 7 exercises you should never do under any circumstance:
1) Deadlift With Rounded Lower Back
This is number one on my personal list of things I never want to see anyone doing in the gym and sadly there is someone in a gym right now showing their friends how to deadlift this way. I would rather watch someone do bicep curls in the squat rack.
This highly dangerous move creates significant flexion with compression on the disks of your lower spine. On its own, flexion of the spine isn’t the end of the world, but add a load such as a barbell and repetitive motion and it is a recipe for disaster. It’s not a matter of if you’ll injure your back but when.
The Fix: Learn how to deadlift with proper form or at the very least maintain a neutral (flat) spine.
2) Exercise Ball Squats
In some instances an exercise ball will be a great tool to challenge your stability but not in this instance. Popular belief is that training on unstable surfaces will target your core muscles better but doesn’t always carry over so well in practice. The risk-to-reward ratio of this exercise is extremely high as there is really little to no additional benefit to squatting on a ball, but there is an extremely high risk of serious injury.
Even without a barbell, this is a dangerous exercise that has little to no benefit. The only time this may potentially be applicable is if you are training to stand on a ball in the circus and even then there are probably better exercises.
The Fix: Build a stronger core by learning how to squat heavier weight and sticking to the basic core exercises. If you want to train on unstable surfaces, choose exercises that won’t allow you to fall on your face.
3) Unbalanced Bench Press
I’m really not sure what the rationale behind benching with your feet up in the air is if you have a healthy lower back, but this is a trend that needs to stop. If you’re trying to build a bigger chest or stronger bench press then it is in your best interest to keep your feet planted to the ground.
This ensures that you are pressing from a stable surface and will be able to effectively transfer force from the ground. I see a lot of bench pressing faux-pas in the gym but this one just doesn’t make any sense.
The Fix: Bench press with your feet flat on the ground. If you are short, or have lower back tightness, you may have to place a 1″-2″ step on the ground to keep your feet on. When you initiate the pressing movement, drive your feet through the ground making sure to keep your butt on the bench and finish strong.
4) Lat Pulldown With Swing
I see this type of exercise performed a lot in most gyms along with its distant cousin, the kipping pull-up. Sadly, there are no real benefits to either besides making it look like you are having a seizure.
When doing pull-ups or lat pulldowns, it is a good idea to start by working the direct line of pull and maintain a rigid core to target your lat muscles. When you use body english to ‘kip’ yourself up to the bar or lean back to yank the bar to your body you are robbing yourself of a good training effect by not working one of the strongest muscles in your body.
The Fix: When doing pull-ups or lat pulldowns, maintain a rigid core and use your armpits (lats) to bring the bar to your body or your body to the bar. No cheating!
5) Leg Extension Machine With Hip Thrust
Never mind the extra humping motion, I would completely skip the leg extension machine all together. There is much debate on the efficacy of using the leg extension machine, which is mostly due to the belief that you must isolate muscles to train them to grow and get stronger.
In the case of the leg extension machine, yes you will get a pump in your quads because you are isolating the muscle, but it comes with high risk to proper function and joint stress, mainly at the patella(in the knee). The muscles in your legs are supposed to function synergistically and by neglecting the hamstring group and small stabilizer muscles you are ensuring future injury. Just saying.
The Fix: Focus on movements such as squats, lunges and deadlifts rather than individual muscle groups such as your quads, hamstrings and calves. By working the muscles of your leg together you are going to prevent injury and get your legs stronger, faster and more functional.
6) “Chicken” Cable Cross Overs
Just because you can move all the plates on a machine doesn’t mean you are strong, it just means you can move all the plates on a machine. In this case, it comes at the risk of a torn rotator cuff or a serious dislocation. So unless you want to use your injury as a handy party trick, it’s probably best to stay away from this one.
The Fix: If your shoulders are mobile enough to perform this move then chances are you lack stability in the joint. Stick to good old-fashioned pushups done properly of course.
7) Wave Squats
Another exercise that makes me cringe when done poorly is a back loaded barbell squat due to the potential damage that can be caused to the knees, hips and back. The problem is that many people who are new to squatting (and even some veterans) feel the need to load up the barbell with massive amounts of weight before they learn proper technique or even find out if they should be squatting. This is a case of putting the cart before the horse.
The common belief is that to squat you must bend your knees. This is true but what most people don’t realize is that there are other moving parts involved, such as your hips. When you don’t properly use your hips your body tends to fold up like an accordion, which is no good. Squats don’t hurt people, what people are calling squats is what causes injury.
The Fix: When you squat, start with a slightly wider than hip width stance with your feet toed out. Initiate the movement with your hips rather than your knees by sticking your butt back. As you descend, press outwards on your knees lowering your butt until it is well below knee level. To go back up keep pressing out on your knees and drive your heels into the floor until you stand tall and lock out. Master that and then start adding weight! For more detail, check out How to Squat With Proper Form.
Hope these tips on exercises to avoid, as well as how to fix them, helps you train safely and avoid any gym-related injuries. Please share if you’ve got some more gym-fails you’ve seen around the workout room.