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.



  1. profile avatar
    Maria May 20, 2013 - 14:28 #

    Good pile of “bad exercises”! Sharing this immediately. The lat pull down, the wave squat, and the leg extension are the ones I see more commonly. Most people tweak the right moves without realizing it and make the “mistakes” just to a small degree. Yet they are still hurting themselves.

    Thanks for sharing those videos!

  2. profile avatar
    Cory May 20, 2013 - 14:53 #

    That deadlift made me cringe!

  3. profile avatar
    Ashley May 21, 2013 - 12:45 #

    The exercise ball squat is bizarre! Who would do that? Thanks for the list and yes, I did find one that I had done for a while.

  4. profile avatar
    Peter @ MadForFit May 24, 2013 - 10:15 #

    This list, (and a few others) should be put up in my gym! The amount of bad exercises I see people do (probably unaware they are doing anything wrong) is horrific!

  5. profile avatar
    Brady May 24, 2013 - 11:27 #

    I have seen plenty of bad deadlifts (and to be honest, some of these were probably in a mirror), but that one was the granddaddy of them all. I bet that kid puts a smile on the face of every orthopedic surgeon who sees him.

  6. profile avatar
    Julie May 24, 2013 - 12:06 #

    When I got this article in my e-mail this morning I quickly realized that as a feeble 46 year old woman for whom doing curls with 8 pound dumbbells is a real challenge, none of these bad exercises are even in the range of possibility for me, so no worries there. However, I surfed about, looking at other articles on bad exercises, and the fitnesstherapynyc website lists overhead tricep extensions with dumbbells as one of 7 worst exercises, and that happens to be an exercise I have been doing. Do you have any opinions on that, and should I stop?

  7. profile avatar
    Liz May 24, 2013 - 12:46 #

    Great Article Steve! I’d like to add misuse of the rowing machine to this list. As a ex-college rower I always find myself cringing about how people use the rowing machines in gyms. Besides the fact people use really horrible (dangerous) technique, they also set the vent up to 10. The rowing machine should not be used as a lifting machine! A vent setting of 10 without amazing core strength can lead to disc and other back injuries. Most elite level rowers don’t set the vents above 6. Check out Concept 2 for more info!

    (OK, I’ll step away from my soapbox now!)

  8. profile avatar
    lisa May 24, 2013 - 13:25 #

    Weird, I have never seen anyone but me do feet up bench press. I usually have my feet On the bench rather than in the air, and the only reason I ever did it (and I use pretty low weight anyway) is that the arch in my lower back is so much that it’s kind of uncomfortable. Putting my legs up gets my lower back flat on the bench.

    Yeah, I know, short hamstrings and tight iliopsoas from having never stretched when younger. 🙁 But now that I know people are gonna be lurking around thinking how ridiculous it is, I guess I’ll stop. haha!

    1. profile avatar
      Marc Perry, CSCS, CPT May 24, 2013 - 13:49 #

      @lisa – I used to bench with my feet on the bench for years because I had lower back issues from a herniated disk. If you don’t have a healthy back, I think it makes sense, but I think Steve’s recommendation of using a raised platform to put your feet against, like 2 25lb plates may be the best bet. I slightly adjusted the article to mention lower back tightness, but the real issue is that the guy in the video wasn’t even planting his feet on the bench, or anywhere!

  9. profile avatar
    lisa May 24, 2013 - 13:29 #

    Oh wait…I just watched the feet up video. I don’t do That. I don’t even think the feet on the bench is the biggest problem there. What the heck’s the guy doing with his back off the bench? Is he actually even Using his pecs with this press? Seems like this would activate the lower back rather than stabilize the pecs. Gah

  10. profile avatar
    TonyaSimone May 24, 2013 - 14:00 #

    All these “never-dos” made me cringe and laugh! These people are so serious that they will do anything to prove their agility, balance and fitness. I have actually seen (in-person) a woman doing the “wave” squat and she looked so serious and purposeful. All I could think is that she was setting herself up for a serious back injury- especially since she had just added more weight to the bar- about 95lbs total. I kept to myself because three months ago when I tried to let another woman know that the way she was moving on the elliptical threw off their alignment and subjected them to injury I got a horrible stare. The sad part is that, as adults, injuries from stupid exercise sets, as seen above, set us up for permanent injuries in the form of arthritis or calcium deposits at the joints.

  11. profile avatar
    pratap May 25, 2013 - 05:54 #

    very informative

  12. profile avatar
    Mitch Bossart May 25, 2013 - 08:10 #

    Hey, Mark.

    It would be great if you’d do a series of videos like this on how to do various lifts properly–both free weight and machines.

    Reading about the right technique is helpful but seeing the right technique in action makes all the difference.

    Appreciate the information–keep it coming!

    Mitch Bossart

    1. profile avatar
      Marc Perry, CSCS, CPT May 25, 2013 - 08:40 #

      Thanks for the idea, Mitch.

  13. profile avatar
    Nithanth May 25, 2013 - 09:44 #

    Excellent Sir… Expecting more informative things…

  14. profile avatar
    Sandra May 25, 2013 - 15:01 #

    Wow, some of these videos had me panicking. Anyone who lifts has used bad form at one time or another I am sure and just squatting and deadlifting can get boring so people are trying to add variations to set themselves apart from everyone else. I love challenging myself with new and interesting exercises but safety needs to come first.

  15. profile avatar
    Judy Jun 12, 2013 - 09:58 #

    thanks for sharing… all gym trainer must take a lesson from this

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