Are you still training with many of the same exercises you did back in gym class?
Are you using upright rows to build your shoulders? Maybe ending your workout with a few sets of sit-ups?
Just as we now know that the sit-and-reach is not an effective metric for your flexibility, there are a handful of strength training exercises that not only lack in effectiveness, but may even elevate your risk of injury.
You see, our collective understanding of fitness has evolved rapidly over just the past 10 years. It’s becoming more and more clear that we need to be training movement patterns instead of parts in isolation (think: squat vs. the knee extension machine). We have also learned that some exercises represent not only an unnatural movement pattern, but may even be potentially damaging over the long term.
This is especially important to recognize if you have less than ideal posture (who doesn’t?!) or grumpy joints. Therefore, it is important for you to consult with a medical professional and a certified personal trainer to ensure that you know which exercises and programs are right for you.
That being said, the health and fitness community has generally identified a handful of controversial exercises that are worth substituting with their safer and more joint-friendly counterparts.
So, let’s get to it! Here are five exercises you need to stop doing now, and what you can do instead.
1. Upright rows
Are upright rows a part of your fitness program? Are you using a barbell, a pair of dumbbells, or maybe a sandbag? It’s not the weight used that defines an upright row, but the movement. You stand upright with the weight at arm’s length and then with an overhand, closed grip, lift the weight to near collarbone level.
I remember being instructed on this exercise back when I was in high school. Since then, I performed the exercise with just about anything that was heavy. If I wanted to train my shoulders and traps, well, upright rows were my go-to exercise.
However, we now know that the upright row movement is a less-than-ideal pattern. Performing too many upright rows may increase your chances of shoulder impingement and overworking your rotator cuffs. Your humerus is impacting against the acromion process in your shoulder joint. This is because your arm is locked into internal rotation by holding the weight close to the center of your chest.
Try this instead: Lateral dumbbell raises
Lateral dumbbell raises are a safer alternative. You’ll need to adopt a well-rounded shoulder workout to make sure you get at all heads of your deltoid, but lateral raises are a good start.
From standing, grip a dumbbell in each hand at arm’s length and, keeping your arms straightened, raise the dumbbells out to the sides so they are level with your shoulders.
2. Seated knee extensions
We’ve all done this at one point or another, haven’t we? It’s one of those very familiar weight machines that people seem to flock to in the gym, probably because it’s very straight forward to use. And if you’re wearing shorts you can see your muscles flex–it must be working, right?!
Unfortunately, seated knee extensions have a tendency to put your knee joint under a lot of stress. Those small and very important tendons and ligaments in your knee will be a heck of a lot happier if you stopped putting so much stress on them in an unnatural way.
Does the seated leg extension look like a natural movement pattern? Of course it doesn’t. Our bodies simply weren’t designed to move a load from our ankles.
For bodybuilders and those interested in muscle hypertrophy, the leg extension can indeed build muscle tone. However, for the majority of gym goers–those who simply want to move better and feel better–there is a far better alternative out there than extensions.
Try this instead: Goblet squats
Grab a dumbbell or kettlebell, hold it at your chest, and push your hips back as you bend your knees and squat down to a comfortable level. Drive through the heels and press back up.
The squat pattern is a simple movement that we all did wonderfully when we were children, but as we grew up and earned office jobs, many of us started to lose this pattern. The goblet squat is a great starting point for you to relearn how to squat properly.
It’s worth mentioning that a squat can be a very technical lift, but you have to start somewhere! So grab a kettlebell and have a good trainer watch your form. You’ll be moving in both a purposeful and practical manner while sparing your knees from any unnecessary stress.
Oh yes, even the once venerable sit-up is on my list. For decades the sit-up wasn’t considered controversial in the very least. But today, those of us in the health and fitness community have a much better understanding of what the muscles in our core actually do (they do much more than just flex the spine!).
I encourage you to do a quick Internet search and find out for yourself why there are better alternatives for building your core strength than the sit-up. But here’s the least that you need to know: spine bio-mechanics expert Dr. Stuart McGill has learned that sit-ups may put you at a greater risk for disc herniation and disc bulge2.
So how do you work your core?
Try this instead: Plank slides
The plank is a great core builder, but I’ll be the first to admit, it can feel a little dull sometimes.
Here’s how you spice it up: Using towels on a slick floor, or gliding discs that you might find in your gym, assume the plank position and place your hands on the towels or discs. Now, play with moving each arm six inches up and down. Then try side to side. All the while, keep your torso in place and mitigate movement everywhere except your arms.
Now that’s a core workout!
4. Behind the neck pull-downs
Similar to upright rows, behind the neck pull-downs are placing extra stress on your shoulder joint. In this case, the humerus is being externally rotated and having to really stretch the front of your shoulder.
To make matters worse, if you’re a desk jockey, odds are that you already have rounded shoulders from hunching toward a computer screen. This posture will only accentuate the stress placed on your shoulders.
Try this instead: Pull-downs (or pull-ups!)
In other words, do the original pull-downs by pulling down in front of you, towards your collarbone. This is a much safer movement pattern and will spare your shoulders from that unnecessary stress. And if you can lift your bodyweight, then why not do the real deal? The pull-up!
5. Bench dips
We see a lot of bench dips in the gym. Again, I think it’s one of those exercises we learned years ago and continue to perform by habit. The problem with bench dips is that with your hands so far behind your body, you end up putting a significant stress on the front of your shoulders (are you starting to see a theme?). If you put weight plates on your legs, then you’re just amplifying the problem.
Simply put, the risk outweighs the reward with bench dips.
Try this instead: Tricep push-downs
With tricep push-downs you’ll still be able to focus on your triceps (which actually comprise the majority of your upper arm), but you’ll be doing so with your shoulders in a much safer position.
So, there you have it. Five alternate exercises that will help keep you healthy and lifting for a long time to come.
Is this an exhaustive list? No, of course not. But I hope it will get you thinking and encourage you to think critically about your own workout program. Everyone’s body is different and it’s up to you to make sure you’re lifting smart.
We resistance train to keep our bodies healthy, right? But sometimes it is all too easy to do just the opposite unless we take a step back from time to time and take a close look at the movements we’re doing.
Safe lifting everyone!