When deciding on whether to add an exercise into your workout, there’s a simple rule to follow: If it makes you look like an idiot, don’t do it.
If you walk into any gym today—aside from the one I train people at, of course—you’re likely to see guys working on trying to isolate their “medial deltoids” with machines that look like something out of a Game of Thrones torture chamber, or struggling to balance on a ball like some kind of circus bear.
For the most part, those people are not getting bigger or stronger—in fact, a lot of them are just hurting themselves. There’s nothing wrong with adding some variations to your workout and changing things up, but exercises that force you to work with extremely light weights, use over-complicated equipment that puts you at risk for injury, or make you feel like an idiot just aren’t worth doing.
That’s why we’ve compiled this list of 10 exercises that absolutely suck, accompanied by better alternatives that promote a safer, more effective workout.
THE BOTTOM 10:
1. The Pec Deck Fly
This lift simply doesn’t allow you to move enough weight to overload the muscles and elicit growth. Moreover, most guys unintentionally allow the arm pads to hyperextend their shoulder joints as they perform the lowering phase of the lift, and that causes injury. And no, it doesn’t “bring out” your middle chest.
DO THIS INSTEAD: The blast-strap push-up. Blast straps (available at elitefts.net) are basically nylon leashes with metal handles that can loop around a chinup bar, tree limb, or practically any other apparatus and provide the means to do a limitless number of body-weight exercises. Using them to perform pushups forces each shoulder to stabilize itself, increasing muscle activation. Wear a weighted vest or rest your feet on an elevated surface, and you’ll have an exercise that fries the chest, shoulders, triceps, and core.
2. The Leg Extension
Like the pec-deck fly, this lift doesn’t allow the quads (some of the strongest muscles in your body) to move much weight. Worse, the more weight you use, the greater the shearing forces you place on your knees, risking injury.
DO THIS INSTEAD: The single-leg squat with back foot raised. Bend one knee, raising your lower leg behind you so that you’re standing on the opposite leg. Rest the top of your raised foot on a bench or other elevated surface so that it’s level with your butt. Now squat down and up with your supporting leg. Because you’re supporting your weight on only one leg, this move trashes the quads and glutes, and challenges your balance. Your hips move freely, too, which is safer for your knees. When you can’t get to a gym, this move provides a great leg workout without weights.
3. The Smith Machine Squat
Since the bar travels along a fixed track, it virtually eliminates the need for your core to stabilize your body. Not good. Because your abs and lower back aren’t working like they should, frequent Smith- machine squatting leads to muscle imbalances. Also, because the track won’t allow your hips to bend like they do on a free-weight squat, you may overstress your knees.
DO THIS INSTEAD: The box squat. Set up a box behind you and then lower your body until your glutes touch it. Touching the box requires you to “sit back” as you squat, as if you were lowering yourself into a chair, and this action gets the glutes and hamstrings maximally involved in the lift. It also helps you to perfect your squat form. You can start with a higher box and gradually move to smaller boxes as you improve, ultimately training your body to squat below parallel with no box at all. Better still, the box squat places no strain on the knees, so even people with knee problems can attempt it safely.
4. The Concentration Curl
Though it’s probably the second-most common exercise in the gym (after the bench press), bag it! The weight you can use is very limited and the movement has no function in daily life or sports.
DO THIS INSTEAD: The modified preacher curl. Raise the height of a preacher curl bench so that you can curl on it while standing. Grab a bar-bell and position your triceps against the pad, as in a normal preacher curl. As you curl, bend your upper body forward to somewhere between a 45- degree angle and parallel to the floor. After you’ve curled the bar as high as possible, slowly bring your body back to upright as you lower the weight. By leaning forward as you curl, you change the angle of your forearms in relation to the floor and allow for more tension at the end of the range of motion. The payoff: You can go heavier.
5. The Leg Curl
The only time your hamstrings will ever work in isolation is when you do this exercise. The hams are meant to act in unison with the glutes and lower back, so training them alone only leads to imbalances, especially in the posterior chain—the interrelated muscles on the back side of your body that are responsible for explosive speed and power. And that’s not just bad, it’s a catastrophe, because a faulty posterior chain can leave you with an excruciating hamstring pull—even if you’re just out for a jog.
DO THIS INSTEAD: The weighted 45-degree back extension. Use a back extension apparatus while holding a weight plate to your chest; do not use a machine. This exercise works the hamstrings, spinal erectors, and glutes together. While you’ll probably never find yourself in a leg-curl position outside the gym, you’ll always be bending forward to pick things up off the floor, and the back extension trains all the muscles that make that possible.
6. The Triceps Kickback
Never mind that it’s a lift women often perform with soup cans, the kickback is just too easy. The way your body is positioned—with the arm parallel to the floor and the elbow pointing up—the triceps only really have to work to lock the elbow out at the end of the lift’s range of motion. And since the weight you’re forced to use is so light, you won’t get stronger (unless you normally have trouble lifting soup cans).
DO THIS INSTEAD: The Warren press. With a shoulder-width grip, grab a bar and lie on your back on the floor. Hold the bar overhead and begin lowering it in a straight line to right above your neck. Allow your upper arms to lower as in a bench press and your forearms to simultaneously bend back toward your head as in a triceps extension. Stop when either your triceps touch the floor or the bar is six inches off your neck, and then reverse the motion. That’s one rep. Combining a compound and isolation movement allows you to blast the tri’s with heavy weight.
7. The Rolling Shrug
You know this move: Roll your shoulders forward, then shrug to your ears, then roll your shoulders back behind you before lowering the weights. Whoever invented this exercise forgot one key thing: Gravity pulls downward, not forward or back. So not only will you look like you’re going into convulsions, you’ll take tension off the traps, and you’ll grind your shoulder joints.
DO THIS INSTEAD: The seated dumbbell clean. Hold a dumbbell in each hand, palms facing behind you, and sit at the edge of a bench. Lean forward 45 degrees and then explosively straighten your body, shrugging the weights and then bending your elbows and flipping your wrists up so that you finish in the bottom position of a shoulder press. Reverse the motion to return to the starting position. That’s one rep. Seated cleans work the entire upper back, traps, and shoulders, giving you a thick-necked look without damaging your shoulders.
8. The Lateral Raise
While most guys use bad form anyway, swinging the weights up to shoulder level as if they were birds flapping their wings, this exercise sucks even if it’s done right. The shoulders get plenty of work from presses, pullups, squats, deadlifts, and just about any other exercise you do. The lateral raise just isn’t necessary.
DO THIS INSTEAD: The muscle clean and press. This may be the best shoulder builder of all time, and it works so many other muscles that it’s also one of the most efficient moves you can do in a time-crunch workout. To perform it, just think of a clean and press, but with no thrust from the hips: Use a shoulder-width grip and perform an upright row explosively (keep your lower body in one place). Then, still using the momentum generated with your shoulders, rotate your forearms to the ceiling and press the bar straight overhead.
9. Any Crunch Performed On Crunch Machine
Crunches are a poor ab exercise, period, given that abs don’t perform crunching motions in daily life. Adding a machine to the mix only makes the move less effective. Machines limit the involvement of the lower- back muscles, which the abs aren’t designed to contract without. This leads to muscle imbalances and—you guessed it—injury.
DO THIS INSTEAD: The modified Turkish getup. Hold a dumbbell in your left hand and lie on the floor with your left leg bent and left foot flat on the floor. Your right leg should be straight and your right arm angled 45 degrees to your side. Now raise your torso off the floor, keeping your left arm perpendicular to the floor. Once you are up, turn to your right side and raise your hips off the floor, supporting yourself with your
right arm and right leg (you will be balancing on the side of your right foot). This old-school move works all your muscles, enhancing core strength and your six-pack.
10. Any Heavyweight Exercise Done Standing on a BOSU Ball
Functional-training gurus will tell you that performing your lifts on an unstable surface, such as a Bosu, will build more muscle than lifting with your feet flat on the ground. It won’t. The ball makes your body so unstable, you can’t handle much weight.
DO THIS INSTEAD: Save the BOSU for your bodyweight exercises, like lunges, squats, and pushups. That’s where the instability really shines, and makes your core work much harder.