By Rob Hardy | Physiologist and S & C Coach
A note from Rob: These are my personal opinions about improved gym exercises, and I want to stress that my goal is to provide you with better options to support your own well-rounded workout routine.
This might be surprising advice, but the next time you go to the gym I’d recommend forgoing the weight machines and instead sticking to body weight exercises, free weights, cables, and medicine balls.
No matter what your background or goals are, people should train functionally (rather than with machines) for life at home, work, or in sports. This strategy will help with injury prevention and overall joint health. Unfortunately, most weight machines not only hold us back from getting the most out of our training sessions, but will to some extent act as training wheels do on a child’s bicycle. Instead of using proper balance and form, we end up relying on the training wheels for stability. Therefore when the training wheels we are so heavily relying upon are removed and we apply these movements to everyday life, we end up having a greater risk of injury.
I’m not a professional trainer – how do I know what exercises at the gym are good or bad for me?
There are some simple ways to identify whether or not certain exercises are good to perform when you’re at the gym. Before you begin, ask:
- Does the risk of injury outweigh the benefit of the exercise? (If the answer is yes, it’s not a good exercise to do.)
- Is the exercise functional and/or natural? As in, does it support your ability to perform daily life activities easily and without injury? (Example of a functional exercise: a squat. Squats train the muscles used in activities such as standing up or sitting down, or picking up objects.)
It is also important to remember that just because some people perform exercises with weight machines and don’t get injured, that doesn’t mean it is necessarily a good exercise.
Exercises and exercise machines to remove from your training routine:
- LEG PRESS
This machine requires you to lay on your back and push weight upwards with your feet. When would we ever have to do this in real life, and more importantly, why? And why did we decide this was a good exercise – pushing weight with our legs from underneath?
REPLACE WITH: Goblet squats or front squats. You’ll get the same results with a much lower risk of injury.
- THE CRUNCH MACHINE
Yikes! This one hurts me to even think about. The function of your lumbar spine (or lower back) is to bear the weight of the body and/or an external load when lifting or carrying. Flexion in the lower back will cause an injury.
REPLACE WITH: Anti-rotation & anti-extension exercises to work the core, such as planks, anti-rotation holds, dead bugs, etc.
This may be controversial, but in my opinion the burpee is one of the worst exercises you can do. I recommend you stop doing them at all costs. As Mike Boyle (strength & conditioning coach) points out, burpees have you “jamming the wrists into extension and putting stress on the anterior shoulder, the weakest part of your shoulder.” Take this concept and add high repetitions? Disaster!
REPLACE WITH: Alternating any other high-intensity cardio (like sprints, sleds, ropes) with push-ups.
There are better exercises out there that can easily be swapped in for the high-injury-risk versions listed above.
More examples of exercises that can be replaced with healthier versions:
Bad exercise: Bench dips. (These put your shoulder joints in a very compromising position.)
Good exercise: Close grip push-ups.
Bad exercise: Kipping pull-up. (Using the momentum of your legs to swing into your pull-up? That’s cheating.)
Good exercise: Chin-up, or regular pull-up.
Bad exercise: American kettlebell swing. (The swing shouldn’t go above your torso – the Russians got that right!)
Good exercise: Russian kettlebell swing.
Bad exercise: Straight bar deadlift. (We have hex bars for this purpose.)
Good exercise: Hex bar deadlift, or kettlebell deadlift.
Bad exercise: Russian twists. (Twisting the spine? That’s not good. The Russians got that wrong.)
Good exercise: Planks, anti-rotation holds, dead bugs, bird dogs, etc.
Bad exercise: Behind the neck pulldown. (Places too much external rotation on the shoulder.)
Good exercise: Chin-up, pull-up, cable pulldowns.
Bad exercise: Leg curl machine. (This is a single joint exercise, and non-functional. Pulling your heels to your butt while lying on your stomach? Think about how silly that sounds.)
Good exercise: Deadlifts.
Bad exercise: Leg extension machine. (Puts a lot of tension on the ACL. Also, sitting and kicking your legs out isn’t a very effective exercise.)
Good exercise: Split squats.
When it comes to building a well-rounded and safe workout routine, the key is considering each exercise as a part of your daily movement. If the exercise doesn’t make sense in a way that fits with the way your body should twist, bend, and move, it is most likely not the best option. However, if the exercise is functional, it will support fluid injury-free movement throughout every facet of your life.