There are some things about season finales, first dates, false eyelashes that can easily be separated into good and bad categories. Exercises, however, cannot.
There’s a time and a place for almost every exercise, according to strength and conditioning specialist Alena Luciani, MS, CSCS, founder of Training2kl. Unfortunately, there are a handful of strength training and cardio machines that are (over)used, even when there are safer, more effective alternatives.
Ahead, 7 exercises that many gym-goers do that fitness experts recommend they skip, plus alternatives they recommend to replace your exercise routine with.
Smith machine squats
The Smith machine is a favorite among people who are new to strength training. At first glance, the machine may look like ordinary squat equipment. But the bar is actually attached to a fixed, sliding track (much like a leg press). Whether you’re using a machine for shoulder presses, bench presses, squats, or deadlifts, this track forces the barbell to move up and down in set vertical plane, explains Luciani.
There are so many factors such as ankle and hip mobility, glute and quad strength, and femur length that dictate an individual’s squat position as well as the path of the bar during the squat, Luciani says. Unfortunately, since the bar is on the track, the Smith Machine squat doesn’t allow for any form variation, meaning everyone squats the same. As far as squats go, this can actually put you at risk of poor form, which increases your risk of injury down the line.
When you squat, you should shift your weight with Your particular body, says Luciani. However, because the weight must move along a specific path during Smith machine squats, the reverse happens: you move your body eye weight, she explains.
Try this instead: free squats with weights
To be clear: you shouldn’t cut squats out of your routine entirely. Weighted squats are a great way to strengthen a functional squat pattern, as well as develop lower body and core strength, says Luciani.
She recommends replacing Smith machine squats with squat variations that allow you to move with (not against) the body, such as the dumbbell squat, goblet squat, barbell front squat, or barbell back squat.
The stationary goblet squat is another good option for new lifters who need to master the upright squat, she adds.
Leg extensions are a seated exercise that isolates your quads. A leg extension is a good option for people rehabilitating from a knee injury, says Luciani. That’s because the machine allows you to strengthen the quads and some other stabilizing muscles around the knee without putting your full body weight on the joint, as most other squat and lunge variations do.
However, most people who use the leg extension machine are not rehabilitating an injury, they are just trying to increase quad strength. There are better, more functional exercises you can do to strengthen the front of your leg extensions, she says.
Try this instead: squats and lunges
Split squats, Bulgarian split squats, weighted lunges, squats, and single-leg lunges are all exercises that will strengthen your quads, in addition to the other muscles that surround your knees and hips, says Luciani.
If you’re particularly interested in prioritizing quad strength gains over overall front leg gains for aesthetic, athletic (bodybuilding) or pre-hab purposes, she specifically recommends single-leg dips.
To try a one-legged dip, start standing on top of a plyometric box with one leg locked and the other hanging off the edge. Next, you’ll think about moving the heel of your non-standing leg toward the ground by bending the knee of your planted leg and slowly sitting your butt back. Think about contracting your quads, hamstrings, and core to help lower your heel toward the ground in a controlled manner, she says. When the floating heel lightly hits the ground below, explode back to standing and squeeze your glutes at the top.
Conventional barbell deadlift
When performed in sound form, the conventional barbell deadlift is a great way to master the hinge movement pattern, improve posterior chain strength, and help you maintain independence as you age.
Unfortunately, many people don’t deadlift correctly, says Luciani. Most often, individuals make the mistake of trying to pull the bar before actively engaging their midline or lats, which puts the lower back in a sub-optimal position to get the weight, she says. (If your lower back hurts more than your knees in the days after deadlifting, it could be you!).
Try this instead: Trap Bar Deadlift
Having a strong posterior chain is essential to maximizing overall strength as well as reducing the risk of lower back problems. So instead of throwing the baby out (the conventional barbell deadlift) with the bathwater (the deadlift as a whole), Luciani recommends opting for the trap-bar deadlift instead.
Trap bar deadlifts also known as hex deadlifts involve raising and lowering the bar in a hexagon shape. You’re gripping the hex bar from the side of your body, not in front of your body,” Luciani explains. Because the weight itself is placed to the side, not in front of you, your body won’t have to fight gravity’s forward pull. A movement, she explains, that can help in reducing stress on the lower back.
If you don’t have access to a trap bar, do Romanian deadlifts instead, where each rep starts and ends on your hips (not the floor), suggests certified strength and conditioning coach Jake Harkoff, CSCS head coach and owner of AIM Athletic.
The Romanian deadlift maximizes muscle tension throughout the entire range of motion, he says. Additionally, you can adjust the exercise so that you only go as low as your current mobility allows without putting your spine in a suboptimal position.
The desire to build a strong core is a new and worthwhile goal. Core strength, after all, protects your spine, improves balance, helps your arms and legs access their core strength and power, and supports pelvic health.
However, most people mistakenly think they are working their entire core (multiple muscles) when they are actually only working their abs (top muscle).
Your core is made up of a number of muscles like the transverse abdominis, erector spinae, obliques, and rectus abdominis, says Luciani. To have a core that is actually strong, not one that just looks strong, you need to work all four of these major midline muscles.
Sit-ups only work the rectus abdominis, which is colloquially known as the six-pack muscle. While crunches can create midlines, it won’t actually strengthen the part of the core that supports your overall stability, strength, and (spinal) safety.
Try this instead: rotational movements
All rotation and anti-rotation exercises will engage the deeper muscles in your midsection, says Luciani. Certainly, better than just strumming.
That’s why she recommends incorporating exercises like landmine flips, Pallof presses, and bird dogs into crunches, end-of-workout burners, and core days. For this, you need to engage your deeper core muscles so you don’t get pulled to the side, she says. When choosing a weight or resistance band, make sure you choose an option that you can do for the same number of repetitions on each side.
Without a doubt, the elliptical can be a decent option for people looking for a lower-impact way to break a sweat, says Harcoff. He says it’s relatively easy on the body for longer bouts of cardio.
However, it is elliptical not the best option for someone looking to improve cardiovascular capacity or overall strength. They can be clunky to use and awkward to move quickly, Luciani says.
In fact, moving too fast or using it too often can lead to excruciating hip injuries. Most ellipticals don’t allow you to move your legs in their natural gait, she explains. Instead, an elliptical with fixed foot pedals forces the hip and knee into unnatural, overstressed positions that can negatively affect your natural gait, Harcoff says.
It’s also unlikely that the elliptical will provide enough of a weight-bearing stimulus to trigger an increase in bone mineral density or trigger an increase in strength, he notes.
Try this instead: walking or running
Any form of heel-to-toe expression is better than the elliptical, says Luciani. Meaning, walking, jogging, jogging or sprinting. Relying on just your two feet in any capacity will result in greater strength and cardio gains than riding the elliptical, she says.
If you’re brand new to running, she suggests creating a beginner-friendly running plan that helps you build volume and mileage in a way that’s safe for your joints and muscles. You might even consider hiring a running coach to make sure you’re running in good shape.
Yes, running be able to be a good way to improve cardiovascular capacity for some people. However, there are other people for whom running will do more harm than good, Harcoff says. Running can be hard on the body, especially when dosed incorrectly, he says.
Additionally, it is not available to individuals who have certain pre-existing knee, ankle, and hip injuries that require them to stay away from high-impact exercises like running.
Try this instead: rowing
If you hate running or can’t stand toe-to-toe because of your existing workouts, swimming and rowing are great ways to maximize your cardiovascular output and burn calories while minimizing stress and impact on your joints, says Harkoff.
If you don’t have access to a pool or don’t know how to swim, there’s no big deal just paddling! The rowing machine is a low-impact cardio machine, she says. Best of all, apart from improving your heart power, it can also improve your lower and upper body strength.
Olympic lifts like the clean and the deadlift make regular appearances in CrossFit and other HIIT fitness classes. These compound exercises activate all the muscles in your body and help increase functional strength.
The problem, according to Harcoff, is that many people who do them need more coaching than they get! Olympic lifting involves an extremely high learning curve and carries a significant risk-to-reward ratio, he says.
If you have access to Olympic weightlifting training, he says cleans and deadlifts can be great routine additions. However, without proper guidance, they can be dangerous.
Try this instead: Powerlifting
If a trainer isn’t financially, geographically, or logistically accessible, Harcoff suggests opting for more affordable resistance training methods like powerlifting or traditional strength training.
These functional fitness exercises provide safer and more effective alternatives to Olympic lifting while still improving athletic performance, strength and coordination, he says.
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