8 Exercises to avoid at the gym and what to do instead

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By Martin Ebner

Before we dive into some of the exercises that you should be avoiding at the gym, it's important to point out that any exercise done badly, is an exercise that should be avoided.

Learning correct form should be given priority above all else and only add weight when you feel that it's safe and comfortable to do so.

If despite your best efforts to master an exercise, it still doesn't feel right, replace it with one that does. We're all built slightly differently and just because one exercise works for someone else, it doesn't necessarily mean it works for you. For every exercise that doesn't feel good, there's at least a couple that will.

Let's have a look at the 8 exercises to avoid at the gym and what you should do instead.

Ab machines

They seem to be an extremely popular choice for those that fancy a crunch or two between text messages and instagram updates. However, if you're at the gym to do a real workout, give the ab machine a miss. The positioning can make it extremely uncomfortable and awkward to activate your abs correctly.

What to do Instead

I've always been a strong believer in building core strength using compound moves that require the engagement of the core for correct technique. Think push ups, pull ups, squats, lunges and deadlifts. Failing that, planks, leg raises and traditional on the ground sit ups (with your hands in-front of your body) will give you much better results.

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Behind-the-head Lat Pull-Downs and shoulder press

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Two extremely popular exercises gone wrong. By pulling down or pushing the bar from a behind the head position, you place excessive stress on your rotator cuff which may lead to long term-shoulder impingement and injury (ever more so if you have poor shoulder mobility).

What to do instead

Do the same exercises but pulling and pushing up to/from the front of the body. Aim for around your collar bone/upper chest on the lower portion of the exercises.

Upright rows

I've been guilty of using these myself. As mentioned above if it doesn't feel right, and for many, this exercise doesn't, give it a wide berth. The problem with Upright rows is that it can place your shoulder joints in an unnatural position with can lead to injury.

What to do instead

Front and side raises will do the same job with less risk of damage and injury to your shoulders.

Related article - What do do when you stop seeing fitness results

Smith machine squats

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This one seems to be on the rise and while it may look like a great alternative to the squat rack, it's not. When you use the smith machine to squat, your back stays dead straight and perpendicular to the floor. The result can be unwanted stress and compression on the vertebrae. Not only that but by leaning so far back into the bar, you can over-stress your knees and limit the engagement of your glutes and hamstrings - one of the main reasons for doing squats in the first place.

What to do Instead

Need I really say it!? Do classic squats.

If you feel that squats are too awkward to do properly (many do), try lunges or Bulgarian split squats instead. Both of which can be equally rewarding and beneficial.

Swiss ball squats

While we're on the topic of squats, i'd like to point out the stupidity of Swiss ball squats. Are you in or auditioning for the circus? I thought not so why put yourself at unnecessary risk? While functional training is great for improving your ability to perform daily, there are limits.

What to do instead:

If you feel that body weight squats are no longer providing enough of a challenge, add a little weight or try strict-form pistol squats.

Wrist curls

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If you have enough time to bash out multiple sets of wrist curls, you're no friend of mine.

The problem with wrist curls is it's so specific and while it is important to have strong wrists, there are much better ways to do it.

What to do instead:

Anything that requires good grip strength. Deadlifts, pull ups and bench press require exactly that and if you're feeling super Bruce-lee-ish, give fingertip press-ups a shot!

Using light-as-a-feather weights

While I would never encourage anyone to lift above their ability level, I fail to see the benefit of using paper-weights. If you want results, you need to challenge yourself and that means tossing aside the 1 kilo dumbbells and picking up something heavier that promotes a big challenge for your body.

What to do instead:

If you can comfortably perform multiple sets of 15+ reps, up the weight and reduce the rep count. By doing so, you'll improve strength, muscle size and tone in half the time.

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