The 7 WORST Gym Exercises to NEVER Do

These 7 exercises are popular with most workout enthusiasts, but they could actually be HARMING your body!

Exercise is meant to help you, right?

Unfortunately, there are certain “exercises” in the gym that cause more harm than good. I’d like to take a strong look at the 7 most prevalent injury-causing exercises in most gyms. The worst part is that these exercises are pretty much useless when it comes to building strength or losing fat. There really isn’t much of a point in doing them, whatsoever, and yet they can destroy our results.

It’s time to put an end to the worst exercises on Earth. I’m here to help you understand how your body moves, why it responds to exercise the way it does, and how to minimize your risk while you maximize the effect from every exercise you do.

As a side note, I think it’s important to mention that the last thing I want is for you to feel discouraged; rather, it’s important that you feel inspired to know you have eliminated the negative from your exercise program. Now, you’ll be able to safely rely on the fact that “you’re doing it right” when you exercise. Plus, I think you’ll be shocked to realize how much you’ve learned about your body’s ideal positioning and muscle recruitment strategies with exercise.

The main reasons that an exercise would qualify in the following list is one or more of the following:

  1. Creates muscle imbalances
  2. Has zero functional benefit
  3. Winds up joint into unsafe position

If an exercise creates muscle imbalances, this can lead to joint deterioration all over your body and even blunt fat loss. You see, once your joints are out of position, your body has sub-sensory pain signals taking place all over the body. These pain signals tell your brain to shut down the muscles in the area in order to avoid “pulling on the injury” and causing more damage. The end result: no muscle contraction and weaker muscles.

We exercise to be stronger in our daily lives and live a longer/higher quality of life. If an exercise has no true benefit in either or both of these categories, then what’s the point?

Just because someone tries an exercise in a gym isn’t a reason to make this part of your routine. The gym is full of mostly amateurs, including several of the personal trainers at big name gyms. After all, that’s where many of us started out at one point or another…

“Winding up your joint” into an unsafe position involves increased pressure on the labrum or capsule of a joint while performing an exercise. Simultaneously, it’ll be likely that a muscle is being overstretched while being recruited to contract. This is a recipe for disaster. Instead, let’s find a position of rest for the joint and then exercise it. This will assist the natural delivery of nutrients to the joint and joint capsule.

Also important to mention, we should consider these two terms in understanding the benefits/consequences of an exercise:

  1. Active Insufficiency – this is when a muscle is over-shortened and you try to use it. An example is if you “make a muscle” with your biceps and then see how strong you are. The muscle is already short, so you’re not as strong as you are in the middle of the movement.
  2. Passive Insufficiency – this is when a muscle is over-lengthened and you try to use it. An example is if you tip your wrist back all the way and then try to curl your fingers. Because your wrist flexors are over-stretched, your muscles are having a hard time contracting. Again, you’d be much stronger if your wrist were in neutral, or halfway in between.

Lastly, I’d like to discuss the difference between open and closed chain exercises, and how this will affect the functional carryover in a particular exercise:

  • Open-chained exercise: Fixed proximal segment, moving distal. Proximal means closer to your heart and distal means closer to your fingers and toes. So, in this case, it would be our hand moving towards our elbow (biceps curl), foot moving towards our buttocks (leg curl), etc.
    • It’s important to note that open-chained exercises are very effective for sculpting muscles in the final stages of bodybuilding, or isolation training for rehabilitative purposes; although, they do create much more torsion into the joint and generally only exercise one muscle at a time. Due to these being isolation type movements, the metabolic effect of open-chain exercises is generally much lower than closed-chain movements.
  • Closed-chain exercises: Fixed distal segment, moving proximal. This is just the opposite, so your foot would be fixed as your body moves closer to it (squat/deadlift), or your hands would be fixed as your body moves closer to them (push up, pull up.)
    • Likewise, it’s noteworthy that closed-chain exercises are very effective at building balanced joints, spiking metabolism, and increasing functional gains in daily life while reducing or eliminating risk of injury. Closed-chain exercises have a higher metabolic effect because more muscle groups and joints are being used.

Ok, you’ve already got a great background for judging exercises and their quality, or lack thereof. Now, let’s dive in and take a look at the 7 worst exercises:

 

1) Leg Presses

These are awful. Here’s why: Creates muscle imbalances, zero functional benefit, winds up joint to unsafe position

Muscle Balance Perspective:

  • Quads are generally stronger than hamstrings; this reinforces the problem.
    When your quadriceps overpower your hamstrings in deep knee flexion, there is increased torsion placed into the meniscus, increasing the likelihood of knee injury.
  • Quads and glutes should be used as a pair. In this case, they are not being used effectively.
    When your glutes do not fire while using your quads with a great level of force, there is increased risk of low back injury.

An imbalance between your quadriceps and hamstrings can quickly result in a number of knee issues, including patellofemoral (kneecap) and meniscus damage. Even worse, when your quads overpower your hamstrings, it’s not uncommon to develop restrictions in these muscles as your body attempts to even things out. These restrictions lead to increased pull on the top of your pelvis, tipping it forward, and placing pressure in your low spine.

This all sounds complicated, but let’s make it easy. Just stand up and lean backwards. If your hip flexors are tight, you’ll feel a stretch in the front of your thighs. It’s a good bet that we should get you training in more functional abs positions. You may already be spending too much of your day in this pre-shortened position, causing ‘active insufficiency’ to take place.

Functional Benefit Assessment:

  • In most cases, people aren’t coming down to a full 90 degrees of knee flexion, which is needed for getting in/out of a chair.
  • Even in these cases your abs are so pre-contracted (active insufficiency) and low back extensors so overstretched (passive insufficiency) that it’s tough to use your quads with any abdominal or low back support.
  • Since your abs and low back are out of the picture, this exercise loses a lot of its functionality.

Metabolic Effect:

The metabolic effect of this exercise is less because the number of muscles used is less than similar weight-bearing (closed-chain) exercises. Ultimately, the number of muscles and joints you use in a given exercise determines the metabolic effect of that exercise.

 

2) Leg Extensions

Muscle Balance Perspective:

  • Quads are generally stronger than hamstrings; this reinforces the problem.
  • Quads and glutes should be used as a pair. In this case, they are not being used effectively.
  • Interestingly, if you are having a hard time contracting your vastus medialis oblique (VMO) in your knee, the last 15 degrees of this movement can be helpful, but careful with the torque into your knee joint.
  • Again, only for the last 15 degrees until your knee is totally straight, and this can often cause more damage than good.

Functional Benefit Assessment:

  • It can also be argued that this exercise may help if you are a soccer player, but power lifting has been demonstrated to improve sprinting and kicking ability much more than any variety of leg extensions.
  • When you walk, you use your quads and hamstrings; here, it’s just quads.

This comes down to torque. Think about a long screwdriver and a short screwdriver. It’s easier to use the long one, meaning you don’t have to turn it as hard. This is a result of the force of you turning the screwdriver x the distance to the end of the screwdriver. That’s how torque is calculated.

In this example, we are exercising above our knee, but the weight goes on our ankle. Think about that distance… that’s a lot of torque into our knees with a lot of weight!

Metabolic Effect:

Low. This is a single joint exercise that is isolation-based. By definition, there will be a low metabolic effect. Instead, choose more compound movements such as squats, deadlifts, or lunges for an increased metabolic effect with this muscle group.

 

3) Machine Leg Curls

Muscle Balance Perspective:

  • Majority of force placed through distal hamstring, rather than proximal. This results in increased pressure behind the knee.
  • Requires change of position to recruit medial hamstrings and glutes on this exercise, which should be used as a muscle pair.

Functional Benefit Assessment:

  • I can’t think of a moment in time where I need to perform this movement in daily life.
  • However, if I ran hurdles, this may help, but again deadlifts and power lifts seem to improve sprint capacity at the same time and provide greater benefit.

This is a question of torque into the knee again. Also, in this case, the hamstrings tend to cramp a lot, which isn’t necessarily a good thing, or necessary at all.

If you have a Baker’s Cyst behind your knee, that’s a lot of pressure. For others, it’s really pulling the posterior horn of your meniscus, while missing your proximal (closer to your butt) hamstring altogether.

Metabolic Effect:

Low effect, as this is a single joint exercise.

 

4) Biceps Preacher Curls

Muscle Balance Perspective:

  • Forward shoulder position leads to increased stretch (passive insufficiency) on the rotator cuff and biceps tendon.
    • An imbalance between your pecs and lats/shoulderblade stabilizers results in a forward shoulder position. This leads to rotator cuff tendonitis, biceps tendonitis, and increase risk of tears. Also, this limits the amount of growth of both your pecs and lats, due to the sub-sensory pain stimulus, as well as the actively insufficient pecs and passively insufficient lats (see above for definitions.)
    • This is true for your shoulders and neck. In this forward position, you are at risk for injury. Also, like many people who perform this exercise, you may be placing excessive weight into your armpit, which is where your brachial plexus is. This is the bundle of nerves that controls your arms.
    • This all sounds complicated, but let’s make it easy. Just stand up tall and place your hands straight up into the air. Now, bend your elbow out to the side until your shoulder and elbow are both at right angles. If you already feel a stretch, your pecs are super tight. You may already be spending too much of your day in this pre-shortened position, causing ‘active insufficiency’ to take place. This will limit your strength and fat loss gains, while also increasing your risk of injury.
  • Position also leads to increased pressure on the anterior and posterior capsules of the shoulder. Any pain signal or pressure will reduce the recruitment of your delts and shoulder stabilizers.
  • Biceps are being shortened in an over-shortened position for your pecs, reinforcing a common imbalance.
  • The elbow is only safe when balanced. You need to train your brachioradialis (hammer curls), biceps (curls), and brachialis (reverse curls) in order to hit all elbow flexors.

Functional Benefit Assessment:

  • This is an artificial movement, in an abnormal position. It’s only purpose is to build biceps, and there are better ways. For example:
  • The biceps is an elbow flexor, but it’s also a supinator (meaning it turns your palm up). Preacher curls only work on elbow flexion, which means you’re missing 50% of the muscle’s action. Whoops!

Evening out all of your elbow flexors has more carryover effect.

Metabolic Effect:

Low effect, as this is a single joint exercise. In fact, it may be detrimental due to the likelihood of the sub-sensory pain stimuli going off in the shoulder girdle, preventing some of the neurological signal from reaching the muscle.

 

5) Smith Machine Squats

Muscle Balance Perspective:

  • Your hamstrings are basically off in this exercise, meaning that it is totally quad dominant.
  • Simultaneously, it’s very hard to properly recruit your glutes when the weight is not directly loading your spine. Without glute support, you are weakening your core, ultimately increasing risk of injury and slowing fat loss.

Functional Benefit Assessment:

  • Since your hamstrings and glutes don’t really have to work here, you’re not squatting like you would in real life.
    Actually, here, it’s unsafe for the opposite reason, interestingly enough. Check this out…
  • When you squat with your arms overhead, you tend to lean forward, or your knees come forward, or both. Controlling for this is the controlling inter-related segments so they can get stronger and more mobile together. These segments need to work together to prevent injury, so squats that are not on the smith machine tend to limit you to the correct weight selection, while these squats do not.

Metabolic Effect:

Low to medium. Since you are using your ankle, knee, and hip joints, the metabolic potential goes up slightly. However, it’s important to remember that muscle imbalances lead to all sorts of situations that lend themselves to a metabolic crash.

 
6) Overhead Tricep Extensions With Dumbbells

Muscle Balance Perspective:

  • Overstretched proximal triceps in this position, causing increased tension on the triceps tendon by the elbow.
  • Internal rotation, targeting the medial triceps head, can lead to shoulder impingement and more serious issues.

Functional Benefit Assessment:

  • This is another movement that never happens in daily life. When are we overhead forcefully extending our elbow like this. It’s kind of silly, if you think about it.
  • You may be arching your back while doing this, which could cause a lot of strain and take your abs out of the picture, altogether. Bad idea!

Metabolic Effect:

Low to none. Since we are only really working our elbow joint and a small muscle group, we aren’t gaining much of a metabolic effect whatsoever. Also noteworthy, this is an open-chained exercise that produces a lot of torque into the shoulder and elbow.

7) External Rotation with a Dumbbell, Standing
Functional Benefit Assessment:

  • Since this exercise actually is working brachioradialis against gravity (the dumbbell is weighing me down, against gravity, not side to the side), it’s only adding to the muscle imbalances I may already be experiencing.
  • Holding a dumbbell in my hands and moving it side to side is not placing tension on the external rotators of my shoulder, just my elbow flexors. This issue is not being resolved.
  • The only weight being placed into the shoulder is the torque from your hand, which is holding the dumbbell, through your elbow, and up to your shoulder.

So, all in all, it’s causing a very small amount of damage with no benefit.

Functional, Muscle Balancing, and Metabolic Effect Summary:

As you can see, not all exercises were created equally. I strongly recommend that you analyze an exercise before just going for it. I realize that you’re working hard to get great results, improve your health, and create a higher quality of life for yourself.

by Dr. Kareem Samhouri – CSCS, HFS
Neuro Metabolic Fitness & Rehab Expert

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