Take a look around your gym: You’ll probably see some fellow gym-goers hammering out these exercises. But that doesn’t mean you should too. These crazy common moves are, at best, ineffective—at worst, dangerous. Here, the moves—and exercise machines—you should ditch from your workout routine, according to trainers.
Smith Machine Squats
Squatting on a Smith machine might look like a safe alternative to the squat rack. In reality, it’s anything but. When you lower into a squat using a Smith machine, your back stays straight and almost perfectly perpendicular to the ground, which compresses and stresses the vertebrae, says Lou Schuler, C.S.C.S., coauthor of The New Rules of Lifting Supercharged. Also, since using the Smith machine requires leaning back into the bar, you overly stress your knees, never fully contract your glutes or hamstrings, and don’t train your core.
Try Instead: Weighted squats
Save yourself the risk and learn how to do a barbell squat without the machine. Both bodyweight and weighted squats (e.g., goblet, barbell, and dumbbell variations) train your entire lower body functionally, effectively, and without overstressing your joints, Schuler says. Plus, since you’re not relying on the stability of a machine, these exercises also work your core. (Related: How to Do Bodyweight Squats Correctly Once and for All)
Machine Leg Extensions
How often do you just sit around and kick out your legs? Probably not often—if ever. So why do so in the gym? “There’s no functional benefit to leg extensions,” says strength coach and personal trainer Mike Donavanik, C.S.C.S., C.P.T. (Functional exercises use your body’s natural movement in ways that apply to real-world motions.) Plus, your knees aren’t designed to carry weight from that angle, which could cause injury. While your injury risk is low if you have otherwise healthy knees, why take the risk if the exercise isn’t even functional to begin with?
Try Instead: Squats, deadlifts, step-ups, and lunges
All of these moves are great for training your quads. Not to mention, they simultaneously strengthen your glutes, hamstrings, and smaller stabilizing muscles. Since these are all functional exercises, tapping your body’s natural movement patterns, your knees are designed to take their weight, he says.
Sure, ab machines are a lot more comfortable than arms-behind-the-head sit-ups, but they can make it awkward to activate your ab muscles correctly, says Jessica Fox, a certified Starting Strength coach at CrossFit South Brooklyn.
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Try Instead: Planks
Most people can—and should—just do full sit-ups. Even better? Drop into a plank: It’s more effective for toning your abdominals than an assisted crunch (or any machine), and typically safe for people who can’t do sit-ups because of neck pain. (Up your ab game with this powered-up plank workout that HIITs your core hard .)
Photo: oatawa / Getty Images
Behind-the-Head Lat Pull-Downs
When performing lat pulldowns, the bar should always stay in front of your body. As in, always. “Otherwise it’s a shoulder injury waiting to happen,” says women’s strength expert Holly Perkins, C.S.C.S. Pulling the bar down and behind your head and neck places extreme stress and strain on the front of the shoulder joint.
Try Instead: Wide-grip lat pull-downs
Pulldowns are still your traps’ main move—just focus on aiming the bar toward your collarbone. You don’t need to bring the bar all the way to your chest, but you should move in that direction, Perkins says.
Ellipticals are simple to use—which is why people gravitate to them. But, since you move through a relatively small range of motion, it is so easy to slack on these things, says Christian Fox, a certified Starting Strength coach at CrossFit South Brooklyn.
Try Instead: Rowing machine
A better choice to get your heart rate up: The rowing machine. “Rowing incorporates a lot of muscle mass into the movement, and with a little technique can provide a wallop of a workout,” Christian Fox says. Skeptical? Attempt a 250-meter sprint at max effort, and you’ll never want to step on the elliptical again. (Not sure where to start? Here’s how to use a rowing machine for a better cardio workout.)
Like many machines in the gym, these target one specific area of the body—which is simply an inefficient way to work out when there are so many moves that will work multiple muscles at once, Jessica Fox says.
Try Instead: Squats
Skip the machines and drop into squats. A proper squat recruits more muscles (including the ad/abductors) and is a functional movement, meaning it’ll better prepare your muscles for real-life challenges, like walking up stairs and picking things up. (Want more multi-muscle moves? Check out these seven functional fitness exercises.)
Photo: filadendron / Getty Images
It’s meant to train your triceps, but it can easily end up overloading the small muscles that make up your shoulder’s rotator cuff. “It’s a risk to lift your body weight when your upper arms are behind your torso,” Schuler says. Damage those muscles and even everyday tasks—like washing your hair—can become painful.
Try Instead: Cable pushdowns, triceps push-ups, and close-grip bench presses
Tone your triceps while keeping your arms in front of your body with any of these moves, Schuler suggests.
“The amount of force and compression that gets placed on the vertebrae of the low back is unreal,” Donavanik says. “Yes, you’re working your spinal erectors and many stabilizing muscles throughout the back and core, but you’re placing a ton of force and stress on a very sensitive and specific area in the body.”
Try Instead: Bird-Dog
Get on all fours with the bird-dog exercise, advises Donavanik. The yoga staple strengthens the same muscles, while placing less force on the spine. Good mornings, deadlifts, and floor bridges are also great alternatives, he says.
Super Light Dumbbells
Light weights have their place in barre or spin class, but if you’re lifting too light you could be missing out on some serious sculpting. (BTW, here are five reasons why lifting heavy weights *won’t* make you bulk up.) Yes, you will want to start out light if you’ve never lifted. But over time you must lift progressively heavier weights to gain strength and definition, Jessica Fox explains.
Try Instead: Anything over 5 pounds
How heavy should you go? Depending on the exercise, the weights should be heavy enough that the last two reps of each set are significantly challenging. (Need more convincing? Read these 11 major health and fitness benefits of lifting weights.)
Anything That Hurts
There’s something to be said for pushing through muscle fatigue and discomfort. But when discomfort turns into pain, the opposite is true. “Pain is your body’s way of saying, ‘Stop! If you keep doing this, I’m going to tear, break, or strain,'” Perkins says. What’s the difference, exactly? While discomfort feels like a dull or burning ache in the muscles, acute pain tends to be sharp and sudden, and most often strikes near a joint, she says.
Try Instead: There’s an alternative move for every exercise out there whether you’re modifying for an injury, for pregnancy, or just because you’re tired AF in your boot-camp class and worried about sacrificing form. Be sure to ask your trainer for a move that works for you.
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