5 Exercises You Need To Stop Doing (And What To Do Instead)

by Ryan Wagner

Remember the Sit-and-Reach assessment that we did back in grade school? The one where you would put your legs out in front of you and reach towards your toes? Some people could reach their toes easily and went well beyond them, others, well, never had a chance. Today, we look back on the sit-and-reach and we know that it was never a smart assessment to begin with! For instance, it wasn’t body relative – what if you had long arms? You could still have tight hammies, but the “test” would have passed you.

Similarly, there are a handful of strength training exercises that not only lack in effectiveness, but may even elevate your risk of injury. Exercises that made sense at some point, but now we know better. As I’ve written before, it’s becoming more and more clear that we need to be training movement patterns instead of parts in isolation (think: squat vs. the knee extension machine). We (the fitness and health community) have also learned that some exercises represent not only an unnatural movement pattern, but may even be potentially damaging over the long term.

So, let’s take a look at 5 exercises that you should consider dropping from your programming. Why? Because there are safer – and smarter – alternatives out there.

Here are five exercises you need to stop doing now, and what you can do instead.

1. Upright Rows

We have all done these at some point, haven’t we. I used to do them a lot in my college days. Mostly, because that’s what the other guys were doing.

A little background for the uninitiated: An upright row is typically performed with a barbell, but it’s not the weight used that defines an upright row, it’s the movement. You stand upright with a weight at arm’s length and then with an overhand, closed grip, lift the weight to near collarbone level.

I remember being instructed on this exercise back when I was in high school. Since then, I performed the exercise with just about anything that was heavy. If I wanted to train my shoulders and traps, well, upright rows were my go-to exercise.

However, we now know that the upright row movement is a less-than-ideal pattern. Performing too many upright rows may increase your chances of shoulder impingement and overworking your rotator cuffs. Your humerus is impacting against the acromion process in your shoulder joint. This is because your arm is locked into internal rotation by holding the weight close to the center of your chest.

Although I have never personally experienced any shoulder pain while doing this exercise, it doesn’t mean that I won’t someday. And so I made the decision years ago to swap out the upright row for one of the less risky alternatives.

Try this instead: Lateral Dumbbell Raises

Lateral Dumbbell Raises are a safer alternative. You’ll need to adopt a well-rounded shoulder workout to make sure you hit all the heads of your deltoid throughout a cycle, but lateral raises are a good starting point.

From standing, grip a dumbbell in each hand at arm’s length and, keeping your arms straightened, raise the dumbbells out to the sides so they are level with your shoulders.

Bonus tip:

To really build some rock solid shoulders, work on perfecting those Turkish Get-Ups you’ve been avoiding. They have this awesome tendency to help you build dynamically stable shoulders.

#2. Seated Knee Extensions

We’ve all done this at one point or another, haven’t we? It’s one of those very familiar weight machines that people seem to flock to in the gym, probably because it’s very straight forward to use. And if you’re wearing shorts you can see your muscles flex–it must be working, right?!

Unfortunately, seated knee extensions have a tendency to put your knee joint under a ton of stress. Those small and very important tendons and ligaments in your knee will be a heck of a lot happier if you stopped putting so much stress on them in an unnatural way.

Does the seated leg extension look like a natural movement pattern? Of course it doesn’t. Our bodies simply weren’t designed to move by initiating that movement at our ankles.

For bodybuilders and those interested in muscle hypertrophy, the leg extension can indeed build muscle tone. However, for the majority of gym goers–those who simply want to move better and feel better–there is a far better alternative out there than extensions.

Try this instead: Goblet squats

Or any kind of squat, for that matter. But goblet squats are a very approachable exercise for those that may not squat regularly.

Here’s what you do: Grab a dumbbell or kettlebell, hold it at your chest, and push your hips back as you bend your knees and squat down to a comfortable level. Drive through the heels and press back up. Ensure that your knees are tracking your feet.

The squat pattern is a simple movement that we all did wonderfully when we were children, but as we grew up and earned office jobs, many of us started to lose this pattern. The goblet squat is a great starting point for you to relearn how to squat properly.

It’s worth mentioning that a squat can be a very technical lift, but you have to start somewhere. So grab a kettlebell and have a good trainer watch your form. You’ll be moving in both a purposeful and practical manner while sparing your knees from any unnecessary stress.

#3. Sit-ups

Oh yes, even the once venerable sit-up is on my list. For decades the sit-up wasn’t considered controversial in the very least. But today, those of us in the health and fitness community have a much better understanding of what the muscles in our Core actually do (they do much more than just flex the spine!).

I encourage you to do a quick Internet search and find out for yourself why there are better alternatives for building your core strength than the sit-up. But here’s the least that you need to know: spine bio-mechanics expert Dr. Stuart McGill has learned that sit-ups may put you at a greater risk for disc herniation and disc bulge.

So how do you work your core?

Try this instead: Plank slides

The plank is a great core builder, but I’ll be the first to admit, it can feel a little dull sometimes.

Here’s how you spice it up: Using towels on a slick floor, or gliding discs that you might find in your gym, assume the plank position and place your hands on the towels or discs. Now, play with moving each arm six inches up and down. Then try side to side. All the while, keep your torso in place and mitigate movement everywhere except your arms.

And yes, there are plenty of ways to “really work your core.” Core training can be a controversial topic, so there are lots of good alternatives to the sit-up. But I encourage you to give the Plank Slides a try if you need a good starting point.

#4. Behind the Neck Pull-downs

Similar to upright rows, behind the neck pull-downs are placing extra stress on your shoulder joint. In this case, the humerus is being externally rotated and having to really stretch the front of your shoulder.

To make matters worse, if you’re a desk jockey, odds are that you already have rounded shoulders from hunching toward a computer screen. This posture will only accentuate the stress placed on your shoulders.

Try this instead: Pull-downs (or pull-ups!)

In other words, do the original pull-downs by pulling down in front of you, towards your collarbone. This is a much safer movement pattern and will spare your shoulders from that unnecessary stress. And if you can lift your bodyweight, then why not do the real deal? The pull-up!

#5. Bench dips

We see a lot of bench dips in the gym. Again, I think it’s one of those exercises we learned years ago and continue to perform by habit. The problem with bench dips is that with your hands so far behind your body, you end up putting a significant stress on the front of your shoulders (are you starting to see a theme?). If you put weight plates on your legs, then you’re just amplifying the problem.

Simply put, the risk outweighs the reward with bench dips.

Try this instead: Tricep push-downs

With tricep push-downs you’ll still be able to focus on your triceps (which actually comprise the majority of your upper arm), but you’ll be doing so with your shoulders in a much safer position.

NOTE: There is nothing inherently wrong with actual dips. But the problem is that most people don’t have healthy enough shoulders to be performing strict dips. However, with proper alignment and coaching, dips can be great tricep builders and also work your chest.

Wrap up

Is this an exhaustive list of exercises that you should avoid? No, it isn’t.

But these are what I consider to be the most popular exercises that most people would be better off not doing at all. Remember, smart fitness is all about leveraging the risk versus reward curve to be in your favor. We need to focus on the exercises that can give us the biggest reward for the minimal amount of risk and work.

By Ryan Wagner

5 Exercises You Need To Stop Doing (And What To Do Instead) by