Jessica Matthews by Jessica Matthews

With so many exercises to choose from, how do you know which ones live up to the hype and which ones may not be worth your time? We asked some of the top trainers in the country to share which unsafe and ineffective exercises they think most people can do without, and the more effective replacement moves they feel will better equip you to reach your fitness goals.

The Move You Don’t Need: Smith Machine squats

Barbell high back squatsWhy: Squats are hailed as a functional exercise because it’s a movement we perform regularly in our daily lives (whether we realize it or not). However, the Smith Machine doesn’t allow for a functionally sound movement to occur, according to Steve Cotter, international fitness presenter and founder and president of the International Kettlebell Fitness Federation. “Not only does the fixed plane of motion decrease the recruitment of important muscles required to maintain a stable core, it also restricts the natural range of motion and prevents the hips and spine from properly flexing during the exercise,” says Cotter.

The Alternative: Cotter points out that a functionally sound squat initiates in the hips as you sit back, allowing the load to be distributed through the body, reducing shearing forces on the knees. “To focus on proper form and quality of movement, first master the bodyweight squat, then add load to increase strength, performing exercises like kettlebell goblet squats or barbell high back squats.”

The Move You Don’t Need: Side-lying leg raises

Single-leg balance exercisesWhy: Many exercisers are on a quest to sculpt slimmer thighs, so it’s no surprise so see people gravitate toward isolated inner- and outer-thigh exercises. That is a mistake, warns exercise physiologist Sabrena Merrill, because these moves take away from valuable training time that could be spent working those same muscles in a more functional, big-picture kind of way. “A main function of the adductor and abductor muscles is to stabilize the pelvis in the frontal plane while walking and performing single-leg activities, such as balancing on one leg,” says Merrill, who is an ACE-certified Personal Trainer, Group Fitness Instructor and Health Coach.

The Alternative: While isolated exercises may be appropriate in some situations, such as in a post-rehabilitation or corrective exercise program, Merrill suggest individuals incorporate a variety of lunges and single-leg balance exercises to challenge the inner and outer thighs. “Not only is this training approach more applicable to real life activities,” explains Merrill, “but these exercises also work other muscles at the same time, which means more calories burned and less time spent working out.

The Move You Don’t Need: Standing side bends

Single-leg balance exercisesWhy: With summer drawing near many women are eager to whittle down their midsections, but ACE-certified Personal Trainer and figure competitor Riana Rohmann shares that standing side bends won’t shrink your love handles. “Not only will this move not trim inches off your waistline, it’s also a non-functional exercise, as rarely in life are we asked to bend sideways at that awkward angle to pick something up or set something down.

The Alternative: For a more functional physique and stronger core, Rohmann recommends incorporating moves like side plank with a hip drop and standing abs exercises like medicine ball wood chops and haybailers into your workout routine. She also suggests adding high-intensity interval training into your exercise mix to burn calories and show off those strong core muscles. And don’t forget about another important piece of the equation—diet. “If you really want to make those abs shine through, be sure to watch your diet because abs may be made in the gym, but they are revealed in the kitchen,” adds Rohmann.

The Move You Don’t Need: Knee-extension machine

Step-upsWhy: Not only does this exercise give you another excuse to sit—something many of us already do too much of—but it lacks functionality and may place the knee at risk of injury. “This single-joint, lower-body exercise places excessive shearing forces on the knee without the benefit of improving how the body moves in a weight-bearing, three-dimensionally, gravitationally enriched environment,” says world renowned fitness educator and celebrity trainer Keli Roberts.  

The Alternative: Incorporate exercises that target multiple muscle groups for a more effective and efficient workout experience. “Opting for movements that are functional, such as squats, step-ups and lunges to target the quadriceps and other muscles groups, allows for a more integrated approach to training without the extra ligament strain,” says Shana Martin, ACE Master Trainer and personal trainer at Supreme Health and Fitness in Madison, Wis.


Tips for Navigating the Wide World of Exercises

With the plethora of options out there, it can sometimes be hard to determine which moves live up to the hype, and which ones you can do without based on your skill level and fitness goals. Personal trainer and fitness professor at Body Fit Lab Academy Pierce, also known as Professor P, shares the three questions he asks himself when considering a new exercise option for his clients:

  • Efficiency: How efficient is the exercise at achieving the results it claims? Remember, any exercise will burn calories, but will the exercise efficiently get you to your goals (e.g., stronger, thinner, faster).
  • Progressive: Can this exercise properly accommodate various skill-levels and progressively challenge a client, whether they are beginner, intermediate or advanced? 
  • Versatility: Can the exercise be modified to prevent muscle adaptation and client boredom? For example, I know of about 10 different and creative lunge exercises that keep clients challenged physically and stimulated psychologically.

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