If 2016 is the year you vow to dust off your Converse high tops and get back to the gym, there are a few things you should know. Like, you need new shoes.
Oh, and the sit-up -- you know, that exercise you had to do for a minute if you wanted the president to say you were in shape -- is pretty terrible for you. According to the Navy Times, the sit-up is “an outdated exercise today viewed as a key cause of lower back injuries.” The Canadian Armed Forces has already cut the activity from its performance test, and members of the Canadian Armed Forces are known worldwide for their lack of lower-back injuries (maybe?). Notable fitness professionals like Tony Horton have followed suit and ditched the movement altogether.
The sit-up isn’t the only exercise that’s wasting your time (and potentially damaging your body). To help you sort the “hurts so good” exercises from the ones that just hurt, we asked personal trainers to reveal the worst exercises you might be doing, and what you should be doing instead.
Edward Rush, owner and operator of INFighting Shape, thinks the elliptical machine is extremely overrated, and not the challenging aerobic workout many people believe it to be. “It’s almost impossible to get a good aerobic workout on an elliptical machine, and what's even more ironic is that many people turn to the elliptical machine to gain some relief from their aching knees. Too often, the pain in their knees is coming from having bad form when performing squats, or from running incorrectly.”
Rush suggests ditching the elliptical and spending more time perfecting your squat and running form. “You’ll get in much better shape, and probably enjoy your workout much more.”
Poorly executed planks
If you want planks to be the ab-toning workout they can be, you need to execute them perfectly. Jessica Sander, group fitness manager at The Sports Center at Chelsea Piers, often sees people plank with improper form, especially when trying to hold the position for time. Allowing your chin to drop, your shoulders to shift behind the wrists, your chest to sink, and your hips to sag or rise are all small setbacks that diminish the effectiveness of the workout, and can hurt you in the long run.
Sander recommends focusing on form and alignment rather than duration of the exercise. “Without proper form it will be very difficult to build the strength needed to hold your plank for your goal duration."
Smith machine squats
Despite the fact that nearly every gym in America is home to a Smith machine, you’re better off on your own. “The Smith machine in general locks you into a guided bar path, which reduces the use of the muscles you’re trying to target,” Lacey Stone, trainer at YG Studios, says. “It actually decreases the activation of the hamstrings and quads.”
The fix? Do squats on your own -- with proper form, of course.
Curls aren’t necessarily bad, but the single-joint exercise is primarily used for vanity rather than actually building strength or endurance, Stone says. “For your biceps, you’re better off doing various lateral pull-down exercises or chin-ups, because you’ll get more than one joint involved,” Stone advises. “That way, you can use more weight and put emphasis on the targeted muscles.”
This is the exercise that involves pulling dumbbells or a barbell up to your chin. The problem? It puts your shoulder joint in an unnatural and compromised position that can result in injury. Tom Holland, Bowflex fitness advisor, recommends simple front and side raises with dumbbells to work the same muscles -- without the risk of getting hurt.
If you’ve got a little extra weight in your hips (who doesn’t?) and think focusing on hip-abduction exercises and machines is the solution, well, you're just wrong. “Our bodies lose fat in genetically predetermined patterns, and we cannot target certain areas, like the hips, and reduce the fat deposits in them,” Holland says. “The better alternative is squats and lunges, which target the entire leg.”
“The snatch is an old-school powerlifting movement that has experienced a renaissance over the past few years thanks to CrossFit,” Jason Bell, trainer at YG Studios, says. The snatch forces you to use speed and momentum to lift a weighted bar from the ground to an overhead deep-squatted position, then drive back up to a standing position with arms extended overhead. It sounds like a gnarly maneuver, and it is, especially when it comes to your knees. “[The snatch] is terrible for the knees, elbows, lower back, and shoulders,” Bell explains. And you need all of those joints!
Bell suggests breaking down the exercise into two parts: “All of these same muscles can be worked safely, more effectively, with proper weight and no momentum by simply splitting it into two movements: the deadlift and the seated military press.”
“Aside from wreaking havoc on your shoulders -- even when you execute them correctly -- dips serve no extra beneficial purpose that a slow and controlled push-up couldn’t do,” explains Josey Greenwell, a Barry’s Bootcamp instructor. “Most gym-goers, especially men, read that dips pack on the size and add extra mass to the chest, when in fact most perform a dip incorrectly and only engage their triceps, failing to truly isolate the chest.” The end result is an incredible amount of strain on the shoulder joins.
As an alternative, Greenwell recommends performing a variety of push-ups -- wide grip and close grip -- to hit all the muscles typical dip machines target. “That way, you can adjust your hand positioning from a wide to close range, as well as your tempo from fast to slow, really engaging your chest for that ‘burn’ effect you’re looking for,” Greenwell suggests. “If it’s mass you want, there’s nothing better than an incline barbell bench press to really add that sought-after ‘thick’ look to your chest.”
Lifting weights lighter than your gym bag
Most people are busy, and want to maximize their time in the gym. That means lifting heavy weights. “If you can comfortably and safely do more than 12-18 reps for three sets of anything, you need to up the ante to see results,” Brooke Sheely, trainer at YG studios, says. She advises against lifting uber-heavy weights six or seven days a week, but suggests trying a larger weight size for three workouts a week. Not only will you see results, but you’ll get more bang for your buck.
Sure, they look cool and make for an appealing Instagram feed, but unless you’re planning on joining the Cirque du Soleil, there’s really nothing functional about handstand push-ups. “[Handstand push-ups] can cause undue stress to the shoulders, and an uncontrolled landing could lead to neck injuries,” according to Jason C. Chun, clinical specialist at AlterG. If your goal is simply to get fit or lose some weight, Chun recommends doing wall balls instead. Throwing a weighted ball up in the air works your core, your hips, and your shoulders all in one, plus it can be modified as needed (with different weighted balls and increased or decreased speed).
Plyometrics, like box jumps, are effective in generating lower-body power -- but today the activity is being used more often for its ability to elevate the heart rate, which leads to personal trainers scaling the exercise with smaller steps for deconditioned or overweight clients. “For those without adequate strength and poor technique, the stress [of box jumping] could be too much for the knees or lower legs, potentially causing knee tendonitis or shin splints,” Chun says. Those who are just getting back into fitness could benefit more from walking or jogging on an anti-gravity treadmill.
“You need to move well first before adding a load,” Chun explains. “Technique is paramount for avoiding injury when weight, speed, or other challenges are added to exercises.”
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Erin Kelly is a writer, runner, and triathlete living in New York City. She considers research for this article permission to skip the gym for the rest of the week. Follow her on Twitter at @erinkellysays.