9 Least Effective Exercises

Experts name their top picks for fitness moves that are best to avoid.

By Barbara Russi Sarnataro
WebMD Weight Loss Clinic - Feature

Reviewed By Brunilda Nazario, MD

When you're trying to make the most of limited exercise time, the last thing you want to do is waste effort on exercises that don't pay off.

Exercise physiologist and fitness consultant Joseph Warpeha says there are two types of exercises we should avoid: Those that can easily lead to injury, and those that don't produce results.

Potentially Unsafe Exercises
Fitness experts who spoke to WebMD named the following exercises as potentially unsafe:

  1. Lat pull-down behind the head. This exercise is done sitting on a machine with a weighted, cabled bar overhead. You reach for the bar, then pull it down behind your head and neck.

    "So many things can go wrong" with this exercise, says Warpeha. Alignment is number one: Only people with very mobile shoulder joints can keep their spines straight enough to do this exercise properly. "Most people's shoulders aren't that flexible," Warpeha says. So the move can lead to shoulder impingement or worse, a tear in the rotator cuff, he says.

    Not only that, but "the tendency is to hit the back of the neck with the bar," which could injure the cervical vertebrae, adds fitness trainer and instructor Jodai Saremi, DPM.

    A safer alternative: On the pull-down machine, lean back a few degrees and bring the bar down in front of your body to the breastbone, pulling shoulder blades down and together. Contract your abdominals to stabilize the body, and avoid using momentum to swing the bar up and down.

  2. Military press behind the head. In this exercise, you lift the weights or barbell starting from behind the head at shoulder level, and press up and down behind the head.

    It can cause the same problems the behind-the-head lat pull does and should be avoided, says Warpeha. It's also wiser to choose an exercise that targets several muscle groups at once, rather than putting all the strain on the shoulders.

    "We should treat the shoulders (as well as the biceps, triceps, and calves) like ornaments on a Christmas tree," says Scott Danberg, MS, director of sp and fitness for Pritikin Longevity Center and Spa in Aventura, Fla. "Give them some attention, but concentrate on large muscle groups when doing an exercise. "For example, says Danberg, do a chest press to get the chest and shoulders, or a back row to target the upper back and shoulders. "The more muscles that are involved, the more functional strength you're getting, rather than just isolating the shoulders," says Danberg.

    A safer alternative: When doing the military press, keep the weights or bar in front of your head. Press up and down from the nose or chin level, going no lower than the collarbone. Always sit straight against a back support, and keep the natural curve in your spine, with upper back and glutes glued to the chair, says Warpeha.

  3. Upright row. Pulling weights, a barbell, or a weighted cabled bar up under your chin is a big no-no, says Saremi, a podiatrist and editorial staff member of the Aerobic and Fitness Association of America's American Fitness magazine. "When people pull their hands (carrying the weight) up to their chin, they are going to compress the nerves in the shoulder area, impinging the shoulder," Saremi says.

    A safer alternative: Instead, do a front or lateral shoulder raise, lifting weights out to the front or side of the body. Even better, try the bent-over row: Bending forward at the hips, hold weights down beneath your shoulders, then lift toward sides of your body. This exercise is much safer, and targets all the muscles of the upper back as well as the biceps.

  4. Lying leg press with knees bent too deeply. Lying on your back with your feet on a weighted plate, you push the plate up and bring it down, with the aim of working the quadriceps, hamstrings, and glutes. The problem with this exercise comes when you bend your legs too far.

    "This can be very dangerous if you come down too deep," says Warpeha. That's mainly because form falls apart. Your spine cannot maintain proper alignment when your legs come back too far, so the pelvis tilts and the lower back begins to take over. And the weight used is usually heavy enough to injure the back, causing strain to muscles or damage to disks. In addition, he says, bending your knees too deeply can injure or damage your knees. If you want to do this exercise, Warpeha suggests a good rule of thumb: Keep your butt from rotating off the back of the machine, and don't bend past 90 degrees at the knee and hip.

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