You only have so much time each week to get in the gym and train, so the last thing you want to do is waste your time or worse – get injured! The exercises I have chosen below are my chosen most over-rated moves for the average person. Not pro-athletes or bodybuilders or powerlifters. I will give my reasoning for each one and also what you could do instead to target the same muscles. One thing you need to remember is your goal with your workouts. What is your exact goal – and how can you BEST achieve that goal without getting injured? These are questions to remember – so you should stay away from the super advanced moves with high risk low reward and instead do things that will get you fit, keep you fit, and also keep you from getting injured! Things I have learned the hard way over my 10+ years lifting weights, so I believe I have experience when discussing these moves.
- Barbell bench press. This one is top on my list because the last thing the average person needs to do heavy weight of is pressing! Most people I train come to me with already rounded shoulders, poor scapular control, and super tight pecs. Everyone sits at a desk all day or on the couch without thinking about their posture – so the pec become super tight and the muscles in the rotator cuff and upper back are weak and stretched out. Adding a weighted barbell to the mix is detrimental and will likely cause injury eventually as it’s a bilateral movement – so any imbalance in the shoulders will be exacerbated by holding a single barbell so that the shoulders cannot move independently. A better move? Dumbbell pressing on the floor. The dumbbells are safer for the shoulders and allow for more movement, you can still get crazy strong, and the floor allows for a safer range of motion.
- Barbell overhead press. This move is even worse as pressing overhead is a recipe for disaster if you lack the full shoulder flexion needed to perform the movement. The only people who should be doing barbell overhead presses are athletes — and even then they are probably not doing strict barbell presses overhead. A better move? Kneeling single arm dumbbell shoulder press, seated shoulder presses with moderate weight, or even dumbbell push press where you are able to recruit a little bit of lower body power to assist with the pressing movement.
- Renegade row. I’m not going to lie. I used to do this move! But ever since I recovered from a shoulder injury I realize how stupid it is. You are in a plank, hands on dumbbells, and then you perform alternating rowing motions with the arms, expecting yourself to keep hips still and stable — this is putting a ton of stress on the shoulder joint and it’s not giving you much benefit. You are better off separating these moves – just do traditional dumbbell row (my favorite) and then some abdominal work separately. I have grown to hate 2 moves combined into one exercise as it normally is just not very effective at stimulating muscle for one or the other. I do not do this move anymore nor do I program it for any client.
- Dips. These are usually done with poor form – and they wreak havoc on your shoulders. If you do dips (bench dips or regular) with rounded shoulders and too much range of motion you are asking for a shoulder injury! These are not even great at targeting the triceps because most people lack the strength to do them properly – so they are just wasting their time. You are better off doing tricep extensions with dumbbells or a cable machine OR just do pushups. I never do these!
- Upright row. This one, to me, does nothing whatsoever. I don’t even feel it in my shoulders – all it does is cause pinching and pain. Avoid it!! Whether it’s with cables, kettlebell or dumbbells I do not ever do this move or program it. Usually it puts the shoulder in a very “impingement” type of position – and again, most people have rounded shoulders and tight pecs anyways so their form is already poor, now add a weighted movement that puts strain on the shoulders – recipe for disaster. Avoid this move! What to do instead? Single arm dumbbell snatch or a version of lateral raises or supinated grip front raises.
- Traditional deadlift. This move is not my favorite because of my goals and my scoliosis. Again, pro-athletes and powerlifters certainly should do this move to build strength but for the average person this move is likely to just hurt your back! You are pulling a lot of weight off the floor and if your form is not perfect then you are most likely going to strain the lumbar spine. Also, most people try to do way too much weight and they wear the wrong shoes for deadlifting so it’s again, recipe for disaster. You are better off doing kettlebell deadlifts, sumo deadlift (focuses glutes more and it’s safer on the spine), or even single leg deadlifts. Anything single-leg is safer than bilateral because it shifts the focus to the hips and is accommodating for imbalances in the body. Hex bar deadlift is also another good alternative to traditional – holding the weight at your sides rather than in front of your body takes pressure and stress of the lower spine and it will feel so much better pulling weight in that range of motion. Try it out! Remember, form first and don’t use too much weight or you risk straining a muscle in the lower back.
- Burpees. I used to love this move back when I was a crazy lifter who did excess volume. While burpees do get the heart rate up and they are challenging, there are better forms of cardio that won’t cause injury. Most people lack the proper hip mobility required to do this move and most people do this move wrong – so all it’s doing is burning some calories and making you super uncomfortable. Sure it’s fine to do this move from time to time if you have the proper hip mobility and you like them, but if you hate them? You do not need to do these. The best trainers out there will agree with me in saying that this is a dumb exercise and there are better moves out there such as doing straight push-ups to build strength, and then maybe some high knee runs or hop on the rower to get some cardio in. I do not do this move hardly at all anymore because I prefer to keep my cardio separate from my strength training.
- Pull-ups. This move is super challenging and most people should not be doing pull-ups because they either lack the shoulder flexion to do them or they lack the strength to do them properly. You can certainly add a band to make them more doable, but the issue I see is people try to get too many reps with poor form – they are shrugging the shoulders to pull themselves up, they are not fully extending the elbows on the eccentric phase, and/or they are trying to kip or swing themselves to get up (let me add that kipping pull-ups are a disaster too and they are also on this list with the pull-ups because they are dangerous and do nothing good for you). If your goal is to be able to do a pull-up then sure, do these! But please do them with good form. Use a band, take them slow and work full range of motion. Try not to shrug the shoulders as you pull or let them round, do FEWER REPS until you are strong enough to do more. It kills me to see people trying to get so many reps out for an exercise and their form is horrible so basically you are accomplishing nothing. For pull-ups do maybe 3-6 reps for your sets, and save energy in the tank. Do not do pull-ups to failure, You can really aggravate your shoulders if you’re not ready for this move and you do too much too fast. What to do instead? Seated close grip pulldowns (much safer for shoulders), or even dumbbell pullovers (either on the floor holding the dumbbell by either end, or on a bench and wrap the grip around the end of a dumbbell so it hangs vertically above you). This is much safer for your shoulders and will work to improve the range of motion without straining and causing injury. I also love traditional dumbbell row to get the lats strong – it’s a classic foundational move that is super safe and excellent for upper body strength building!
- Planks. Planks are not always bad, but people try to do too many for too long. It’s a waste of time. You are better off doing hollow body hold variations which will challenge the TVA (transverse abodminis) and not put excess strain on the shoulders. The shoulders can only take so much! Instead of planks just do push-ups or side elbow planks on occasion – traditional planks are not that great at building strength once you reach a certain level of fitness – if you can hold longer than 1-2 minutes you are better off doing something else to challenge your core unless you just like wasting time.
- Barbell back squat. Yes – squats are a great exercise but they are not the BEST when it comes to really building leg and glute strength. You can easily skip this move forever if you hate it – and trust me, most people lack the lumbar stabilization and hip and ankle mobility (and shoulder mobility for that matter), to hold a heavy barbell across their back and do squats. I used to do this move all the time until I decided with my scoliosis and uneven hips that I am better off doing unilateral work – such as Bulgarian split squats, reverse lunges, and single leg deadlifts rather than the back squat. It’s problematic because when your core fatigues or if your form is not absolutely perfect the chance of you hurting your back when you do these is very high. I know because I have been there. My back would always get sore after heavy back squats, but it never gets sore after heavy front squats (so I do those instead). You can build solid, muscular, “toned” legs without ever doing this move! I suggest instead to do goblet squats, front squats, Bulgarian split squats, or any variation of lunges. Also don’t forget the hip thrust is the King when it comes to building your booty – so don’t forget to incorporate some type of thrust/bridge movement too. I haven’t done this move in probably a year and my legs look better than ever. Back squatting is nothing other than spinal compression – unless you are a pro athlete or powerlifter you do not NEED to do this move (again, if you love it and have great form then go for it).
So that is my list! What do you guys think – what would you add? There are so many exercises out there it’s easy to get overwhelmed but I think focusing on traditional, proven movements that have high reward and low risk (not the opposite) are what most people should be focusing on to just feel better and age better. The last thing we want is to get injured and be out for three months – which is the typical timeline of a nagging injury – so avoid things that can potentially mess up your joints. Especially if you lack the range of motion for a movement – know your body, know your goals, and train smart!