When it comes to exercising, there are a lot of choices to be made; How often do I work out? Which body parts should I exercise? How much cardio, core, stretching, etc.. etc.. should I do? How many sets/reps/minutes? The list goes on and on… I’m about to make the exercise selection part of your workout a bit easier. The following list describes 7 exercises that are best left OUT of your work out. Read and enjoy! If you have any comments or questions feel free to leave them in the comment section or contact me personally!
1) Behind The Head Lat Pull Down
This is a great exercise to focus on mid and lower trap development as well as general lat development. You’ll see some of the strongest body builders in the gym doing it, and I only hope that they know it may be harming their neck and shoulders. Because of the head forward (neck protraction) position, you are likely to see muscles like the sternocleidomastoid (SCM), levator scapulae, and upper fibers of the trapezius (traps) tighten up. These muscles are common sources of neck pain, reducing functional neck range of motion, as well as encouraging scapular downward rotation, which can create or further exacerbate shoulder dysfunctions. Additionally, the position of extreme horizontal abduction and external rotation of the shoulder can cause a host of problems that are not limited to shoulder impingement syndrome, rotator cuff strains, labral irritation/tears, AC Joint compression, and ligamentous laxity.
2) Upright Row
The upright row focuses on strengthening the middle and posterior delts, rhomboids and upper traps. It can certainly achieve this goal, however it comes with the risk of shoulder impingement. I personally do not recommend this exercise to many people, but if I do it is always with the limitation of not bringing the elbows up above the shoulder level (as seen in the above picture).
3) Traditional Sit-ups, Crunches and Machines that Simulate Sit-ups
Stuart McGill would die and then roll over in his grave if I didn’t mention these exercises. Essentially, yes, these exercises can pack on some muscle and definition to the rectus abdominua, iliopsoas, rectus femoris, and the obliques… However to include these exercises in a regular exercise program is not worth the risk of injury.
Going back to basics for a moment- the core is essentially meant to create spinal stability. Another way for me to say this is that the core musculature is meant to functionally operate as an anti-mover for the spine, contracting isometrically. When you do a sit-up you are concentrically contracting the anterior core muscles. Additionally, Stu McGill’s research shows that each intervertebral disc in the lumbar spine has a finite number of spine bends (flexion) that it can tolerate. Due to the structure of the discs, repeated flexion (think rounding the back) is one of the worst motions for lumbar spine health. Crunches, sit-ups, and most abdominal machines in the gym FLEX the spine! So ..stop it!.. and stick to planks, and other exercises that keep the back in a neutral stable position.
4) Leg Press
I love the fact that you can really load up this machine and focus on leg strength, however there are three main flaws I see to using it:
1) The back and feet are planted and impacts the proper knee arthrokinematics (the movement of the joint surfaces) of the tibiofemoral joint to take place. Typically as you straighten the knee, there is a conjunction external rotation of the tibia on the femur. It is hypothesized that this machine will affect this conjunct movement.
2) The back is flexed and thus it experiences high levels of stress placed on the discs (especially at the lumbosacral junction).
3) The exercise does not have a lot of functional carry-over to sport or daily life – Have you ever known anyone to sit down and push 400 lbs of weight? My recommendation – Train functionally in an upright position!
5) Knee Extensions
This machine is great for building quad mass, but is not great for the:
1) Patellofemoral Joint Arthrokinematics:
(A) The way that the patella (knee cap) moves on the femoral condyles changes depending on whether you are performing an open or closed-chain exercise. Powers et al. (2003) found that the patellofemoral joint kinematics during non-weight-bearing (open chain) exercises could be characterized as the patella moving on the femur, while the kinematics during weight-bearing (closed chain) exercises could be characterized as the femur rotating underneath the stable. The latter of the two conditions provides the least amount of stress placed on the patellofemoral joint.
(B) There is often additional stress placed on the patellofemoral joint because the load that you must push with your shin is anterior to the knee joint, whereas during a squat, the load is often through the knee joint or posterior to the knee joint.
2) Tibiofemoral Joint Arthrokinematics: For the same reason as explained in the leg press example above (#1), pushing your shin against the machine prevents some of the conjunct external rotation of the tibia on the femur, meaning that the joint mechanics may be dysfunctional and can lead to joint damage.
6) Back Extensions
This may be a good exercise to put on some erector spinal bulk, but over facilitation of this muscle group is already a common occurrence. Classically this facilitation occurs because of poor spinal stability via inhibited/weak deep core muscles (most significant = the multifidus muscles in this scenario). Performing this exercise may result in increased facilitation of the already facilitated erector spinae muscles.
7) Almost All Seated Exercises
Avoid almost all seated exercises, and especially ones that cause repeated lumbar rotation. The worst ones to avoid include exercises like the seated torso rotation machine, or any machines that force you into lumbar flexion (as mentioned above in #3). Remember Stuart McGills advice from above? The lumbar spine should be able to move dynamically, but have static stability when loaded. What i mean by this is that when the spine is not under any stress, we should have full range of motion through flexion, extension, rotation and side flexion. However, when loaded, the core muscles should provide stability and should remain static. If the spine moves when it is under load, additional shear and compression forces will occur, resulting in wear-and-tear on the spine.
Lastly, when we must engage other muscle groups from a seated postion, we do not harness the stability and strength of the core. As a result we likely are weaker in that exercise, and we could be placing our body at risk for injury. Why? Because most sitting inhibits our ability to contract some of our core muscles (i.e. when sitting, the anterior abdominal cavity is compressed which inhibits the diaphragm from contracting), and some of our peri-core muscles (i.e. the glutes, hamstrings multifidi, erector spinae, etc. are lengthened and thus unable to contract as forcefully from the seated position).
This is an interesting take on mobility that has helped me greatly: Always think about the body in terms of what should be mobile or stable. The following list will help to provide you with an understanding, and if applied correctly will help guide your training and any injury rehabilitation: Ankle — Mobile Knee — Stable Hip — Mobile Lumbar Spine — Stable Thoracic Spine — Mobile Scapula — Stable Glenohumeral — Mobile Remember that each joint should have full ROM regardless of its main purpose. Read more about this approach from Gray Cook’s book, 'Movement',
Powers, C.M., Ward, S.R., Fredericson, M., Guillet, M., Shellock, F.G. (2003). Patellofemoral kinematics during weight-bearing and non-weight-bearing knee extension in persons with lateral subluxation of the patella: a preliminary study. Journal of Orthopaedic and Sports Physical Therapy: 33(11): 677 – 685.
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Jacob Carter lives and works in Canmore, Alberta. He combines research evidence with clinical expertise to educate other healthcare professionals, athletes, and the general public on a variety of health topics.