Chances are you’re a busy person with a lot going on. And even though you may genuinely enjoy working out and are fully aware of all of the benefits that exercise and leading a healthy lifestyle can have, you also don’t want your efforts in the gym to be wasted. With your limited time, you want to make sure that you’re focusing your efforts on safe, efficient exercises.
Just like everybody is different so is every body, but there are a few moves that fitness experts agree are a total waste of time.
1. Those Gym Machines
Sure, a gym with lots of machines might look impressive, but they may not actually be helping you in any way, shape, or form. Alex Bennett, an Athletics and Fitness Association of America–certified personal fitness trainer with a degree in corrective exercise specialization from the National Academy of Sports Medicine, notes that he sees many people using machines at the gym that actually lack effectiveness and functionality.
Their movement patterns have become altered so the body no longer knows how to stabilize and protect itself.
The top two offenders? The abdominal crunch machine and the hip abductor/adductor machine.
He explains that the machines are designed to isolate a muscle, but in the process they leave out key corresponding muscles, making the move less beneficial overall. Instead, he recommends skipping the machines and doing more compound movements, such as lunges or squats, to help strengthen the hip complex and legs.
“Compound movements also burn more calories than isolation machines,” Bennett adds.
For your core, he suggests planks or stepping it up and doing a plank on a BOSU ball or Swiss ball. “This recruits more muscle fibers and requires greater activation to stabilize the spine,” he explains. “It strengthens the core and leads to better long-term back health.”
Eric Wilson, 31, a master personal trainer and award-winning corrective exercise specialist from Cary, North Carolina, adds that the Smith machine—that one-stop-shop for all exercises in the gym—is a breeding ground for unbeneficial moves.
“Performing exercises like the squat, bench press, and overhead press on the Smith machine takes your body out of a natural movement pattern,” he notes. Because the Smith machine bar is fixed on a vertical plane, Wilson explains that using it effectively reduces any training for critical stabilizer muscles that need to be strengthened to prevent injury.
Unfortunately, although some people might think that they are doing a lot of heavy weight on a Smith machine, they actually aren’t able to really lift that much literally anywhere but on that one machine. The Smith machine basically does a lot of the work for you by stabilizing the weight. You might be able to isolate a muscle group, but it’s not helpful for overall strength and everyday functionality.
“This is why you may hear about people who lift a lot of weight in the gym but throw their back out picking up a laundry basket,” Wilson adds. “Their movement patterns have become altered so the body no longer knows how to stabilize and protect itself.”
Two other gym machines that Wilson actually bans his clients from using at all are the seated ab crunch and seated back extension machine. Not only does he believe that those machines are not beneficial, but he also notes that they tend to pose a great risk for back injury or aggravation. He explains that while many people believe that using machines is “safer” than doing free weights, this is not correct. Instead, machines can isolate muscles in ways they were never meant to be used.
For example, the bending back extension forces the lower back to play a mobility role it wasn’t designed to do. “While seated on these machines, your pivot point is now moved from the hip into the low back, forcing the low back into flexion and extension under shearing forces,” Wilson points out.
“Imagine your disc being compressed because you are in a seated position, then being further compressed back and forth in a rocking motion under load. This creates the potential for a herniated disc or worse.” To strengthen your back and your abs at the same time without the risks the machines pose, focus on movements that engage the whole core, such as planks, side planks, or crunches on an exercise ball.
2. This Basic Move
Does exercise get any more basic than your classic crunch? Probably not. But unfortunately, that basic crunch is probably not doing much to help you either.
This can also put the back muscles responsible for posture in a very poor position.
Bennett explains that not only is your basic crunch on the floor not an effective exercise, but it can also be harmful for the back and neck. “I see a lot of people tuck the chin during a sit-up,” he says.
“This puts a tremendous amount of strain on the neck, especially for those who are performing numerous reps. This can also put the back muscles responsible for posture in a very poor position. That position can lead to rounded shoulders and a forward head.”
Instead of risking harm with a basic crunch or sit-up, Bennett suggests moving to a Swiss ball, which allow you to keep your chin up and keep your back flat so you work the entire abdominal complex.
Bennett also notes that crunches or twists that focus on the abdominals or obliques can be particularly harmful to mothers who have recently given birth. “This is due to diastasis recti or rectus divarication, which is the widening of the gap between the two sections of the rectus abdominis (or 6 pack),” he says. Crunches or twists can actually force those muscles further apart.
Instead, he recommends practicing engaging your core by drawing your belly button back in toward your spine as you slowly exhale. “It is important to do this slowly and not forcefully,” he adds.
3. This Common Ab Exercise
One thing that Wilson frequently sees people doing (that they shouldn’t be) is a common ab exercise in front of a mirror. It involves standing in front of a mirror, holding a dumbbell in each hand, and bending over sideways, engaging the obliques as you stand back up straight.
By holding an equal amount of weight in each hand, you are effectively canceling out any resistance benefits.
The only problem? He says it’s a waste of time.
“While a good mobility drill for the spine if done slowly and controlled, it doesn’t achieve any significant abdominal or muscle strengthening benefit,” he explains. “By holding an equal amount of weight in each hand, you are effectively canceling out any resistance benefits as the weights counterbalance each other; as you bend to the left, the left weight aids you in bending to the side, and the right weight aids you in returning to a neutral position.”
But there is good news. This move can work with one simple modification: Lose one of weights. Using just one weight in one hand will activate the obliques much more effectively.
4. Basically Any Move When You Do This
The hard truth is that any move can be a waste of time if you’re not taking the time to focus on it. If your mind is wandering, you’re not making that mind–muscle connection that is so important to make it effective. Even more importantly, you’re more at risk for performing the move without proper form, which could lead to injury.
To decrease stress on the spine and shoulder joints, we now instruct people to bring the bar in front of them.
“Any exercise that you cannot do with good form and control—or any exercise that causes pain—should be avoided,” explains Sims Corbett, a national fitness trainer for SilverSneakers.
“It’s also important to learn the correct way to do an exercise to avoid injury. For example, when doing lat pulldowns, many people have learned to pull the bar behind their head. However, to decrease stress on the spine and shoulder joints, we now instruct people to bring the bar in front of them. It is safer, more comfortable and just as effective.”
Additionally, although learning new moves in the gym might be exciting, the temptation to jump into a new form of exercise can transform those moves into a waste of time.
“People are often excited to get started and push themselves too hard when they start exercising,” Corbett points out. “It’s important to start slowly. This decreases the chance of burnout and injury by allowing your body and mind to adjust to the new demands exercise creates.”
5. Age has nothing to do with it.
You might think that what exercises you should avoid will change as you get older, but that’s not actually the case, explains Corbett.
“Often it isn’t age that requires people to change their exercise patterns,” she notes. “Instead, it is the injuries and chronic conditions that become more common as we age.”
As you plan your exercises or work with a trainer, it’s important to keep in mind any chronic conditions or injuries that you have had—and tailor your own workouts around those. Again, there is no one-size-fits-all, and exercises can be individualized.
For example, she says that people with osteoporosis should avoid forward spine flexion, movements that could lead to a fall, or exercises that require excessive overloading of the back, such as abdominal crunches and leg presses—especially those that load the weight on your shoulders or position you with your legs above your head.
6. Anything You Try to Do on Your Own and Aren’t Sure About
Anytime you are unsure of yourself at the gym, it’s important to ask for help. Cough up the extra money for a trainer (just make sure he or she is certified first) or even watch a few YouTube videos from credible, reputable trainers.
Doing this helps prepare people for the movement patterns they do in everyday life.
“How helpful an exercise can be is specific to each individual and their unique needs and situation,” Corbett adds. In general, she suggests that people should focus on functional movement patterns that strength train multiple muscle groups at one time, such as rows that engage your back and biceps instead of just bicep curls. “Doing this helps prepare people for the movement patterns they do in everyday life and creates a more efficient workout,” she says.
Stay focused on what matters.
In the end, to ensure that you aren’t wasting your time in the gym, focus on exercise and moves that will translate into life outside of the gym. You don’t want to be able to squat 500 pounds on the Smith machine but not be able to lift your own kid at home.
To stay focused on function, Wilson recommends keeping your exercise moves basic with deadlifts, lunges, squats, farmer’s walks, and planks.
“After that you can start doing variations and additional lifts,” he adds. “But those will cover 90 percent of the movement you would do outside the gym—and make sure you stay safe and strong for your whole life.”