Get more from every minute by swapping out ineffective and risky exercises for smarter moves that will work more muscle in less time
Hip Abduction/Adduction Machine
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The hip abduction and adduction machines feel incredible: You can use a lot of weight, so you feel strong, and both exercises leave you with a serious burn. But they're dangerous, says Nick Tumminello, owner of Performance University in Baltimore, because your body isn't designed for those movements.
"There's nothing remotely like these movements in life," he says. The muscles the machines work "are primarily stabilizers for when you're standing or moving around. When you do a stepup or lunge, you're working them, plus all the other stuff."
What to do instead: Get out of the chair and work abduction and adduction while standing, suggests Aaron Brooks, a biomechanics expert and owner of Perfect Postures in Auburndale, Mass. Affix a band or the handle of a cable machine around your right ankle while you stand with the machine (or fixed point of the band) on your left. Keeping an erect posture, lift your weighted leg out and away from your body to 3 o'clock. To perform the adduction (pulling in)maneuver, stand with your weighted leg next to the machine, crossing it in front of your planted leg to 9 o'clock.
The Smith Machine
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The Smith machine—where the bar is locked into a sliding vertical plane—may be the most versatile bad-for-you equipment in the gym, Brooks says.
"Let's say you're doing a bench press," he says. "If someone extends their arms in front of them, one may be longer than the other. The machine doesn't account for this. So you overwork and strengthen a pre-existing dysfunction."
The fixed path of the weight "forces the joint to move in a way that it may not want to move," Brooks says. This can lead to injury in the major muscles, or it may lead to weakness in the tiny muscles that protect you when you're doing movements in the real world—like bending over to pick up a box or running in a crowded park.
What to do instead: Almost all the exercises you can do on the Smith (squats, bench press, overhead press) are better with barbells or dumbbells. But the machine's not without merit: Use the fixed bar at lower positions to perform inverted rows or as your support for incline pushups.
Wall Squats with a Swiss Ball
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When you perform a squat with a Swiss ball pressed between your back and the wall, you're cheating yourself… and your butt.
"It takes the glutes completely out of the squat," says Mike Wunsch, performance director at Results Fitness in Santa Clarita, CA. And like many of the moves on this list, it's unnatural. "You're relying on the ball. If I take it away, you'll probably fall down."
What to do instead: Get the total-body toning effect of the squat—your quads, hamstrings, core, calves, and butt—with a goblet squat. Cup a dumbbell or kettlebell in front of your chest, with your elbows close together. Push your hips back and bend your knees to squat, keeping the weight of your body on your heels. Press back through your heels to the starting position, and repeat.
Kickbacks & Overhead Extensions
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Kickbacks and overhead extensions don't work your triceps that hard, and they can wreck your elbows and shoulders.
"You should never do 'arms' exercises," says Jeremy Frisch, owner and director of Achieve Performance Training in Clinton, Mass. Besides the injury risk, "You'll hit those muscles so much harder doing complex exercises anyway."
What to do instead: For your triceps, Frisch suggests the close-grip bench press and incline pushups. For both moves, though, your form is important: "You shouldn't feel it in your shoulders," he says. "Ninety-nine percent of people do these exercises wrong. They stop halfway down. Your elbows should almost be touching your sides," and you should lower your chest all the way to the step (or the bar all the way to your chest). If you can't, raise the step for your pushups or lower the weight on the bar.
Seated Torso Rotation
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The seated torso rotation will tone your abs through rotation, "but at the price of beating up on your spine," Tumminello says. "When you rotate your spine, your hips are designed to rotate as well."
What to do instead: Get the core-sculpting benefits of rotation without risking your back with standing cable chops. Stand to the right of the high pulley of a cable machine and grab the handle with straight arms over your left shoulder. Keeping your arms straight, pull the handle down and across your body to your right hip, twisting at the core and the hips. Return to start and repeat. Finish your reps, and repeat on the other side.
Leg Extension Machine
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The leg extension machine ties an unnatural movement with a dangerous weight placement, Brooks says.
"Because the load is on one end [instead of centered], there's tremendous strain on the knee," he says. "And most times, people aren't sitting in the chair properly. They're trying to generate more force by moving their pelvis."
What to do instead: Natural movements. Even without weights, exercises like squats and lunges will train your thighs better while sculpting your butt and challenging your core.
Lat Pulldown Machine
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To get sexy, sculpted shoulders, many gym-goers hop on the lat pulldown machine … and then work their chests with bad form.
"Many people round their shoulders forward, which is the opposite of what you're supposed to be doing," Brooks says.
What to do instead: Strengthen your shoulders—and your back, core, butt, legs, and arms—with negative chinups and static hangs. To perform a negative chinup, use a chair or step to get to the top of the chinup position. Hold at the top, then lower your body as slowly as possible, fighting gravity as it pulls your body until your arms are straight. Use the step or chair to return to start, and repeat.