Trainers wouldn’t be caught dead performing these moves—so why are you? Use their suggestions to upgrade to a safer, more efficient workout
Arm Circles with Weights
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Barre and sculpting class instructors often will tell you to do arm circles using 3 to 5 pound weights, which can lead to pain and shoulder impingement syndrome over time, says Jodi Sussner, national fitness presenter and director of personal training and programming for Lift Brands. "Due to the position of the arms and the added force from the hand weights pulling on the joints against gravity, the shoulder is subject to instability," she explains.
Upgrade to: Safely and effectively strengthen the deltoids with the dumbbell lateral raise (shown above), Sussner suggests. This angle of the arms plus lifting and lowering against gravity eases tension on the shoulder joint.
How to: Stand holding 8- or 10-pound dumbbells with feet togther and arms at sides. Slowly lift arms in front of you at a 45-degree. As arms near shoulder height, turn thumbs upward a tad, slightly rotating shoulders. With control, slowly lower to start position. Do 10 to 12 reps.
Plyo Pushup Jack
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Often performed in bootcamp classes and DVD workouts, plyometric pushup jacks—which involve jumping in and out from plank position to a wide pushup—certainly are challenging. They blend cardio, strength, and explosive power—but they also require impeccable stability from the shoulders to the hips, as well as a braced core and neutral spine the entire time, says Stephanie Thielen, a fitness educator and master trainer based in Omaha, NE. "Anything less than proper form—such as sagging the hips toward the floor, collapsing through the shoulder blades, dropping the head, or limiting the range of motion while performing the pushup—can increase the risk for injury in the low back or shoulder joint," she says.
Upgrade to: The non-impact step-out pushup (shown above) gives you a greater opportunity to focus on form while still providing a serious core challenge.
How to: Begin in plank position with hands and feet together. With core engaged and spine neutral, step right arm and right leg out wide to perform a pushup, angling elbows toward torso to promote better shoulder mechanics. Slowly press back up to start position; repeat on the opposite side. Do 8 to 10 reps total.
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A bodyweight exercise commonly performed in Pilates and group strength classes to work the back muscles, superman may not be the best choice for this goal, especially for those dealing with back pain, says Anthony Carey, owner of Function First in San Diego, CA, and author of The Pain-Free Program: A Proven Method to Relieve Back, Neck Shoulder and Joint Pain. Research shows that the compressive forces on the lower back (specifically the lumbar spine) can reach up to 1,300 pounds when performing this popular move. "The risk is not worth it,” Casey says. “And if you attempt this exercise in an effort to help back pain, it could actually backfire."
Upgrade to: Bird-dog (shown above) produces much less compressive force on the spine since the hip of the supporting leg is flexed and only one arm and leg are lifted at a time. It also trains your low back to stay stable during movement and packs the added bonus of challenging the body to move through a wider range of motion.
How to: Come to hands and knees with wrists below shoulders and knees below hips. Keeping core engaged, slowly extend left leg behind you while lifting right arm out in front of you until both are parallel with the floor. Hold for 7 to 8 seconds, then slowly release back to start position. Repeat on opposite side. Do 10 to 12 reps total, alternating sides.
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Most of us spend enough time sitting (at a desk, behind a steering wheel...) and lying down (sleeping and zoning out on the couch at night) that we shouldn't be lying on the floor doing sit-ups when we train, says Doug Balzarini, head strength and conditioning coach for Alliance Training Center and founder of DB Strength in San Diego. There are much more effective ways to work your core—ways that don't risk straining your neck or spine.
Upgrade to: Use a stability ball to create intensity and really target your core with the stir the pot (shown above).
How to: Start in a kneeling position behind a stability ball with forearms on top of the ball and elbows under shoulders. Press up onto balls of feet, coming to a plank position with core and glutes engaged and spine neutral. Move forearms to make clockwise circles with them for 10 to 15 seconds. Then move forearms to make counterclockwise circles for 10 to 15 seconds. For an even greater challenge, perform this move with feet elevated on a bench.
Seated Thigh Abduction and Adduction
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Exercisers have flocked to the seated inner- and outer-thigh machines for decades with the hopes of sculpting sexier thighs, but since the muscles you're trying to target aren't really used in a seated position, there's no benefit to these exercises, says Keli Roberts, a certified personal trainer in Pasadena, CA. "Functionally the adductors (inner thigh muscles) and abductors (outer thigh muscles) work to keep the knees in alignment when you do things like walk run, squat, and climb up and down stairs—not when you're sitting."
Upgrade to: Roberts recommends the crossover side lunge (shown above) to work the abductors and adductors in an upright, weight-bearing position so they can be strengthened along with the glutes, hamstrings, and quadriceps. This makes for a more effective exercise that saves time and burns more calories.
How to: Stand with feet together and arms by sides holding 10-pound dumbbells. Take a wide step to the side with right foot (left leg stays extended) and bend right knee, pushing hips behind you. Keep back flat and eyes looking straight ahead, and reach both arms on either side of right foot. Push off the ground with right foot, standing back up as you cross right leg over left foot (think of stepping right foot to the top left corner of an imaginary box on the ground in front of you) and immediately bend knees and reach both hands to the floor on either side of right foot. Push off right foot to return to start position. Do 8 to 10 reps, then repeat on the opposite side.
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A CrossFit staple and go-to for those who can't yet bust out regular pull-ups, the kipping version incorporates power, momentum, and strength all in one. But if you lack the necessary coordination as well as strength, stability, mobility, and flexibility in the upper and lower body to perform it, skip it, recommends Elizabeth Kovar, master trainer for BOSU and the American Council on Exercise. "The rapid pull places significant stress on the shoulders, which are highly mobile and vulnerable joints," she says. "Power exercises such as this are most suitable only for elite athletes and highly trained individuals."
Upgrade to: Standing cable lat-pulldowns (shown above) give you all the benefits of pull-ups—in a standing position. Use them as a precursor to bodyweight pull-ups to help you develop the overall back and arm strength and stability needed to eventually progress to more challenging exercises.
How to: Adjust a cable machine so handles are above shoulders. Stand in a split stance with right foot in front of left and grasp handles, keeping a soft bend in arms. On exhale, draw arms toward torso using back muscles, creating a "W" shape with arms. With control, slowly extend arms back to start position. Do 10 to 12 reps.
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A common yoga move, bridge pose (also known as shoulder bridge) may place the lumbar spine in extreme ranges of extension, which can be dangerous for people with low back pain, says Sabrena Merrill, master trainer and CrossFit coach in Kansas City, MO. "Even if back pain is not a problem, this backbend is ineffective if your goal is to work the glutes and hamstrings, because the extreme arch takes the work out of the hips and legs, and places it on the spine."
Upgrade to: Glute bridge (shown above) helps you learn how to contract the glutes and stretch the hip flexors in a stable, functional position that encourages a healthier hip joint, Merrill says. While this move may look similar to bridge pose, the yoga pose is more of backbend.
How to: Lie on back with knees bent and feet flat on the floor about 12 inches away from hips. Keeping spine neutral, slowly tuck under with your pelvis, pushing into heels and lifting back off of the floor until hips are completely open at the top without arching back. Hold with pelvis tucked for 5 seconds, then slowly lower to start position. Do 10 to 12 reps.
Standing Cable Rotation
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While the standing cable rotation can be a great way to engage the core, it’s often performed incorrectly with people rotating through the lumbar spine, says Don Bahneman, fitness director at The Energy Club in Arlington, VA. "The stability of the lumbar spine is critical in this exercise in order to prevent injury."
Upgrade to: Though it looks easy at first glace, the standing cable punch out (shown above) will hone your core and boost spinal stability by training your body to resist rotation, Bahneman says.
How to: Stand with your right side facing a cable station and hold a chest-height handle with both hands. Step away from the station so the cable is taut, and stand with feet hip-width apart and the handle in both hands close to chest. Keeping abs tight, press the handle in front of you, keeping arms and hands in a straight line and spine, hips, and shoulders still. Return to start position. Do 12 to 15 reps, then repeat on the opposite side.
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Once reserved for Olympic lifting junkies, the highly technical barbell snatch is now being performed by average gym-goers—but often with improper form, says Todd Durkin, owner of Fitness Quest 10 in San Diego, CA and author of The Impact! Body Plan. "You really should be trained in this exercise before attempting it, as it can be extremely dangerous if not done properly."
Upgrade to: The more accessible dumbbell clean and press (shown above) offers the same full-body lift, working the hips, legs, core, and shoulders. By swapping dumbbells in for an unwieldy barbell, your body supports the range of motion of the move more safely.
How to: Holding 10- to 15-pound dumbbells at sides, lower to a squat, hinging at the hips. Keeping back angled and core engaged, push into feet and rise up, pushing hips forward and pulling dumbbells up to shoulder height so upper arms are parallel to floor, elbows point in front of you, and palms face in. Slightly bend knees and as you exhale and press dumbbells overhead with elbows pointed to 1 o'clock and 11 o'clock. Inhale and reverse the movement to start position. Do 8 to 10 reps.