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10 Exercises You Should Do Instead of the Dumb Ones You’re Doing

They're safer, more efficient, and better at building muscle.

Maybe you go to the gym because you want to maintain your weekened-warrior, Spartan Race crushing lifestyle. Maybe you go to the gym because you don’t want to wheeze as much when you’re having a dance party with your kids. Or maybe it’s somewhere in between. Whatever the case, you’re at the gym attempting to better yourself. All your efforts could be for naught, however, as so many of the traditional exercises you likely do are not worthwhile. They’re exercises ingrained in the psyche of gym goers, but are outdated, inefficient, and dangerous. That’s why we paired with Josh Cox, a TRX-certified, CPT at Anytime Fitness, Santa Rosa, CA. He walked us through 10 common exercises that you need to stop performing, along with far more efficient substituations to swap in. Make the change and your time at the gym will way more worthwhile.

man in plank position

Swap Out: Crunches

Swap In: Plank

Why: “Crunches are one of those exercises people equate to a rocking strong core. But doing crunches for a strong core is like going through a car wash and hoping your engine works better.”

How to Do It: Get into the top of a push-up, hands under your shoulders and fingers spread wide. Draw your navel up towards your spine. Hold for 1 minute, working up to 5 minutes.

Avoid: Not doing a pelvic tuck. “Tucking in engages your core properly and aligns your spine, hips, everything. It will also alleviates lower back pain by engaging all the surrounding muscles.”

trx man

Swap Out: Leg Extensions

Swap In: TRX Front Squats

Why: “TRX front squats engage more leg muscles than extensions. Any machine can be ineffective: you’re strengthening a smaller set of muscles in a fixated way, but outside of it your real-world application is going to be your downfall.”

How to Do It: Facing away from the TRX anchor, hold the handles with your elbows bent and the straps under your arms. Step back until your body is at a 45-degree angle with the floor, feet slightly more than hip-width apart. Shift onto the balls of your feet, supporting your bodyweight with your arms. Squat, then stand back up by pushing down through the balls of your feet. Repeat.

Avoid: Not letting your body fully relax in the lean position; not staying on the balls of your feet. “You want to mimic a 90-degree squat and not move past that.”

man lifting dumbbells

Swap In: Upright Rows

Swap Out: Lateral Delt Raises

Why: “Upright rows work your mid-delt region but can impinge your shoulder joints. Lateral raises allow the shoulder joints to move in a fashion they want to move but you’re still getting a good trapezoid squeeze. They work the same muscles but are less harsh on your body.”

How to Do It: Sitting on the edge of a bench or chair with your legs together, bend at the waist while keeping your back straight. Pick up dumbbells in each hand, palms facing in. Keeping your elbows slightly bent, lift the weights to the sides until your arms are parallel to the floor. Slowly lower the weights back down without returning them to the floor. Repeat.

Avoid: Locking out your elbows. “Locking out your elbows is like kinking a hose. All the pressure will stop at the kink. Your body will do the same with the transfer of energy stopping at yours elbows, which can lead to pain. Loosen your elbows.”

Swap Out: Abductor Machine

Swap In: TRX Lateral Lunges

Why: “TRX lateral lunges put you in control but with support. You can stretch as far as you want you want knowing there’s a safety net. You get a hip stretch and a hip squeeze. It’s better for overall real-world application.”

How to Do it: Standing with your feet shoulder-width apart, toes pointing forward, hold a TRX strap in each hand. Step one foot out to the side, bringing your hips down until the thigh of your bent leg is parallel to the floor. Stand back up by pushing down through your foot. Repeat, then change sides.

Avoid: A stance that starts too close. “Make sure your feet are wider apart than you think they need to be. It will feel funny in beginning, but once you start you’ll find you’re in the proper position when you do the exercise.”

man dumbells

Swap Out: Overhead Presses

Swap In: Curls with Partial Reverse Shoulder Press

Why: “Overhead presses don’t work because they impinge the shoulders and that hurts. The back and shoulders are the sites of the most common issues. Your shoulder and bicep muscles are closely related. The curl activates the delt muscles and then the slight raise—you’re completely squeezing your delts without causing any shoulder issues.”

How to Do It: Standing with your feet shoulder-width apart, hold dumbbells at your sides, palms facing forward. Curl the weights with a controlled movement. At the top of the curl, partially extend your arms as if performing an upper-cut punch, bringing your elbows slightly above shoulder level. Reverse the motion to return to the starting position. Repeat.

Avoid: Lifting too much weight. “A lot of people like to try to be a hero and lift what they want to be lifting rather than what they should be lifting. Lifting overhead exacerbates shoulder issues, so do the form correctly rather than seeing how heavy you can go.”

man weight plate

Swap Out: Leg Presses

Swap In: Seated Plate Squats

Why? “Leg presses don’t mimic anything you’d do in real life. You’re strengthening your legs, but you’ll only be leg press strong,” says Cox. “These squats teach your legs and core to properly fire together when you reengage to stand up. They’re deceiving—they’re harder than they look.”

How to Do It: Sitting on a bench or chair with your legs at 90-degree angles at your knees, hold a weight plate flat against your body at shoulder height, below your chin. Stand, then sit back down, completely disengaging your leg muscles. Repeat.

Avoid: Tilting the plate. “Flatness is what activates the back and core. You want to remain upright the whole time. If you’re leaning forward, use a lighter plate.”

Swap Out: Tricep Extensions/Kickbacks

Swap In: Cable Pull-Overs

Why: “Oftentimes extensions have to be avoided because of elbow issues. If your elbow isn’t allowing your arm to do the extension motion but you still want to work triceps, pull-overs keeps the tricep activated without making your elbow the fulcrum for all the pressure—the pressure goes into the muscles instead.”

How to Do It: Standing with your feet shoulder-width apart and facing an adjustable cable machine with a straight-bar attachment positioned at the highest setting, grab the bad with an overhand grip, hands shoulder-width apart. Keeping your arms straight, pull the cable to your thighs by squeezing your shoulder blades together. Return the bar to the starting position with a controlled movement. Repeat.

Avoid: Overbending the elbows; locking the elbows; rounding the back; tensing the shoulders. “Relax your shoulders. Don’t pull them up like you’re trying to pop your head like it’s a pimple.”

man dumbells

Swap Out: Shoulder Shrugs

Swap In: Dumbbell Farmer Carries

Why: “Shoulder shrugs isolate one small part of a really giant muscle group,” says Cox. “The trapezius is a diamond-shaped muscle group that starts at the shoulders, swoops up into the neck and base of the head, and then goes down to the lower back.”

How to Do It: Select dumbbells that each weigh 30 -40 percent of your bodyweight. Hold one in each hand and walk, keeping your back straight and core tight. Aim for 100 meters. Set the weights down slowly and with control.

Avoid: Substituting a barbell for two weights, one for each hand.

Swap Out: Smith Machine Bench Presses

Swap In: Dumbbell Chests Presses

Why: “Using a Smith can hurt if you have shoulder issues. Free weights allow you different pathways, more options to avoid injury,” says Cox.

How to Do It: Lying down on a flat bench, hold a dumbbell in each hand at chest level and shoulder-width apart. Push the weights up, locking your arms at the top of the lift and lightly touching the weights to each other. Lower the weights to the starting position with a controlled movement, more slowly than raising. Repeat.

Avoid: Using all shoulder and not activating your chest. “When the weights come down at the tops of your shoulders, you’re using your shoulders and the chest gets lost.”

Swap Out: Extended Cardio

Swap In: Cumulative Cardio

Why: “People who focus on extended cardio are always at the gym, always sweaty, always working hard—and always look the same,” says Cox. Here’s  why: Your body wants variety. Being on a piece of cardio equipment for two hours is not something you have to do if you’re miserable. “Cardio is cumulative. You could do 10 minutes of movement here, 20 minutes there, a few minutes throughout the day, however you want to do them. Do a quick mile run in the morning, then 20-30 minute warm-up when you’re at the gym later in the day. Do a mini-cardio workout on your lunch break. It doesn’t have to be all at once to build endurance. Nickel and dime your workouts—it adds up.”

How to Do it: Replace 45-plus-minute elliptical sessions with sporadic bursts of activity throughout the day.

Avoid: Mindlessly using cardio machines. “Endless cardio is easy, it’s thoughtless, but you need to think about what you’re doing.