Explosive plyometric box jumps and lifting a fully loaded barbell above your head may be impressive, but those exercises aren't for everyone, especially for beginners. Lack of strength and flexibility or simple inexperience can quickly turn athletic bravado into a visit to the emergency room.
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In fact, there are a number of moves that the best trainers generally refuse to do themselves and recommend that their clients don't do either. Here's a rundown of the exercises that beginners are better off saving for later or skipping altogether — and why.
1. Behind-the-Neck Pulldowns
This one lands on nearly every "don't do" list, but it's an especially important exercise to avoid as you age, says Irv Rubenstein, PhD, exercise physiologist and founder of STEPS Fitness in Nashville, Tennessee. That's primarily because pulling a bar down behind your neck causes excessive shoulder rotation.
The move can be hard on anyone's shoulders, but it's especially dangerous over age 40 and even more so after 60, when rotator cuff problems often lie beneath the surface waiting to emerge, Rubenstein says.
Instead: "Do pulldowns to the front, stopping at your upper sternum (below your collarbone)," Rubenstein says.
- Sit down at a lat pulldown machine and grab the overhead handle that resembles a pull-up bar with both hands.
- Pull the bar down to your chest, bending your elbows down and in toward the sides of your torso.
- Slowly and with control (don't let the bar slam), let the bar return upward, stopping when your arms are straight. Make sure to keep your shoulders down.
2. Military Barbell Presses
Pushing a bar up by rotating your shoulders and lifting it behind your neck tweaks your shoulder joint similarly to behind-the-neck pulldowns. But it's even worse, Rubenstein says, because the rotator cuff and shoulder is now loaded with weight.
That puts more pressure on a potentially poorly positioned joint, and someone new to exercise usually doesn't have the strength, mobility or knowledge or proper form to support the bar in this position.
Instead: Use dumbbells or a bar in front of your body, pushing off from the level of the collarbone in front of the shoulders.
- Hold a dumbbell in each hand at shoulder height.
- Press the weights overhead, contracting your core and glutes to avoid hyperextending your lower back.
- On an inhale, lower them back down to chest height.
3. Stiff-Leg Deadlifts
Rubenstein also recommends that beginners avoid stiff-leg deadlifts, in which you bend forward at the hips while holding a barbell. Locked-out knees while bending forward with a heavy weight creates elevated stress on the spine, Rubenstein says. And again, proper form can be difficult for newbies to master, especially with a heavy barbell to lift.
"Furthermore, when the hips flex to whatever angle the hamstrings allow, the spine will start to flex if you try to go further, which could lead to a number of spine and disk problems," he says.
Instead: Rubenstein does a Romanian deadlift, which allows greater hip flexion before the spine is compromised. Beginners will also benefit from starting with dumbbells rather than a barell.
- Stand with feet shoulder-width apart, a dumbbell in each hand held in front of your thighs.
- Hinge at the hips (press them back) and bend your knees to lower the weights down toward the floor. It may feel like a squat, but the movement is initiated and controlled by your hips and glutes.
- Without allowing your shoulders or lower back to round, stand up as you thrust your hips forward and squeeze at your buttocks. Keep the weights close to your hips.
- Squeeze your butt at the top of the lift and hold the position for a second before reversing the movement and slowly lowering the bar back down again.
4. Weighted Torso Twists
"You can do these via a machine at the gym or using a barbell over the shoulders," says Smith, "but any way you try them, adding that much extra weight to the spine during a rotational movement is terribly unsafe."
Instead: Work the obliques with bicycle crunches. According to 2011 research from the American Council on Exercise, it's one of the best options to target the sides of your abdominals.
- Begin lying face up with your knees bent at 90 degrees over your hips and your hands clasped behind your head.
- Exhale and round your spine, lifting your head and shoulders off the floor.
- Twist your torso and draw your left knee in so that your right elbow touches it.
- Twist the opposite way so that your left elbow meets your right knee.
5. Squats on a BOSU
Sports performance specialist and kinesiologist Paul Juris, chief science officer for the Cybex Research Institute, says he'd never squat on a BOSU — and says beginners shouldn't either. If you are not familiar with the device, it's basically half of a stability ball attached to a solid (usually plastic) platform.
For one, squatting on unstable surfaces such as a BOSU decreases force output and therefore doesn't allow for maximum strength gains, according to an April 2017 study from the Journal of Traditional and Complementary Medicine.
"We often witness almost uncontrolled shaking when watching people perform this task," Juris says. "This is frequently attributed to muscle imbalances or even a lack of core strength. In reality, it is neither."
The exercise creates a conflicting state. "Muscles responsible for controlling the movement work, while those that don't contribute to the execution of smooth and fluid movement will either work at significantly lower levels or not at all."
Instead: Keep squats on stable ground to avoid the confusion.
- Keeping your back straight, feet hip-width distance apart, hinge your hips back and bend your knees, lowering your butt down as if sitting into a chair.
- At the bottom of your squat, make sure your knees are in line with your feet, not bowing outward or caving inward.
- Check that your knees aren't coming too far forward over your toes (shift more weight into your heels if this is the case).
- Press through your heels as you stand back up.
6. Lifting Heavy Weights While Lying on a Stability Ball
Using a stability ball as a substitute for an exercise bench for a heavy lift isn't something you'll catch Jamie Walker doing. The NASM-certified trainer and Yoga Alliance-certified yoga teacher cites too high of an injury risk.
"People in favor of lifting on stability balls say that the uneven balance helps build strength in your stabilizer muscles and further enhances your lift," Walker says. "In reality, however, you're much more likely to injure yourself while lifting on a stability ball. One quick spill and you could be out of the gym for months."
Instead: Stick with a flat or incline weight bench and leave fitness balls for other exercises.
The name makes this triceps move sound more dangerous than it is, but lowering and raising a bar over your head while lying on your back could cause unnecessary stress and inflammation in the elbow joint, Walker says.
"I stay away from these, although they're fairly commonplace in most gyms." The goal of skullcrushers is to increase the size and strength of the triceps muscle group, but the exercise can cause a ton of stress on your elbow."
Instead: Stick with triceps pushdowns or other, lower-risk triceps moves.
- Begin holding a bar, rope or band that's anchored high above your head.
- Keep your elbows bent and tight at your sides, slightly peeking behind your body.
- Keeping your upper arms stable, straighten your elbows by moving your palms toward the floor, face down.
- After your elbows are fully extended, bend them again to 90 degrees, returning to the starting position.
8. 45-Degree Leg Press
Pressing out with your legs against a heavy object while in a seated position can compromise the health and overall compression of your spine, Walker says. "Many experts believe this exercise creates an unnatural stress on the lower back. I'd avoid it."
Instead: Walker recommends sticking with proven lower-body builders like squats. "Ditch the machines and let the free weights do the work," he says.
9. Leg Raises for Lower Abs
Doing leg raises — lying on your back with straight legs and raising them up and down six inches — is a dangerous way to work your lower abs, says Connecticut-based exercise physiologist Tom Holland, CSCS. "The torque on the lower back is insane."
Instead: Try this supine leg extension ab exercise.
- Lie on your back with your lower back pressed into the mat and bend your legs at a 90-degree angle (shins are parallel to the floor).
- Engage your abs as you stretch your legs out a few inches.
- Pull back in.
10. Box Jumps
Plyometric exercises such as box jumps require a solid strength foundation before attempting them, Holland says. Doing plyo without adequate strength, balance, speed and correct technique can easily result in injury.
The National Strength and Conditioning Association suggests attempting lower-body plyometrics such as box jumps only after you are able to perform five reps of a squat using 60 percent of your own body weight in five seconds or less.
Instead: Master step-ups first. "And if you do them, I recommend jumping up but stepping down," says Holland.
Although pull-ups are a great upper-body exercise, people tend to strain their necks or backs too much trying to get over the bar, says Olympic medalist and pro soccer player Lauren Sesselmann, creator of the Fit As A Pro workout series.
Sometimes, pull-ups can cause you to work the muscles unevenly because one arm may be stronger than the other, she says. "So that arm is pulling more than the other and you can injure yourself."
Instead: Sesselmann recommends doing them on an assisted machine or using a resistance band. Or skip the bar altogether and stick with some of the many other safer exercises you can do for your shoulders, triceps and biceps.
- Loop a band around a pull-up bar. If you're a beginner, start with a thicker band to support more of your weight. The thicker the band, the more support it provides.
- Start by placing one foot at the bottom of the loop to support your weight while your hands grab the pull-up bar with palms facing away from you.
- Engage your core and lats as you pull your chin up and over the bar.
- Lower down with control and repeat.