11 Exercises That Are a Waste of Time for Beginners — and What to Do Instead

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When you're just starting to work out, there are a few exercises you're better off skipping.
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Explosive plyometric box jumps and lifting a fully loaded barbell above your head may be impressive, but those exercises aren't for everyone — especially beginners. Lack of strength, flexibility and experience can quickly turn athletic bravado into a visit to the emergency room.


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, plus what to do instead to achieve your fitness goals.

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1. Behind-the-Neck Pulldown

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.

What to Do Instead

"Do pulldowns to the front, stopping at your upper sternum below your collarbone," Rubenstein says.


Skill Level Beginner
Body Part Back, Arms, Shoulders and Chest
  1. Sit on the bench of the lat pulldown machine with your legs at 90-degree angles.
  2. Grab the bar with your palms forward (overhand grip) and your hands shoulder-width apart or slightly wider than shoulder-width.
  3. While holding the bar, brace your core and lean back slightly. Keep your spine in a straight line and make sure you aren’t arching your lower back.
  4. Pull the bar down toward your chest, stopping when it reaches your upper chest or just above your chest.
  5. Return to the starting position with your arms straight overhead.
  6. Focus on pulling down for 1 to 2 seconds and going back up for 2 to 3 seconds.
  7. Keep your motions slow and controlled.

2. Military Barbell Press

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 your 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 of proper form to support the bar in this position.


What to Do Instead

Use dumbbells or a bar in front of your body, pushing off from the level of the collarbone in front of the shoulders, Rubenstein suggests.

Skill Level Beginner
Body Part Shoulders, Arms and Abs
  1. Stand with feet hip-width apart, holding a dumbbell in each hand at shoulder height.
  2. Hold the weights with your hands in a neutral grip with fingers toward your face. Your arms shoulder be just slightly in front of your body. Brace your core.
  3. On an exhale, press both dumbbells overhead, contracting your core and glutes to avoid hyperextending your lower back.
  4. On an inhale, lower the weights back down to shoulder height.

3. Stiff-Leg Deadlift

Rubenstein also recommends that beginners avoid stiff-leg deadlifts, in which you bend forward at your hips while holding a barbell. Locked-out knees while bending forward with a heavy weight creates elevated stress on your spine, Rubenstein says. And again, proper form can be difficult for new exercisers to nail, 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 disc problems," he says.

What to Do Instead

Rubenstein does a Romanian deadlift, which allows greater hip flexion before your spine is compromised. Beginners will also benefit from starting with dumbbells rather than a barbell.


Skill Level Beginner
Body Part Butt and Legs
  1. Stand with feet shoulder-width apart, a dumbbell in each hand held in front of your thighs.
  2. 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.
  3. 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.
  4. 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 Twist

Miami fitness pro Jessica Smith, CPT, creator of the Walk On: Strength & Balance program, has sworn off weighted torso twists for herself and clients.

"You can do these via a machine at the gym or using a barbell over the shoulders. But any way you try them, adding that much extra weight to the spine during a rotational movement is terribly unsafe," Smith says.


What to Do Instead

Work your obliques with bicycle crunches. According to the American Council on Exercise (ACE), it's one of the best options to target the sides of your abdominals.

Skill Level Beginner
Body Part Abs
  1. Start lying flat on your back with your arms at your sides and your knees bent, feet flat on the floor.
  2. Place your hands behind your head and keep your elbows out wide.
  3. Contract your lower abs to raise your head, shoulders and legs a few inches off the ground.
  4. Twist your torso and bend your left knee so that your right elbow crosses your body and reaches toward your left knee.
  5. Now switch and twist to the other side so that your left elbow reaches toward your bent right knee.
  6. Keep alternating sides without tucking your chin toward your chest.

5. BOSU Ball Squat

Sports performance specialist and kinesiologist Paul Juris, EdD, says he'd never squat on a BOSU ball— and says beginners shouldn't either. If you're 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 ball decreases force output and therefore doesn't allow for maximum strength gains, according to an April 2017 study in 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."

What to Do Instead

Keep squats on stable ground to avoid the confusion.

Skill Level Beginner
Body Part Legs, Butt and Abs
  1. Stand tall with your feet hip-width apart and brace your core. Focus on keeping your feet rooted into the ground and your core tight the entire time.
  2. Extend your arms out in front of you and slowly bend your knees as you push your hips back to lower toward the floor. Focus on lowering your body as if you were going to sit on a chair.
  3. Lower down as far as comfortable, or until your thighs are parallel with the floor.
  4. Pause for a moment at the bottom of your squat.
  5. On an exhale, reverse the motion by pressing through your heels to return to standing. As you stand, lower your arms back to your sides.

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, CPT, doing. The NASM-certified personal 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."

What to Do Instead

Stick with a flat or incline weight bench and leave fitness balls for other exercises.

Skill Level Beginner
Body Part Arms and Chest
  1. Grab two dumbbells and lie flat on a bench. Your feet should be flat on the floor, rooted into the ground.
  2. Start in a prone (overhand) grip with your palms facing away from you toward your feet.
  3. Exhale as you press the dumbbells upward and inward until your arms are almost fully extended and the dumbbells nearly touch.
  4. Inhale as you slowly bend your elbows again, lowering your arms gently back to the starting position.

7. Skullcrusher

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."

What to Do Instead

Stick with triceps pushdowns or other, lower-risk triceps moves.

Skill Level Beginner
Body Part Arms
  1. Start by facing a cable machine and situating the cable attachment at a height above your head. Attach the bar or rope and grasp it securely.
  2. Stand tall with your feet hip-width apart. Engage your core, push your shoulders back and down and try to maintain this position throughout the exercise.
  3. Press the handles of the bar or rope down in front of your chest, so your elbows are aligned with the middle of your trunk.
  4. Straighten your elbows by pressing the cable down toward the floor.
  5. Extend your arms fully, while maintaining the same position with the rest of your body and keeping your elbows in place by your sides.
  6. After your elbows are fully extended, bend your elbows again to raise the cable back to the top with control.

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."

What to Do Instead

Walker recommends sticking with proven lower-body builders like squats. "Ditch the machines and let the free weights do the work," he says.

Skill Level Beginner
Body Part Legs, Butt and Abs
  1. Stand tall with your feet hip-width apart and brace your core. Focus on keeping your feet rooted into the ground and your core tight the entire time.
  2. Hold a dumbbell in each hand, palms facing in, with your arms straight down by your sides.
  3. Slowly bend your knees as you push your hips back to lower toward the floor. Focus on lowering your body as if you were going to sit on a chair.
  4. Lower down as far as comfortable, or until your thighs are parallel with the floor.
  5. Pause for a moment at the bottom of your squat.
  6. On an exhale, reverse the motion by pressing through your heels to return to standing.

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 due to the amount of force on your lower back, says Connecticut-based exercise physiologist Tom Holland, CSCS.

What to Do Instead

Try this supine leg extension ab exercise.

Skill Level Beginner
Body Part Abs
  1. Lie flat on your back with your knees bent, shins parallel to the floor and hands on the front of your hip bones.
  2. Tighten your core by pressing your lower back into the floor.
  3. Keeping your pelvis neutral, slowly straighten one leg and hover your heel just above the floor, then return to the starting position.
  4. Then extend the other leg and continue alternating.
  5. Be sure to breathe with each rep.

10. Box Jump

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 (NSCA) suggests attempting lower-body plyometrics, such as box jumps, only after you're able to perform five reps of a squat using 60 percent of your own body weight in 5 seconds or less.

If you do try box jumps, though, Holland recommends jumping up but stepping down.

What to Do Instead

Step-ups are a safer alternative to box jumps that work the same muscles.

Skill Level Beginner
Body Part Butt and Legs
  1. Stand with feet hip-width apart facing a step, box or bench.
  2. Place your right foot up on a step, bench or box so that your right knee is bent about 90 degrees.
  3. Pull your shoulders back and down as if you were trying to tuck your shoulder blades into the back pocket of a pair of jeans. Fill your chest with air to set your core, and maintain a tight, rigid core throughout the movement.
  4. Press through the heel of your raised foot and push your body up until your right leg is straight. Do not bring your left foot onto the bench until it is even with your right foot.
  5. Control your body as you lower your left foot back to the floor and return to the starting position. Complete all your repetitions on this side, then switch sides and repeat.

11. Pull-Up

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."

What to Do 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 exercises similar to pull-ups that work the same muscles.

Skill Level Beginner
Body Part Shoulders, Arms, Back and Abs
  1. 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.
  2. 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.
  3. Engage your core and lats as you pull your chin up and over the bar.
  4. Lower down with control and repeat.