If you perform exercises in the gym you might think that everything you have learnt is effective, safe and good. After all, other people are doing the exercises, the machines are customized to accommodate the particular exercise, and the fitness instructor included it in your workout plan.
Now let’s set aside those mind-boggling exercises that you see the one oddball doing week in, week out. That one where you simply have to shake your head in bewilderment and secretly wonder about the person’s mentality. No, the exercises under scrutiny today are some of the most common exercises available.
The exercises here are not completely useless, but the risks of doing them far outweigh the benefits. That is not to say that some people can’t derive some benefits from these exercises. As the old saying goes “there is no such thing as bad exercises – only bad ways to do good exercises.”
Behind-the-Head Lat Pull downs
The problem with this exercise: This exercise has long been invalidated and discredited, but it appears the news has not been passed on to some instructors and gym users. In the old days people thought it was a good idea to pull the bar down behind the head in an effort to better build, tone and strengthen the latissimi dorsi (lats). However, it has since been discovered that this exercise puts a great deal of stress on the shoulder joint.
Michele Olson, PhD, NSCA-certified strength and conditioning specialists and an ACSM fellow explains what happens during this exercise motion – “The top of the humerus is actually pushing outward and away from the joint, overstretching the tendons and ligaments on the front of the shoulder”. This puts the person doing the exercise at greater risk of injury.
This is particularly troubling for people whose job renders them deskbound. These people are highly likely to have poor posture, and/or rounded shoulders. Behind-the-head lat pull downs will exacerbate the misalignment.
What to do instead: Using the same machine, you can work the lats effectively by pulling the bar in front of you. Sit with your back straight, torso leaned back slightly ensuring the spine is kept straight. Pull the bar down towards your chest, but make sure it does not go past your collar bone. Return the bar to the starting position under control and repeat.
The problem with this exercise: The humble back extension apparatus can usually be found in the far corner of most modern gyms. Some people use it to do exercises focused on their abdominals, but the main purpose of this machine is to strengthen the lower back. The irony is that in many cases users will end up achieving the opposite; they may actually be causing severe back damage.
This machine encourages you to put your back in a forced hyperextension position. This makes the spine vulnerable. It means that extra care and attention is required for each rep. However, many people end up risking the facet joints in their spine by performing the exercise in a fast a jerky manner.
While this machine can help people achieve a stronger lower back, the risk of spinal damage, particularly in the inexperienced and hard-headed, belies the rewards.
What to do instead: Try getting down on all fours and simultaneously raising opposite arm and leg.
The problem with this exercise: Upright rows can be performed using barbells, dumbbells, kettlebells, or pretty much any type of weight you can lay your hands on. It is touted as a good exercise for developing the trapezius muscles and deltoid heads. But it is controversial.
Why? Because the range of motion with this exercise causes the bone in the upper arm (humerus) to knock against the acromion process (AC) joint. This could lead to compression of the nerves in the shoulder as well as cartilage damage in the AC joint. Arthritis usually ensues at this point.
What to do instead: An effective, and safer, exercise for hitting the deltoid head are side lateral raises. Grab a pair of modest weights and with your feet planted shoulder width apart raise your arms out to the side so that they are parallel with the floor, palms facing down. Return the weight to your side under control and repeat.
As for the trapezius, Some simple shrugs should help you beef up those traps. Holding a dumbbell in each hand, keep your arms hanging by your side, palms facing the body and lift your shoulder towards your ears.
AB Twist Machine
The problem with this exercise: Admittedly, this machine is not as commonly found in gyms as some of the others mentioned. Nevertheless, it is worth noting. As with most dangerous exercises, this one puts the spine at risk. The rotation movement is derived almost exclusively from the lumbar region, which puts a lot of pressure on that sensitive area. Furthermore, the abdominal muscles are not designed to encourage rotation, they are designed to prevent it.
This, and any exercise that promotes rotating against strong force while the lower body is fixed is a bad idea. The spine is placed under great stress and is severely prone to injury in such a position.
What to do instead: If shaping those oblique muscles is your primary goal, try the safer alternative of using tubing or cable to perform short range twists. This method allows for some hip flexibility and relieves the pressure on the spine.
Remember, just because you see someone else doing it in the gym, doesn’t mean it is safe or effective. Most machines found in the gym can be used to good effect if you understand how to perform the exercises correctly. Otherwise, at best you could be wasting your time, but at worst you could be doing some serious damage.