Many articles have been written on the topic of the dumbest exercises people do. Unfortunately, most of these articles make this subject a race to the bottom because they:
- Shit on exercises and training concepts the author simply doesn’t like — for whatever reason — instead of evaluating them based on universal training principles and scientific evidence.
- Blindly parrot common, unsubstantiated claims about exercises.
- Make overly black-and-white statements while ignoring the contextual and individual nature of exercise.
Sure, articles that check the boxes above can be entertaining, but they have us circling the drain by mistaking simple advice for being simple-minded. That’s why I’ve written this article. To address this important topic in a way that it deserves. In a manner that isn’t about being polarizing and promoting black–and-white thinking, but about being helpful and promoting logical thinking.
Machines are not on the list!
Many trainers and coaches will identify certain machines as being some of the dumbest exercises people do. However, no machines are blanket-targeted on my list.
Two of the most common machines trainers and coaches name as being the dumbest exercises are the seated hip abductor and adductor machine. Research comparing has demonstrated that standing hip abduction (with the band around the ankle of the non-weight bearing leg) was able to elicit greater muscle recruitment of the hip abductor muscles than the seated hip abductor machine (1). Not to mention, other research has shown the highest gluteus medius activity with side-lying hip abduction exercise, followed by the single leg squat, lateral band walk and single-leg deadlift (2). So, aside from using the seated hip abduction machine in certain rehabilitation situations where one may not be able to perform the other exercises for the hip abductors, a good argument can be made that, from a muscle activation standpoint, the hip abduction exercise belongs on the list because it’s not a very biomechanically effective way to target the gluteus medius as are other, more easily accessible bodyweight and band exercise alternatives. However, the same cannot be said about the seated hip adduction machine.
Evidence shows that the seated hip adductor machine is equally as effective as the standing hip adduction exercise (with the band around the ankle of the non-weight bearing leg) for recruiting muscular activity of the hip adductors (1).
A review investigating the barbell squat found that a greater hip external rotation position along a wide stance of the feet, as well as an increased load will increase hip adduction activation during this exercise (3). However, the highest EMG values for the wide-stance squat (4), along with those found during a single-leg squat and a lunge are relatively low compared to exercises that focus primarily on the hip adduction movement (5). So, with respect to reaching greater levels of muscle activity in the adductors, exercises like the seated hip adduction machine are superior to squats and lunges.
It’s at this point some will want to make the argument that it’s not as much about activating certain muscles as it as about training movements. This argument is used often to condemn most, if not all machines as if they don’t offer any functional transfer into fundamental human movements, such as walking, running, jumping, squatting, etc. as well as qualities like balance. This argument has also been falsified in the research, as several studies have demonstrated that machine-based training improves balance recovery, vertical jump height, number of bodyweight squats in 30 seconds, and short-distance sprinting ability (6).
Since there is so much confusion and flawed thought processes surrounding the concept of functional training, in the first chapter of my book, Building Muscle and Performance, I clearly define what the word functional is in terms of exercise and performance, and especially what it isn’t. You’ll learn about the sources of the confusion and separate the sense from the nonsense.
Speaking of separating the sense from the nonsense, the following are seven of the most common, but dumbest exercises that people do so you know how to avoid them.
1. Exercises that don’t make physiological sense
Two great examples of exercises that don’t make physiological sense are doing the abductor and adductor machine to spot reduce (i.e., localized fat loss through specific exercise) the inner and outer thighs. This highlights the contextual nature of exercise and why you can’t logically say the adductor machine is a dumb exercise, as there are both smart (discussed above) and dumb reasons to use it. Using it for the purposes of spot reduction is a dumb reason.
Now, a 2007 study concluded that, “An acute bout of exercise can induce spot lipolysis and increased blood flow in adipose tissue adjacent to contracting skeletal muscle” (7). Some have attempted to use these results to demonstrate that targeted fat mobilization is physiologically possible, therefore exercises for the purpose of spot reduction is a valid training method.
Even if targeted fat mobilization is a real physiological phenomena that can be taken advantage of by contracting the muscles adjacent to that fatty area to increase blood flow to the fatty area, if you’re already using a comprehensive resistance training program that hits all of your muscles consisting of compound and isolation exercises (whether it be via a body-part split program or using full body workouts throughout the week), then you’re already benefiting from the targeted fat mobilization benefits resistance exercise can produce at each area.
In other words, you’re already contracting all of the muscles in your body, therefore increasing the blood flow to them by regularly using a comprehensive resistance training program that includes compound and isolation exercises for each muscle group in the body.
Now, if someone wishes to claim that a certain type of training method (i.e. certain exercises along with certain set/rep/rest ranges) are more effective than others for the purposes of spot reduction, then they would have to scientifically demonstrate this in a controlled comparative environment.
Additionally, we must avoid cherry-picking and consider the other scientific evidence that’s been done in this arena, such as a 2007 study published in Medicine and Science in Sports and Exercise, which concluded, “MRI found a generalized subcutaneous fat loss independent of gender, supporting the notion that spot reduction does not occur as a result of resistance training” (8). Along with the 2013 study investigating spot reduction in the legs that concluded, “The training program was effective in reducing fat mass, but this reduction was not achieved in the trained body segment” (9). A third study from 2011, that looked at the effect of abdominal exercise on abdominal fat, found that “Six weeks of abdominal exercise training alone was not sufficient to reduce abdominal subcutaneous fat and other measures of body composition” (10). Not to mention the 1984 study where results demonstrated that “The conventional sit up exercise does not preferentially reduce adipose cell size or subcutaneous fat thickness in the abdominal region to a greater extent compared to other adipose sites” (11).
In short, using certain exercise applications for the purposes of spot reduction has yet to demonstrate to be a valid or valuable training method. While you may be able to mobilize the fat nearest to the working muscle, the work is not significant enough to make any real physical changes in isolation.
2. Exercises that don’t make biomechanical sense
A great example of an exercise that doesn’t make biomechanical sense is doing side-bends while holding a dumbbell on each side. Of course, the weight of the dumbbell offsets the weight on the other making this exercise pretty ineffective at loading the lateral flexors of the torso sufficiently relative to performing this exercise while holding a single dumbbell on one side. Let’s not get caught up in the discussion as to whether or not people should be using spinal flexion exercise or doing anti-flexion exercises (anti-lateral flexion, in this case) because that’s a very nuanced topic that’s beyond the scope of this article.
Another common exercise people do that doesn’t make biomechanical sense is performing internal and external shoulder rotations to target their rotator cuff muscles while standing upright and holding one or two dumbbells with their elbow(s) at the sides bent at 90-degree angle. This exercise is really just an isometric biceps curl. Sure, you are internally and externally rotating your shoulder, but you’re not sufficiently loading the rotator cuff muscles since they’re moving horizontally/rotationally and this exercise is loaded vertically by gravity. To sufficiently load (both concentrically and eccentrically) the external rotators of your shoulder with your elbow by your side while standing, you have to create a horizontal load vector by using a cable or band that’s set at roughly the same height as your elbow. You can use gravity to create a similar load vector by performing external rotations with a dumbbell while side-lying.
Exercises done in a way that don’t make biomechanical sense can also come in the form of cardio. A great example in the cardio realm is putting the treadmill on an incline only to lean back while holding onto the handles thus offsetting the incline because your body angle relative to the treadmill is the same as if it were flat.
You could say that leaning one’s weight forward onto the handles of the stepmill, thus taking weight off of your legs and glutes, is another example of a cardio exercise done in a way that doesn’t make biomechanical sense. But I think this one is very contextual and individual. What if the person is still recovering from lower-body injury or surgery and they’re using the stepmill to work on their ability to use the stairs, but they’re not yet back to full strength? In this case they need to use their arms to aid them until they gradually get stronger. Or, maybe someone was upright for a while and their legs are fatigued so they place some weight onto their arms so the can reduce the intensity on their legs while still banging out a few more minutes of work.
3. Exercises that have a poor risk-to-reward ratio
Unstable surfaces can be great for improving balance and for rehabbing ankle, knee, or hip injuries. If you also want to improve your balance, or simply enjoy using unstable surfaces, there’s no reason you can’t incorporate some balance training using unstable surfaces between sets of strength training exercises or as part of a cooldown. That said, a great example of exercises that don’t make sense from a risk versus reward perspective is lifting weights while on unstable surfaces like wobble boards, a Bosu, or a stability ball.
In 2009, the NBA’s Sacramento Kings found this out the hard way when starting forward Francisco Garcia, whose contract was worth $29.6 million over 5 years, missed a huge chunk of that season after an exercise ball accident broke his right wrist. Garcia, who weighed 195 pounds, was lying on his back on an exercise ball, lifting 90-pound weights in each hand (doing a chest press), when the ball burst.
Most people are looking to improve their overall strength, core strength, or to gain muscle. If these are the goal(s), it’s smarter and safer to lift weights on flat, stable ground in the traditional style. This is because in order to improve strength you must produce high amounts of force; in order to build muscle, you must overload your muscles. Neither of these can be done effectively on an unstable surface (12, 13). Sure, some studies have shown some increased core muscle activity when lifting weights on fitness balls. However, if your goal is to specifically increase core (trunk muscle) strength, there are many core-specific exercises such as stability ball stir-the-pot, rollouts, pikes and pike-rollouts. This highlights the fact that, just because there are people out there abusing a certain tool (the stability ball) in no way means we should throw it out of our training toolbox all together as if the tool can’t be used for exercise applications that actually have value. Heck, if that were the case we wouldn’t use any equipment at all judging by some of questionable things I’ve seen done with barbells, dumbbells, medicine balls, etc.
From a training specificity perspective, if your goal is to improve (functional) performance, unless you’re a Cirque du Soleil performer whose act involves balancing on a big ball or you’re playing your sport in an earthquake; the ground you’re living, practicing and playing on is stable. Since “functional training” is about transfer, it is more “functional” to train on the same stable surface you play and practice on. Also, don’t confuse a slippery surface (like playing in the rain) with an unstable surface.
It’s important to understand that standing on a stability ball is a learned skill that’s no different than learning the skill of riding a bike. You get good at performing the skill of riding a bike by practice, just as what happens when you practice standing on a stability ball. No one expects having the ability to balance on a bike in order to ride it will offer much transfer to improved (functional) performance for non-bike riding activities. It doesn’t make sense to think standing on a stability ball will be any different, as neither come close to replicating the force production and neuromuscular coordination patterns of running, jumping, punching, throwing, etc. Although this may seem logical to us, we still have trainers preaching that becoming a trained seal on a stability ball by standing it on it while performing different resistance exercises will somehow transfer into improved (functional) performance in any athletic endeavor.
Even if one chooses to deny the scientific evidence and completely ignore the universal principles of training while making up their own; basic human sense tells us that the risks involved every time a client or athlete is placed on a stability ball on their back while holding free weights, or stands on top of one, far outweigh any supposed benefits.
4. Exercises that create pain
As I said in my book, Building Muscle and Performance:
“If an exercise hurts you—for whatever reason—find a modification or an alternative that doesn’t hurt. Now, we’re not talking here about the sensation associated with muscle fatigue. We’re talking about aches and pains that exist outside the gym or flare up when you perform certain movements. Such problem areas may simply need time to heal through rest, or they may be injuries—compromised areas of your body that can no longer tolerate the same level of load and do not improve.
Either way, you’re not helping the situation by training through pain. Although this fact should be obvious, many people are stubborn and use exercises that cause them pain—a practice that is often the product of having more ego than brains. Continuing to perform exercises that cause you pain could very well make things worse and lead to further damage, which could change a painful area from something you can easily train around to something that’s more debilitating. In short, don’t train through pain; train around it.”
There are many exercise options to choose from. A big part of what makes exercising individualized is what exercise options you don’t do based on your ability and injury profile. Sometimes, this means reducing the range of motion involved in a given exercise and only go as low as you can without creating pain. This is an example of how the individual nature of exercise dictates why you can’t fairly judge every shallow squat as a “dumb” exercise.
It’s important to understand that all training (i.e., exercise) is an applied stress to the body. It is this stress that causes the body to adapt by becoming stronger, bigger, and fitter in order to accommodate the stress with more efficiency and to better tolerate it to reduce the chance of injury. That said, smart training is about applying enough stress to our body to make it adapt without applying too much stress and overloading the tissues to the point where they become damaged. Dumb training is the opposite of that. When there is injury, your tolerance to stress becomes severely reduced and you’re much more likely to create distress (instead of stress) which, again, is likely to make things worse.
Put simply, the goal is to fit the exercises to you (how you move and what feels right to you), not to try to fit yourself to exercises.
5. Ego-driven exercises
Another common exercise practice that comes from having more ego than brains is using weight loads that exceed one’s capability to move through a full range of available motion, or perform properly without losing technique or cheating.
So, it’s one thing to not deep squat based on one’s skeletal structure, injury history, etc. or for the purpose of specificity or as part of a well-plan and comprehensive training program, but it’s another thing entirely to do partial rep squats or squat with poor technique because you’re simply using too much weight.
In other words, any exercise that’s performed poorly can be considered dumb because it’s not maximizing your exercise time and efforts.
6. Dogma-driven exercises
It’s not what this or that “expert” says about an exercise or training approach, it’s what the universal principles of training and scientific evidence say about a given exercise or training approach.
Saying that you can’t get strong without the bench press, squat, and deadlift is a prime example of how people confuse training methods with universal training principles.
Here’s the reality: You can’t get strong without creating progressive overload! The principle of overload dictates that the training stress – based on frequency, intensity, and type of exercise as well as recovery processes – should exceed the training stress experienced during the previous workout. (14)
Sure, the big lifts are a great way to create progressive overload, but they’re not the only way. Resistance exercise is just a way to put force across joints. That’s it! When you understand this reality you see how problematic it is to hold allegiance to a given training method or a fanaticism about certain types of exercises (barbell exercises, kettlebell exercises, stability ball exercises, etc.). This is because you realize that no particular type of exercise has magical powers because barbells, dumbbells, cables, machines, etc. are all just different tools that allow us to put force across joints.
The reality that no form of exercise has mythical properties is highlighted throughout the research on exercise, such as the results of a study that compared unilateral vs. bilateral squat training for strength, sprints, and agility in rugby players. The results of this study found that rear elevated split squats were just as effective as back squats in improving measures of lower-body strength, 40-m speed, and change of direction (15).
Another study also found that single-leg and double-leg training increased strength and decreased fatigue, with no differences between single-leg and double-leg results (16). Interestingly, this study also found that single-leg training did not decrease fatigue during double-leg repeated maximal voluntary contractions, and double-leg training did not decrease fatigue during single-leg repeated maximal voluntary contractions (17). In other words, although these results demonstrate that improvements in strength are similar between bilateral and unilateral training, the results also suggest that unilateral training does not decrease bilateral fatigue and vice versa.
The results of this study also highlight another universal training principle at work: the principle of specificity, which dictates that the adaptions to the training will be specific to the demands the training puts on the body. In the case of bilateral vs. unilateral lower-body training, “the specificity of the training response to fatigue developed during repeated two- and one-leg maximal voluntary contractions suggests a change in the nervous influence on the motor units” (16).
Additionally, another similar study found that, although unilateral and bilateral training appear to affect muscle size adaptations similarly, and while both the unilateral and bilateral training groups had increases in both unilateral and bilateral strength, the unilateral training group had the greatest strength improvements in unilateral strength and the bilateral training group had the largest improvement in bilateral strength. In other words, although strength improved in both bilateral and unilateral training in both groups, the magnitude of strength increases seems to be specific to the training type, which is another example of the principle of specificity at work.
In short, forget about your emotional attachment to certain training methods or going by what some guru says. Follow the scientific evidence where it leads – don’t lead the evidence where you want it to go. And, understand that the principles of specificity and overload are, and always will be, undefeated!
7. Not putting your weights back
Aside from being obviously inconsiderate, it really is ridiculous that people come into the gym to do physical activity — to not be lazy — while still being too lazy to put their weights back.
Putting your weights back isn’t technically an exercise, but it is part of every exercise that involves the use dumbbells, weight plates, medicine balls, etc. So, they go together like peanut butter and jelly.
In other words, you’re not finished all of your sets until your weights are put back on the rack in the proper manner!
As this article has demonstrated, when it comes to good exercise programming, we don’t go from methods (i.e., certain types of exercises) down, we go from training principles and scientific evidence up. So, a “dumb” exercise or training approach is not determined by some allegiance a trainer or coach may have to a given training method or a fanaticism about certain types of exercises (barbell exercises, kettlebell exercises, stability ball exercises, etc.). Instead. the validity of a given exercise or training approach is determined but how well it does or doesn’t align with the body of scientific evidence and universal principles of training.
- Brandt M, et al. Perceived Loading and Muscle Activity During Hip Strengthening Exercises: Comparison Of Elastic Resistance and Machine Exercises. Int J Sports Phys Ther. 2013 Dec; 8(6): 811–819.
- DiStefano U, et al. Gluteal muscle activation during common therapeutic exercises. J Orthop Sports Phys Ther. 2009;39(7):532-540.
- Clark DR, Lambert MI, Hunter AM. Muscle activation in the loaded free barbell squat: a brief review. J Strength Cond Res 2012;26:1169–78.
- Pereira GR, Leporace G, Chagas D, et al. Influence of hip external rotation on hip adductor and rectus femoris myoelectric activity during a dynamic parallel squat. J Strength Cond Res 2010;24:2749–54.
- Dwyer MK, Boudreau SN, Mattacola CG, et al. Comparison of lower extremity kinematics and hip muscle activation during rehabilitation tasks between sexes. J Athl Train 2010;45:181–90.
- Chris Beardsley. Functional strength gains by leg pressing? Published online at https://bretcontreras.com/leg-press-functional-strength/
- Stallknecht B, et al. Are blood flow and lipolysis in subcutaneous adipose tissue influenced by contractions in adjacent muscles in humans? American Journal of Physiology. Endocrinology and Metabolism. 2007 Feb;292(2):E394-9.
- Kostek MA, et al. Subcutaneous fat alterations resulting from an upper-body resistance training program. Med Sci Sports Exerc. 2007 Jul;39(7):1177-85.
- Ramírez-Campillo R, et al. Regional fat changes induced by localized muscle endurance resistance training. J Strength Cond Res. 2013 Aug;27(8):2219-24.
- Vispute SS, et al. The effect of abdominal exercise on abdominal fat. J Strength Cond Res. 2011 Sep;25(9):2559-64.
- Katch, F.I., et al. Effects of sit-up exercise training on adipose cell size and adiposity. Research Quarterly for Exercise and Sport, 55(3): 242-247, 1984.
- Behm, D., Colado, JC. The Effectiveness of Resistance Training Using Unstable Surfaces And Devices For Rehabilitation. Int J Sports Phys Ther. 2012 Apr; 7(2): 226–241.
- Anderson KG., Behm DG. Maintenance of EMG activity and loss of force output with instability. J Strength Cond Res. 2004 Aug;18(3):637-40.
- Clayton, Drake, Larkin, Linkul, Martino, Nutting, Tumminello. (2015). Foundations of Fitness Programming, Why Was the FFP Developed? (pg.5). National Strength and Conditioning Association
- Speirs, Derrick et al. Unilateral vs. Bilateral Squat Training for Strength, Sprints, and Agility in Academy Rugby Players. J. Strength Cond Res. Feb 2016. Vol. 30, Issue 2. p386-92.
- Rube, N, and Secher, NH. Effect of training on central factors in fatigue follows two- and one-leg static exercise in man. Acta Physiologica Scandinavica 141(1): 87–95, 1991.
- Ramsey Nijem, Single-Leg and Double-Leg Training Implications for Basketball. Taken from the NSCA website: https://www.nsca.com/education/articles/nsca-coach/single-leg_and_double-leg_training_in_basketball/