Let it be noted that this is purely an opinion piece. Opinions gathered from years in a variety of gyms and years working with people from sedentary elderly adults to high performance athletes. My first job as a trainer was at a big box gym and I actually started out my career training on machines until I realized how ineffective they were for my clients.
This list is by no means exhaustive but incorporates the main things I believe we should ban from the gym. Why? Because if people are going to invest the time at bettering their health and bodies they might as well be doing it in the most effective way possible.
As with any rules, there are always exceptions. These are my general guidelines to making gyms better at educating and servicing their members. And also for those who train others, you should already know better.
1 – Dips
In particular bench dips. The upright kind are also an offender but there are less people inclined to partake in this exercise. So why are dips the number one offender on my list?
Watch the vast majority of people perform these exercises and you will notice two things in particular; a severe anterior displacement of the shoulder and a totally relaxed trapezius. Let’s start with the anterior shoulder movement.
Bench dips are the worst offender. From a physiological viewpoint the forward shift in the shoulder is simply your humerus attempting to dislocate itself from your glenoid fossa. If it succeeds, congratulations, dislocated shoulder and maybe a torn rotator cuff as a side benefit. Even without these acute injuries, you are being set up for long term chronic rotator cuff problems as they are going to undergo excessive strain during every repetition.
Upright dips tend to exacerbate the other issue, the over shrug. If you watch most people performing this exercise you often see the shoulders up around their ears at the bottom of most repetitions. While this is not going to create any specific problems for your neck and traps, the shoulder joint itself is having somewhat the same issue as the bench dip example. Instead of trying to dislocate to the front they are trying to pop out of the socket upwards. This is particularly bad for squeezing the rotator cuffs between the head of the humerus and the other bones of the shoulder girdle.
So if they are so bad for us, why do people use them as a staple of their programming? The idea is to overload the triceps and make them grow and there is nothing wrong with that! But, there are much safer and just as effective ways to create the type of muscular overload on the triceps. Narrow grip bench presses, heavy skull crushers, behind the head triceps extensions, pushups, and narrow-grip pushups are just a few. All of these exercises more then adequately tax the triceps and will cause hypertrophy (trainer talk for muscle growth). They also have the added bonus of putting less strain on the shoulder joint and less strain on those often abused rotators.
2 – Squats Against the Wall with Exercise Balls
Why do people even bother with this one? I can hear people now, “because it is safe and easy and good starting point for people who have never done squats or people who are injured.” Of course these are the same people who walked themselves into the gym, probably up or down a set of stairs or two between changing and warming up.
I am not advocating grabbing an Olympic bar and loading up a couple plates in the rack right off the top. But what about trying just basic body weight squats? Surely if you can walk up a set of stairs, or change yourself, or get out of a chair, you can perform a bodyweight squat? What about overhead squats? Or get really radical and try step-ups (one of my favourite exercises – check out the video below!).
There is a much larger physiological benefit to the exercises I listed above then to squats with a ball against the wall. My list of exercises above all force the body to balance itself, to coordinate supporting muscles and engage the core to support the spine and core. Stability ball squats against the wall do create a lateral instability that forces some stabilization but not in a plane that is of benefit to general and athletic human movement.
Watch the majority of people as they perform this version of a squat as well and you will notice the worst issue. At the bottom of the movement there is almost always a shift of the hips backwards and a hyperextension of the lower back. The resulting posterior tilt of the pelvis forces the load onto the lumbar spine and not fully on the legs.
3 – Smith Machine Squats (and well the smith machine in general)
Same issues as above apply here as well. Why do squats and have the rails of the machine take over the body’s proprioception? The worst aspect of this, however, is also the issue with the lumbar spine taking excessive load due to a common posterior tilt of the pelvis. The smith machine does not put the body into a natural movement position.
This exercise also does not force the glutes and core to stabilize and protect the back, so there is a loss of that benefit to free weight versions of squats. This also applies to lunges and bench presses performed with the smith machine. It is an unnatural movement pattern for the body and engages little, if any, supporting musculature. I have seen this often lead to people loading too much weight and injuring themselves. And yes, I know this can happen with free weights and bodyweight exercises, but in general when people are balancing dumbbells over their head they tend to not overload themselves. If they do, well, we should question whether or not to let them in the gym.
I will add this caveat. For competitive bodybuilders who are trained in proper form and who already have strong stabilizing muscles the smith can have a place. Because it takes over the stabilizing role it can allow someone to overload muscles without having to increase injury risk, more on that next. Just watch that posterior hip tilt.
4 – Machines
Competitive bodybuilders get a benefit from machines. Complete and total muscle isolation. No fear of needing stabilizers to protect joints and no need to pay 100% attention to form. The machine is doing that for you. So I guess we should keep a few machines for the bodybuilders. Why is anyone else using them?
For the majority of people in the gym I feel machines in general do more harm then good. We should be encouraging people to learn movement patterns and force their body’s to improve balance and coordination. Sitting on a machine and doing overhead shoulder presses does not accomplish this. Need I even point out what the majority of gym users do to their lower back on an overhead shoulder press machine?
Now I am going to give you a scientific example that is not peer reviewed, or fully scientifically based, but as anecdotal storytelling it is interesting. A fellow trainer and PhD student brought in a slightly overpriced portable EMG machine for us to play with one afternoon while I was still training at my first box style gym. A huge perk to the machine was the fact that it is wireless (also note this was a big deal for 2005…lol) so we could send our subject (who was a fellow trainer) all over the place and the readings were sent back to a laptop.
Seeing how much fun we could have, we sent him all over the gym. Sensors were placed on his rectus abdominus, obliques, vastus lateralus, low back, and gluteus maximus. We wanted to actually see what muscles were turning on during different exercises. Now remember that our test subject was actually an experienced personal trainer so performed all the exercises with good form.
Every machine caused the low back muscles to activate, often as much as 50% of the activation was happening in the low back, even on the leg press. Overhead shoulder press, lat pull down, bicep curls, leg extensions, all activated a disproportionate amount of low back musculature.
The best examples were the ab machines. I will not name brands but we used three different companies. On each of these ab machines we saw more low back activation then abdominal activation, both in the rectus and obliques. Interesting..
So unless you’re a stable and trained competitive bodybuilder, get off the machines and do a body good.
5 – Cardio Longer than 40 Minutes
I will put my only exception to this right at the beginning. If it is winter or other such weather and you cannot go outside for training, in the gym, long duration cardio might be of some benefit.
If you are doing cardio at the gym we should all be working on increasing the intensity of the exercise, not the duration. The majority of people partaking in these long duration and lighter intensity cardio bouts are the same people who have fallen into the trap of following that annoying little fat burning zone sticker.
Increasing the intensity of your cardio leads to a host of benefits. Improved hormonal response, increases in cardiovascular health, improved lactic acid threshold, just to name a few examples. Long duration and low intensity cardio does not provide as significant health markers.
When I worked in a mainstream box gym I watched the same people for years come to the gym, walk on the treadmill, putt along on the stationary bike, or whatever other cardio they choose, and never made significant improvements to their physical or mental health. When I encouraged them to incorporate interval training, jump rope, stair climbing, or the rowing machine they immediately turned me down, “It’s too hard” or, ”‘I just don’t like it” were the most common responses.
6 – Dumbbells Under 10 lbs
This will be quick. Why bother with dumbbells lighter then 10lbs? Think about how often you see this; someone doing shoulder lateral raises or bicep curls with the 2.5 lbs dumbbells. Then you see them later at the grocery store lifting 15lbs grocery bags off the counter, into the cart, into their car, and then into their house. Why bother with the lighter workout you just did at the gym?
More often I see people using 5 lbs dumbbells for one arm back rows and lunges. Lets be serious, by the time people buy a gym membership and start a workout plan, their back can move more then 5 lbs and I am sure the same is true of their legs.
So let’s just scrap them.