Perhaps at some point in all our personal fitness careers (however advanced or modest) we’ve all had one of those “doh!” moments, when we realized we did something really stupid that now has us writhing in pain. (It could be an immediate or slightly delayed awareness – stuck in the recliner later that night unable to move. Anyone?) Sometimes these strains are the result of momentary carelessness, and sometimes they’re caused by ongoing ignorance (coupled with bravado or bad advice).
And then there are the exercises that maybe don’t leave us regretting our very existences but that seem to keep us (knowingly or unknowingly) endlessly circling the same fitness territory with little to no measurable progress. How come none of the other Saturday gym rats seem stuck in the same rut? What am I doing wrong?
1. High Tech Workout
Possibly useful, probably not dangerous, but wholly unnecessary. There is absolutely no need to break the bank joining a fancy gym or buying large machines that will take up massive areas in your house. I mean really, $6,000 to go for a “walk to nowhere” when you could go outside and do the same thing for free? $4,000 to isolate one of the three heads of the triceps? You can get a solid workout with some free weights and overall conditioning programs like CrossFit. Little to no equipment. Excellent results. While some contraptions they come out with are fully useless (and sometimes comical), machines like Nautilus can get some people strength-training who otherwise wouldn’t go near the free weight section. Of course, for newbies healing from joint injuries, some of these machines may even be a preferable option for the short term. Talk to your PT and work with a good trainer.
Speaking of equipment…
2. Stairmaster Slump
Not limited to the Stairmaster by any stretch, we mean the slumped over bodies that hang sluggishly over handlebars, programming boards and any other part of the cardio machines that will hold their weight. Or how about those folks leaning back and holding the rails while doing 15% inclined walks on the treadmill? Do they understand that they’re not really doing the workout they think they’re doing? Is it some elaborate scheme of denial that keeps them going in this bizarre, unhealthy pose? Seriously, if you can’t fully support yourself during the workout, then you’re not doing the work or getting the benefit of the “program” you’ve selected. Get real with yourself, stop thinking about what you “should” be able to do, and change the setting already. What’s the big deal?
3. Chronic Cardio
Ah, we know we’ve said it before , but we’ll say it again. Running (or stepping or spinning) yourself into the ground is an unnecessary exercise in exhaustion. A well-rounded exercise routine with a strength component, some low-level aerobic activity and a well-chosen occasional anaerobic interval training session will in nearly every case accomplish the same thing (or better) with less fatigue.
4. Strength Training with Poor Form
(Hint: often the result of too much weight.) If you’re arching your back under shoulder presses or moving at the hip during bicep curls, for example, you’re using poor (and in some cases dangerous) form. Not only are you not getting the full benefit of an exercise, you could be setting yourself up for injury or strain, especially over time. Another common mistake? Allowing your knees to pass beyond your toes during lunges and allowing your rear to go lower than your knees on the leg press. There’s a way to end up in the chiro or PT office! (Key: best to keep it to a 90 degree angle) Using poor form puts tremendous strain on your joints. Lift what you reasonably can while using proper form. If you’re jerking, arching, or staining unnaturally, go for a lighter load and get a trainer or resident expert to give you some tips.
5. Most Ab Exercises
Think you need to do 200 crunches a day for strong abs? Think again. And think core instead of abs. This means the various muscle groups in the abdomen, the back muscles, and (for women) the pelvic floor. Crunches do work some of these muscles. Add side to side crunches, and you’re getting warmer. Even with the best form, they aren’t always the best option for your neck or lower back. (And they’re generally counterproductive for women’s pelvic floor.)
A strong core is as much about how you live as it is what you do for exercise. First off, use great posture throughout the day. Keep your abdominal muscles active as you walk, get up from your chair, etc. And go for activities that develop your full core. CrossFit is, surprise, surprise, excellent in this regard. Isometrics can do wonders. Check out Mark’s ab post.  Other options? Pilates and swimming (Have you seen those Olympic swimmers?). More options? Yoga, belly dancing, Tai Chi to name a few. This is one instance when equipment is entirely unnecessary.
6. Spot Training (for weight loss purposes)
If the spot you’re trying to train has a thick layer of fat, you can work it all you want, but you’re not going to lose any more fat there than you are in any other part of your body. Sure, it may look better because you have more muscular shape and structure behind it. Most people looking to spot train, however, want more definition, which necessitates less overall body fat – and that means dialing your diet in to where you burn off that stored fat. Strength train and do core work. Incorporate one or two days of good interval cardio training (under an hour), and fit in as much low-moderate aerobic activity during the week as possible. (The rest is what you eat, as Mark has said in the past. )
7. Unnatural Joint Movement
As many Eastern practices like yoga, Tai Chi and other martial arts understand, the movements and poses work with the body’s natural abilities and alignment. Good form in all exercise practices takes advantage of this potential. Some exercise variations, like the behind-the-neck lat pulldown, do the exact opposite by putting unnecessary stress on joints. The motion of the “behind” lat pulldown, for example, works against the shoulder joint. It also compromises the rotator cuff muscles and results in neck strain. (But your body was trying to tell you that all along, wasn’t it?) Simple solution? Do the pulldowns from the front.
8. One Exercise Per Muscle Group
When it comes to exercise, variety is more than just spice. It’s essential for a balanced workout and muscle development. This is the heart of CrossFit and Primal Blueprint workout strategies. Nautilus and free weights alone tend to target individual muscles which can have its place. (We use them ourselves occasionally.) But it may be tempting, especially for wary newbies, to settle on one or two exercises for arms, one or two for legs, etc. This might be an improvement over a previous routine (couch sitting), but don’t expect it to offer the benefit of overall fitness. CrossFit builds strength (as well as agility and stamina, among other things) through diverse “functional movements” that utilize and develop the whole body.
Ever see those people going crazy whipping side-to-side with a broom handle across the back of their necks? Ouch. When done properly, twists may have some benefit for flexibility, but don’t expect them to make any difference in your waistline or do too much for building muscle in those areas. Now, if you controlled twists a little further, you might get somewhere. Work with a trainer to add movement in the lower body (more benefit, safer practice for your back) and a medicine ball. A solid, smart, exercise makeover.
10. Bad, Infrequent, and Poorly Timed Stretches
While some recent research suggests  that stretching before exercise doesn’t prevent injury, there’s still plenty of good reason to set aside the time after workouts or in between sets. Maintaining flexibility will help you prevent the stresses and strains that come with everyday life and will help keep you limber as you get older. Stretching can keep muscles looser and more relaxed, which can improve posture, maintain spinal alignment, and promote relaxation.
Before a workout, simply warm up and use brief dynamic stretching (stretching through active movement – e.g. jumping jacks or plyometrics). Dynamic stretching is the epitome of warming up your muscles rather than relaxing them.
As for after and in between workouts? Stretch a couple times a day for full benefit. And remember that not every stretch you see in the gym (or learned in gym class so many years ago) is helpful. We suggest skipping or at least minimizing stretches that have you bend at the waist, which causes undue strain on the lower back. Standing and bending can perhaps be more problematic than many sitting poses because of the strain in maintaining balance and concentrating body weight as well as stretch effort on your back. Instead of putting your foot on an elevated surface and leaning over to stretch your hamstrings, for example, lay on the floor, raise your leg, and use a strap (or a buddy) to keep the leg steady.
Just as we suggest using a variety of exercises for strength training, mix up your stretches for the best all around benefit. Bored at the prospect of stretching? Find a good basic yoga class (or DVD).
Finally, by all means, don’t skip stretching the shoulders, chest and arm muscles. Tightness in these areas contributes to bad posture, which in turn precipitates back problems. (And so the cycle continues….)
When it comes to subpar exercises, it’s an issue of so many choices, so little time. Recognize some of the above? Have others to add? Shoot us a line.