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The 5 Worst & The 5 Best Exercises You Can Ever Do

Written by: Nick Jack
Category: 2014
on 23 November 2016
Hits: 7201

While there are many exercises I absolutely despise, I must admit there really is no such thing as a "bad exercise" that will guarantee you damage and pain. For if that was true you would not see exercises that become circus stunts that just blow your mind, eg Cirque du Soleil or Shaolin Monks. The difference is that these people understand progression, how to minimize risks, perfect practice and know that the exercises are not always about health but for entertainment. Funnily enough most of the circus stunts require more than just strength, often incredible balance and flexibility is a prerequisite, and looking good is completely irrelevant to the exercise. Yet what you see in most gyms today is an emphasis on looking good at the expense of stability and flexibility! How ironic! Now while I don't think there is necessarily a "bad exercise" I will classify my 5 worst exercises that often lead to injury and pain that I see everyday in our rehabilitation programs. I myself having been a Personal Trainer in Melbourne for nearly 12 years used to do some of these exercises with clients all the time before I wised up and become much smarter. In the article I will provide reasons as to why most of the population should avoid these exercises. (The exceptions would be for Shaolin Monks and circus performers, perhaps even gymnasts as these exercises would be so easy for them it would not make a difference, and they would already know that these will make them worse anyway). I also will give you the 5 Best exercises so we finish on a positive note and give you some clear direction as to what you should do.

Most of the worst exercises share a common theme - they are ALL MUSCLE BASED in their approach to exercise. What I mean by that is they are designed with the single purpose of trying to isolate a muscle or set of muscles. There is no emphasis on movement, and no thought about when would I ever do this in real life. While there is a place for some of these exercises in the rehab world, they do not belong to those of us not needing rehabilitation.

The following exercises are not ranked in any particular order as I feel they are all number 1 to avoid and use better alternatives.

1: Machine Strength Training

Now before you jump up and down and yell at me and say I cheated because I didn't just name one exercise, there is a reason. I just couldn't pick a leg extension over some stupid abdominal machine as they are all terrible exercises to use. Now I am not saying that you should never use them. There is still a place for machines to be used for specific reasons such as with disability or as a stepping stone process in rehabilitation to help rebuild muscle lost from accidents or injury. However this should only be used very sparingly and with the intention of evolving to full body movements, that require stability and motor control. If you are a well trained athlete with great functional skills and ability with no injury you could also use these from time to time to shake things up in your training and assist in some muscle development. But again it should be done very rarely and always in combination with integrated movement. One machine that I don't mind too much is a Lat Pulldown, for many people, in particular females are not strong enough to do a chin up, and this can be a stepping stone to learning the chin up.

But why are machines so bad? Well for starters when would you ever try to move something heavy sitting down? Never is the answer. Why? Because you are extremely weak and inefficient without the power and strength of your legs. If you are a paraplegic well fine, machines are great. What I find weird is able bodied people training as if they are paralyzed from the waist down.

But what if a person is weak from injury or an older adult who is weak and feeble, it makes sense to put them a machine and start adding muscle, right? They are obviously lacking strength, and they can exercise much more easily when they are bolted to the floor for their lack of stability, coordination and skill compromises adding strength. If you put them on a machine we can bypass all of these factors and make their muscles stronger. The big problem with this mentality is although it seems safer for they are able to exercise without falling over, by using machines to do the work of stabilizing, you are now teaching the body it does not need this skill. Now what is it the older adult needs most? BALANCE, STABILITY, FLEXIBILITY & COORDINATION. None of these skills are learned from machines. (Read our article on Movement For Older Adults to see specific examples of this).

If you are a beginner with no injury and just want to get fit or lose a bit of weight, you most likely lack these skills too. You need to "earn the right" to use advanced fitness or strength methods, for learning skills and techniques is most important to prepare your body for more difficult tasks. Without skills you risk injury.

Now the most interesting thing about strength is you actually progress strength quickest when you use complex movements, not simple movements like machine training. Research has indicated that there are three likely determinants of strength gains: improved motor-skill coordination; increased motor-unit activation; and undetermined neurological adaptations. If you ever remember the first time you learned a new exercise and it took a while to get it, but after a few weeks it got easier and all of a sudden you were able to increase the load very quickly. And even other exercises similar to this became easy. This is because the brain and nervous system changed multiple muscles, ligaments, tendons, sequences all at once! This is so much faster than sitting on a machine that does not require your brain or have any connection to other systems. This is not even new information as this was proven way back in the 1950’s from researchers who developed PNF patterns.

Watch the video below to see this explained in more detail or refer to the links to various articles underneath the videos.

In summary these exercises will make you weaker and ruin your ability to use your body as it was intended.

Read our articles below for more information on why Machine Training Is So Bad For Your Body

"How To Become Stronger When You Challenge Your Nervous System With Movement"

"Squats versus Leg Press Which Is Better?"

"Movement Not Muscle"

2: Swissball Wall Squat With A Ball Between The Legs

I absolutely loath this exercise! Every time I see it I cringe! The worst thing about this exercise it is often prescribed by people who you think should know better. I cannot tell you how many times I have seen this prescribed to a person for knee rehabilitation by a Physiotherapist or Doctor, even an Exercise Physiologist! I have known the stupidity of this exercise since 2007, yet I still see it being used all the time as a rehab exercise. Even on You Tube you can google VMO exercise and you will see endless videos of this absolutely garbage exercise. It is supposed to get rid of pain when it will actually create more!

I will explain why this is so bad? Again it is the muscle approach that completely ruins this exercise. The movement skill and posture of the squat is thrown out the window to isolate the quads. Or more specifically to target the VMO which is often a very lazy and weak muscle contributing to almost very knee injury you can think of. Here is a list of what is wrong with this exercise.

  • This Enhances A Faulty Movement Pattern - It is not even close to being a correct squat. Without the ball behind this person would fall flat on their back! The ball is there to guide the movement and assist the thoracic spine with extension to maintain optimal posture. NOT to lean on!
  • This exercise encourages QUAD dominance - What is wrong with stronger quads for don’t we want more VMO activation and the VMO is a quad? Yes but the glutes and hamstrings are more important in providing stability and alignment and are often weaker with knee pain. Quad dominance and hip dominance is the most common way Knee pain is created for causing loss of flexibility with the knee and worse still the tight hips will create greater anterior tilt of the pelvis which will rotate the femur (thigh bone) inwards! The inward rotation of the knee is where pain will be created.
  • Squeezing The Ball Is An Adductor Exercise Not VMO -The adductors work in combination with the hip flexors to create guess what……… internal rotation of the femur! Instead of correcting your alignment problems you are making it worse! A great way to help someone ruin their knee and set them up for an ACL tear! Ouch!
  • This weakens Your Glutes! - The glutes are the key to getting your VMO to fire. They maintain optimal alignment of the femur allowing the VMO to be aligned to do it’s share of the work. The glutes also prevent the hip muscles such as TFL, ITB and also Vastus Lateralis from contributing too much. This exercise basically tells your glutes that are not needed. The glutes being a PHASIC muscle will become lazy and weak if continually fed this information creating chronic dysfunction and no VMO exercise will be able to correct this or the weakness in the VMO.

What should you do instead? Well if you have a VMO problem I encourage you to get our Knee Pain video and book on how to do this correctly. Click here to see more about this or the image below. We have worked with hundreds, if not over a thousand people now with all types of knee injuries and this program rocks!


You will also find plenty of useful articles below

Weak VMO & How To Improve Strength In 5 Steps

How To Strengthen Your Glutes

The Knee Is Not The Problem

3: Sit Ups & Abdominal Crunches

We are moving right along now. I think most people are more aware that this is not a good exercise to do. But I don't think many people actually know why. Once again this exercise has been created with the mindset of isolating an area to look good. Disregarding the use of the movement for your body and how we are designed to move, but worse what the end effect is if you do too many of these. Amazing as this might sound to some people tight abdominal muscles are not a good thing. I should know I myself have torn my abs a few times and it is extremely painful. I have also had groin and hamstring trouble as result of tight abdominal muscles forcing me into a flat back posture. I am lucky that I did not end up with a herniated disc before I changed my ways and got smarter.

Everyone wants to have the elusive six pack muscles so I can see why this exercise is so popular, and why to this day you can still see stacks of ridiculous ab machines being sold on TV claiming to make you look ripped.

Firstly any one with even the slightest bit of knowledge in about health and fitness training will tell you cannot SPOT REDUCE. This means you cannot target an area with a particular exercise to make that particular area more toned or muscular. This applies to every body part not just the abs. As I have said a few times already this type of mentality has evolved from the Body Building world and has corrupted people's minds with exercise choices.

Secondly we all have a six pack, the only reason you cannot see it is because it is covered in layers of fat created mainly from poor nutrition, too much stress, lack of overall movement (sitting too much) and activity, and a lack of muscle mass. If you want to see your abs you must clean up your food, reduce your stress and start exercising more with functional strength training and interval training. Doing 100 sit ups a day will achieve nothing except the development of poor posture and the chance of a severe back injury!

The picture above known as Upper Cross Syndrome shows the effects of imbalance between the trunk flexors (your abs) and trunk extensors (your back muscles) from sitting too much or doing too many sit ups. As the abdominal musculature become progressively stronger than the back muscles, the following postural aberrations may be seen:

  • Short and tight upper abdominal musculature
  • Depressed sternum
  • Forward head posture increasing chance of neck and shoulder injury not to mention poor breathing
  • Increased thoracic kyphosis, (a hump on the upper back)

This type of posture is very common, and usually associated with lower back pain and disc bulges! Doing too many crunches and sit ups is the fastest way to evolve into this posture and end up in a world of pain. Does this mean you should not train your abdominal muscles at all? No, you absolutely will need to do some work with your abdominal muscles, especially if you have back pain. I have found that no body fails the upper abdominal strength test (sit up), but 9 out of 10 people fail the Lower Abdominal strength test! With back pain clients they often need to learn how to activate the TVA and coordinate breathing correctly. If you are ever going to do the crunch do it on a swissball. Watch the video below to see why.

However, what you must understand is that the abdominal muscles work best when they are taught to work with entire body. This is where you need to train stabilizer muscles (the inner unit) to coordinate with prime mover big global muscles (the outer unit) to produce movement. You must evolve from isolating them to integrating them as they were designed to operate.

If you have back pain and not sure what to do I suggest getting a copy of our Back Pain Secrets program by clicking here.

 Also here is some useful articles to read below.

Core Strength Training & Understanding The Inner Unit & Outer Unit

Bulging Disc Exercises & Effective Treatment Strategies

Why People Struggle To Lose Weight Even When They Exercise

4: Planks

Now I know many of you will not agree with me on this as this exercise is regarded by many as the best of the best for "core" stability and strength. Again I will ask you this, "when would you ever need to stiffen your body up like this in real life, or name a sport where you need to do this for minutes at a time?" I cannot think of needing to do this other than when I do this exercise. Now think of all the people you would regard as having a strong core. Are they stiff and tight like a robot or do they seem to move effortlessly and appear very relaxed and smooth with their movement?

I will also ask you this - what is the purpose of you using this exercise? If your answer is to improve core stability then you really misunderstand what core stability really means. True stability is about effortless timing and the ability to go from relaxed to stiff within the blink of an eye. Staying stiff as a board is not stability at all. It is confusing strength with stability. To train stabilizers correctly you need to train them in the way they are used. They need quick reflex movements and reactions to force them to adjust quickly to restore posture and balance to the body in order to move efficiently. The plank has zero need to adjust or move with reflex skills and reactions. It is not even close to being a stability exercise. As with the previous "bad" exercise the stabilizer muscles work in synergy with the moving muscles. They are bound together. When you try to train one too much without the other you create massive problems in terms of movement. You are now creating faulty software, a virus so to speak.

All the people I see with back pain. ALL of them have stiffened themselves up in order to protect their back. This stiffening actually makes them more prone for more injury and severely compromises how they move. Have you seen how someone tries to pick something up when they have a sore back? Planks are trying to stiffen you, and not just your abs, but also your hips which is bad news! If you do not teach your body how to move with a focus on the the hips performing all the movement with freedom to move, your spine will have no choice but to bend. If you want to do plank type movements do Push ups or use the Prone Jack knife exercise which still uses a plank position but teaches the hips to move instead of going into lock down.

If I was to use any type of plank movement I would use the side plank and from a kneeling position and only holding for a maximum of 10 seconds. This teaches great hip mobility and prevents fatigue from setting in with the stabilizer muscles by allowing them to rest after 10 seconds. Leading back pain researcher Stuart McGill in his book "Back Mechanic" found the stabilizers shut down after 10 seconds and the prime mover muscles begin to take over the exercises the longer it lasts. Which defeats the point of the exercise. He also lists the side plank as one of his top 3 exercises for back pain patients and I completely agree with him. Watch the video below of how to do this and this is from our Back Pain Secrets video series. If you really want to work your abs spend time with this exercise and the Lower Abdominal exercises as they serve much more purpose in achieving what you are looking for and for most people where they are the weakest.

Lastly I  find many people who can kick butt with a plank, also really struggle to do a prone jack knife correctly. Their hips are so tight they cannot maintain a perfect posture and as a result their spine moves too much. The give away is when the stick rolls right off their back. Refer to the video below to see what I mean.

Good articles to read on core strength and stability are below

How to loosen tight hips

What Core Strength really means and how to train the Slings

5: Stiff Leg Deadlift

The deadlift is an amazing exercise, and you will see it is actually one of our Top 5 Best exercises to do. But for all the great things the deadlift can do, the stiff leg deadlift is a disaster. There is nothing good to say about this and once again, surprise surprise, this was invented with a muscle based way of thinking. Body builders like this for the massive tension it produces in your hamstrings and is a great way for them to balance all of the leg extensions and quadricep work. What they fail to understand is the danger this exercise creates for your entire kinetic chain and how it can drastically reduce the strength of your glutes.

By keeping the knees locked as in a straight legged dead lift causes hyper-activation of the hamstrings and lumbar erectors. This in turn inhibits the gluteus maximus. So sure it loads the hamstrings just like the body builders want it to do but at the expense of your butt muscles. Endless repetitions of this creates a faulty movement pattern teaching your brain not to use the glutes when bending and is frequently associated with both low back and upper hamstring strain. In 90% of bulging disc cases it is caused by too much flexion or bending forward poorly. And I cannot tell you how many people we see who already have a glute weakness, so I do not know why I would ever use an exercise to make you bend poorly and have weaker butt muscles! Also knowing that the glutes are a phasic muscle, meaning they are prone to being lazy and weak already, the last thing you want is something the help them out.

We see this movement in older adults and people with severe muscle loss from injury who have evolved from compensation to pick objects up with locked knees. They are often rehabilitation clients of ours for herniated discs and various other severe injuries. In their case they did not adopt this stupid lifting technique intentionally but from compensation due to another injury. If you are someone without pain and wanting to get fit you are best to avoid this exercise at all costs and learn how to use your hamstrings within traditional deadlits, lunges, squats and single leg exercises. Yes that is right you use your hamstrings in all of those exercises, as well as quads, glutes and just about all the muscles in your legs. This is called Lombards Paradox.

Problems only arise when you try to separate these muscles from each other. They all work in harmony and in a correct timing and sequence with each other to produce efficient movement. Efficient movement equals stronger more powerful body. I always ask the questions why would you want to move like that, or when you would ever need to move like that other than when you work out? There is a reason you never move like that because it is inefficient and weaker. Move to things that are stronger not weaker.

If you do traditional single leg deadlifts with correct lifting form, trust me you will have sore hamstrings, but it will be relative to your glutes and quads. Good articles to read on Deadlifts, glutes and back pain is below

Deadlift Technique Tips

How To Strengthen Your Glutes

How These Clients Overcome Back Pain

Okay that sums up our worst exercises, but what about our BEST exercises? This is much easier and more fun to talk about and as we already have stacks of information about these on our website I will keep this very brief. As with the "worst" exercises they also share something in common. And that is - They are all performed STANDING UP and they are all MOVEMENT BASED!

1: Single Leg Squat

This is such an important exercise to be good at. I have found anyone who can do these with ease, with great range of motion, with loads or at high speed is pretty much indestructible with leg movements and can play sports at a high level. This exercise is a king pin or all our programs whether it is rehabilitation, older adults training or sports performance for it relates to so many things. From improving balance to walking, jumping and bending over to pick something up, it plays a massive role in achieving efficient movement. I did not just pick squats as I have seen many people perform two leg squats very well but still have all sorts of injuries and problems. The traditional squat is still a great exercise and one of my favorites, but it does not compare to the single leg squat in terms of overall  added skill and function we all need to live life without limitation.

Read our article on Single Leg Squats to see why we rate this exercise so highly.

2: Deadlifts

I told you this was one of our best exercises! And for good reason as it is arguably one of the best exercises for improving overall posture and strength to the posterior chain. Modern living has improved many things but posture is not one of them. Having an exercise to encourage us to stand taller and use all of our key muscles for lifting is something we all need. I have spoken already about how back pain is often caused from poor bending actions, and the fact that over 90% of the population will experience a severe case of back pain at least once in our life, it makes sense to learn an exercise that will prevent this. If you have had a severe back pain injury you will know exactly how debilitating it can be and if you could avoid it by doing a simple exercise like this wouldn't you want to? I know I would. Many elite athletes have this exercise as the one of their key exercises as they know how much power can be developed from learning to do this well.

Read our article on Deadlifts to see how to do this correctly and get the most out of this exercise.

3: Lunges

You might be thinking, "very boring and predictable". I must admit I love lunges for there is just so many ways you can do them and they are a very athletic movement. You can do lunges forwards, backwards, laterally (sideways) as a multi directional luge, jumping and even use it within other exercises as the stance. It is so versatile and athletic. Also if the single leg squats and deadlifts are great at focusing on where people are weak, then lunges really focus in on where people are tight - The Hips! Often the reason people find these hard to do and why they hate them is the fact it is stretching out their very tight hips from sitting all day. Apart from loosening the tight hips, the reason lunges are in our top 5 is that they bring into play the use of the SLINGS! The body is a complex system made up of many slings or sometimes known as chains. These slings, when they are working well, help us move efficiently, produce more force, and create more speed. This is why we walk and run with our opposite arm and leg working together. It makes us evenly balanced and efficient. The lunge also becomes the solid foundation for upper body movements like the Single Cable Press and Cable pull.

Read our article on Lunges here to see how to use these slings and find out even more about this awesome exercise.

4: Woodchop

Another great athletic exercise and one that is never given much thought by body builders or people who do not understand how we move. This can be done using medicine balls, cable machines, even barbells at times. The key to this being performed correctly has everything to do with the timing. It cannot be performed slowly. Can you think of trying to hit a baseball slowly, or throw a ball slowly? You cannot because the timing is all wrong. Also can you think of doing both those things without moving your legs? Again the timing is all out and you will have no power. This exercise helps to coordinate and efficiently sequence many muscles all at once to produce perfect movement. This should be one of the most important exercises to develop for all sporting athletes in ball sports like Tennis, Golf, Football and Basketball for it programs them to move faster and more powerfully through the hips with great weight transfer without compensation leading to poor performance or injury. We also use this often in rehabilitation, in particular with back pain as we find these people stiffen themselves up so much they cannot rotate correctly. They have stopped using their hips and now twist their spine!

I suggest checking out our Free Reports for Golf and Tennis for more examples of how to do this exercise, with progressions and regressions to help you get it right. With these two sports, the rotation movement is used all the time. Also make sure you watch the video above of what poor timing looks like with this movement.

5: Chin Ups

There was many other exercises I would have loved to include but I went with this one as it would be regarded by most as the best upper body type of exercise. Even though it is highly integrated and not just an arm exercise it is fair to say it is a measuring stick for many in terms of relative strength. Chin ups are one of the most beneficial overall muscle and strength developers and are again are often a key exercise used by many professional athletes. The amount of muscles on the  job in this movement helps give you powerful grip strength and body control. Muscles throughout the entire back are hit with enough stress to make them grow stronger and your abdominal muscles are given a massive workout due to the stabilization needed through the entire core to stop the legs from swinging. One of my favorites for sure.

Read our article Use Chin Ups To Build Muscle Fast to see more about this and how to do them correctly.


Well that concludes our best and worst exercises you could ever do. I hope you found this interesting and gained some valuable knowledge and insight into how to train smarter and get results. Like I said many times throughout this article the "bad" exercises all shared a common theme - a muscle based focus at the expense of efficient movement. Whereas the "best" exercises were the exact opposite -  a movement based focus using the entire body as one integrated unit. It is time we move beyond thinking of the human body like a car with stacks of separate parts stuck together. And look at the body as a complex super computer that must be used wisely and taught complex skills and patterns to enhance it's capability. It is a real shame to see exercise abused like it is often today, many times by so called professionals who still have a belief of no pain, no gain. It does not have to be this way, it can be so much more fun and challenging using smarter exercises that work for everyone from sports starts to older adults. I know this for a fact because I do exactly this everyday of the week in our Personal Training studio in Melbourne.

If you live in Melbourne and would like to book in for a Free health and fitness consultation click the image below to book an appointment.

Lastly if you want stacks of ideas on how to train smarter or you need new challenges using some of the ideas in this article make sure you check out our Little Black Book Of Training Secrets below as this has everything you need