The Strength Training Exercises That Don’t Work (and the Ones That Do)

Those guys who spend hours pumping iron at the gym really are on to something. Aside from making you look more muscular, strength training is a fantastic way to boost your metabolism, improve athletic performance, and make everyday tasks easier. You can even score some health benefits you probably didn’t expect.

Before you start lifting and pressing every piece of equipment at the gym, it’s worth taking a little bit of time to think through your workout. While certain moves will help you on your journey to better health, others are a lot less effective, and some could lead to injury. To help clarify the confusing world of strength training, we’re sharing five moves to avoid and five you should definitely include.

1. Dumbbell fly

the dumbbell fly is a strength training exercise you should probably avoid

Be careful if you’re doing this exercise. | iStock.com

This exercise comes with a few problems. The first is it’s far too easy to perform improperly. Muscle & Fitness said many guys use momentum to speed through the movement instead of the slow, deliberate effort required to challenge muscles. Swinging definitely gets you more reps, but you won’t really do much to build strength.

The other issue has to do with your shoulders. They’re the most flexible joints in your entire body, which is extremely helpful for any activity requiring arm movement. Such a high degree of mobility also makes them extremely prone to injury. This move makes it way too easy to stretch the joint past a safe point, especially if you’re using heavy weights.

2. Leg extensions

leg extensions

Leg extensions aren’t good for your knees or hamstrings. | iStock.com

Your quads are among the biggest muscles in your body, which means they can handle quite a bit of weight. When guys want to blast this part of their lower body, most head to the leg extension machine and add a massive load. While it’s true this piece of equipment will target your quads, it goes a little bit too far. STACK explains spending too much time working on the front of your legs will lead to insufficient hamstring strength, increasing the likelihood of getting hurt. There are tons of other moves you can do that will give your quads a boost while simultaneously working some other leg muscles, so forget about this one.

Leg extensions also spell bad news for knees. According to Life by DailyBurn, the distance between your knees and the pads against your shins leads to an unsafe amount of stress on the joint. If you don’t already have bad knees, you could after months of performing this lift.

3. Kipping pull-ups

pull-ups

Kipping pull-ups are hard on your shoulders. | iStock.com

This is just a nice way of saying “cheater pull-ups.” For those unfamiliar, kipping is a sort of a kick generated from your lower body to help propel you up toward the pull-up bar. Like with the dumbbell fly, this uses momentum rather than strength. Mike Boyle, owner of Mike Boyle Strength & Conditioning, told Men’s Health it’s also way too hard on your shoulders. Your best bet is to stick with the classic. You won’t be able to do as many repetitions, but you’ll get a lot more out of each one.

4. Triceps kickbacks

Triceps kickbacks

Triceps kickbacks aren’t as good for you as you thought. | iStock.com

Sadly, the ability to perform triceps kickbacks until the sun sets isn’t an indication of strength. SparkPeople explained the angle of your arm prevents you from lifting enough weight to really challenge your triceps. You’ll have to do a stunning amount of repetitions to feel anything. It sucks up a lot of time without delivering any real results, so give this one a rest. It’s also easy to turn this move into a swing rather than a lift. Dips or triceps extensions are going to get you where you want a lot faster.

5. Sit-ups

sit ups

There are more effective exercises than sit-ups. | iStock.com

The quest for six-pack abs leads tons of people, male and female, to this classic move. Unlike a lot of other core exercises, sit-ups only target the center portion of your stomach. They’re also extremely hard on your back because, as the muscles fatigue, most use their arms to assist the move. This wrenches the neck and also renders the exercise much less effective. Even the lower back suffers. Harvard Health Publications said the motion forces your vertebrae to dig into the floor and could cause your hip flexors to tug on the lower end of your spine.

Since people tend to carry excess weight around their midsection, achieving a sculpted stomach is usually a lot more about losing fat than it is working your abs. Maintaining a balanced diet and a workout routine that includes cardio and strength training is the best way to get there.

6. Deadlifts

deadlifts

Deadlifts are a great go-to leg exercise. | iStock.com

On to the good moves, starting with deadlifts. Back pain is one of the most common ailments for adults, so strengthening the area is one of the best ways to prevent the problem. Deadlifts are great because they target your lower back as well as your glutes, arms, shoulders, and legs. It’s also one of the safer moves to perform, which means your chances of getting hurt are slim.

7. Calf raises

Calf raises

Calf raises are awesome for your lower legs. | iStock.com

This exercise is hands-down the best way to strengthen the backs of your lower legs. These often forgotten muscles are crucial for generating power when you run and keeping your feet and ankles stable. Weak calves mean you run the risk of a sprain or strained muscle.

Calf raises can also be adapted to accommodate any location or lack of equipment. If you don’t have access to a calf raise machine, you can perform standing ones holding some sort of heavy object. Try performing them one leg at a time over the edge of a stair for a real challenge.

8. Squats

squats

You can’t beat squats. | iStock.com

A classic move that will never go out of style, squats are fantastic for your entire lower body. The move targets your glutes, hamstrings, and quads better than almost any other exercise and the options for variations are endless. Before you go crazy with dumbbells and one-legged versions, Breaking Muscle recommends perfecting form first. Once you’ve mastered the basics, try some variations.

9. Push-ups

Push-ups

Push-ups are an exercise you should be doing. | iStock.com

Often considered just an arm and chest move, push-ups also engage your core and shoulders. Like most of the other exercises on our favorites list, this one is easy to adapt for different purposes. For example, bringing your hands closer together will focus more effort on your triceps. Other variations include handstand push-ups, pike push-ups, and clap push-ups.

Because this move is a bodyweight exercise, you can perform it anywhere. Push-ups are perfect for anytime you’re traveling without access to a gym or when you don’t have time to squeeze in a full workout.

10. Bench press

bench press

The bench press is great for your chest. | iStock.com

We’ll end with an all-time favorite: the bench press. A great move to strengthen your entire upper body, it’s no wonder this lift is the only weighted exercise included in the NFL Combine. Of course, there’s a right way and a wrong way to perform this move. Nerd Fitness shared a great tutorial that breaks down everything from getting set up to maintaining form during the movement.