Let’s get one thing straight: there’s no such thing as a “bad exercise”—just good exercises done poorly. No one wants to be injured, but lifting with improper form, and lifting too heavy, too fast, are some of the quickest ways to get hurt. The key to avoiding injury? Work up to what your body can handle, in both form and yield.
“There are a lot of athletes who do these exercises [below] that are in solid shape, but they don’t have proper core stabilization, or their hips are out of alignment, or they compensate with their back to lift heavy weights,” says Spartan’s Director of Fitness Sam Stauffer. “The majority of athletes who try these exercises aren’t ready. We all get ahead of ourselves or get excited, and (in a need to prove it to ourselves) might push it too far.” To stay safe, Stauffer says you need to know how to engage your glutes, keep your back straight, and avoid dumping weight in dangerous places like the neck, shoulder girdle, and low back. He also warns that your level of soreness after weightlifting doesn’t determine the quality of your workout. In fact, it can be an indicator of poor form or impending injury—especially when you’re new to weightlifting.
But it’s impossible (not to mention, unsafe) to go from zero-to-hero lifting overnight. So to improve performance and stay injury-free, we asked for Stauffer’s shortlist of weightlifting exercises to avoid, and alternatives to build strength and still get results.
AVOID: Behind-the-neck pulldowns or behind-the-neck barbell pressing
In a world plagued with neck pain, symptomatic of our smartphone and computer culture, it’s essential to protect your cervical spine and avoid weighted exercise behind the neck—like behind-the-neck pull-downs or pressing. “If you find yourself with a tight neck or a jutting forward of the head, you probably have weak neck muscles,” says Stauffer. “You’re better off to just stay away from behind-the-neck exercises.” Instead, start with simple cable or dumbbell rows until you have enough strength to repeat pull-ups. If regular pull-ups are out of reach, try band-assisted pull-ups or eccentric pull-ups to work up to a bodyweight (unassisted) pull-up.
DO THIS INSTEAD: Cable or dumbell row
AVOID: Olympic barbell lifting
“Yes, we know, this one is a touchy subject, but here is what we have to say about Olympic lifts: at the end of the day, it comes down to risk versus reward, and for these, there is a higher risk than reward,” says Stauffer. Unless you’re training for a competition, need excessive amounts of power, or are currently playing a competitive sport, you can nix these from your routine and substitute in more practical (and safer!) power-development exercises such as kettlebell swings, sandbag cleans, or ballistic medicine ball work. “In your early 20s, your body is more forgiving and recuperates much faster,” says Stauffer. “Be extra wary with these movements if you’ve passed the 30+ mark. That said, Olympic lifts are great power exercises but need to be programmed wisely.”
DO THIS INSTEAD: Kettlebell swings, sandbag cleans, medball work
Related: How to Improve Your Grip Strength
Shoulder and Chest Strengtheners
AVOID: Cable flys
“This was a staple for me growing up to build major strength in the chest,” says Stauffer. “Unfortunately, our anatomy disagrees with this exercise.” Going too wide on this movement can put an excessive amount of stress on the anterior shoulder joint. While it is nice to feel the burn, it can mislead you to make you think you’re building muscle, when really—without enough mobility—you’re just wrecking your shoulders. Stauffer suggests saving your shoulders and do these three strength exercises instead, for the same result: weighted push-up, dumbbell floor press, and the anterior shoulder press.
DO THIS INSTEAD: Weighted push-up, dumbbell floor press, and the anterior shoulder press
Leg and Core Strengtheners
Hold tight! We are pro deadlifting and think it’s are a great full-body, strength-building movement. That said, most athletes lack the proper core strength and joint mobility to execute this exercise properly, according to Stauffer. Without those two critical pieces, you dump unnecessary weight into the lower back. “This is an exercise that, when done incorrectly, has a far greater negative impact than a bodyweight squat for example,” says Stauffer. “For us, it’s a simple spectrum of risk versus reward, and the deadlift falls closer to the risk side.” If you’re going to do it, Stauffer suggests finding a coach to teach you proper mechanics or focusing on building a strong core and working up to weights your body can handle. If you’re new to lifting or haven’t hit the gym in a while, protect your low back and start with a baseline exercise like the hip bridge. From there, you can work up to a lightweight kettlebell deadlift.
DO THIS INSTEAD: Hip bridge and lightweight kettlebell deadlift
AVOID: Barbell backsquat
Similar to the deadlift, the barbell back squat falls on the dangerous end of the Spartan risk-versus-reward spectrum. Most folks just aren’t ready for this. “Sure, you were probably forced to do these at some point in your exercise journey—a strength room in highschool/college, your personal trainer had you do them, or they were a staple in a lifting class—but unless you have optimal shoulder mobility, hip mobility, core stability, and ankle mobility, you’re asking for trouble with this exercise,” says Stauffer. In most instances, your lower back will bear the load when it’s not meant to. As an alternative to barbell back squats, try the more refined goblet squat. Stauffer also suggests mixing it up by building strength from lunging patterns—which you can load up fairly heavy when your body is ready.