9 Horrible Exercises You Should Never Do [And What To Do Instead]

There are a lot of great exercises in the fitness library.

However, there are also a bunch of bad exercises. Chances are, you’re probably doing some of them.

Here is a list of the 9 worst exercises you can do.

9-horrible-exercises-you-should-never-do-cover image

This post will discuss :

  • The Top 9 Worst Exercises of All Time
  • Why These Are Exercises To Avoid
  • Alternative Options That You can do Instead

Many people will argue that there are no bad exercises, only bad execution.

They have a point: Any exercise done with bad form can be a bad exercise.

But the exercises that are done properly and still put you at an above-average risk of injury are the ones that need to be avoided.

Let go over them now.

1. Sit-Ups

Far too many people believe that countless sit-ups are the key to getting a six-pack.

While this exercise will indeed cause fatigue of the abdominal muscles, you might be doing them at the expense of your spinal health.

Sit-ups are not a functional movement of the human body.

Aside from getting up from bed in the morning, how often do you flex your spine from a lying position?

It’s even worse if you clasp your hands behind your neck and yank on the back of your head to help you perform the repetitions.

Even Harvard wrote an article on why sit-ups are bad for you.

The bulk of your abdominal training should come from functional exercises.

The ones that help us move better and obtain stronger positions in our normal activities of daily living.

There are far better ways of building core strength that does not involve constant flexion of your spine.

Start by getting yourself an ab wheel.  Order one here if you need one.

brittany doing a sit-up on her back: the image also repeats the cons listed below

Cons: Why Are Sit-ups Bad For You?

  • Causes excessive wear and tear of the spine through repetitive flexion
  • Worsens your posture by encouraging a more rounded kyphotic position
  • The abdominal core muscles are meant to stabilize your spine not encourage flexion
  • Can lead to an increase in lumbar spinal injury, especially if you already have a history of lower back pain.

Alternatives to Sit-Ups:

2. Tricep Kick Backs

The tricep kickback is a worthless exercise in my opinion.

It is way too easy to do it with improper form, AND performing a full range of motion requires a good deal of flexibility.

Secondly, you are severely limited by the amount of weight you can use in this exercise. It’s just too awkward to use any significant resistance as your shoulders have to be in an extended and externally rotated position.

As a result, you are forced to train each arm individually as it is extremely difficult to perform both arms at the same time.

Having to do each arm individually (in this particular exercise) increases the length of your workout provides little to no benefit.

*There are numerous exercises where training each side individually is beneficial, but tricep kickbacks isn’t one of them* 

There are plenty of better ways to train your triceps.

brittany doing a tricep-kick-back, bent over and extending her elbow behind her: the image also repeats the cons listed below

Cons: Why Are Tricep KickBacks Bad?

  • Forces you to train each arm individually, which increases the length of your workout with little to no benefit
  • Places a lot of stress on the shoulder and elbow joint from poor exercise mechanics
  • Limits the amount of weight that can be used due to the awkward starting position

Tricep KickBack Alternatives:

3. Pseudo Pull-Ups

I believe that everyone should do pull-ups/chin-ups on a regular basis. (I personally have a pull-up tower so that I can do them at home regularly.)

This is the one I have from Amazon.

But unfortunately, the name “chin-up” has done this exercise a great disservice.

Somehow, many people have assumed that the point of the exercise is to get your chin above the bar.

They do whatever it takes to get their chin to clears the bar so that the rep could ‘count.’

Here is the truth.

At no point should your chin/neck ever be involved in this exercise.

To perform the pull-up correctly, you need to use your upper back and lat muscles. Check out our complete pull-up tutorial here.

When you reach the end range, your chin should naturally clear the bar.

If you cannot get your chin to clear the bar without moving your chin, then you are not doing pull-ups. You are doing pseudo-pullups.

This is doing absolutely nothing for you or your strength. Your neck should remain neutral and never change position throughout the lift.

brittany doing psuedo-pull-ups, extending her neck to get her chin above the bar: the image also repeats the cons listed below

*Note the difference- in the range of motion. In the properly executed pull-up, the chin naturally clears the bar once the full range of motion has occurred

The bottom line?

Stop jerking your neck back so that your chin clears the bar while in actuality, you are performing half-repetitions.

There are many other pull-up variations you can benefit from that will allow you to perform a full range of motion.

Cons: Why Are Pseudo-Pull-ups Bad For You?

  • Gives false reassurance that you are performing a full range of motion repetitions
  • Can cause neck pain

Psuedo Pull-Up Alternatives:

4. Chair Dips

Dips are traditionally a great compound exercise for the upper body.

In essence, they are a much more difficult variation of a push-up.

However far too many people are trying to perform this advanced exercise without adequate preparation.

Even worse, a lot of workout programs recommend that beginners do a scaled variation of this exercise on a chair or a bench.

The chair makes it easier because your feet are flat on the floor taking away a lot of the weight that you need to lift.

However, the chair dip variation is an awful exercise because many people do not have adequate shoulder range of motion to perform this movement safely and effectively.

When looking from the side many people allow their shoulders to go into extreme internal rotation which is a very compromising position.

This forward shoulder roll leads to a lot of damage to the joint, and more money in your orthopedic surgeon’s pocket.


* If you want to do this exercise, just make sure to

  • TURN YOUR HANDS OUT (and not forward) and
  • pinch your shoulder blades together

to keep your shoulder joint in a safe position.*o keep your shoulder joint in a safe position.*

brittany doing dips on a box with her hands behind her, hands pointing forward, and shoulders extended, and knees bent: the image also repeats the cons listed below

Cons: Why Are Chair Dips Bad For You

Chair Dips Alternatives:

5. Upright Rows

The shoulder upright row is an exercise where you grab two dumbbells (or a barbell) and you lift the weight straight up towards your chin while keeping the weight really close to your body.

The problem with this exercise is that it puts your shoulder into an extreme level of internal rotation.

This puts your rotator cuff into a compromising position and increases the chances of causing shoulder impingement.

It’s just not worth it.

There are plenty of other exercises you can do to train your shoulders and upper back.

alex doing an upright row: lifting two dumbbells straight up towards his chin: the image also repeats the cons listed below

Why is The Upright Row Bad For You?

  • Places your shoulder in extreme internal rotation, under load
  • Increases the chances of shoulder impingement and pain
  • Can cause wear and tear on your rotator cuff

Upright Row Alternative:

6. Behind the Neck PullDown

The Behind the Neck Pulldown is performed on a cable Lat Pulldown machine.

Instead of pulling the weight down to their chest (how the exercise is meant to be done), you pull the weight down behind their neck.

People assume that they can get a better activation of the lat muscles this way since they are pulling in a more vertical plane.

The problem is, you have to crank your neck forward to do this exercise.

Secondly, you place your shoulders in a very unnatural, externally rotated position that is fixed to the bar.

This is also true of the Behind The Neck Overhead Presses. Both exercises have the same risk.

It’s not worth getting the additional deltoid or lat activation if you injure your neck or your shoulders.

alex doing the behind-the-neck-lat pulldown-exercise: the image also repeats the cons listed below

Why Is The Behind The Neck Pull-Down Bad For You?

  • Places your shoulders in a maximally externally rotated position under load
  • Unlesss you have great mobility and form, you are at high risk of injury
  • Can strain the muscles of the posterior neck

Behind The Neck PullDown Alternatives:

7. Loaded Back “Hyper-extensions”

Does anything with the word hyper sound good to you?

What about a “hyper” extension of your low back?

Unfortunately, this exercise has been misnamed to the detriment of the fitness industry.

I’m sure you’ve seen this exercise many times before.

You get on a back raise machine, hold a weight on your chest and go to town bending at the spine all the way down…

… and then all the way back up until you can’t anymore.

Your low back should never extend beyond its natural capabilities. Ideally, it should never extend past a neutral spinal position.

Here’s a shocking statistic: According to the NIH, 80% of adults will develop low back pain at some point in their lives.

This is a proper back raise: Note that the spine should never hyper-extend beyond this point.

Keep your glutes engaged at the top of the movement.

a woman hyperextending her back on a back raise machine: the image also repeats the cons listed below

Why Are Loaded Back Hyperextensions Bad For You?

  • The low back is not meant to extend beyond a neutral position under heavy load
  • Hyperextending the low back under load places a high level of compression on the spine- which can lead to a disc injury
  • Performing the deadlift with back hyperextension is also just as bad!

Back Hyperextension Alternatives:

8. Shrugs

Shrugs aren’t necessarily a bad exercise. The problem is, far too many people do it

  • too early in their lifting career,
  • use as heavy weight as they could possibly load, and
  • use as much body english as humanly possible

This is made worse if you allow your neck to crank back and forth throughout the reps.

Like Mark Rippetoe says, you have no business performing this exercise if you cannot power clean 225 lbs.

alex shrugging two dumbbells up: the image also repeats the cons listed below

Why Are Shrugs Bad For You

  • The exercise itself isn’t bad, it’s just that people rarely do it correctly
  • Many trainees overload this exercise with too much weight, sacrificing their form
  • Improper form can lead to severe neck muscle strain

Shrug Alternatives:

9. Any Exercise on the Smith Machine

The smith machine is quite honestly the worst piece of equipment any gym has.

It’s the machine that has a barbell that is fixed and can only move in an up-and-down fashion.

The producers of the machine promote it as being a safer alternative to free weights, which is just wrong.

Sadly, people perform all kinds of barbell exercises on the smith machine, including:

  • squat,
  • bench press,
  • shoulder press, and
  • barbell rows in this contraption.

The truth of the matter is, this machine can be more dangerous than free weights as the fixed barbell forces your body into strange positions that it can’t normally achieve.

This can potentially lead to back issues such as disc herniations.

The smith machine also removes the major benefits of free weights which is the need to stabilize yourself while supporting the weight.

There are much easier and safer ways to scale barbell exercises to your needs.

A woman doing a squat on a smith machine where the barbell is fixed to the machine and only moves in a vertical plane: the image also repeats the cons listed below

Why The Smith Machine is Bad For You

  • The fixed bar path does not allow a natural range of motion of barbell exercises (especially the smith machine squat).
  • Removes the elements of needing to stabilize the weights in functional barbell exercises
  • Risk of injury increases as the fix bar path forces your body into suboptimal positions

Instead, Do:

  • The free weight alternative to the exercise you are doing in the smith machine

10. The Most Dangerous Exercise To Avoid (*Bonus)

I want to end with the most dangerous exercise that everyone should avoid in all circumstances.

You MUST avoid any exercise that causes you pain or discomfort in any way.

With that said, you must be able to tell the difference between pain and difficulty.

Don’t avoid an exercise just because it’s difficult (aka training your legs).

But if anything feels funny, like:

  • Pinching
  • Pulling
  • Electric-like pain

then you need to stop.  There are always safer alternatives to any exercise.

Exercise should always feel smooth and natural.

The Best Exercises Everyone Should Do

Please, do yourself a favor and stop doing these exercises.

These exercises are potentially dangerous.

There are numerous exercises that you can perform which are safer, better, and more time-efficient than any of these.

We have written an entire post on The Complete List of Gym Exercises Everyone Should Do.

Other FAQ

Are There Exercises That Beginners Should Avoid?

A beginner should avoid any exercise that they cannot perform with proper form.

Although I advocate that you learn the large compound barbell lifts early, it is important that you learn how to do them properly before loading them up with heavy weight.

Other than that, a beginner doesn’t necessarily need to avoid any particular exercise (aside from the 10 I mentioned above).

Can Plank Exercises Hurt Your Back?

Yes. If done improperly, planks and other ab exercises can hurt your back.

When planking, it is important that you keep a neutral (or even rounded) back position throughout the entire exercise.

I describe this position in greater detail in my post on the best core exercises.

At no point in the exercise should you let your hips sag.  This will cause your low back to arch and place it in a very compromising position. 

What Are The Worst Exercises For The Shoulders?

Some of the worst potential exercises for your shoulders include

  • Upright Rows
  • Behind The Neck Pulldowns
  • Behind The Neck Overhead Press
  • Chair Dips (with your hands facing forward)

All of these exercises place your shoulder in extreme internally rotated positions.

This is a very compromising position where the risk is not justified.

What Are The Worst Exercises For The Rotator Cuff?

The same exercises that are bad for your shoulders are also bad for your rotator cuff muscles.  See above.

What Are The Worst Exercises For The Knees?

Many people think that squatting is bad for your knees. If that were the case, how would we be able to poop?

Full squats are a very natural movement pattern that we must all be able to do.

Knee pain during squats is often due to improper form.

So with that said, what are the worst exercise for your knee joint?

Very Heavy Leg Extensions

I’ll let Jeff Cavaliere explain why this exercise isn’t good for you if you have bad knees.

What Are The Worst Exercises For The Back?

The worst exercises for the back are

  • ones where you hyper-extend (aka arch) your low back under heavy load.
  • ones where you repetitively flex your spine under heavy load

The three most popular exercises that place a lot of pressure on the low back include:

  • Sit-ups
  • Loaded Back Hyper-extensions (going past neutral)
  • Poorly executed deadlifts (hyper-extending at the top)

The majority of your ab training should come from static core exercises.

What Are The Worst Exercises For The Neck?

The worst exercises for your neck are the ones that aren’t meant to train your neck at all.  

These include

  • Psuedo Pull-ups (where you are only focused on clearing your chin above the bar)
  • Shrugs (where you let your head protrude forward at the top)

In general, you should try to keep your neck neutral in every single exercise that you perform.

A Strength Training Program That Uses Only The Best Exercises (And Avoids The Worst Exercises)

There are more exercises that we can add to this list, but these are the most common.

Why risk performing the worst exercises and sabotage your fitness?

That is why we created the WCT Strength Template.

It is a 15-week workout program that takes all of the guesswork out of your exercise routine.

You won’t have to worry about doing mediocre, or dangerous exercises, and you can focus on the stuff that matters.

So if you want to build muscle, and gain strength in as little as 35 minutes a day, check out our template here.

Final Thoughts On The Worst Gym Exercises

To be completely honest, any exercise done with very poor form can be a bad exercise.

But the exercises that are done properly and still put you at risk are the ones that need to be avoided.

If anything feels funny, don’t do it. Stick with the best exercises, play it smart, and make a better choice.

Related Posts On Other Great Exercises:

Now we turn it over to you:

Do you perform any of these detrimental exercises?

Do you have any other exercises to add to this list?

Comment below and let us know.

Share this list with them so that they can stop wasting their time.


Alex Robles, MD, CPT / Brittany Robles, MD, MPH, CPT

Alex & Brittany Robles are physicians, NASM CPTs, health & fitness experts, and founders of The White Coat Trainer: a site dedicated to improving the health and fitness of busy professionals. Their advice has been featured on KevinMD, The Doctor Weighs In, My Fitness Pal, Reader’s Digest, Livestrong, and The Active Times. Learn more about them here.

54 thoughts on “9 Horrible Exercises You Should Never Do [And What To Do Instead]”

  1. Wow, I always felt there was something not right about crunches. It puts so much pressure on my neck and shoulders. So I will stop doing those and instead do the three other you recommended – which btw I already do anyway. Thanks for your advice.

  2. OMG I totally love this post! I honestly had no idea about the tricep kickbacks and loved doing them. No more!! And that back hyperextension I friggin hate that exercise and when my trainer makes me do it I whine like a 5 yr old!! UGH!!

  3. Hmm… interesting, that part about crunches especially… I too find it hard when it comes to the neck but only when my abs are not strong enough… I wonder though why it would be such an essential part of Pilates as well if it was THAT bad and why would every single fitness coach I know (or ever heard of) use it… ??

    1. The White Coat Trainer

      I think it comes down to misinformation just being propagated over years and years. We simply didn’t understand human function and anatomy as well as we do now. And as of now, the verdict is certainly in about situps and crunches.

  4. I heard about sit ups no longer being a good exercise a while ago but didn’t know about these other ones! Though I am a yogi and I don’t do too much at the gym as I once did, these are good tips to pass on to some of my friends!

  5. Oh no! You’ve listed so many of my favorite exercises, or at least the ones my trainers assign to me regularly! I actually really enjoy tricep kickbacks/dips but I won’t miss chin-ups!! They are the worst.

    1. The White Coat Trainer

      You could keep doing them if you enjoy it, However, just keep in mind that they probably aren’t doing much for your triceps or fitness. Thanks for reading.

  6. Oh gosh! I’ve done every single one of these at one time or another. But sometimes things HURT afterwards – and not in a good way. It’s great that you offer alternatives. 🙂

    1. The White Coat Trainer

      Yes, that is the major issue with a lot of these exercises. You can be hurting yourself without even knowing it. I’m sure the alternatives will treat you better 🙂

  7. Woah … this is totally useful information… other than smith machine and chin ups, I do the others regularly… time to talk to my trainer and change things 🙂

  8. Awesome! So I learned to stop trying to do sit ups and chair dips. Those were a part of my routine and I can now toss them out. Thank you for the alternatives and info on how to properly do all the exercises.

  9. I’ve read about how crunches are bad for us (worse, it doesn’t even really work). There’s really lots of info about it out there. Sadly, a lot of people still keep doing it. Articles like this are important for spreading awareness. It’s just sad to see people breaking a sweat, or worse hurting themselves, for nothing.

  10. I think that your hearts are in the right place but honestly, there’s nothing wrong with sit ups and crunches provided you do the correctly. Keep the head and neck straight and use the abdominal muscles to sit up, not pull from the neck with your hands. I use them in my daily life all the time, active people do sit ups, the only people who injure themselves are the people who are out of shape and do them incorrectly. Obviously they were never shown the right way.Triceps kick backs are a great exercise although your demo pic did it no justice. Correct form is everything, you didn’t really emphasize that if you do most of these exercises with correct form that they work great. The only exercises I agree you shouldn’t do are upright rows, behind the neck pull downs or presses, and the smith machine, oh and hyperextension of the back. I really don’t agree with you about shrugs. They are a great trap exercise, look at any pro bodybuilder and you’ll see they work great, again with proper form. The pic of you tricep dips looked injury prone because you were doing them wrong, you should have had you butt closed to the platform, then it wouldn’t look like a bad info-mercial about how we need a new product because the person you see is too inept to do the normal task. I’m not trying to bash, but your information isn’t backed by much knowledge and also no emphasis on correct form. These exercises have been around forever and there’s no real reason everyone should stop. If the exercise isn’t causing problems, and you like it, do it. If it’s causing problems, stop.

    1. The White Coat Trainer

      Thanks for your comment Vince.If you ask most exercise physiologist and biomechanics experts, they all agree that situps are indeed bad for you. Stuart McGill who has dedicated his life to the study and treatment of low back pain has also agreed with this statement. There are so many better exercises. Its just not worth the risk. I also mentioned that shrugs themselves are not a bad exercise, it just that there are much better alternatives. You can’t compare pro bodybuilders to the lay person who doesn’t have a lot of time to exercises. Shrugs simply do not provide a good return on investment. Similarly, chair dips and tricep kickbacks just suck. You are much better off doing regular dips or other chest/tricep exercises for numerous reasons that the blog explains in all of our training articles. We have actually studied kinesiology, and understand human movement very well. If you look at our exercise index, we have detailed guides on exercises and we emphasize form over everything. The number one concept of our blog is to use the best exercises, and not the ones that have a poor return on investment.

  11. All exercises are bad if done incorrectly!! So stop thinking about which exercise is good or bad do the ones that you can perform with perfect form. In my experience exercises are like medicines the right dose and regimen will make it work other wise be ready for adverse events no matter how innocuous it might look like….

    1. Totally agree with you Ligase. I would add that you must listen your body. If there are exercise your body really hates – don’t do that. Try alternative.

  12. Well, I now know why my Rotator Cuff is out of commission.Up-Right Row!!I really think you hit the nail on the head. I started doing these a few months ago and shortly after started having issues. I blamed it on Basketball at 52 but I’m convinced.
    Thanks a bunch!

  13. So if sit ups are so bad then why do we do them in military all the time ? In fact why are they part of our fitness test if they don’t do anything but damage the spine?!

    1. The White Coat Trainer

      The problem is that situps have been a traditional exercise for a very long time. It wasn’t until recently that we now know the effects of it on the spine. Over time, I’m sure that it will begin to fall out of favor.
      Just like in medicine, we used to do some crazy things that we thought were appropriate only to learn years later it was crazy.

  14. that’s a great information, but i think you should write this with a literature or a healt case about that, so the reader will be understand and think the same way.

  15. Fun topic to read about and read people’s comments on. Your picture for tricep kick backs shows a neutral position for the shoulder and not the external rotation mentioned, just a thought. Many disk problems happen in flexion with a twisting motion and the hyperextension puts stress on the facets of the vertebrae. Body weight flexion (without twisting) of the vertebrae is quite healthy to help move fluid and nutrients in the disks. The leg lift alternative for situps can be very dangerous for the low back, all you are really doing is stabilizing the other side of the hips when compared to situps. Leg lifts would be more beneficial if neck problems were occurring with situps. Both situps and leg lifts use the psoas muscle as the major muscle to bend at the waist and this muscle attachess to the front of the lumbar spine. I recognize you would also be using the illiacus, rectus femoris, and the general abdominal muscles that pull the xiphoid process to the pubic symphysis creating flexion of the torso. If you have an instability or step off (spondy) in the lumbar spine these two exercises would not be the best to do until your multifidus is firing and supporting the low back on the back of the spine. Overall you bring up some interesting points that for the general public can be very useful.

  16. Pullups are an awesome exercise if done correctly, as you stated. I never worry about the chin, just work the lats and upper back, go back down slowly and extend the arms fully at the bottom. I hope you don’t scare too many people off this exercise.

    1. The White Coat Trainer

      Thanks for the comment. I include it only because I have seen people strain their shoulders and their neck by focusing solely on getting their chins above the bar.
      But like you said, if you focus on proper form, all is well!

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