There's a simple rule of thumb for deciding whether to include an exercise in your workout: If it makes you look like a jackass, don't do it. Walk into any gym today (aside from the one I train people at, of course) and you're likely to see guys trying to isolate their "medial deltoids" with machines that look like something out of a medieval torture chamber, or struggling to balance on a ball like some kind of circus bear. Most of these people aren't getting bigger or stronger, and a lot of them are getting hurt. There's nothing wrong with varying your workout and performing a move that hits the muscles a little differently, but exercises that force you to work with extremely light weights, use over-complicated equipment that puts you at risk for injury, or make you feel like an idiot just aren't worth doing. That's why we've compiled this list of 10 exercises that absolutely suck, accompanied by better alternatives that promote a safer, more effective workout.
THE BOTTOM 10
1. THE PEC-DECK FLY This lift simply doesn't allow you to move enough weight to overload the muscles and elicit growth. Moreover, most guys unintentionally allow the arm pads to hyperextend their shoulder joints as they per- form the lowering phase of the lift, and that causes injury. And no, it doesn't "bring out" your middle chest.
DO THIS INSTEAD: The blast-strap push- up. Blast straps (available at elitefts.com) are basically nylon leashes with metal handles that can loop around a chinup bar, tree limb, or practically any other apparatus and provide the means to do a limitless number of body-weight exercises. Using them to perform pushups forces each shoulder to stabilize itself, increasing muscle activation. Wear a weighted vest or rest your feet on an elevated surface, and you'll have an exercise that fries the chest, shoulders, triceps, and core.
2. THE LEG EXTENSION Like the pec-deck fl y, this lift doesn't allow the quads (some of the strongest muscles in your body) to move much weight. Worse, the more weight you use, the greater the shearing forces you place on your knees, risking injury.
DO THIS INSTEAD: The single-leg squat with back foot raised. Bend one knee, raising your lower leg behind you so that you're standing on the opposite leg. Rest the top of your raised foot on a bench or other elevated surface so that it's level with your butt. Now squat down and up with your supporting leg. Because you're supporting your weight on only one leg, this move trashes the quads and glutes, and challenges your balance. Your hips move freely, too, which is safer for your knees. When you can't get to a gym, this move provides a great leg workout without weights.
3. THE SMITH-MACHINE SQUAT Since the bar travels along a fixed track, it virtually eliminates the need for your core to stabilize your body. Not good. Because your abs and lower back aren't working like they should, frequent Smith- machine squatting leads to muscle imbalances. Also, because the track won't allow your hips to bend like they do on a free-weight squat, you may overstress your knees.
DO THIS INSTEAD: The box squat. Set up a box behind you and then lower your body until your glutes touch it. Touching the box requires you to "sit back" as you squat, as if you were lowering yourself into a chair, and this action gets the glutes and hamstrings maximally involved in the lift. It also helps you to perfect your squat form. You can start with a higher box and gradually move to smaller boxes as you improve, ultimately training your body to squat below parallel with no box at all. Better still, the box squat places no strain on the knees, so even people with knee problems can attempt it safely.
4. THE CONCENTRATION CURL Though it's probably the second-most common exercise in the gym (after the bench press), bag it! The weight you can use is very limited and the movement has no function in daily life or sports.
DO THIS INSTEAD: The modified preacher curl. Raise the height of a preacher curl bench so that you can curl on it while standing. Grab a bar- bell and position your triceps against the pad, as in a normal preacher curl. As you curl, bend your upper body forward to somewhere between a 45- degree angle and parallel to the floor. After you've curled the bar as high as possible, slowly bring your body back to upright as you lower the weight. By leaning forward as you curl, you change the angle of your forearms in relation to the floor and allow for more tension at the end of the range of motion. The payoff: You can go heavier.
5. THE LEG CURL The only time your hamstrings will ever work in isolation is when you do this exercise. The hams are meant to act in unison with the glutes and lower back, so training them alone only leads to imbalances, especially in the posterior chain—the interrelated muscles on the back side of your body that are responsible for explosive speed and power. And that's not just bad, it's a catastrophe, because a faulty posterior chain can leave you with an excruciating hamstring pull—even if you're just out for a jog.
DO THIS INSTEAD: The weighted 45- degree back extension. Use a back extension apparatus while holding a weight plate to your chest; do not use a machine. This exercise works the hamstrings, spinal erectors, and glutes together. While you'll probably never find yourself in a leg-curl position outside the gym, you'll always be bending forward to pick things up off the floor, and the back extension trains all the muscles that make that possible.