The Top Ten Strength Training Exercises You Should be Doing but Aren’t

The Top Ten Strength Training Exercises You Should be Doing but Aren’t


I am often asked about this exercise or that. Is this exercise safe or is that machine ok?

The answers to these questions often depend on many variables. Can your body move properly during a specific movement with a specific lift or exercise. Do all the joints involved in that movement have the proper mobility and stability? Is there muscle imbalance or joint dysfunction present? That being said, some exercises carry more risk to them and some are just flat out bad for us.

This list is relatively short.  I generally don’t like to contraindicate many exercises.  Instead I make a case by case decision based on the needs and injuries of the individual.  That said, there are a few to avoid.

  1. Leg Press: leg press exercises simply cause too much compressive forces on the discs in the lumbar spine and can lead to disc injuries, like bulging discs and herniations
  2. Crunches and Sit ups: Crunches and sit ups can add up to near 800 pounds of compressive forces to the low back, leading to disc injury.


Let’s take a closer look. As always, consult your doctor before starting any exercise program. These guidelines are not intended to be medical advice and are not a substitute for medical attention or consultation. It is presented here for information purposes only. If you require more information, please see your physician for further recommendations.

The following list of what to avoid and what to substitute is designed to be a helpful guide to minimizing risk in the gym and during exercise.

  1. No Back extensions, crunches or sit ups, RUSSIAN TWISTS. EVER.   Research according to the World’s most renowned experts on low back pain including Dr. Stuart McGill advise against these exercises. Research has shown repetitive flexion of the spine, which occurs during crunches and sit ups, is the # 1 WAY TO HERNIATE OR RUPTURE A DISK. Joint Healthy Substitute: Planks, Bridges, stability ball rollouts, bird dog, cable chops. The primary job of the CORE is to prevent rotation of the lumbar spine. These exercises do a great job of improving the core’s ability to prevent rotation. Why are twisting crunches and Russian Twists bad? Why would anyone want to sit down with knees bent and do oblique rotations with a medicine ball side to side? Sitting down eliminates the ability of the hips to rotate fully. So what occurs while doing this exercise is that you will rotate through the lumbar spine. NOT A GOOD THING. The lumbar spine is not designed to rotate much, only about 10 degrees total. Russian twist or whatever you call them add rotation and torque to the lumbar disc, and that eventually will lead to injury.
  2. Pain with Overhead Shoulder Press

Overhead shoulder press requires optimal movement from the thoracic spine AND the shoulder girdle which includes the glenohumeral, scapulothoracic and sternoclavicular joints. Many people have tightness of the shoulder capsule and scar tissue built up in the muscles around the shoulder girdle which prevent full range of motion from these joints. Lifting weights overhead is more likely to result in impingement syndrome, causing pinching in the front or back of the shoulder. Joint Healthy Substitute: Angled Overhead Press: This movement is not really overhead. Plus, it really works your core. Placing an Olympic bar on the ground, adding weight to the top part of the bar, you can stand feet shoulder width apart and grab the end of the bar closest to you and using one arm do a shoulder press. By having the bar angled down to the floor, the overhead movement is more angled which is less stressful on the shoulder.

  1.  Shoulder Pain with Bench Press

Many people with long arms have trouble with pressing movements. Dumbbells can be a good alternative as they are less restrictive than barbells. Joint Healthy Substitute: Floor Press. This limits the range of motion and often limits stress and strain on an injured shoulder.

  1. Shoulder Pain with Pull up or Pull down

Often times muscle imbalance and built up scar tissue results in restricted movement about the glenohumeral and scapulothoracic joints. As a result, during a pull up, the shoulder pinches at the top. The same can hold true for pull downs and bench presses. Often times pinching can occur in the front or the back of the shoulder. Joint Healthy Substitute: X Pull down. This exercise uses the free cable machine and works the middle back muscles. TRX Inverted Rows or “Y” rows. Neutral grip pull up or pull down. This grip minimizes the need for more external rotation, which is often lacking in tight shoulders.

  1. Leg Press

Leg presses create tremendous compression of the lumbar spine and discs. Combined with the fact that many people have restricted flexion of the hip due to tightness of the hip muscles and joint capsule, this exercise is unsafe. Joint Healthy Substitute: Deadlift/ Single Leg Squat/ Squat/ Lunge

  1. Leg Curl

Seated leg curl machines or prone leg curl machines in which you lay face down are just not the best way to work the hamstrings. These machines cause you to recruit the muscles of the lower back too much and they neglect the gluteals. During movement, the gluteals and hamstrings work together. Why try to isolate the hamstrings when that is not how the body moves naturally? Joint Healthy Substitute: Stability Ball Leg Curl. This exercise works the gluteals and hamstrings together in a core exercise that requires stability while emphasizing hamstring strength. Better yet, it strengthens the posterior chain, the chain of muscles your body uses for locomotion.

  1. Leg Extension

Seated leg extensions create tremendous stress on the patellofemoral joint and patellar tendon. At the top part of the movement when the knee is extended the weight is pushing down on the ankle and that creates a shearing force at the knee. Not to mention this is an open chained exercise, meaning the foot is off the ground and free to move. Closed chain exercises where the foot is on the ground are often safer and more stable. Joint Healthy Substitute: Rear Foot Elevated Split Squat: In this exercise both feet are grounded, making this a closed chain exercise which is better for the knee. Sled Pulling

  1. What if you have chronic lower back problems that make dead lifting and squatting difficult and painful?

Joint Healthy Substitute: Single Leg Squats. Be careful to avoid excess spinal flexion. The gluteal activation during the SLS is great because it helps decrease load on the spine and aids to stabilize the knee. Doing single leg squats can cut the load on the spine in half, resulting in less stress on the discs. Single Leg Hip Lift: a great exercise to load a posterior chain exercise and avoid unnecessary stress on the low back.

  1. I want to do leg work. What can I do about back or knee pain?

Joint Healthy Substitute: Sled pushing or pulling. Proper sled work requires good spinal alignment. Make sure to maintain a neutral spine and to move from the hips. Sled pushing is great for powerful drive and gluteal strengthening. It is a very effective substitute for squatting or deadlifts. Sled Pulling is great for quad development and a great substitute for leg extensions and lunges if you have knee pain.

  1. A note on machines I am pretty much against most machines for several reasons.
  2. First and foremost, machines attempt to create a “one size fits all” piece of equipment. Just because the seat and seat backs are adjustable doesn’t mean the motion is completely natural for YOUR body. The machine is going to restrict your movement to what the pulleys, and cams and levers of the machine allow. If those motions are not synchronous with the natural movement of your body, undue stress on the joints will arise.
  3. Machines isolate muscles, they do not train movement. Most people exercise to look good. But a better reason would be to look good and be more functional. Free weights and more functional movements like single leg squats, stability ball exercises, and kettle bell swings etc. train functional strength and train the strength during functional movement. If given the option, I opt out of machines and force my body to stabilize itself during a movement.

Special thanks to Strength Coach Nick Tuminello for his article on Joint Friendly Training. He is the owner of Performance University. Check out his website at: