6 exercises to avoid (and what to do instead)

Not all exercises are created equal. It’s a lot like food; some foods are great for everybody; some foods are terrible and cause a lot of health issues for people and some foods sit in the middle where we think they are good for us, but often they can cause us issues that we are not aware of. Here are some exercises to reconsider, and what to try instead.

1. Ab Machines

These are often a big hit in the gym and yes, they can be quite comfortable and a lot easier to manage than free form abdominal exercises. However they can make it difficult to activate your core muscles correctly.  The good news is, even if you can’t get to the gym at the moment, there are alternative exercises that require no equipment and are easy to do at home any time.

Try Instead: Planks

A plank is incredibly safe and effective for people at all levels AND it's more effective for toning your abdominals than the typical abdominal machines. It reduces the risk of neck pain and injury and is easy to work to your limit without injury. Simply lie flat on the floor, face down, with elbows under you.  Come up onto your toes and elbows and hold yourself in this position, inhaling and exhaling for a count of 2 each.  Hold as long as you can and when your form starts to go, come back to lying on the floor, rest and repeat.

2. Triceps Dips

These have been a staple for toning the back of the arms for a very long time and for some people they work just fine. For many others, however, not only do they not get any results, they often start to get shoulder niggles or injuries. This exercise can easily overload the rotator cuff muscles in your shoulder which is something we really want to avoid. They are super hard to heal, and many daily tasks become challenging due to the pain in your shoulder.  

Try instead: Tricep Push-Ups

Again, another super easy home or gym exercise. All you need is some floor space. I like this exercise as it is functional while providing a great way to tone and condition. Lie face down on the floor with hands on either side of your chest and elbows touching your body. With your knees on the floor rather than toes, push up and straighten your arms like a standard push up - the difference is, your elbows are tucked closely to your sides.

3. Smith Machine Squats

I have used this machine for years and while I really like it, it is not always the best choice for many people.  Due to the positioning required for the machine, it is easy to overstress the knees and not activate the glute area properly. The positioning under the bar can also cause compression and stress on your spine.  

Try instead: Weighted Squats

This is a go-to if you want to create great shape, tone, and condition doing something super simple and super effective. It is incredibly low risk, and you can start at any level and build up. It also offers so many variations depending on your goals; wide legged squats, narrow legged squats, plie squats, bench squats, full-depth squats, double squats and the list can go on. It is also incredibly effective for working the core area, so definitely one I have in my tool kit.

4. Cardio, Cardio, Cardio

Yes, cardio can burn lots of calories but at what expense to your body? Lots of steady-state cardio (doing one type of movement at a steady pace, for an extended period of time) can be incredibly hard on the body, especially your joints and your stress levels. It can also reduce strength and cause loss of muscle tissue and even halt your weight-loss efforts.

Try Instead: Circuit-based Exercises

Using circuit-based exercises to help you burn fat while engaging muscle. Combine some cardio components with muscle-building components to get the best of both worlds.  This could be a 60 sec round of exercises repeated 2-4 times. Try squats, jogging on the spot, press ups, jumping jacks, lunges, high knees, tent press ups, and air punching.

5. Burpees

These are an oldie and a goodie IF you gave great abdominal function and strength. There are a lot of people out there who do not have this function and if they perform this exercise without it, they open themselves up for some serious back injury, as without core activation, the abdominal area drops/dips down when you hit the bottom position. It can also cause you to pull or tear your hamstring muscle if you do not have the flexibility in this area.

Try Instead: Lie-down-stand-up  

Sounds simple, and in theory it is, however it can be challenging for many of us to do. What I love about it is we can push ourselves to master a basic human movement without putting ourselves at high risk of injury. Start standing and lower yourself into a squat and keep going until you are sitting on the ground, continue to lie down flat on the ground, now try to stand up by bringing your feet in and getting back into the squat position and then standing straight again. You may need assistance - a wall or sturdy chair to help you from the ground to the squat on the way up, but persevere and this will be much easier in no time.

6. Floor Crunches

This is a go to for so many people to try and condition and tone their abdominals and get rid of tummy fat.  This will not only not achieve it, but it can actually make things much worse for many people.  Most people are already in a compromised postural position with slightly hunched shoulders and weakened back muscles from sitting at desks and in cars, and this exercise perpetuates this problem making it even harder to activate your core.  We need to lengthen the stomach area and re-activate the abdominals, not shorten them and pull ourselves even further forward.

Try Instead: Lying Leg Lowers

This is my favourite and after 2 c-sections I can tell you it works incredibly well. Not only can I activate my core, but I can also lengthen my torso and correct my posture at the same time. That’s an incredible win in my book. Lie on your back and place your hands under your bottom. Bring your knees to your chest and straighten your legs keeping a slight bend in the knee. Simply keep this angle and slowly lower your legs down as far as you can before your back lifts off the ground - this could be halfway to the ground - it doesn’t matter, what matters is keeping your back flat on the ground when performing the exercise.


Lee-Anne Wann is a fitness specialist, nutritionist, presenter and author. She currently runs a health and fitness consultancy business providing companies and organisations with health, nutrition and wellness solutions and content, she also runs a private nutrition practice and was a television host for TVNZ’s ‘Kiwi Living’.