Whatever your goals, there will be some exercises that are perfect for you (as part of a well-designed, appropriately loaded exercise program) and others that might not be a great fit. But there are no exercises that you should “never” do.
Unfortunately, trainers and fitness writers love to make lists of supposedly bad-for-you exercises. The one that set me off this morning was titled Never Do These Abs Exercises If You’re Over 40, Says Trainer. It’s from Eat This Not That, a website and diet book empire that seems to draw energy from the collective gasps of people who suddenly realise that they’ve been doing things wrong all along! (Spoiler: you’re probably fine.) The premise doesn’t even make sense: It’s not like a 39-year-old should train their abs differently than a 40-year-old.
According to that article, nobody over 40 should do side bends, situps, or Russian twists. According to another on Good Housekeeping, nobody should use the hip adductor machine or the leg extension machine, or do crunches, upright rows, behind-the-neck lat pulldowns, side bends, back extensions, hanging leg raises, tricep dips, chest flies, or spend time on the elliptical. This article from Shape agrees about the leg extension machine and the behind-the-neck pulldowns, and adds that we should never do squats in the Smith machine, do any ab machine, the adductor or abductor machines, or even lie face-down on the ground and do Supermans. Lest you think a solution is to quit Planet Fitness and join a Crossfit box or a powerlifting gym, there are also people who will tell you to never squat, never deadlift, and that there are 11 ways Crossfit will “destroy your body.”
If you were to try to abide by all of these lists, you’d end up with almost nothing you can do. (Except bird dogs. Everybody loves bird dogs.)
Just because a trainer dislikes an exercise, that doesn’t make it dangerous
I’ve also been around the fitness world long enough to know that exercises fall into and out of favour just because of the cliquey, trendy nature of the field. And I’ve done and seen enough weird lifts to know that any exercise that one person swears will wreck you is exactly what some other person has been doing for ten years without any issues.
So, how can the trainers and writers of these “never” articles back up their conclusions? Well, for the most part, they don’t. The reasoning for not doing these exercises tends to boil down to one of the following:
- Some people do it imperfectly, as in this complaint about the Russian twist.
- The exercise works another muscle in addition to or instead of the one you think it’s working, as in the standing chest fly.
- The exercise is “not natural,” as in the elliptical not perfectly mimicking the motion of walking or running.
- The exercise puts “stress” or “force” on a body part, such as your back, as in this complaint about situps.
- A certain position is inherently danger-prone for a certain joint, often the shoulder, as in this complaint about tricep dips.
Only none of these are good reasons to avoid an exercise. It may certainly make sense for a trainer to say “I don’t like to give my clients Russian twists, since they usually do them wrong, so I like to recommend this other exercise instead,” or “standing chest flies are more of a shoulder exercise than a chest exercise, so I like to program something else if we’re trying to work the chest.” But there’s a long, unsupported leap from there to “never” doing an exercise.
The complaint about some exercises not being “natural” is, honestly, hilarious. Nothing about going into a gym and using purpose-built equipment to change the shape or abilities of your body is natural. But that doesn’t mean it isn’t worthwhile. Our bodies are adaptable, and we can train them to do lots of fun things, from climbing trees to ice skating to operating forklifts.
The last two points here — about stress and about injury — deserve a closer look. Anyone who uses their body a lot is at risk of injury (as is anybody who doesn’t move their body, since being sedentary isn’t good for us, either.)
First, it’s important to know that these injury risks are almost entirely theoretical. There is no study that proves tricep dips will cause injury; these warnings are based on trainers’ gut feelings. The studies we do have on injuries tend to teach us things like runners get far more injuries per 1000 hours of training than people who compete in strength sports, suggesting that our gut feelings are not very well calibrated.
What this means in the real world
If there’s anything I’ve learned over the years, it’s that almost everything works for somebody. Exercises don’t exist in a vacuum, either: The way you load the exercise and the way it fits into your program probably make more difference than what the exercise actually is.
I remember being taught by one trainer that the physical therapists hate the leg extension machine because it ruins people’s knees. Years later, I was in physical therapy after ACL surgery, and the PT made sure I did a ton of leg extensions to build the muscles that would protect my knee. It worked: My knee is recovered and my leg is strong.
I have dozens more stories like this. I used to think that deadlifts aggravated an old injury in my back, but the more I deadlifted, the less my back hurt. I used to “know” that behind-the-neck presses were dangerous, but sometimes my coach gives me behind-the-neck presses, and I do them, and my shoulders have not self destructed yet; in fact, I think they’re stronger for it.
So, instead of crossing a lift from your workout plan because somebody said you should “never” do it, maybe all you need to do is ask yourself whether it makes sense for you. Does it actually work the muscle you need it to work? Are you doing the exercise with form that is reasonably safe and effective? Was it programmed for you by someone who knows what they’re doing? Does it feel alright when you do it? If you can answer yes to those questions, don’t let some writer or trainer you’ve never met talk you out of it.