The “pressed-heels” sit-up is performed like a typical sit-up, except both feet are flexed so that toes point up and heels are pressed into the ground, says Michele Olson, Ph.D., professor of exercise physiology at Auburn University in Alabama. “It was thought that pressing the heels into the floor would increase the effort of the abdominal muscles while decreasing the load to the lower spine. But actually, EMG (electromyogram) data has shown that pressing the heels into the floor did the opposite.”
The bent-knee Pilates hundred, on the other hand, effectively works the abs with very low hip flexor activity, Olsen says. “And because only the shoulder blades are lifted off of the floor, there is decreased stress to the spine.”
To do the bent-knee Pilates hundred (pictured), lie faceup with knees and hips bent 90 degrees. Inhale and extend arms to ceiling, palms facing forward. Exhale and lift head, neck, and shoulders off floor, pressing arms down by hips. Inhale for 5 counts and exhale for 5, pumping arms up and down on each count (while keeping torso still). Do 10 reps total.
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Skip: The Thigh Adductor MachineDo: Single-Leg Romanian Deadlifts
Why should you skip this popular gym machine? “Think about it, our leg muscles are designed to move our body during walking—sitting in a chair and moving the legs in and out does not work the muscles the way they are designed to move our skeletal structure and is a complete waste of precious training time,” says Pete McCall, an exercise physiologist for the American Council On Exercise.
Instead, train the muscles of the inner thigh, hamstrings, and glutes with single-leg Romanian deadlifts, McCall suggests.
To do single-leg Romanian deadlifts (pictured), stand with feet together and knees slightly bent, holding a dumbbell with left hand. Engage abs, and balancing on right leg, hinge forward at hips, lifting left leg behind hip until chest is almost parallel to the floor. Keep spine naturally straight, abs engaged, and return to start.
Skip: Seated Torso Rotation Do: Wood Chops
“When using [the seated torso rotation machine], the pelvis does not move as you rotate your upper body, which can place excessive twisting forces on the spine,” says Jessica Matthews, a certified fitness instructor and exercise physiologist for the American Council On Exercise. “Plus, the main reason people use this machine is because they think it will help work off their love handles, but the reality is that it won’t help reduce fat in that area of the body.”
A rotational exercise like wood chops, using a medicine ball or cables, is a great alternative move that will challenge your midsection while sparing your spine in the process. The key is to focus on bracing the core throughout the entire movement, Matthews says.
To do wood chops (pictured), begin in a split stance with left foot forward, holding a medicine ball. Brace abs in tight and reach ball overhead and to the left, keeping torso steady. Slowly bring ball down and across to right hip. Keep abs engaged and body still, return to start.
Skip: Shoulder Presses Behind Head Do: Overhead Shoulder Presses
A shoulder press done behind the head doesn’t have any added benefits from a regular shoulder press, only increased risk,” says Rick Richey, a master instructor for the National Academy of Sports Medicine and owner of R2Fitness in New York City. Even for people with optimal range of motion, the behind-the-head shoulder press puts the shoulder joint at a highly disadvantageous and dangerous position that locks down joints at the sternum, collarbone, and shoulder blades and inhibits arm movement, he adds.
To do standard dumbbell shoulder presses (pictured), stand holding a pair dumbbells, engage abs, and curl weights in front of shoulders. Extend arms overhead, keeping dumbbells slightly in front of head, rotating palms outward. Bend arms and return to start.
In addition to shoulder presses that avoid going behind the head, I also recommend scaption exercises since they create minimal pain or trauma and allow for greater range of motion under resistance, Richey says.
Skip: Straight-Leg Deadlifts Do: Romanian Deadlifts
By locking your knees while performing straight-leg deadlifts, your lower back is forced to round (instead of hinging at your hips) and do all of the work to move the weight, which increases your risk for injury, says Nick Tumminello, certified strength coach and owner of Performance University. “It also makes the exercise less effective because it decreases the training stimulus on your glutes and hamstrings.”
Maintaining a slight bend in your knees and hinging forward at your hips (without rounding your lower back) like you do to perform Romanian deadlifts, or RDLs, keeps the lower back in a much stronger and safer position and works the glutes and hamstrings—the muscles you want to be training, Tumminello says.
To do a Romanian deadlift (pictured), stand holding a weighted bar or dumbbells with knees slightly bent. Keeping abs engaged and back naturally arched, hinge forward at the hips, reaching weight toward the floor. Without rounding spine, return to start.
Skip: Squats with Exercise Ball Do: Thera Band Squats
“People think that by using a ball, it increases their knee stability and tracking during a squat. But it doesn’t,” says Alfonso Moretti, certified personal trainer and owner of Angry Trainer Fitness. “If you can’t track your knees correctly during a squat, in most cases that means your gluteus medius muscle is weak. Without proper strength in this area, the larger, more powerful adductor muscles of the inner thigh will literally ‘pull’ the knees toward the centerline of the body while squatting. Although using a ball between the legs appears to fix the issue by preventing the knees from caving in, it actually makes it worse. By holding or squeezing the ball between the legs, you further strengthen the adductors and once the ball is removed, the knees will collapse in.”
To do the safer alternative (pictured), wrap a Thera Band (or Mini Band) around the base of the knees during traditional squats. Think about tracking knees over and in line with hips and feet by ‘pushing’ the knees out slightly during the entire movement. This will help to engage and ‘fire off’ the gluteus medius, Moretti says.
Skip: Tire Flips Do: Clean and Press
“The problem with this particular exercise is that it is a difficult movement to perform and creates imbalance in the body, which can cause injury,” says Daryl Conant, exercise physiologist, personal trainer, and creator of the AB Inferno. “When you lift a heavy tire, the gravitational point is set further away from the midline of the body, which creates more torque,” he says. Oftentimes the torque is generated in weaker muscles and can ultimately cause injuries.
A better option? The clean and press. “The clean and press challenges the entire body. It is one of the only exercises that works every joint, in addition to working the cardiorespiratory, musculoskeletal, and nervous systems,” Conant says. The barbell also allows for easier handling and control of resistance, reducing the chance of imbalances, he adds.
To do the clean and press (pictured), load a barbell and stand behind it with feet hip width. Conant recommends starting with a lighter weight to master form before progressing to a heavier load. Lower into a deep squat to grab onto the bar, keeping spine naturally straight. In an explosive motion, pull the bar up quickly in front of the chest. Rest the bar there for a split second, then push the bar overhead, locking the elbows into full extension. (When the bar is overhead, make sure your body is in alignment from wrists to hips to ankles.) Then, in a reverse motion, return the bar back down to the floor.
Skip: Crunches Do: Horizontal Squats
Research shows that people who suffer from spine conditions such as spinal stenosis (a narrowing of the vertebral lumen), disc bulging, or herniation should not do crunches,” says Linda LaRue, RN, certified personal trainer and creator of the Core Transformer.
The horizontal squat may not be a well-known exercise, but “it’s a great move that works your entire core three-dimensionally and involves acceleration and deceleration (most sports injuries happen when you’re decelerating). You can also progress this move by adding a side plank or mountain climbers at the end,” LaRue says.
To do the horizontal squat (pictured), start on hands and knees, keeping belly button drawn into spine and holding a constant kegel (the same feeling as holding in urine when you really need to go). Lift knees off ground slowly, shifting weight into legs, sitting back into hips as if doing a squat. Quickly drive body forward, extending legs into the top of a pushup or plank position. Hold this pose for 2 seconds, keeping head stacked in a straight line with hips, knees, and ankles. Keep shoulders down and stacked directly above hands.
Skip: Double Leg Lifts Do: Bridges
“People do leg lifts to tone the abs, but it’s actually one of the worst exercises for the lower back,” says Lisa Kinder, certified personal trainer and star of the 10-Minute Solution: High-Intensity Interval TrainingDVD. “When the legs are lifted, one of the prime movers is the psoas, which attaches to the lumbar spine vertebrae. When this muscle is contracted, it pulls the lower back into hyper-extension and squeezes the discs, which can put a person at risk for a herniated disc.”
Instead, Kinder recommends glute bridges (pictured). “This exercise will lift your booty, tone your thighs, strengthen your back, and sculpt your abs,” she says.
To do it, lie faceup with knees bent, hip-width apart, and feet flat on the floor. Gently contract abdominal muscles to flatten lower back into the floor (try to maintain this gentle contraction throughout the exercise). Exhale, and keeping abs engaged, lift hips off the floor and lift toes, pressing heels into the floor for added stability. (Avoid pushing hips too high, which can cause hyper-extension in the lower back. Keeping abs strong helps prevent arching.) Inhale as you slowly return to start.
Skip: Lat Pulldowns Behind Head Do: Kneeling Band Pulldowns
Lat pulldowns behind the head force the shoulders to work at an angle they’re not designed for, which can cause inflammation and tears in the rotator cuff muscles, says Matthew Richter-Sand, certified personal trainer, sports nutritionist, and owner of NX Fit. The trouble is that [pulling a weighted bar down behind the head] slowly tears the rotator cuff, so it’s hard to realize that you’re doing damage. Plus, the only way to avoid smashing your head is to extend your head forward, which puts even more stress on your spine.
Kneeling band pulldowns are a better option because you can keep your body perfectly aligned without worrying about a bar hitting your head. Plus, the band allows a full range of motion and provides resistance throughout the entire movement. Doing them in a kneeling position increases engagement of the thigh muscles, which may not be as active during a traditional, seated pulldown, Richter-Sand adds.
To do the kneeling band pulldowns (pictured), kneel while holding onto ends of a resistance band anchored at a high sturdy point. Hinge forward about 45 degrees from hips, keeping spine naturally straight. Pull band down, pressing shoulder blades down, and bend elbows by sides. Extend arms overhead.
Skip: Isolated Biceps Curls Do: Plank Rows
While biceps curls aren’t an unsafe or “bad” exercise, I’d rather do a three-for-one toning move that strengthens your shoulders, core, and arms at once, says Andrea Metcalf, certified personal trainer and author of Naked Fitness.
To do plank rows (pictured), begin in plank position, dumbbell under right hand. Brace abs in tight, and row the weight up to the side of ribcage, bending right elbow in by side. Do one full set (10 to 12 reps) and then switch sides, or alternate arms for each row (just be sure to do equal reps on both sides).
Skip: Upright Rows Do: Dumbbell Front Raises
“[Upright rows] can cause inflammation and pain in your shoulder joints,” says Tom Holland, an exercise physiologist and author of Beat The Gym. Dumbbell front raises are a better alternative because they do not require internal rotation of the arms under load, a potentially harmful combination, Holland says.
To do the dumbbell front raise (pictured), stand with feet hip width, holding dumbbells in front of thighs, palms facing in. Keeping torso steady, raise arms to shoulder height. Hold for 1 count, and then return to start.
Skip: Weighted Oblique Crunches Do: The 90-Degree Burn
Most people do not perform standing, weighted side-to-side crunches with proper posture, so it creates too much strain on the spine and can lead to lower-back injuries, says Kim Truman, certified personal trainer and owner of Kim Truman Fitness. Since the 90-degree burn only uses your body as resistance, you place less stress on your spine while still working your obliques.
To do the 90-degree burn (pictured), lie on right side with legs and feet together, upper-body propped up on right elbow. Bend left arm across chest with fingertips lightly touching the floor. Extend legs and feet slightly in front of body, and lift to about a 45-degree angle, keeping hips stacked. Hold at the top of the movement for about 3 seconds, and then slowly lower legs back to the floor. Perform equal reps on both sides.
Skip: The Scorpion Do: Kneeling Hip Flexor Stretch
The scorpion is typically performed during a dynamic warm-up to activate the glutes and open up the hips, but it places a combination of rotational and extension forces on the lumbar spine which can result in serious injury, says Jon-Erik Kawamoto, C.S.C.S., owner of JK Conditioning. The kneeling hip flexor stretch or single-leg hip lift are both better alternatives because they do not place the spine in a harmful position, he says.
To do the kneeling hip flexor stretch (large image) place left knee on a mat with right leg forward, forming a 90-degree angle at each knee. Lift body upright and brace abs. Reach left arm forward and hold onto a body, chair, or wall for balance. Contract glutes and shift weight forward into right foot, pressing pelvis forward to stretch front of left hip and thigh. Hold for 5 seconds. Return to the start and repeat on other side.
To do the single-leg hip lift (small image), lie faceup with knees bent, feet flat. Hug right knee into chest with both hands, forming a 90-degree angle with leg. Press left foot into the ground to lift hips up, forming a straight line from shoulders to left knee at the top of the lift. Return to start and repeat on other side.
Skip: 45-Degree Leg Presses Do: Bulgarian Split Squats
People often use very heavy weights when performing leg presses, which places a lot of force on the knees and hips and can result in injuries, says Pearla Phillips, certified personal trainer and owner of Fit Body Transformations in Epping, NH.
“[Bulgarian split squats] not only will give your legs strength and definition, they also engage your core and work your balance at the same time. This is working smarter, not harder, while reaping better results,” Phillips says.
To do the Bulgarian split squat (pictured), stand with your back to a box or bench that’s about three feet away, holding onto the end of a dumbbell (up to 25 pounds, depending on level) with both hands. Place left foot lightly on top of the box or bench behind you. Bend elbows and bring dumbbell to the outside of right ear. Keeping torso steady, slowly lower into a squat. Press back up to standing.