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Trainers’ Advice: Replace These 10 Exercises with Better Alternatives

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  • Post last modified:September 26, 2023

Take a gander around your gym: You’ll probably spot some fellow gym-goers pounding out these exercises, but that doesn’t necessarily mean you should, too. These common gym exercises can be ineffective (aka there are quicker ways to achieve the results you’re after) or sometimes even put you at risk for injury. In short, these exercises and machines aren’t doing your body any favors. Learn what trainers say you should be doing instead.

Smith Machine Squats

Squatting on a Smith machine might appear to be a safe alternative to the squat rack. The reality isn’t so straightforward. When you lower into a squat using a Smith machine, your back remains straight and almost perfectly perpendicular to the ground, which compresses and stresses the vertebrae, says Lou Schuler, C.S.C.S., co-author of The New Rules of Lifting Supercharged. Also, since using the Smith machine requires leaning back into the bar, you excessively stress your knees, never fully engage your glutes or hamstrings, and don’t train your core.

Try instead: Weighted Squats

Avoid the risk and learn how to perform a barbell squat without the machine. Both bodyweight and weighted squats (e.g., goblet, barbell, and dumbbell variations) train your entire lower body functionally, effectively, and without overstressing your joints, Schuler says. Plus, since you’re not relying on the stability of a machine, these exercises also work your core.

Machine Leg Extensions

How frequently do you simply sit around and extend your legs? Probably not often — if ever. So why do it at the gym? “There’s no functional benefit to leg extensions,” says strength coach and personal trainer Mike Donavanik, C.S.C.S., C.P.T. (Functional exercises utilize your body’s natural movements in ways that apply to real-world motions.) Plus, your knees aren’t built to bear weight from that angle, which could lead to injury. While the risk of injury is low if you have otherwise healthy knees, why take the chance if the exercise isn’t even functional to begin with?

Try instead: Squats, Deadlifts, Step-Ups, and Lunges

All of these movements are excellent for training the quadriceps. Not to mention, they simultaneously strengthen your glutes, hamstrings, and smaller stabilizing muscles. Since these are all functional exercises, utilizing your body’s natural movement patterns, your knees are designed to handle their weight, he says.

Ab Machines

Sure, ab machines are much more comfortable than arms-behind-the-head sit-ups, but they can make it awkward to activate your core muscles correctly, says Jessica Fox, founder of Alchemy Nutrition & Wellness, and a certified Starting Strength coach, formerly at CrossFit South Brooklyn.

Try Instead: Hip Abduction/Adduction Machines

Most individuals opt for using abductor/adductor machines. Alternatively, try using hip abduction/adduction machines. These machines are highly effective for toning and strengthening your inner and outer thighs. Keep in mind that proper form and technique are crucial to prevent any potential injuries. (For more thigh-focused exercises, check out this thigh workout routine.)

Hamstring Curls

When performing hamstring curls, it is important to maintain proper alignment and form. Avoid arching your back or hyperextending your knees, as this can lead to strain and discomfort. Focus on engaging your hamstrings throughout the entire movement and only use a weight that allows you to maintain control and stability. (Take your hamstring curls to the next level with these advanced hamstring exercises.)

Dumbbell Squats

Dumbbell squats are an excellent compound exercise for targeting multiple muscle groups, including your quadriceps, glutes, and core. Make sure to use proper form by keeping your chest lifted, knees tracking over your toes, and engaging your core throughout the movement. Adjust the weight according to your fitness level and gradually increase as you get stronger. (If you’re looking for variation, try these squat variations to challenge your lower body.)

Bicep Curls

Bicep curls are a classic exercise for strengthening and sculpting your biceps. Remember to maintain proper form by keeping your elbows close to your sides and avoid any swinging or jerking motions. Use a weight that allows you to complete the exercise with proper control and form, gradually increasing the resistance as you build strength. (For more bicep-focused exercises, try these effective arm workouts.)

Dumbbell Shoulder Press

The dumbbell shoulder press is a fantastic exercise for targeting your shoulder muscles, particularly the deltoids. Ensure proper form by sitting or standing tall, engaging your core, and keeping your elbows at a 90-degree angle throughout the movement. Select an appropriate weight that challenges you without compromising your form, and gradually increase as you progress. (Take your shoulder workout up a notch with these shoulder-strengthening exercises.)


Deadlifts are a compound exercise that engages multiple muscle groups, including your glutes, hamstrings, and lower back. Focus on maintaining a straight back and a neutral spine throughout the movement. Start with lighter weights to perfect your form and gradually increase the load as you build strength. (Looking for more deadlift variations? Try these deadlift variations to challenge your body.)

Instead, try: Anything That Causes Discomfort

It’s important to push past muscle fatigue and discomfort

Try instead: However, when discomfort transforms into agony, the opposite becomes true. “Pain is the way your body communicates, ‘Cease! If you persist in this, I will rip, fracture, or strain,'” Perkins affirms. What is the disparity, precisely? While discomfort feels like a dull or searing pang in the muscles, intense pain tends to be acute and abrupt, and typically targets an area close to a joint, she explains.

Try instead: There is a substitute maneuver for every physical activity available, whether you are adapting due to an injury, for the sake of gestation, or simply because you desire to diversify your workout routine. Make sure to consult your trainer for an alternative suitable for you.

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