Nine risky and ineffective gym exercises you should avoid

When it comes to working out, the old adage ‘no pain, no gain’ couldn’t be further from the truth. In fact, some popular exercises can do more harm than good, leading to strain, injuries, and derailing your fitness progress. Here are seven risky moves to avoid and the safer, more effective alternatives you should try instead.

Sit-ups and crunches

The risk: traditional sit-ups and crunches can be tough on the neck and lower back – areas often vulnerable to pain and injury as you age. If done incorrectly, these exercises can strain the spinal discs and lead to discomfort or injury.

The safer alternative: consider core-strengthening exercises that support spinal health, such as planks or pelvic tilts. These exercises engage the core muscles without putting unnecessary pressure on the spine.

Lat pull-down behind the head

The risk: you need very mobile shoulder joints in order to keep your spine straight enough to do this exercise properly. It may even lead to injury if the bar hits the back of the neck, potentially harming the cervical vertebrae.

The safer alternative: opt for a front lat pull-down instead. Lean back slightly, use a wide grip, and bring the bar down to your breastbone, ensuring your shoulder blades are pulled down and together. Engage your core to stabilise your body and avoid using momentum to swing the bar up and down.

Military press behind the head

The risk: similar to the lat pull-down, lifting a barbell up and down behind the head can strain your shoulders and neck.

The safer alternative: keep the bar in front of your head while performing the military press. Whether standing or seated, ensure the weight doesn’t drop below the collarbone and maintain an upright posture with a natural curve in your spine.

Running on a treadmill

The risk: running, especially on a treadmill, can be tough on the knees, hips, and lower back. The repetitive impact and potential for missteps increase the risk of joint injuries and falls.

The safer alternative: walking on a treadmill at a moderate pace, using an elliptical machine, or taking a brisk walk outdoors can provide excellent cardiovascular benefits without the high impact on the joints. If you love running, try to run outside on a softer surface such as grass.

Squats on a machine

The risk: the fixed bar path on a squat machine can force your body into unnatural positions, increasing the risk of injury. It’s also harder to get your foot position right when doing squats using a machine. 

The safer alternative: perform body-weight squats with proper form, and work up to holding dumbbells in each hand. Stand with feet shoulder-width apart and slowly lower your body by pushing your hips back as if sitting in a chair. Keep your back straight and try to keep your weight directly over your heels. Slowly return to a standing position. This promotes natural movement and reduces strain.

Upright row

The risk: pulling weights up under your chin can compress the nerves in the shoulder area, leading to discomfort or injury.

The safer alternative: try front or lateral shoulder raises. Front raises target the front part of the shoulder muscles (deltoids). To perform them correctly, stand with your feet shoulder-width apart, holding a dumbbell in each hand with your palms facing your thighs. Keep your back straight, chest up, and shoulders back. 

With a slight bend in your elbows, raise your arms straight in front of you to shoulder height, keeping your palms facing down. Pause briefly at the top, then slowly lower the dumbbells back to the starting position with control. Start with a weight that allows proper form, avoid raising your arms higher than shoulder level, and focus on smooth, controlled movements.

Lateral raises target the middle part of the shoulder muscles (lateral deltoids). You do them the same as front raises except you raise your arms out to the sides until they are level with your shoulders.

Leg press

The risk: over-compressing your knees during a leg press can cause joint pain and doesn’t work the muscles through their full range.

The safer alternative: when using a leg press machine, ensure your buttocks remain in contact with the seat and only push as far as you can without pain. The goal is to work the joints through a comfortable range of motion.

Bad form on the elliptical

The risk: cardio machines such as ellipticals are great for burning calories, but using improper form can negate the benefits. Hunching over or gripping the handrails too tightly can misalign your body and cause unnecessary strain or jarring on your spine and joints.

The safer alternative: maintain an upright posture and relaxed grip. Keep the resistance at a level where you can sustain good form. Listen to music instead of reading or watching something so you can concentrate on your body position.

Any exercise when not wearing the right shoes

The risk: even if you’re doing everything else right, wearing the wrong shoes can increase your risk of injuries and conditions such as plantar fasciitis, shin splints, and tendonitis. 

Safer alternative: invest in activity-specific shoes that suit your particular foot shape and needs. Seek advice from a specialist at an athletic shoe store and replace your shoes when they show signs of wear to prevent injuries.

It’s always wise to consult with a healthcare professional or a certified fitness trainer before starting any new exercise regimen, especially if you have pre-existing health conditions. 

What are your go-to exercises for staying fit without the risk? Share your experiences and tips in the comments below.

Also read: How to get the most out of workouts and avoid injury at any age

Disclaimer: This article contains general information about health issues and is not advice. For health advice, consult your medical practitioner.

Ellie Baxter
Ellie Baxter
Writer and editor with interests in travel, health, wellbeing and food. Has knowledge of marketing psychology, social media management and is a keen observer and commentator on issues facing older Australians.


  1. Disagree with a couple of those. I find upright row much better than a front raise for my shoulders – best to keep weights in line with your body. Plus a half crunch done on a raised surface like a bed can be easily modified to suit your ability.

  2. It’s all very well to generalize, but everybody needs different exercises or adaptations of that exercise. If your gym as an Exercise Physiologist, they are much better qualified to help you with putting together a program. Unfortunately, some Personal Trainers are too gungho and don’t take into account your limitations.

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