Not making much progress in the gym? Wondering whether you’re doing the right exercises for your goals? We asked a bunch of PTs which exercises they’d ditch, and what to replace them with.
If, after consistently training, progressively overloading and eating well, you’re still not seeing much progress at the gym, you need to stage an intervention. We all want to make sure the workouts we’re doing are as effective as possible – but if you’re not getting stronger, then it’s worth exploring whether you’re doing the wrong exercises.
From Instagram videos and #GymTok hacks to YouTube classes and fitness apps, we’re constantly bombarded with conflicting advice on how we should be training, and it can be seriously confusing. Not to mention that a lot of the information out there is inaccurate and, at times, even dangerous, with influencers dishing out fitness tips they’re not qualified to give.
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Are the booty band workouts all over Instagram really the best way to strengthen your glutes? Should you focus on isolation work like bicep curls or are compound moves like pull-ups more effective for building upper body strength? Are crunches the way to go when it comes to targeting the core or are plank variations a better option?
To cut through the noise and help you get the most out of your training, we asked leading fitness experts to explain which common exercises aren’t worth the hype and the moves they’d recommend mastering instead for a more effective workout.
Crunches are an old school favourite but according to PT and Bulk ambassador Hayley Madigan, they’re as useless as they are boring. “The crunch movement doesn’t support building a strong, useful core, it just focuses on ‘burning out’ the upper abs and it engages the hip flexors more than the core itself,” she explains.
Instead, Madigan suggests focusing on exercises that engage your entire core and make your abdominals work twice as hard – like the side plank. “It’s a great move because it targets the whole core, the shoulders and upper back, all while improving your balance.”
Instead, try a side plank:
- Lie on your right side and stack your left foot on top of your right foot.
- Place your right elbow directly below your armpit, making sure your upper arm is in line with your elbow.
- Engage your core, squeeze your glutes and raise your hips up off the floor.
- Look straight ahead to keep your spine and neck neutral, engage your core and keep your chest proud.
- Maintain this position until you can’t hold it any longer then repeat on the opposite side.
The bicep curl is probably the best-known weight training move there is but that doesn’t mean it’s the most effective. “Bicep curls seem to appear in everyone’s routine and while they do have their benefits, there are so many exercises you could be doing instead for a quicker, more effective workout,” says Lucy Arnold, PT and founder of inclusive fitness clothing brand Lucy Locket Loves.
For Arnold, compound movements that target multiple muscles are the way to go when it comes to building arm strength. She points to the overhead press, which she says recruits the biceps, shoulders, triceps, traps, upper chest and deltoids.
Instead, try overhead dumbbell press:
- Stand with your feet shoulder-width apart and your knees slightly bent, making sure your core is engaged.
- Grab a pair of dumbbells and hold them at shoulder height with your arms bent and your palms facing each other.
- Press the dumbbells up until the weights are overhead and your arms are straight.
- Pause, then lower the dumbbells back down to shoulder height and extend again.
The glute bridge is a staple in any lower body routine but PT Elle Linton warns they’re only truly effective if you perform them correctly, which many of us don’t. “More often than not, you end up working your legs more than your glutes because you’re not engaging them properly,” she says.
“I’d recommend good mornings instead, as it’s much easier to grasp the technique and engage the correct muscles.”
Instead, try good mornings:
- Stand tall with your feet hip-width apart.
- Bend your arms so your hands are behind your ears and your elbows are pointing to the side.
- You could also hold a pair of dumbbells in each hand, resting them on your shoulder blades to up the challenge.
- Keep a slight bend in the knees and hinge forward at the hips.
- When you feel a gentle stretch in your hamstring, squeeze the glutes and return to standing, keeping your back straight.
Like crunches, sit-ups are one of the first exercises that spring to mind when you think of ab training, but the experts agree they’re not worth the hassle (or the boredom!).
“If you’re looking for a strong core, there are far better ways to do that than performing endless sit-ups,” says Olivia Tyler, a personal trainer at Nuffield Health. She points out that they’ve been found to aggravate the spine and neck and cause stress to the vertebrae.
“The plank is not only safer but is much more effective as it helps with core stabilisation, back strengthening, posture and even upper-body strength,” says Tyler. “You can do it on your hands but I’d suggest doing this on your forearms to really target the transverse abdominis, the deepest layer of abdominal muscle.”
Instead, try a plank:
- From an all-fours position, place your forearms on the floor, making sure that your elbows are directly underneath your shoulders.
- Lift yourself into plank position, making sure your body is in a straight line parallel to the floor.
- Make sure that your lower abs are lifted to keep them engaged and to ensure a safe position for your spine.
- Don’t arch your back, keep your neck in line with the spine and keep your shoulders lifted. Remember to breathe.
There are so many different ways to perform lunges: forwards, reverse, curtsey… the list goes on, but one variation that isn’t necessarily worth your time is the walking lunge, says founder of Ldn Mums Fitness Sarah Campus.
“It’s problematic because when most people do this movement, their mind starts to drift. You start thinking about distance covered or when it’s going to end instead of focusing on good lunge technique,” she explains. “It’s rare to see a whole set of them done with good form and it’s important to remember that technique is number one to get results and avoid injury.”
The benefits of walking lunges can be better attained by performing forward lunges, knee-friendly reverse lunges or even forward to reverse lunges where you can really focus on your technique and breathing, advises Campus.
Instead, try reverse lunge:
- Stand up straight with your feet hip-width apart and your hands at your hip or with a dumbbell in each hand.
- Take a big step backwards with your left leg.
- Lower your hips so your right thigh is parallel to the floor, with your right knee positioned directly over your ankle.
- Your left knee should be bent at a 90-degree angle and pointing towards the floor with your left heel lifted.
- Now to stand up. Press your right heel into the floor and bring your left leg forward to complete one rep.
- Complete the set by alternating which leg steps back or perform the reps on one leg before moving on to the other.
If you want stronger and bigger glutes, you might want to ditch the donkey kicks, says fitness trainer Maya Saffron. “I hate seeing women in the gym doing single-leg donkey kicks using the smith machine,” she tells Stylist. “The idea behind donkey kicks is to isolate and strengthen the glute muscles and attack them from a different angle, but this would be much better achieved with single-leg box step-ups.”
According to Saffron, these are more effective because the movement isn’t constricted within the smith machine structure and facilitates a full range of movement.
Instead, try single-leg box step-ups:
- Place a box in front of you (it should be between knee and hip height).
- With your hands hanging by your side or holding dumbbells, step one foot onto the box and raise the other knee up to chest height.
- Make sure your back remains straight and squeeze your glutes.
- Repeat this on the same leg 10 times before switching to the other leg.
Inner thigh adductions with ankle weights
Ankle weight exercises are all over social media right now, but Tig Hodson, personal trainer and co-founder of women-only gym StrongHer, believes many of them leave much to be desired – particularly side-lying inner thigh adductions.
“I honestly can’t deal with this movement,” she says. “The point of adduction exercises is to work in opposition to your gluteus medius, improve balance and provide stability and strength around the hip and knee, so these pulses with minimum weight are, in my opinion, pointless.
“I’d recommend swapping inner thigh adductions for the Copenhagen plank, which gives you way more bang for your buck. Not only are you strengthening your adductors, but you’re also hitting your core.”
Instead, try a Copenhagen plank:
- Push up into a side plank position.
- Place your top leg on a bench with your bottom leg under the bench.
- Lift your hips until your body is in a straight line and keep your lower leg raised off the ground.
- If you find this too challenging, you can keep your lower leg on the ground.
- Repeat on the other side.
Dumbbell chest flys
If you’re looking to incorporate chest flys into your push workouts, Alex Crockford, PT and founder of the CrockFit app, advises opting for cable flys over dumbbell chest flys. “They’re much more effective as cables work with a lateral force and provide more resistance throughout the entire movement whereas dumbbells work against gravity and don’t produce so much tension at the top,” he explains.
Safety is also an issue; a lot of the time people choose dumbbells that are too heavy, placing excessive pressure on their shoulders and putting them at risk of injury. “If you have access to a cable machine, you’ll be able to perform a chest fly much better and you’ll see the results.”
Instead, try cable chest fly:
- Set the handles at chest height on the cable machine.
- Grab the handles with a slight bend in the elbows, step forward and open up your chest.
- Making sure your core is engaged and your chest is up, pull the handles towards each other until they meet in front of your body.
- Pause for a moment before slowly returning to the starting position and repeat.
“A good burpee requires control, concentration and technique,” says Grant. “The reason so many people hate them is because their body is telling them something doesn’t feel right, so adding in extra challenges just makes them even more uncomfortable.
“Don’t overcomplicate things. Instead, take time to perfect a classic burpee without any bells and whistles and you’ll see the strength and endurance benefits.”
Instead, try a classic burpee:
- Stand with your feet shoulder-width apart and your arms by your side.
- Lower yourself into a squat position and put your hands on the floor. Think about sitting into a deep squat without rounding your back.
- Bend the knees, hinge at the hips and then kick or step your legs back behind you so you’re in a plank position.
- Jump or step your legs forward back to a squat position.
- Stand up and either jump up with your arms overhead to repeat or repeat from standing.
When it comes to strengthening the obliques, Russian twists are a go-to exercise, but strength and nutrition coach Kim Scott argues they can do more harm than good. “With traditional Russian twists, the weight pulls you to one side, which can put a strain on the lower back,” she explains.
“Also, people tend to use momentum rather than engaging their obliques to stabilise the body,” Scott continues. “The obliques should be challenged with anti-rotation movements and a personal favourite of mine for this is plank drags.”
Instead, try plank drags:
- Get your hands on a weight – this could be a hex dumbbell (so it won’t roll away), a kettlebell or a small sandbag and place it on your side within reaching distance.
- Get into a high plank position with your wrists under your shoulders, making sure your body is in a straight line.
- Take your right hand off the floor without compromising your plank position and reach under your left arm to grab the weight and pull it across the floor.
- Then, use the left hand to do the same on the opposite side.
- Repeat until you feel like you can only do one or two more. 20 reps is a good starting point.
For more expert strength-building tips, visit the Strong Women Training Club.