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9 Least Effective Exercises

Experts name their top picks for fitness moves that are best to avoid.

Potentially Unsafe Exercises continued...

A safer alternative: It's not necessary to use weights when doing a squat. But, if you are able to perform squats with good form, adding weight will intensify the move. Standing straight with your feet shoulder-width apart, slowly lower your body. Move the hips back as if you where going to sit in a chair.  You must try to maintain your weight directly over your feet. Lower yourself to about a 90 degree bend in the knee. Slowly return to a standing position.  

6. Any exercise done wearing the wrong shoes. Even if you're doing everything else right, your efforts can be undermined by improper footwear, warns Saremi. Working out with the wrong shoes increases pounding on the joints, and can lead to injuries like plantar fasciitis or tendinitis, she says.

The key, experts say, is to choose a shoe that is specific to your activity and that suits your particular foot. They recommend shopping at stores specializing in athletic shoes, where you can seek advice from a knowledgeable salesperson. And don't forget to replace your shoes when they show signs of wear.

Exercises That Don't Deliver

Our experts named the following exercises as those that fail to live up to their promises:

7. Exercises done with the goal of spot reduction. People who do strengthening and toning exercises in an effort to trim fat from a certain area – thighs, hips, stomach, or arms – have the wrong idea. While these exercises can help firm muscles, if the targeted area still carries an extra layer of fat, it won't look much different.
"You're making the muscles stronger, but it's not anything you're going to visibly see when you look in the mirror," says Warpeha.

Fat loss cannot be isolated to one area, but is distributed evenly throughout the body, Danberg says. So you'll lose a millimeter of fat from your chin whenever you lose a millimeter of fat from your torso. Doing 1,000 crunches won't take more fat off your abdominals.

Cardiovascular exercise is the biggest calorie burner, but resistance training is a big part of the equation if you want to burn fat.

"When you build more muscle mass, you slowly increase your resting metabolic rate, burning more calories all the hours of the day that you're not active," says Warpeha.

8. Using bad form on cardio machines. Walk into any gym and you'll see some people sweating through their treadmill, elliptical, or stair-climber workouts with their bodies hunched over and a death grip on the handrails.

"People will put a really huge incline (or high resistance) on the machine and then grab on," says Saremi. "This is totally contraindicated.

"If you can't run or walk with your hands off, you shouldn't do it."

She also notes that exercising in a hunched-over position can keep you from breathing deeply, and that the improper alignment of your spine can make the workout more jarring to your shoulders and elbows.

Use a natural gait, says Danberg. And "Don't hold the handrails because it breaks the natural biomechanics of the body. We don't go through life holding on to something."

If you need more stability, he says, hold with one hand and move the other arm, alternating periodically.

Saremi also discourages reading while using the cardio machines: "You're not concentrating and getting a good workout. You're not monitoring your progress. Exercise has to engage your head. Form is so important."

9. Always lifting with a weight belt. Bodybuilders have long used these belts to provide low back and abdominal support when lifting heavy weights. But now they seem to be standard equipment even for many occasional weightlifters.

"Too many people wear weight belts too often," says Warpeha. "They should only be used when you're getting 85% to 90% of your one-repetition maximum [for example, squatting with 300 pounds of weight if you're a man]. Most people are not working at that level."

Unless you have a back injury or another medical reason to use the belt, says Warpeha, the level at which the average person works doesn't require a weight belt. And it can do more harm than good.

"When the belt is on, you're not allowing your normal core muscles to get strengthened," he explains. "If you get used to having that belt, you go into everyday life and try to lift groceries or pick the baby up out of the car seat and you can't do it. You'll never learn how to use your natural belt, your core, the abs, obliques, and spinal erectors."

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Reviewed on February 11, 2008

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