The Top 3 Worst Exercises

What are the three worst exercises and what should you do instead of them? The purpose of this blog is to analyze exercises that are often utilized, but are relatively ineffective compared to other options for the most common training goals, and provide options to replace them.

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Are there bad exercises?

As a caveat, exercises don’t fall into a dichotomy of good or bad. Instead, they lay on a continuum from worse to better depending upon the goal. These three exercises tend to be utilized in such a way that makes them sit towards the “worse” side.

Exercise #1: Bosu Ball Squats

These are often performed to strengthen the legs or improve core stability or based on a belief that they’re more functional. Well, there are some critical problems here, let me break them down.

If you’re looking to strengthen your legs, a bosu ball is going to limit you as it’ll reduce your ability to produce force. Behm et al. 2002 saw an individual’s force production decrease dramatically when using an unstable surface.

As well, McBride et al. 2010 found that unstable surfaces significantly reduced squat 1 rep max performance. If your goal is to improve strength, build muscle, or increase power, you’re much better off ditching the bosu ball and doing them on flat ground.

For those looking to train core stability, doing dedicated core training is going to deliver more results than trying to indirectly train it with bosu ball squats. Pick some challenging core exercises and focus on those instead.

Alternatively, you may have thought that training on the bosu ball would make your squats more functional. However, unless you’re training to specifically balance on an unstable surface and squat, you’ll get more benefit by scrapping the bosu ball. Being able to produce force is critical for sporting performance. Training on stable surfaces is superior for increasing force production. Consider using unilateral exercises, plyometrics, or power movements in place of the bosu ball squats.

So, if you’re looking to strengthen your legs, train your core, or improve your function, getting rid of the bosu ball is probably best. It’s also worth considering that it’s risky. You could lose your balance and fall or slip off. It’s just not worth it. 

This doesn’t mean there’s never a use for a bosu ball or an unstable surface. If you’re in the process of rehabbing your ankle and you want to do dedicated ankle proprioception rehab movements, it’s a viable choice. Similarly, if you want to work on some balance movements, then it can be a reasonable tool to use.  The most important thing here is to critically think about why you’re doing an exercise and if it helps achieve that.

Exercise #2: Standing External Rotations With Dumbbells

One of the most well-known actions of your rotator cuff is external rotation. As such, you may be doing these intending to warm up the rotator cuff or even strengthen it. However, this has a   pretty big flaw. When you hold a dumbbell in standing, gravity is providing your resistance, pulling down on the dumbbell.

So, while your arm is going through external rotation, there isn’t much resistance to it. Instead, your bicep is the one working harder. It’s similar to if you were laying on your side holding a dumbbell and doing a bicep curl. The curl isn’t that hard, but holding the dumbbell up is.

If you’re looking for a quick option to do some kind of external rotation in your warm-up, ditch the dumbbell and grab a cable or band. This will provide a better method to increase the tension. If you want to strengthen your rotator cuff, then you could stick with the cable or band, or consider going to the ground and doing a side-lying external rotation, or even an on knee external rotation. 

An important takeaway from this is to consider the direction of your resistance. You want the resistance to be against the direction you’re moving, generally perpendicular to your body segment.

Exercise #3: Combination Exercises

Combination exercises, such as the lunge with a bicep curl, or squat to press are where you essentially take two movements and train them both at once.

You may be doing these to make the exercise more functional or to get in a bit more cardio, but you’re missing the mark with these. Typically when you combine exercises, you’re going to end up highly underloading one of them. For instance, in these examples, you should be able to lunge more than you can curl, or squat more than you can press. Instead of using a resistance that makes your lunge or squat difficult, you’ll be limited by what you can curl or press.

When you combine movements, you make them more complex. As the complexity of an exercise goes up, your ability to load it will decrease. It becomes difficult to push these combination exercises to a high effort level.

This will reduce the stimulative effect on strength and hypertrophy. As well, since you end up using less weight, doing more reps, and having more body parts working at one time, your cardio might limit you more than the fatigue in your target muscles. A better alternative to these combination movements would be to separate them if you’re looking for strength or hypertrophy goals. By splitting them up, you’ll be able to focus on one exercise, load it up appropriately, and get to a good effort level. If you’re after improved functional ability or coordination, consider doing unilateral exercises or power and plyometric movements. These will have you moving more dynamically, reacting and changing direction.

In contrast, if you are looking to do cardio, performing a dedicated cardio exercise like biking or running will deliver a better result.

Combination exercises fall into this no man’s land where they don’t effectively target any goal. Unless you’re doing them specifically because you like them, there’s a better alternative.

Top 3 Worst Exercises Summary

In summary, There’s no inherently bad exercise, but there are exercises that are better or worse for certain goals. These three exercises have far better options for almost every goal.

However, there are better ways to train each of those goals more specifically. Standing external rotations with dumbbells are used to train the rotator cuff, but they don’t deliver. Instead of making the rotator cuff work much more, these load up the biceps. You’re better off using a cable or band to warm up and one of these options to train your external rotators. And finally, combination exercises like lunges and bicep curls are meant to be time savers, hitting two movements at once, improving functional ability, and getting in some cardio.

In contrast, these end up just being ineffective choices, not stimulating quality improvements in strength, hypertrophy, or cardiovascular development. Ditch the combination movements, doing the movements separately for strength and power. Train unilateral movements and power and plyometric movements for functional ability. And if you’re looking for cardio benefits, do some dedicated cardio work instead. Overall, if you have a goal in mind, then your training should specifically target that, and none of these exercises are the most effective choice for the most common training goals.

Do you want to read other similar blogs? Check out these topics:

Exercise & Rehab Myths, Training Around Injuries, Goldilocks Principles Of Rehab

Thanks for reading. Check out the video and please leave any questions or comments below.

1 Comment. Leave new

  • “When you combine movements, you make them more complex. As the complexity of an exercise goes up, your ability to load it will decrease. It becomes difficult to push these combination exercises to a high effort level.”

    So I guess by that logic the sport of Olympic Lifting is out? What is more complex than a clean and jerk?

    Mostly trolling, love your work, but come on some combos aren’t bad. If I am at a hotel gym and looking for efficiency, Squat + Press is not a bad option if DB weights are limited.

    I just want people to move more, full stop. As a physio that’s my main goal, if it isn’t “optimal” I don’t mind, sedentary habits are way worse than these 3 exercises above.


    now go back squat 500 and run a sub5 mile or something crazy


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