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Surprise, Surprise: Most “Worst Gym Exercises” Are Perfectly Safe and Growth-Stimulating

Leg extensions. Smith machine squats. And deadlifts. Are these truly the "worst gym exercises" you could do? Well, that depends. Learn more here.

An athlete performing multiple exercise all at the same time soviet poster style

Lurk around the fitness social media scene long enough, and you’ll start noticing a trend.

I’m talking about fitness influencers and gurus labelling certain movements as "The Worst Exercises" you could do in the gym. And you might be surprised, but leg extensions, Smith machine squats, landmine presses, and deadlifts are often brought up in those lists.

Because apparently (🤷):

  • Leg extensions are bad for your knees,
  • Smith machine squats place unnecessary stress on the joints by forcing them to move in a mechanically unnatural movement path, and
  • Landmine presses and deadlifts straight-out suck at stimulating muscle growth

Case in point: this, this, and this. (SMH)

Now, a word of advice. Be very careful whenever you come across such bold, definitive statements.

Yes, certain exercises work better

As you may know, there are many exercises you could do in the gym.

Take the quads, for instance: there’s the good old BB back squat, dependable leg press, universally dreaded Bulgarian split squats, and … you get the point. Sure, some exercises could help you target the quads better.

E.g., with the leg press, you could emphasize your quads by shifting your foot placement downward on the platform for increased knee flexion.

This is something you likely won’t be able to do with the BB back squat.

Your anatomy and mobility pretty much determine whether you’re more comfortable squatting with a:

Upright torso (more knee flexion) — greater quads activation
Leaned-forward torso (more hip-flexion) — greater glutes activation

But does that mean BB back squats won't grow your quads if you use a leaned-forward torso with the movement? And that you should take the BB back squat out of your training plan?

That's not it at all … bringing us to the next point.

“Worst exercises” … to whom?

Exercise selection is deeply individualistic. It can depend on factors like:

Enjoyment

Let’s say you’re interested in growing your glutes.

The Top 3 Glute Exercises You’re Not Doing
Do you think that deadlifts and squats are all you ever need for a functional, perky butt? Well, if you do – you’re in for a rude awakening. In this article, we’ll explore why soreness doesn’t always lead to maximal muscle growth

You know that the BB hip thrust is one of the best booty-perking exercises you could do … but truthfully, you just don't care for it.

It hurts your hips; you don't like how the movement looks; the set-up is too much hassle.

You’d rather deadlift. Is there anything wrong with that?

No. Deadlifts would still help grow your butt. And if you can stay consistent with them, you'd probably see better glute growth in the long term than if you were only to do hip thrusts occasionally.

Consistency is the key to progress:

Consistency Is The Key To Progress In Your Fitness Goals
Sorry to say, but if you’re looking for definite answers (e.g. three months), you won’t find it here. Why? Because the time needed for you to achieve your fitness goals depends on how much time and effort you’re willing to put into showing up at the gym–or the track, studio, etc.–consistently.

Injury history

TBH, Smith machine squats are truly undeserving of all the hate they get. In a 2020 study published in the Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research, the researchers randomly assigned participants to two groups:

1️⃣ Group 1: Free-weight squat, bench press, and various free-weight assistance movements

2️⃣ Group 2: Smith machine squat, bench press, and various machine-based assistance movements

After 8 weeks of training … guess what the researchers found?

Answer: no significant difference in muscle thickness changes between groups (both in the biceps and quads).

Ultimately, smith machine squats can be a life-savior for those with a history of lower back injury.

They're less demanding on the lower back than the BB back squats but lead to comparable muscle growth results, a win-win situation.

Oh, and FYI — there hasn’t been any evidence that Smith machine squats are unsafe.

Free weights and resistance machines lead to comparable muscle growth; learn more here:

Free Weights vs. Resistance Machine: Which Should You Use?
Ah, the perennial question: “free weights vs. machines - which is better?” Find out in this article (psst: the answer might just surprise you!)

Training goals

Are you trying to grow as much muscle mass as possible?

If so, you'd benefit from adding leg extensions to your workout routine. That’s because your quads are made up of four muscles, one of which is a biarticular muscle that crosses both the hip and knee joints called the rectus femoris.

This means all squatting movements involving simultaneous hip and knee flexion aren't great at targeting the rectus femoris.

Only the leg extension, which is pure knee flexion/extension, leads to optimal rectus femoris activation. And because I know you’re wondering. No, leg extensions aren’t inherently bad for your knees.

In fact, they’re often used to rehab knee injuries!

And on the other hand, if you're training to become a competitive powerlifter, you'd obviously need to build your program around the "Big 3": back squat, bench, and deadlift.

Certain life stages

Cable pull-throughs.

They've been accused of being useless at stimulating glute growth because of their suboptimal loading profile (the weights are to your back).

Yes, sounds rational — but it's worth noting that it's the only safe "thrusting" movement pregnant individuals can do, especially in the second and third trimesters where laying on their backs and loading barbells on their bellies (of course) aren’t recommended.

Stop and think (like, really give it thought)

Ultimately, let this article remind you that you shouldn't treat everything you see on the Internet as The Truth.

Just because everyone on social media says that leg extensions are bad for the knees doesn't mean they actually are (science says the opposite).

So, the next time you see someone saying you should do exercise X instead of exercise Y, spend some time thinking about whether it’s in your best interest to listen to them.

Is exercise X scientifically proven to be dangerous? Will exercise Y better suit your goals?

Want someone else to take workout planning off your hands?

Phew. That was a lot.

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References

Buckthorpe, M., La Rosa, G., & Villa, F. D. (2019). RESTORING KNEE EXTENSOR STRENGTH AFTER ANTERIOR CRUCIATE LIGAMENT RECONSTRUCTION: A CLINICAL COMMENTARY. International Journal of Sports Physical Therapy, 14(1), 159–172.

Krywko, D. M., & King, K. C. (2023). Aortocaval Compression Syndrome. In StatPearls. StatPearls Publishing. http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/books/NBK430759/

Krywko, D. M., Toy, F. K., Mahan, M. E., & Kiel, J. (2023). Pregnancy Trauma. In StatPearls. StatPearls Publishing. http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/books/NBK430926/

Schütz, P., List, R., Zemp, R., Schellenberg, F., Taylor, W. R., & Lorenzetti, S. (2014). Joint angles of the ankle, knee, and hip and loading conditions during split squats. Journal of Applied Biomechanics, 30(3), 373–380. https://doi.org/10.1123/jab.2013-0175

Schwanbeck, S. R., Cornish, S. M., Barss, T., & Chilibeck, P. D. (2020). Effects of Training With Free Weights Versus Machines on Muscle Mass, Strength, Free Testosterone, and Free Cortisol Levels. Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research, 34(7), 1851–1859. https://doi.org/10.1519/JSC.0000000000003349

Stien, N., Saeterbakken, A. H., & Andersen, V. (2021). Electromyographic Comparison of Five Lower-Limb Muscles between Single- and Multi-Joint Exercises among Trained Men. Journal of Sports Science & Medicine, 20(1), 56–61. https://doi.org/10.52082/jssm.2021.56