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5 Workout Moves You Should Never Do, Say Exercise Scientists

You'll see people doing these at the gym all the time. Don't follow their lead, say experts.
FACT CHECKED BY Alek Korab

For all that we know about working out, a few bad exercises have persisted over the years. Take the simple sit-up, which can be quite damaging if done improperly. Locking your hands behind your head can torque your cervical vertebrae, warn experts, which will likely result in neck pain. For more workout moves you should avoid doing when you're at the gym, read on, because we've listed them right here. And for some workout moves you should definitely do, don't miss This Super-Quick Workout That's Scientifically Proven to Work, Says The Mayo Clinic.

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Behind-the-Neck Pull Downs

posterior pull downs
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This exercise rotates your shoulders into a position that strains your rotator cuffs, paving the way for inflammation. "I've also seen guys pull the bar down so fast that they crack their spinous processes [little nubs on top of the vertebrae]," says says David Pearson, Ph.D., a professor of exercise science at Ball State University.

Safe Alternative: Anterior (Front) Pull Downs. Not only is pulling the bar to your chest easier on your shoulders, but "it flexes the lats through a greater range of motion, accelerating muscle growth," says Pearson. And for more great exercise advice, don't miss The One Major Side Effect of Walking Every Day, According to Science.

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Behind-the-Neck Shoulder Presses

Woman full of determination doing behind the neck barbell shoulder press in health club

Just as posterior pull downs strain your shoulders on the way down, this exercise hurts them on the way up. Pearson says it also puts too much stress on the acromioclavicular joints (those little knobs on the tops of your shoulders), which can lead to an overuse injury commonly referred to as weight lifter's shoulder.

Safe Alternative: Alternating Shoulder Presses. Sit on a Swiss ball and hold a pair of dumbbells overhead with your arms straight and palms facing each other. Next, bend your left elbow and lower your left arm, moving your elbow out to the side, until your upper arm is parallel with the floor. Press it back up and repeat with your right arm.

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Straight-Bar Curls

Showing How To Train Biceps. Young Athlete In The Gym Performing Biceps Curls With A Barbell

If you let your arms hang loosely by your sides, you'll notice that your palms face inward. The problem with straight bar curls is that they lock your arms into an unnatural palms-up position. "In so doing, you're stressing your elbow joints, and that can lead to tendinitis," says Pearson.

Safe Alternative: E-Z Bar Curls. The bar is angled to put your elbows in a more natural neutral position. For some great routines, see how This Easy 7-Minute Workout Will Help You Burn Fat Faster, According to Science.

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Leg Extensions

leg extensions
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The four parts of your quadriceps are designed to work together as one, but a study in Medicine & Science in Sports & Exercise found that leg extensions activate the sections slightly independently of one another. Even a five-millisecond difference can cause uneven compression between the kneecap and thighbone, inflaming the tendon that connects the kneecap to the shinbone (a painful injury known as jumper's knee).

Safe Alternative: Squats. To squat safely, place the bar across your shoulders (not your neck) and keep your back straight, bending slightly at the hips through the squatting motion. Proper form is crucial with this exercise.

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Sit-ups

woman doing situps in gym
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Not only are sit-ups bad for your neck, but they're also one of the least-effective abdominal exercises you can do, according to an old study at San Diego State University.

Safe Alternative: Bicycle Crunches. That same study found the bicycle maneuver works the abs and obliques 250 percent better than traditional crunches or sit-ups. Lie on your back with your feet up in the air, then bend your knees at a 90-degree angle. With your hands behind your ears, pump your legs back and forth while moving your armpits (not your elbows) toward the opposite knees. And if you're in the market for a terrific routine, don't miss our great collection of 30 Workouts You Can Do in Practically No Time at All!

William Mayle
William Mayle is a UK-based writer who specializes in science, health, fitness, and other lifestyle topics. Read more