Today's gyms look very different than they did 50 years ago. With the advent of highly technical fitness equipment companies in the 80's gyms now look like a modern day assembly line for the human body. Chest machine here, arm machine there, leg machine OH MY.... On top of that there are all kinds of contraptions that are awkwardly shaped, have straps everywhere, and look more like medical devices than tools for strength. So this begs the question.... What should you do and what should you avoid??? Here are some of the pitfalls you can avoid when choosing exercises to do at the gym.
1. The Elliptical Trainer
These machines while promoted as a great alternative to running because they are low impact are a time trap. Usually what ends up happening is people get on this piece of equipment and tune out while watching TV and perform very little actual work. Also, my beef with the elliptical is that is doesn't replicate anything you do in real life. The movement pattern is awkward and unnatural no matter what clever infomercials try to claim.
*The Fix* The Stair-climber. The two primary reasons I prefer the stair-climber are it is a machine that actually improves a function that will be used in daily life AND you have to maintain a level of focus and intention while doing it otherwise well... there are obvious consequences. You can find the stair-climber in the far corner of the cardio area covered in cobwebs due to the fact that it doesn't get much use because.... it's actually really freaking challenging. Compare 10min of stair-climbing to 10 min of elliptical training and you will see what I mean.
2. The Seated Leg Press Machine
I have a beef with this machine for a few reasons but I will only list the prominent ones here. First, most people spend the entire day seated. When it comes gym time sitting is prohibited. Period. If you want to sit your couch will be waiting for you at home when the workout is over. Secondly, look at functionality. You will never do that movement anywhere except the gym. It just won't happen.
*The Fix* The Goblet Squat. Here is what you do. Find a dumbell that is a decent weight. Hold in front on your chest close to your body supporting it with both hands. Keeping your elbows by your sides and your feet about shoulder width apart sit your hips down into a squat keeping your heels on the ground. Repeat with impunity. The goblet squat keeps you upright, teaches proper squatting, and allows you to use the muscles in your trunk for stabilization as you perform the movement. This has much better functional carryover to regular life.
3. Seated Biceps Curls
As with the last example anything seated in the gym should be outlawed. The gym is the place where you go to stand up and move around to counteract a long day of sitting. In addition the biceps curl exercise offers absolutely no metabolic benefit. In other words if your goal is to drive up metabolism, get lean, build muscle, be better at sports, and so on putting the seated biceps curl in your routine is like putting a microwave in a 5 start restaurant.
*The Fix* Chin Ups or Body Rows. Doing chin ups or body rows (a chin up on a bar that is closer to the ground and allows you to be in a more horizontal position) will not only engage many additional muscles on top of your biceps it will also offer a much more functional benefit. The chin up creates greater postural integrity, shoulder stability, and abdominal recruitment than it's highly unworthy adversary the biceps curl.
4. The Seated Lateral Shoulder Raise
Again we are seated and this equals bad. Also, laterally raising the shoulders in a seated position under load puts you at risk for potential damage to one of the prominant muscles of the rotator cuff. This is because if you are in a slightly less than ideal posture and using too much weight you will put enormous stress on the shoulder joint itself as well as its surrounding protective stabilizers. This is unfortunately a recipe for developing muscular imbalance and injury.
*The Fix* Standing Barbell Overhead Presses. With this exercise you are using all of the muscles in your trunk (or core as it's so commonly called) to stabilize the movement and you are now allowing many more other powerful upper body muscles to participate in the exercise thus limiting overload to the shoulder. Also, lifting objects overhead is a demand you are much more likely to face in real life versus that of sitting in a chair and abruptly flaring your elbows out to the side in an impromptu version of the chicken dance.
Above I have provided more effective replacements to some of the tried and true gym staples that I would see people doing routinely when I worked in a big box gym. If you are truly looking to maximize the results of your program as well as genuinely increase strength and function work on the alternatives listed here and you are sure to improve. Good Luck!