Suffering through killer (but cool-looking) moves in the gym can seem like the right thing to do. After all, you’ve got to sweat buckets and push your body to the max to reap the rewards of working out, right?
Thing is, the super-tough gym moves we glorify can sometimes just leave you freakishly sore, fatigued, or even injured. Not good.
As tempting as it may be to consider workout pain a badge of honor, some intense moves just aren’t worth it. We tapped a few top trainers to filter out the exercises you can feel free to skip—and the less-brutal moves you can do instead to still reach your goals.
1. Pistol Squats
This single-leg squat is one of the toughest moves in the book. With one leg extended straight out in front of you, you have to squat down on the other leg until your hips are below your knee—and then push back up to a standing position. Eep.
Pistol squats are not for the faint of heart. They require an incredible amount of lower-body strength and balance, and they can be pretty rough on your body. These one-legged maneuvers can put a lot of unnecessary strain on the tendons and ligaments in your working leg (like your ACL, MCL, patella tendon, and meniscus), which can lead to injury, says Ian Creighton, CF-L2, general manager and coach at Brick New York.
Your move: Substitute Bulgarian split squats in for pistol squats. You’ll still build unilateral leg strength in your hamstrings, quads, and glutes, without putting excess stress on your working leg.
Stand with one foot about two or three feet in front of the other and elevate the back foot on a bench or box. Keep your torso upright and lower down so that your back knee moves toward the floor. (Your front knee should track over your toes.) Then drive through your front leg to push back up to standing.
If you’ve ever watched Olympic gymnastics or taken a CrossFit® class, you’ve probably seen muscle-ups. Basically, they involve using all of your muscles to swing your body up and over a hanging bar or gymnastics rings from a hanging position.
“It’s definitely a move that makes you look super-fit and catches the eye of everyone around you,” says Mat Forzaglia, C.P.T., coach at Neo Fifth and trainer at Fhitting Room. “But I always explain that even though it looks really cool, you have to master a few things before you should even attempt it.”
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If you can’t perform eight to 10 strict pullups—which indicates you have the strength to pull your full body weight—then muscle-ups aren’t worth trying. Besides, they’re more of an added skill, anyway—you won’t find sets of muscle-ups in your next HIIT class. If you’re looking to build strength in your back and shoulders, pullups will do the trick.
If you can’t nail pullups on your own, use a pullup assist machine or loop a resistance band around the bar and your feet to get in on the upper-body action, he says.
3. Overhead Squats
This move, which involves squatting while holding a weighted bar up above your head, engages your core big-time and looks cool from the outside eye—but most people don’t have the mobility needed to do it properly.
If you have poor shoulder mobility and try to squat while holding weight overhead, your chest drops—and that’s bad news for form, says Forzaglia. Plus, if you have poor lower-body mobility, you won’t be able to squat back and down far enough to fully benefit from the move.
To focus on that overhead stability in a more manageable way, try single-arm overhead carries with either a dumbbell or kettlebell, Forzaglia suggests. To get your lower body in on the action, try single-arm overhead lunges, which don’t require as much mobility as barbell overhead squats.
If you’ve ever done burpees, you’d probably describe your relationship with them as love-hate. The repeated cycle of dropping into a pushup and jumping back up is a sure way to build strength and spike your heart rate at the same time. “However, burpees are so high-impact that we sometimes lose control and can’t keep our form in line,” says Danielle Burrell, C.P.T., founding trainer at Rumble Boxing. Plus, dropping down into a pushup straight after jumping can put extra strain on your lower back and knees.
If you have knee issues or can’t quite nail the pushup part of burpees, try sprawls instead, which are basically burpees without the jump and pushup. “Sprawls are still super challenging, but by eliminating the jump and push up, you can focus on getting into a proper push up position where your core is engaged then pop up into a standing position in a safer manner,” she says.
You’ll start in a standing position, plant your hands on the ground, and kick your feet back so you end in a plank position. Then, you’ll pop your feet back in and stand up.
5. Bounding Box Jumps
Box jumps are another great move for simultaneous cardio and strength training action—but when you start jumping back down from that box (instead of stepping), things can go south fast. “While box jumps are a great way to develop explosive power when performed correctly, jumping down from a box and immediately rebounding and jumping back onto it puts the athlete at high risk for multiple injuries like Achilles tears,” says Creighton. Not to mention nasty scars on your shins if you fall or jump again before you’re ready.
The alternative? Slow down, step (don’t jump) back down from the box, and land softly when you jump. “An athlete can still do box jumps by simply jumping onto a box with a soft landing then stepping back down on the floor,” Creighton says. This gives you time to reset so you execute that next jump with the proper mechanics.
This popular CrossFit® movement involves pulling a weighted bar from the floor and sweeping it up overhead, catching the barbell overhead in a squat position, then standing all the way up. Snatches require impeccable technique, and great mobility in your ankles, hips, shoulders, and upper back to execute properly, says Creighton.
While the snatch is great for training explosiveness, there are other less-technical but equally-effective exercises you can try—like the single-arm dumbbell snatch. Keeping your chest up and butt down, squat down to grab a dumbbell with one hand, then sweep the dumbbell up off the floor by driving your elbow towards the ceiling. “Keep the dumbbell as close to the torso as possible like zipping up a jacket,” says Creighton. Then you’ll push the dumbbell up overhead.
7. Kipping Pullups
Like muscle-ups, kipping pullups involve swinging your body. They look like lots of fun—but require a lot of skill to master. First, you have to be a pro at strict, dead-hang pullups. Then, you have to learn to ‘kip’ (or drive your hips) properly, to produce momentum and help swing your chin up and over the bar more easily and quickly.
“What makes the move risky the swinging motion that places lot of tension on the smaller muscles in the shoulders and lead to nagging shoulder injuries including tendonitis, strained rotator cuffs, and even tears which can take a long time to heal or even require surgery,” says Creighton.
Like with muscle-ups, kipping is more an added skill than a foundational move—so if swinging isn’t your thing, stick to good ‘ole regular pullups. As always, use a resistance band or an assisted pullup machine to offset your bodyweight, if needed.