10 of the Most Over and Underrated Exercises

As a personal trainer, I'm often asked: "What are the best and worst exercises to include in my workout routine?" Unfortunately, the answers aren't as simple as you might expect, because if you ask 10 fitness experts that question, you'll be met with 10 different answers. Although there are some exercises I like more than others based on personal preference and how they challenge the body, it doesn't mean my answers are the only "right" ones. Experts have varying opinions about the most effective way to train the body.

It's tempting to read the latest issue of your favorite fitness magazine and jump on the exercise bandwagon. When the headlines say, "The Best Way to Improve Endurance? Burpees!" or "Lunge Your Way to Your Best Backside," it's easy to assume those exercises are what just what you need to see results. But the truth is that some exercises over promise and under deliver, while others fly under the radar without getting the attention they rightly deserve.

What makes an exercise "good" or "bad" is often a matter of personal opinion. But, in general, a good exercise has a low risk of injury, is easy to perform correctly and effectively targets the muscles you're trying to develop. As you work to create the best exercise program for you and your goals, consider going against the grain a bit by ignoring some of the most overhyped exercises in the industry and picking up a few moves that fitness experts with a variety of education and experience agree deserve a place in your routine.

Overrated Exercises and Their Effective Alternatives

1. Deadlifts and Squats

Personal trainer Jasper Yao believes deadlifts and squats get more credit than they should. "Everyone suggests them when it comes to building a foundation for strength, [but] tend to neglect single-leg exercises. With that line of reasoning, I believe that the most underrated exercises are single-leg deadlifts and single-leg split squats. We as humans, tend to move in our life one limb at a time. If you are only utilizing deadlifts and squats, you're always training with two feet flat on the ground. This is opposite of how you move in life most of the time." Although single-leg exercises tend to be more advanced and present a more significant balance challenge, they are something you can work up to over time.  

2. Dumbbell Chest Fly

"I’m hyper-critical of how effectively [the dumbbell chest fly] targets the pectorals," Primal Power Fitness founder and personal trainer James Shapiro explains. "The forces applied to the body are not as direct as they should be once the dumbbells start moving away from the body. I think a better alternative is to set up a bench on a cable crossover and perform the chest fly from a supine cable position. Gravity has no effect and the tension in the pectoral muscle stays constant through the entire range of motion. Therefore, the quality of each repetition improves."

3. Barbell Bench Presses

Although barbell bench presses are a popular exercise to gain strength in the upper body, Caleb Backe, a health and wellness expert for Maple Holistics, assures people that there are better options. "Unless you're working with safety bars, barbell bench pressing usually requires a spotter for safety reasons," Backe warns. "This makes it difficult to perform [the move] with any regularity for many solitary gym-goers. As far as the exercise itself is concerned, due to its limited range of motion and tricky-to-nail form, barbell bench pressing can involve a lot of physical stress for limited payoff. Ideally, you don't want to give up the barbell bench altogether, but instead use it in rotation with other great exercises like incline dumbbell presses, dips and even some machine work now and then."

4. Sit-Ups

Fitness expert and writer Kelly Crawford says that if you want to strengthen your abdominal muscles, sit-ups aren't the way to go. "Everyone does sit-ups to tone the abdominal muscles, but the work is done mostly in the first part of the movement until your hip flexors take over and pull you up into a sitting position," she explains. "This creates a force in your spine, which is unnatural and can lead to injury." Instead of sit-ups and crunches, try exercises that require total body stabilization, which more closely mimics how your abdominals function in everyday life. Examples include planks, side planks and jackknife with a stability ball.

5. Burpees

Think burpees are the best when it comes to a total body challenge? Maybe not, according to Paul Johnson, founder of Complete Tri. "Sure, a long set of burpees can be a great workout, but there are a couple issues with them. Correct form can be difficult, especially when you are timing yourself to do as many as possible in a set amount of time or when you are fatigued." Johnson also says that burpees can be hard on your knees and lower back. "As an exercise, the burpee is totally overrated and the risks are not worth the benefits," he says.

As a substitution, Johnson recommends replacing the jump at the end of a burpee with a simple step—stand-up—reach up sequence. By eliminating the jump, you effectively remove the major risk factor for the knees, which supports better and more consistent form. For a complete substitution, he suggests slow four-count pushups. "Start with plank, lower yourself down for four counts, hold at the bottom for four counts, push up slowly for four counts, and hold the top of a plank for four counts. Repeat. This will work your core as well as your upper body," he explains.

Underrated Exercises to Add to Your Routine

1. The Farmer's Carry

Shane McLean, a personal trainer and fitness blogger, regularly recommends the farmer's carry to his clients. "Whether you’re trying to get stronger, build muscle, lose fat, improve posture or rehab certain injuries, the farmer’s carry can help," says McLean. "Strengthening the upper back should always be a priority. This exercise also helps with shoulder stability because of the work put on your rotator cuffs, and also provides core and hip stabilization as you move."

2. Bodyweight Exercises

Tyler Spraul, head trainer at Exercise.com, says it's important not to discount the importance of bodyweight exercises. "It may not be as glamorous as benching the heaviest dumbbells or loading the barbell with the largest plates, but most of us would benefit from taking the time to master the seemingly 'basic' bodyweight moves like pushups, pull-ups, lunges, single-leg squats, et cetera," he explains. "Really dialing into your joint positioning and full body control during both 'up' and 'down' movements in bodyweight exercises will give you an appreciation for how difficult they can be, [while also preparing] you better for handling heavy weights down the road."

3.   Walking

Can walking give you the results you're looking for? Crawford thinks so. "[Brisk] walking has many of the same benefits as running—including improved cardiovascular health—but puts less stress on your body. Walking is easily accessible, but many people shun it and feel they need to be working harder all the time." Crawford advises that it's good to have active recovery days in your workout routine and brisk walking can be a perfect option to help your muscles recover in a gentle way.

4.   Swimming

Johnson says swimming is one exercise that people often overlook. "Even if you are not an avid or trained swimmer, beginning to do laps on a semi-regular basis can help you in so many ways. Swimming is low impact, and as long as you are using some basic technique, the risk of injury is low." He goes on to say that a regular swimming routine can help your lung capacity, effectively amplifying your other, more intense workouts or sports. "Because you are pushing and pulling through water, you are getting a great moderate-resistance exercise that can tone your muscles and work your core," Johnson adds.

5. Jumping Rope

According to Reggie Chambers, a fitness expert and personal trainer, there is one underrated piece of equipment that can cost you less than $10.  "The good old jump rope is portable and requires no gym membership," Chambers says about one of his favorite cardio "machines." "Even if you are a novice, no matter how you go about it, jumping rope burns fat and torches calories like nobody’s business! It also gives your brain a workout since you are constantly focusing on coordination and rhythm."

In general, the best exercises are the ones that challenge your body, give you the results you're looking for and are enjoyable. After all, when you like what you're doing, you're much more likely to stick with it! Changing up your routine regularly helps improve your fitness level, gives you better results and keeps things interesting. Just because the rest of the gym is doing the same exercises that may or may not be effective doesn't mean you shouldn't branch out and try something new.