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“If someone needs to lose 50+ pounds, they really need to stick to exercises that work the biggest muscle groups to get the largest calorie-burning effects,” says Stephen Box, fitness trainer and owner of Stephen Box Fitness & Nutrition in Suwanee, GA. That means any exercises that target any one small muscle or muscle group, such as biceps curls, triceps extensions, and calf raises, are a waste of your gym time. Plus, as Box points out, the biceps get worked when you’re doing back exercises such as rows, and the triceps assist the chest in pushups and chest presses, so it’s not like you won’t be strengthening them otherwise.
Compound movements (i.e., exercises that engage multiple muscles) are great. Less so are any exercises in which your range of movement might be limited by excessive weight. “The lying-down position of a flat bench press can be very hard to get in and out of for some people,” says Alexander M. McBrairty, a personal trainer and the owner of A-Team Fitness in Ann Arbor, MI. “Plus, extra weight can reduce the range of motion with this exercise, making it less effective overall.” If you really want to do a bench press, put it on an incline. Better still, bring your chest-press exercise vertical by using a cable machine.
Crunches are synonymous with defined abs, and who doesn’t want those? The reality: “Doing ‘six-pack’ exercises is kind of pointless until your body fat percentage is low enough for them to show through,” Box says. Strengthening the core is certainly important, but do it through total-body exercises that force those muscles to stabilize, such as wood choppers and squats.
Like crunches, sit-ups are a way to target the front abs, which will stay largely hidden until you trim down. Not only that, “sit-ups put excess stress on your low back, especially if you are carrying around extra weight,” says Matt Tanneberg, CSCS, at Arcadia Health and Wellness Chiropractic in Phoenix.
But wait, if crunches and sit-ups are out, planks must be the answer, right? Unfortunately, not necessarily. “Holding a plank position, especially for someone with a lot of extra weight in the midsection, can cause excessive stress on the lumbar spine,” says McBrairty. To modify the move, drop to your knees. He also recommends standing core stabilization moves using a cable.
Lunges are a fine multijoint exercise, but they can be a real challenge from a balance perspective, particularly for the overweight. “Extreme instability exercises, though great, may be too difficult to complete in the beginning,” says Nathane L. Jackson, CSCS, founder of Nathane Jackson Fitness. “You want to boost confidence and spark excitement about strength training, and these exercises may cause too much frustration.”
Or really any sort of jumping. While these types of moves can be great for calorie burning, the impact upon landing, particularly for the joints, on a body that’s already carrying extra mass is far too risky, McBrairty says. Lower-impact moves like marching in place and step-ups can similarly get the heart rate up without the undue joint stress.
For the very overweight, running may put too much strain on the joints. “You need to be doing cardio to lose weight, but it’s best to try something that puts less pressure on the joints, such as walking, biking, swimming, or using the elliptical,” Tanneberg says. “These are much easier on your ankles, knees, and hips than the constant pounding from running.”
There’s been a ton of buzz about the fat-burning benefits of high-intensity interval training (HIIT) in the past few years. But Jackson recommends building up your cardio base first before trying intervals, and keeping a more moderate work-to-rest ratio—say, 3 minutes of effort followed by 3 minutes of recovery—than the 30 to 60 seconds on/15 to 30 seconds off scheme popular in HIIT workouts.