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10 Dangerous Exercises That Often Lead to Injury


In this article, we’ll discuss potentially dangerous exercises. Just like driver error causes most car accidents, exercise injuries are typically caused by the person rather than the gym equipment or the type of exercise.

A significant percentage of workout-related injuries result from people taking shortcuts because they are overeager to reach their goals. Instead, they should work through all the required movements and ranges of motion in a controlled way to increase mobility through gradually developing strength.

Furthermore, understanding the locations and functions of different muscle groups is vital.

With that knowledge and allowing your mind and body to get accustomed to working the various movements and ranges, you will reduce injury risks.

However, disregarding the requirements of proper progression will certainly raise the chances of injuries, regardless of the form of physical exercise, weightlifting, strength training, etc. 

Proper progression comes down to the individuals and whether they:
  • Program their workouts or just do as much as possible 

  • Invest time or money into education about how to reach the results safely they are after

  • Pick weights heavier than they should use because that’s the weight the person next to them uses 

  • Stop or slow down during a workout when their body sends warning signals that something is wrong 

  • Allow their body to recover after workouts

10 Dangerous exercises that often lead to injury

Some of the following exercises are only dangerous if they are not performed correctly, while others are deemed not worth the risk because they have more effective, less risky alternatives.

1. Kettlebell Swings

Kettlebells are not inherently dangerous. However, a kettlebell exercise can be dangerous under certain conditions and the reason for it becoming dangerous will typically lie with the user. It’s one of the best strengthening exercises around.

The catch: It requires impeccable technique.

Many people think kettlebell swing movement is all arms, while they are actually powered from the lower body, specifically the posterior chain including the hamstrings and glutes.

Learning the correct way to move the weight is important before you start swinging the kettlebell. 

The speed and the force of the swinging motion of the kettlebell put the shoulder joint at significant risk of injury because the exerciser might lack shoulder flexion.

Without the proper form, the repetitive swinging motion could lead to rotator cuff injury and inflammation of other shoulder structures.

As simple as they are, kettlebells require a high level of technical skill and proper instruction to perform correctly and safely. They are an outstanding tool in the muscle-building toolbox, for improved performance and strength, or even weight loss.

Seeking qualified instruction from someone who knows how to use them is essential because, without proper instruction, you are doing yourself a disservice. You will soon learn that the power for kettlebell swings comes from your hamstrings and glutes rather than your arms and shoulders.

Safer alternatives for kettlebell swings: Broad Jumps, Cable Pull Throughs, Barbell Hip Thrust, Sumo Deadlift.

2. Leg Extension Machine

The leg extension is a strength training exercise for strengthening the quadriceps, located in the front of the upper legs. They are done on a leg extension machine on which you sit with a weighted pad on top of your lower legs. Then you use your quads to repeatedly lift your lower legs and extend your knees.

Some say leg extension exercises, or knee extensions, are inherently bad for your knees and should be avoided at all costs because they increase the risks of sustaining crippling knee injuries and being out of action for months.

Furthermore, leg extensions are not effective as overall leg strengthening exercises because they work only the quads. Exercise time would be much better spent doing compound exercises like squats or step-ups that would work other leg muscles as well while being less stressful on your knees.

With so much risk involved, why would anyone want to use the leg extension machine?

Strength builders who want to isolate their quads without activating other leg muscles or glutes benefit from the leg extension. Bodybuilders and people with hamstring injuries want this isolation and those who aim to improve the strength of their kicking force also benefit from working their quads on the leg extension machine.

Leg extension knee injury – Image from Shutterstock

If you do want to include leg extensions in your workout routine, even knowing the risks, reach out to your personal trainer, doctor, or physical therapist to ensure it is a safe option — especially if you have existing knee problems or have suffered a knee injury in the past.

If you feel sharp pain at any time during this exercise, stop immediately.

Make sure you use an appropriate weight and proper form, which involves sitting back against the seat pad and using control to extend your legs — rather than momentum to kick up the lever. Extend your legs, but avoid locking them out, which can strain the knee joint.

PRO TIP: To ensure knee stability, if you choose to use the leg extension machine, ensure you include hamstring curls or other hamstring-strengthening exercises in your fitness routine. You do not want your quads stronger than your hamstrings because that will compromise knee stability.

Safer alternatives for leg extensions: Lunges, Squats, Deadlifts, Step-ups

3. Behind the head shoulder press

One of the hotly debated gym exercises is the behind-the-head shoulder press. It is a staple exercise in the strength-building routines of many bodybuilders and weightlifters and can offer numerous benefits. However, it also presents a significant degree of risk, especially if it is performed too often, or with improper form.

Olympic weightlifters benefit most from the overhead press. Olympic lifting requires significant strength and mobility in the shoulders since both the clean and jerk and the snatch movements finish with the barbell held overhead with straight arms and the weight slightly behind the head.

Behind the head presses can help lifters develop the necessary mobility and correct bar positioning for Olympic lifting.

The majority of gym goers are not there to prepare for Olympic lifting, and without the strict guidance of personal trainers, behind-the-head pressing exercises can go wrong in the blink of an eye.

Performing this exercise, you must pull your shoulders back and angle them out slightly, and behind the head pressing places your shoulders and rotator cuffs, which comprise the muscle groups that support the shoulders, in a vulnerable position, creating an increased risk of injury.

 

Due to the high injury risks, it’s best to do behind-the-neck presses under the guidance of your personal trainer. Ensure you have adequate trunk, shoulder, and thoracic (upper) spine stability and mobility.

Safer Alternative for behind-the-neck presses:  Overhead Shoulder Press

4. Triceps Dips

Triceps dips are convenient because you can do them almost anywhere. Any hip high ledge, bench, or chair will serve the purpose of triceps dips. There’s no doubt that after a few times of lifting yourself up and down you will feel your triceps burning, but you might be unaware of other damage these movements can cause.

Triceps dips might not work as well as you think. According to many fitness trainers, this exercise isn’t recommended for anyone, primarily because it is not a normal body movement. When you do triceps dips, your shoulders are burdened with most of your body weight, as you push yourself up and down with your arms in an unnatural position to boot.

According to physical therapists, the slightest error in your form puts your shoulders at risk of impingement syndrome, which is inflammation of the bursa or rotator cuff tendinitis. A triceps dip depends heavily on the anterior deltoid strength, and if your body dips too low, the motion shifts the shoulder forward, creating a lot of stress on the anterior deltoid.

Your glenohumeral joint forms the connection between your upper arm and your torso. If your anterior deltoids lack the strength to support all the stress from the triceps dip, it can compress the glenohumeral joint, causing inflammation of the shoulder.

Shoulder damage – Image from Shutterstock

Your shoulder is the most unstable joint in your body and has the least amount of blood flow because it is not built to support your body weight.

Therefore, Injuries in the shoulder area are common, and the rehabilitation process tends to be lengthy. There are several other exercises to work your triceps, none of which will put your shoulders under undue stress.

Safer triceps dips alternatives:  Triceps Push-Ups, Close-Grip Bench Presses, Cable Pushdowns.

5. Upright barbell row

If you do the upright row exercise to develop the shoulders and traps, beware, you might be causing gradual damage without realizing it. The upright barbell row involves holding dumbbells or a barbell in front of you with a close pronated or overhand grip. You must then pull the weight up to your chest while keeping it close to your body, leading with your elbows.

The internal rotation to which you expose your shoulders is one of the most harmful exercises you can do, causing similar damage to triceps dips. As a demonstration, hold your arms straight out to your sides with your palms facing down.

Then, rotate your hands forward as if pouring out, or emptying a glass of water in from each hand. Then, to do the upright row, you’ll lift the barbell with bent elbows causing internal rotation of the shoulders.

Internal rotation itself is not necessarily harmful to your shoulders.

The problem comes as you raise your arms and add resistance (the weight of the barbell) in that position. Every time you raise your arms bearing the weight, impingement occurs. That involves a small shoulder tendon getting pinched by the bones in your shoulder.

You might not experience pain immediately; it may not even hurt for weeks or months. However, the tendon will gradually wear down and be damaged. You may be entirely unaware of the damage until, one day, the worn-down tendon snaps!

Safer alternatives for upright barbell rows: Dumbbell Front Raises

6. Lat Pulldowns Behind the Head

Performing behind-the-neck lat pulldowns is a controversial exercise that is best avoided. There is no doubt that behind-the-neck pulldowns are effective in targeting the latissimus dorsi, but the cons outweigh the pros.

Forcing your body to perform movements that it is not designed to perform can have devastating results.

That is precisely what happens when you do behind-the-head lat pulldowns. If you want to avoid causing damage like inflammation or tears in the rotator cuff muscles in your shoulder, you might want to exclude this type of lat pulldowns from your workout routines.

Adding to the danger is the fact that you experience such an adrenaline rush while performing these pulldowns, that you might not even be aware of the damage done to your shoulders.

Neck muscle damage—Image from Shutterstock

Furthermore, additional risks exist, including head injury, neck muscle damage, and spinal column damage. The nature of the lat pulldown range of motion is such that you would likely instinctively extend your head forward every time the bar approaches the back of your head.

That movement puts undue stress on your neck muscles and spine, putting you at even more risk of long-term harm. You should always aim to perform resistance training exercises with a neutral cervical spine posture.

Safer alternatives for behind-the-neck lat pulldowns: Front-of-the-neck lat pulldowns, kneeling band pulldowns.

7. Leg Press Machine

The Leg Press machine can provide a number of physical strengthening benefits for the quads, hamstrings, glutes, and calf muscles, along with the bones of the hips, thighs, and lower legs, and hip flexors. However, using the Leg Press machine significantly increases the pressure and load on your knees, lower back, and pelvic floor.

Excessive weight or load, or excessive reps can force the pelvic floor tissues and muscles downward, weakening them by over-stretching. The outcome could include rectal prolapse, pelvic organ prolapses, and bowel or bladder control problems.

Some argue that leg presses are not natural movements.

While we squat frequently throughout our daily activities, there is not a single reason for lying on your back and pushing a heavy weight up a hill!

Furthermore, the load on the knees and lower back is increased by the Leg Press action, risking damage to the lower back soft tissues and discs. Forceful presses, heavy loading, and poor posture are typically to blame, especially if you bring your knees right up to your chest.

Moreover, your knee cartilage and tissues are extremely vulnerable with deep knee bending and locking your knees when your legs are extended.

The weight you press plays a significant role in the safety of your leg presses. Beginners should start with a weight that’s about 50 to 75 percent of their body weight, regardless of their sex, and then build up from there. Always take the weight of the machine into consideration and test a few weight-less presses before adding plates.

Safer alternatives for Leg Press machine workouts:  Squat variations, step-ups, walking lunges, wall sits, and broad jumps.

8. Smith Machine Squats

Using the Smith machine to do your squats allows you to alter squat biomechanics, which can be beneficial, but it could also be detrimental. Your answer depends on your goals, the form you use, and whether you have any pre-existing injuries.

One reason for the controversy over the Smith machine squat is that it robs your body of improving your balance because the machine does it all for you. Free-weight squats force you to stay in a path according to the laws of gravity, with your center of gravity staying over your feet. Without that, you would fall over.

You will instantly feel the slightest hint of “the bar slipping out of the groove,” and that’s a cue to self-correct your form. In contrast, the Smith machine could allow you to move unnaturally without you even noticing it, and when something starts hurting weeks or months later you won’t know why.

Here are more points to consider before making the Smith machine your go-to squat exerciser.

To prevent your knees from traveling in front of your feet at the movement’s bottom, you place your feet forward in the Smith machine squat, but that puts your lower back muscles at risk.

Low Back damage – Image from Shutterstock

With your feet in the forward position, your hips also move forward and no longer in the ideal position to maintain the natural inward arch or curve in your lower back.

Furthermore, your hips may move much further forward than your shoulders, which will over-exaggerate your lower back arch.

So, while many strength builders swear by Smith machine squats for building quads, free weights might be superior on the hypertrophy front as well.

Safer Alternatives for Smith Machine squats: Dumbbell front raises, free weight squats.

9. Good Morning Exercise

The Good Morning exercise involves placing a barbell on your upper back, similar to a squat. Then while standing with straight legs, you hinge forward at the hips until your upper body is just above parallel and then return to the upright standing position, repeating these movements multiple times.

Stuart McGill, Ph.D. author of numerous articles on the spine and exercise said this on the subject of the Good Morning exercise

If people actually do this drill in the morning, it’s one of the worst things you could do.

As you know, you’re taller when you wake up in the morning than when you go to bed at night. This is because the discs are hydrophilic, which means they suck up water while you sleep and when there are no stresses present.

After rising, hydrostatic stresses of just walking around and using the muscles during the day compress your spine, and the fluid is squeezed out, decreasing the annular tensions in the disc.

So, when you wake up the extra height in the discs is similar to a full water balloon ready to burst and if you bend, you build up much higher stresses in the disc.

In fact, up to three times higher than when you perform the same bend two or three hours later.

Now I’m not talking about getting up and going for a walk or perhaps a boxer going for a jog first thing in the morning. I’m talking about heavy bending exercises, like for example the good-morning exercise or doing sit-ups. Somehow people thought that this would be a good thing to do in the morning. It’s the worst possible thing you could do for the back first thing in the morning.”

(Dr. McGill added: “I, personally, have a more favorite morning exercise, it’s what I like to call a “great-morning exercise,” but I don’t think my wife would appreciate me talking about it!)

Spinal Column Damage - Image from Shutterstock

Full spine bending first thing in the morning is a great way to damage your back – an unwise thing to do.

A safer alternative for Good Morning exercises: Basic unweighted good mornings, with zero weight and your hands behind your head or crossed over the chest, are great for mobility, and carry a lower risk of injury. This is a great place to start when you’re new to this exercise.

10. Bench Press

The barbell bench press is a compound exercise activating multiple muscle groups. If it is not performed with the necessary care and proper form, the bench press can cause more harm than good.

The bench press is the most dangerous of all barbell lifts. In fact, it can cause your death. If the loaded bar slips from your hands during the lift, it can fall on your face, chest, or throat, ending your life in the blink of an eye.

Even if you don’t drop the bar — you might be unable to lift it once you’ve got it to your chest. From your chest, it could go one of two ways — roll toward your neck and strangle you, or roll down to your belly where it could cause internal bleeding by crushing some of your soft internal organs or tearing an artery.

While there are plenty of ways to get yourself killed or maimed when lifting, the bench press remains the king of deadly strength exercises. It’s not because it’s a dangerous exercise by itself, but because many people disregard the importance of using proper form. Yet, when it comes to the bench press, there are no excuses for ego lifting, nor for bad form.

The bench press is a rudimentary exercise for developing real upper body strength.

However, it has proven to be the most dangerous exercise in the gym. Hundreds of people who bench press with improper form suffer severe injuries every year, while several dozen lose their lives by dropping the bar on their face, throat, or chest.

The majority of injuries caused inside the gym could be credited to the bench press, and pec tear is the most common bench-pressing injury. If you have chest, back, or shoulder injuries, you should stay away from this exercise.

A safer alternative for the barbell bench press

A safer alternative for the barbell bench press: Dumbbell bench press.

Risk vs. rewards matter

As mentioned at the top of this article, the level of danger of any gym exercise is directly linked to the level of compliance with proper form and recognition of potential risks.

Why does risk vs. reward matter? For gym goers and fitness professionals, weighing risk vs. reward should be the primary driver of exercise selection. If a significant risk to performing an exercise exists, the most sensible approach is to replace it with a safer alternative.

Other popular exercises regarded as risky by some include:

  • Crunches — While the crunch is a popular core move, it isn’t safe for everyone. It can place a lot of stress on your upper and low back and neck, and it only works your abdominal muscles, not the other muscles in your core.
  • Pull-ups — Although not inherently dangerous, pull-ups isolate back muscles, which need proper rest on the day following the exercise.

While working on mobility and strength is essential for everyday life and working out, your overall health and immune system should not be overlooked.

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