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During the 1980s, the fitness industry established exercise safety guidelines in response to the increased number of injuries people were developing as a result of some group exercise classes. These guidelines included a fairly long list of unsafe or "contraindicated" exercises that instructors were told to avoid during classes. Some of those, such as full sit-ups, deadlifts and full squats, still have a bad reputation because of those guidelines. While there were reasons for such caution, today's fitness professionals are becoming much more sophisticated about exercise recommendations and safety issues.
Today we assess the safety of any exercise in terms of risk. There isn't the same long list of "bad" exercises; only exercises with a higher degree of risk of injury to an individual. It's also important to remember that what is safe for one athlete may cause an injury in another. In general high risk exercises require more fitness and skill to be done safely. Plyometrics, for example, are great for building explosive power, but only in a highly trained and fit athlete using perfect form. When performed by a beginner with limited skill or fitness, plyometrics may result in injury.
Tips for Recognizing Unsafe Exercises
It's best to learn about exercise safety from a pro, but you should also use common sense and avoid exercises that aren't right for your fitness level. Listen to your body and when in doubt, back off. You can always increase your intensity during your next workout.
Top 8 Unsafe or Dangerous Exercise Habits
1. Working Through Pain
Pain is your body's way of telling you something is wrong. Ignoring this message and pushing on is the fastest way to get a serious or chronic injury. Although it seems obvious to stop if you feel pain, many athletes exercise with pain. Don't. If you feel pain, stop what you are doing and rest.
Warning Signs of Serious Injuries
Immediate Treatment for Injuries
2. Forgoing Rest Days
Any exercise routine that lacks rest days is potentially unsafe. A large number of sports injuries are the result of overuse. These injuries occur from simply doing too much exercise. To avoid overuse injuries, balance rest days with exercise to allow the body to recover from the stress of training.
Rest and Recovery
Chronic Overuse Injuries
3. Doing Only One Type of Exercise
Doing the same exercise day after day may help you become very skilled at a sport, but it is another way to end up with an overuse injury. Stressing the same muscle groups and performing the same movement patterns repeatedly can put a tremendous amount of strain on muscles, tendons and ligaments, causing irritation, inflammation and even stress fractures. Even if you successfully avoid an overuse injury, you may end up with muscle imbalance, weakness, tightness and alignment problems. To avoid these problems, vary your exercise training routine. Do a variety of different types of exercise and cross train.
4. Performing Uncontrolled or Sloppy Movements
Sloppy or uncontrolled movements occur for a variety of reasons, including fatigue, lack of appropriate skill, going too fast, and a lack of attention. When you are exercising, it's essential to be in control of your body. Sloppy execution or poor control is a set-up for injury. Even the safest exercise can become unsafe when done in an uncontrolled manner.
5. Forcing Unnatural Joint Movement
Any unnatural joint movements put you at high risk for an injury. Unnatural movements are typically caused by using a machine that isn't designed for your specific body shape or size and forces your joints to move in a way that doesn't follow your normal range of motion. One exercise that forces an unnatural joint movement is the behind the neck lat pulldown. This exercise works against the structural design of the shoulder joint. It puts unnecessary stress on the rotator cuff muscles and forces the shoulders to rotate externally, a position vulnerable to dislocation. Additionally, you are forced to drop the head forward to the chest during the movement, which causes additional neck strain. Instead of this unnatural and dangerous exercise, consider lat pulldowns to the front, which work with the body's natural range of motion.
6. Doing Too Much Too Soon
Gradually increasing both the time and intensity of exercise is the ideal way to allow the body to adapt, grow stronger and become more fit. However, pushing your body beyond its ability to adapt will result in illness or injury. Many beginners find this out the hard way. They go out too hard, too fast and too furious and end up sore, injured and hating exercise. Even elite athletes can fall into this trap by thinking that if they are extremely fit in one sport, they can do anything. Not so. No matter what level of ability they have in another sport, athletes can get injured if they attempt to perform an exercise that is beyond their fitness level for that particular exercise. Remember to be realistic when assessing your ability and skill level.
The Principles of Conditioning - Adaptation
The 10% Rule
7. Using Poor Form or Technique
When you are new to exercise or learning a new routine, it's important to learn how to do the movements properly. Most people should get some professional coaching at the beginning of a new sport to learn the fundamentals and develop good habits. If meeting with a professional coach, trainer or instructor is not possible, at least take a look at some books or videos about sports technique and exercise form. Keep in mind that we are all unique and some movements may be better-suited to your abilities or biomechanics. An instructor can help you modify exercises to fit your unique needs.
The Stationary Bicycle
The Elliptical Machine
8. Lifting Too Much
Any weight training exercise that is done with weights that are too heavy for you is risky. It's that simple. If you can't maintain proper form while lifting, the weights are too heavy for you.
Basic Strength Training Principles
Safe Lifting Technique
ACSM's Guidelines for Exercise Testing and Prescription, 7th Edition 2005.
2008 American Council on Exercise, Exercise Safety Guidelines