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About weight training | Articles | Tips | Book Reviews | FAQs | Chat

Weight Training
Articles & Tips




 

Risky Business?
Weight Training Exercises You May Want To Think Twice About

by Michael J. Merlino, ACE, BSMI (CPFT, RES), Cooper Institute
Owner, Merlino Fitness, MerlinoFitness.com


Risk versus benefit. Making choices.
There are things we juggle every day with every decision we make. Whether it is investing our money in the stock market, deciding on the best career opportunity or choosing what to eat for lunch. But weighing the expected benefits with the amount of risk involved is something I don't see practiced as much in the gym everyday. What most people don't understand is that adding higher risk exercises to your work out plan and performing them over many repetitions, many workouts and many years can actually damage your joints, do more harm than good and put some of your hard-earned cash in your local surgeon's pocket. Sure, some people that have great genetics may perform risky exercises their entire life and not have a problem just like a smoker may smoke his entire life and not get lung cancer. But why take the risk? I hate to think about how many rotator cuffs, knee joints and back injuries are a result of poor lifting form and technique or simply picking the wrong exercises and putting the body in a position it was never designed to be in.

What to Avoid & Safer Alternatives
Let's face it, most of us that lift weights are just duplicating what we learned in high school, picked up from friends or workout partners over the years or read about in Shape magazine or one of many hyped-up muscle mags. Reality says that most of us will not be body builders and super models anyway. Saying that, vanity is the driving force that keeps us all showing up at the gym in record numbers. As more fitness research emerges some of the old tried and true exercises may now be health hazards. Manufacturers like Cybex are continually changing the design of their machines to address these issues but it is up to the human being using the machine to get the form right. So what do you do about it? Very simple. Avoid those movements that are high risk for just about anyone and use some safer alternatives that accomplish the same result. The following is a list of a few exercises I have decided to outlaw as a certified professional personal fitness trainer and avoid performing with my clients. I have also included a brief explanation justifying why these exercises may not be the best choice. I don't pretend to know everything but the physics of the human body is a real science and God designed our bodies to move a certain way. Using these risky exercises forces your body into some uncompromising positions that it was never meant to be in. Below is a brief history of my top 10 most hated exercises and why they are not the best alternative. I've picked four of the worst ones to highlight in this article, so read on.

Michael's Top Ten Most Hated Exercises
Exercise Why It Is High Risk
Leg extensions locking knees ACL stress
Lat pull behind the head shoulder & neck stress
Walking lunges major stress on the knee joint
Low squats lower than 90 degrees, knee/hip stress
Butt blaster machine stress on lower spine
Hip abductor machine (outer) tension on hip joint
Ab rotator machine stress on spine
Chest press with elbows below shoulders rotator cuff stress
Overhead DB military presses shoulder stress
Upright rows stress on anterior deltoid/rotator

  1. Muscle: Latissimus Dorsi (Lat or Back)
    Bad Choice: Behind the Neck Lat Cable Pulldowns
    Why it's Risky?
    This movement not only stresses out the rotator cuff by putting the shoulder in a closed impact position but it also puts the upper spine in a very awkward and vulnerable position that you would never put yourself in during the course of your everyday life anyway. Recently the American College of Sports Medicine ranked this as one of the most common way to injury yourself in the gym. If your goal is to efficiently work the back or Lat muscles you just defeated the purpose by not aligning the line of resistance (cable) with the direction of the muscle fiber in the back or Latissimus Dorsi (Lat) muscle.

    Safer Alternative - Front Lat Cable Pulldowns
    Unlike it's evil cousin, the behind the head pull down, front lat pull downs do not stress the shoulder joint and properly align the line of resistance with the direction of the muscle fiber. In other words this movement puts your body in a natural and efficient position to get some quality back work in and avoid injury.

    Form & Technique
    First find your proper grip width on the bar by griping it where your forearm and upper arm are at 90 degrees . Before you start, tilt your body back at about a 30 degree angle and maintain your back stability by keeping the shoulders down, squeezing the shoulder blades together, tightening the abs and maintaining the natural arch of the low back. Pull the bar down in front of the head aiming towards your collar bone until the bar is just below your chin while squeezing or flexing the lat muscles and holding the flex for about a second. Return to the top until the arm is almost straight but still has a slight bend at the elbow joint. Go with a 2-4 count with a 2 count pulling down and twice as slow on the way up with a 4 count. Exhale as you pull down and inhale on the way up.

  2. Muscle: Anterior Deltoid (Front part of shoulder)
    Bad Choice: Upright Barbell Rows

    Why it's risky?
    This movement puts undue stress on the shoulder and wrist joints while attempting to work the anterior deltoid (front of the shoulder).

    Safer Alternative - Seated Front Duo Dumbbell Raises
    Seated front dumbbell raises performed with a back supported bench, do a great job of working the anterior (front) shoulder while eleviating stress on the wrist, elbow and shoulder joint.

    Form & Technique
    Sit on a bench with a high back for lower back support. Bring the legs in narrow and grip the dumbbells in a hammer position with the face of the dumbells facing the floor and the ceiling. Your starting point is where you arms are to our side with the elbows bositioned under the shoulder . Keep a little bend to your elbow, tighen your stomach and raise the dumbbells until the wrist is level with the shoulder. Hesitate slightly on the top and return the the starting position. Remember to go with a 2 count on the way up and a slower four count on the way down.

  3.   Muscle: Gluteus Maximus (Buttocks)
    Bad Choice: Traveling Dumbbell or Barbell Lunges

    Why it's risky?
    Ah yes...the favorite exercise of many women because of their magic ability to melt fat off the butt. Not so fast little Missy! First off, spot reducing fat using weights doesn't work. Cardiovascular fitness using aerobic exercise burns the fat. But beyond that if you really think about it traveling lunges are really no more than a one legged squat in motion. How many times in the course of your everyday life do you squat on one leg while traveling across the room with a weight bearing force on your back? May sound like a stupid question but I'm a big believer that if a movement in the gym doesn't mimic one that you will encounter in your everyday life then why even bother with it anyway? This concept is called functional exercise. You may feel these in the gluts but along with a nice "butt burn" comes the added bonus of about 5 times your body weight plus the weight of the bar or dumbbell on each knee joint as you lunge forward with momentum. Not too cool.

    Safer Alternatives - Stationery Lunges
    There are many other ways to get some good butt or glute work in without risking the integrity of one of the most important joints in the body, the knee. A statonery modified lunge is a gret way to work the glutes without using momentum.

    Form & Technique
    - Whether you use a barbell in a Smith machine or free standing with good old fashioned dumbbells, these are much safer than any walking lunge. Stand with your legs about shoulder width apart and bring on leg forward and one leg backward. Position your legs so as you bend your knees and lower your body to the floor, both legs are at 90 degree angles. Start in a standing position with good posture by keeping the abs tight and spine perpendicular to the floor. Gently lower your body weight while holding a dumbbell in each hand until the knee on your back leg almost touches the floor. Push through the floor on the front foot as you return to the starting position and flex your front thigh muscle. When you are almost stanind upright again, flex the glute muscle on the trailing leg.

  4. Muscle: Medial & Anterior (middle & front shoulder)
    Bad Choice: Behind the head military barbell press

    Why it's risky?
    Behind the head military press using dumbbells, barbell or machines has almost the same negative affects as the behind the head lat pulldown by stressing the rotator cuff and upper spine. How many times in your everyday life do you decide to left heavy things behind your back and over your head while in a seated or standing position? I don't know about you but I can think of about a million more things I would much rather do with my time. Just isn't functional.

    Safer Alternative - Side Lateral Dumbbell Raises
    Side lateral raises are a much more effective exercise for working the medial (middle) deltoid or shoulder without putting stress on the shoulder joint or rotator cuff. The key here is limiting the range of motion so the elbows are not lifted above the shoulders at the top of the movement or too far inside the body at the bottom of the movement.

    Form & Technique


When in doubt check the spine!
The simplest way to make good exercise choices is checking your spinal alignment out. If an exercise does not allow you to maintain the natural s-curves or positioning of your spine then it is probably not the wisest choice regardless of what your fitness level is. Try this theory out by just watching others performing exercises in the gym while you are resting between sets and zoom in on their back alignment. If the natural arch or curves in the upper and lower back are being compromised while performing the exercise, then there is probably a better choice available that is much safer and much more functional. If performing the exercise looks painful it probably is.

Use your head, listen to your body!
Ok, so now that you know my take on what I don't recommend it is up to you to make the choice. It's your body but I would really like to see you be able to weight train way beyond your retirement years. Weight training will benefit you as long as you can do it so don't cut your strength training career short by risking injuries to your joints while trying to do yourself some good. The no pain no gain cliché is nothing more than that. If you experience joint pain from a movement or find that an exercise or machine just doesn't feel right then you should be asking yourself why it is still in your workout routine. It may be the best excuse to add some variety to your workouts anyway. Ask a qualified trainer at your gym for safe alternatives that accomplish the same thing. There is more than one way to work a muscle and more importantly protect your joints at the same time. Once the joint breaks down you can't work much muscle anyway. Maximize your results by minimizing risk every time you show up at the gym.

Always consult your physician before starting any exercise program including cardiovascular or resistance training.

Good health to you. Exercise often...eat well...fuel your body...train smart...build momentum...stay focused...train for life ! TM.

Michael Merlino is a Freelance, Certified Professional Fitness Trainer and owner of Merlino Fitness and MerlinoFitness.com. He trains his clients at the Houston Downtown YMCA. Michael can be reached at 832-577-7770 or e-mail him at michael@merlinofitness.com. Click on one of the links below for more information on Michael and his fitness services.

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