You exercise to get fitter, stronger, or faster—not to end up in the ER. Tip the odds in your favor by avoiding potentially dangerous missteps and choosing our safer (but still effective) options.
Our experts—a trainer and yoga instructor, a physical therapist, and an orthopedic surgeon—wouldn’t outright ban these moves from the exercise books. But they do say smart training starts with knowing your limits, and that for many people, these exercises push the boundaries with minimal payoff.
1. Full Squats Christopher Yamovo/Flickr
The Risk: Knee Injuries
Squatting so low that you touch your butt to the back of your ankles recruits and strengthens a large number of muscle fibers. But it also puts undue pressure on your knees, especially as you age. As a result, you may tear ligaments and wear down the cartilage behind your kneecap, says Frank Musumeci, PT, a former NFL trainer and currently the Biomechanical and Musculoskeletal Director at the Pritikin Longevity Center in Miami.
The Alternative: Shallower Squats
Quarter- or half-squats improve your range of motion and don’t put you in a position of mechanical breakdown. “You probably get just as good of a strengthening of the quadriceps and hamstrings stopping at 90 degrees— essentially a right angle with your knees—and not going down past that,” says David Geier, M.D., orthopaedic surgeon and the Director of MUSC Sports Medicine in Charleston, S.C.
2. Shoulder Stand Studio Cirq
The Risk: Neck Injuries
This asana—or yoga pose—aims to direct blood flow toward your thyroid gland. But stacking so much of your weight on top of your spinal column leaves the muscles and ligaments of your neck vulnerable to strains. In severe cases, it can even contribute to cervical disk injuries. Improper leg alignment adds to the danger, says Jimmy Minardi, a personal trainer and yoga instructor at Minardi Training.
The Alternative: Legs-Up-the-Wall Pose
Lie back with your seat pressed into a wall and raise your legs up, using a support under your lower back if needed. “The restorative nature of this posture gets blood flowing to parts of the body that need it, making it good for most any ailment including arthritis, high or low blood pressure, and respiratory issues,” Minardi says.
3. Military Press With Barbell Courtesy of 1st Armored Division
The Risk: Shoulder Injuries
Hiking a barbell up over your head can compress your shoulder joint. At first, you may just feel a nagging, aching, pain deep below the surface. “You might not think much about it, but that pain makes the muscles weak, and that puts even more stress on the joints,” Dr. Geier says. “Eventually, you can start getting injuries like labral tears”—rips in the soft, fibrous tissue surrounding the shoulder joint.
The Alternative: Lateral or Forward Raises
Grab dumbbells instead and lift your arms to the front or to the side. That way, you can pump up your deltoids without the same compression forces on the shoulder joint. And if those minor aches persist, take them to the sports doc, Dr. Geier says: “It may not be a big deal, but it’s worth getting it checked out early because you can modify your exercises to take stress off that shoulder before you develop a serious injury.”
4. A Quick Move to Minimalist Shoes Totovo/Flickr
The Risk: Bone Injuries
A little impact strengthens your skeleton—like muscles, bones constantly adapt to the stresses of your workout. But ditching your cushioned kicks cold-turkey may expose your feet to more pounding than they can handle. When researchers at Brigham Young University asked 19 experienced recreational runners to transition to minimalist shoes over 10 weeks, about half of them developed significant levels of bone swelling, or edema—and two had stress fractures. (That’s compared with only one instance of swelling and no fractures in a control group that didn’t make the switch.)
The Alternative: Take Your Time
Start with very short distances in lightweight footwear and build up over weeks or months. “We don’t have scientific data for this, but it has been suggested that it could take six months to one year, depending on how much mileage you run, your experience with doing activities barefoot, and other mechanical factors,” says study author Sarah Trager Ridge, Ph.D.
5. The Good Morning U.S. Navy
The Risk: Back Injuries
NFL linemen have no problem with this move, which involves lifting a barbell behind the head, bending forward to 90 degrees, and then lifting your trunk back up. But if you’re not being paid millions to play a sport, you probably want to skip this one. “When you treat people’s backs and herniated discs as often as I do, you really don’t want to see someone do that unless they have a darn good reason for doing it,” Musumeci says.
The Alternative: Prone Extensions
To work your hamstrings and glues with no stress on your back, lie on your stomach with your legs hanging over a bench. Start with your toes touching the ground, then lift both legs until they’re parallel to the floor. Seem too easy? Add weights to your ankles. “This is a very safe exercise because your spine is never flexed in a bad position,” Musumeci says.
6. Bicep Curls David Strågefors/Flickr
The Risk: Rotator Cuff Injuries
Like many moves, curls done properly can serve as a useful part of your routine. But too often, lifters grab too much weight and then must hunch their backs, roll their shoulders, or rock their entire bodies to lift and lower them. This trains the dysfunction and throws the whole risk-benefit equation out of balance, Minardi says: “What are you going to do, blow your whole body to shreds so you can wear a small T-shirt at your next barbecue?”
The Alternative: Single-Arm Curls
Choose a weight that’s challenging but controllable, and take things one at a time. Elevate your opposite leg on a step or bench to challenge your balance and set your shoulder back, improving your posture and your curling position, Minardi says.
7. Plyometrics CrossFit Kandahar/Flickr
The Risk: Overuse and Traumatic Injuries
The specific exercises range from simple box jumps to more out-there routines like hopping one-legged on a Bosu ball. Though they train pro athletes’ speed and explosiveness, these jump-based moves carry big risks once you’re a few years past your prime, Musumeci says. Not only can they wear down ligaments and bones over time, they also carry the chance of a spectacular (and embarrassing) blowout if you fall.
The Alternative: Sport-Specific Training
Think about the skills you need to succeed at your favorite activity, and choose a routine that improves them. Play tennis? Try reverse walking on a treadmill to polish up your backpedal. Hikers can use the stairclimber to practice steep climbs or walk backwards against a weighted cable to mimic descent. “This way, you’re training the same neuromuscular pathways you’re going to be using in your activity,” Musumeci says—you’ll be better at doing what you love, and less likely to get hurt while doing it.
8. Poor Cycling Posture Jimmy Minardi
The Risk: Pain and Overuse Injuries in Your Neck, Back, and Hips
Minardi spots one pose so often on both road and spin bikes, he has a name for it: “dancing bear.” When he sees riders sitting heavily with their knees and elbows flared, chin down, back hunched, and head flailing, he knows they’ll eventually end up hurting.
The Alternative: Sit Right
First, ask your spin instructor—or a bike shop, if you’re riding roads or trails—to check your seat height and bike fit. Then, position yourself so you’re both comfortable and efficient. “Your saddle position is supposed to be very light—you’re barely on your saddle, you’re not anchored in it. Your knees are tight to the top tube. Keep your shoulders back and down and your neck nice and long,” Minardi says. Before you pedal off, warm up your arms, shoulders, neck, and back to avoid cramping and soreness.
9. Bench Press—With a Bounce Andrew Blight
The Risk: Shoulder Injuries (and Bruised Ribs)
You’ve seen them at the gym—lifters who lay on the bench and let the bar drop quickly so it bounces off their chest. The theory: Stretching your pectorals this way will help you recruit more muscle fibers so you can lift heavier. Not only does this not actually work, too-heavy weights can damage your shoulders on the way up and your rib cage on the way down. “You’re talking about an exercise that has way more risks that it does rewards,” says Musumeci.
The Alternative: Bench Press, Period
Start by picking a weight you can control. Roll up a towel and place it on your chest. Lower it slowly until you touch the towel, and then lift, Musumeci advises.
10. Twerking FilmMagic for MTV
The Risk: Pelvic Injury; Public Humiliation
Before you go all Miley Cyrus at your next house party or club night, consider that while stars, YouTubers, and your kids make twerking look effortless and inspiring, the moves require the kind of deep squat and pelvic “pop” that poses serious risk for the inexperienced. The odds of spraining your back, or, worse, getting filmed by friends and discovering you're now all over Facebook are not slim.
The Alternative: Not Twerking
Yes, a few minutes convulsing through this dance trend can provide a great calorie burn and help add some style to your game. But it could leave you on the couch, girdled in ice packs, too. If you must twerk, go slow. Warm up with some hula-hooping or some easy salsa dancing. Try a good “twerkout” video. But consider: By the time you master it, twerking will have gone the way of Gangnam Style anyway.