So, do you want to get some people on the internet pissed off in a hurry? I've got two, wonderful suggestions. The first one involves buying a big ass grill, adopting as many puppies and kittens from your local shelter as possible, and posting pictures of the ensuing barbeque that you have all over Instagram. The second involves writing an article on any popular, hack fitness site complete with a list of exercises that are dangerous and should never be done. I'm guessing most of the English-reading and speaking followers of my blog haven't acquired the taste for house pets (even though everything tastes good on a grill) so that would leave you to spout off about the dangerous stuff that people do in the gym.
Once in a great while, I am capable of looking past the bullshit that inhabits our little subculture of strength and see some merit in these contentious issues. This just happens to be one of those times. Yes, exercise can be dangerous. I just happen to think that it's not as simple as, "this will break your skeleton to dust...DON'T DO IT". So, the reasons why certain shit is or isn't a hazard change. Here are the reasons why. Some are pathetically obvious. Others more subtle.
Pathetically Obvious: Not Done Right!
You'll see bread-and-butter exercises like the squat and the deadlift labeled as bad for you by medical professionals with reliability that even Rolex would envy. The answer for this is pretty simple: they get to deal with the people who did them wrong, fucked themselves up, and came to them to be un-fucked from their ignorance.
My physical therapist told me that squats were bad for my knees. My chiropractor told me that deadlifting was bad for my back. Well, babies squat naturally and sit down with extreme reluctance. Adults change this with modern habit. In other words, we un-learn the squat...and often don't re-learn it properly. It's downright stunning how few people I've seen in even a hardcore strength gym can't squat properly. While I don't agree that back squatting is dangerous, I do agree that it's not good for someone who doesn't know how to squat anymore. There's a key difference in how bad it is for you: lack of knowledge.
My friend Chip had the best take on deadlifting that I've heard to date. It goes something like this: deadlifting is picking something off the ground. You have know how to do that properly. So, labeling the deadlift as dangerous and suggesting avoidance is impractical as the day is long for a human body who might actually have to move with purpose. There's a perfectly good reason why your lumbar vertebras are the biggest of all the spine bones: they're designed to take a lot of force from lifting stuff.
Let me clue new readers into a simple fact that I've gone over several times over the years: the medical community and the weight training community have had a very contentious relationship going back nearly 12 decades now. Shockingly little information is shared between them and they both frequently bicker about what's best for a human body. It's sad that your doctor probably has no fucking clue about proper exercise but that likely true.
Almost as Obvious: Too Much!
Yeah, I'm sure this one has got to be neck-and-neck with doing good exercises with poor form in creating training injuries. From kipping your way to high pull-up volume with torn labrums to deadlifting your way to bulged discs with excessive iron, gym dummies give the training naysayers plenty to complain about with dangerous exercises with their own brand of decedance .
Let me enlighten everyone here to a term in force development that few people know about and I don't mention enough to compensate for that: absolute strength. This is phenomenon when the brain fires 100% of the muscle fibers, rather than the roughly 33% you can consciously perceive firing. This is held in reserve for emergency use only since it's also a tendon-shredding amount of power. Hey, exploded connective tissue beats dying, right?
So, all of that effort to take a perfectly safe lift and turn it into an episode of social Darwinism is just flat-out pointless. If you sense enough need, you can lift anything while breaking just about everything in your body in the process. Doing it in a life-threatening situation is impressive. Doing it for a PR is stupid. If anything, it just gives ammo to those ignorant medical professionals who will have to screw and glue your body back together that real strength training is a fantastic revenue stream.
Kind of Subtle, often ignored: Imbalances
This is where the clear waters of what is and isn't dangerous becomes positively swampy. The fact remains that there are a lot of exercises that, done a bit too much, will lead to some sort of muscle imbalance. That can be dangerous. Back a few years ago, I took up the maddening pastime of reading anatomy books to learn about the human body. Most of this shit is memorization that's easily forgotten should you not use it on a daily basis but there were a few concepts that stuck with me. One such example was tensegrity.
One thing you have to keep in mind is that your skeleton is not machine-like in the sense that the bones do not directly interlock with one another at the joints. Sure, there are some tendons that hold bone to bone but alignment is provided by tension from multiple muscles, pulling in multiple directions. Proper muscle tension holds the body together. Improper muscle tension breaks it down.
So, over development of the strength of certain muscles results in more tension, pulling joints in bad directions. That's a huge reason I'm not a fan of the bench press. This also explains why the face pull is so popular with savvy benchers. It helps develop the shoulder muscles that the bench, even when done right, neglects. That also explains why I like the push-up so much: you don't need two exercises to develop healthy upper body pushing strength (aka: inefficiency). Still, a bench press can be okay, if you pull something to your face.
I learned this the hard way this past summer when I eschewed any lower body, posterior-chain work since it made my Frankenstein-knee hate the rest of my body. Instead, I favored quad-dominant squatting, particularly the hip belt squat. Over the summer, this approach helped me develop IT Band syndrome so bad that I couldn't do much at all with my legs for the final months before my Strongman Competition. Most of this due to a movement generally considered a healthy alternative to squatting for a physically-compromised body.
Now don't mistake this for some sort of rant from a skinny, polo-shirt-wearing, DYEL-esque personal trainer from the purple country part of the strength training world. No, unlike them, I love to lift and otherwise train. What I don't enjoy is...shit that inhibits my ability to train. So, that will make me ponder the notion that there may well be shit I can do that's hurtful and therefore keeps me from hoisting. Yes, there are dangers and they need to be identified to keep me from setting fire to things as an alternative form of stress reduction. So, while reading such article about dangerous this-n-that on T-Nation are mostly painful, it does present an opportunity for introspection.