Gym rats, take notes!
It seems like every day there’s some fancy new exercise claiming to tone your glutes or puff your pecs. But the ligaments and joints that hold us together aren’t meant to do certain things, and some of these new exercises may be damaging, rather than strengthening, your body.
So let’s delve into some sports science to show you which popular workouts may be putting your body under strain.
Let’s start with the upright row, which is when you hold weights at hip level and lift them up to your chest. This has long been a popular way to work the deltoid and trapezius muscles, but unless you’re insanely focused on form it’s easy to cause lasting shoulder damage.
The thing with upright rows is that they put a lot of pressure on the rotator cuff of the shoulder (research bears this out). If your rotator cuff isn’t strong enough to support whatever amount of weight you’re using, the end of your humerus bone may break loose and rub up against muscles and ligaments in your shoulder, most notably the supraspinatus muscle. Damaging that baby is a big deal. Solution? Drop the weights and do cable rows instead.
The quest for the perfect abs has been a national obsession for at least 20 years, as cut stomach muscles (that aren’t hiding behind a layer of fat) are hot on both men and women. Unfortunately, the stomach exercises that we grew up doing are not only ineffective but harmful.
Crunches and sit-ups do work our abdominals, aka our six packs, but not as well as other exercises do. And the movement of lifting your upper body from the floor to a sitting position is incredibly hard on the spine. A 1995 study published in Clinical Biomechanics, an academic journal, found that the average sit-up applied a staggering 674 pounds of force to your lower spine. That can result in disc damage that’s not fixable without surgery.
Working your lats is vital for a chiseled back, but targeting that muscle group specifically can be difficult. To do it, most gym rats rely on pulldowns, where they grip a bar attached to weights and pull it down either to their chest or behind their head. Pulling to the chest is relatively safe. Pulling behind your head is not.
That’s because the posture required to do them is terrible for your neck. Pushing your head forward to make a path for the bar to go down tightens numerous muscles in your neck. That tightness can result in pain and injury. The posture also unsettles the shoulder ligaments and rotator cuff.
Neglecting leg day is obviously a no-no, but one of the most popular weight machine exercises for your legs is a non-starter. Seated leg extensions, where you work your quads by bending your knees from flexed to full length, puts a tremendous amount of force on your knee, especially one ligament known as the “anterior cruciate,” or simply ACL for short.
People who have injured that ligament in the past should definitely avoid this exercise, but healthy ligaments can be affected too. Instead, do squats. They work your quads, too, but without the risk.
Some exercises are attractive because you don’t need special equipment to do them. Tricep dips (also known as bench dips) are a good example — all you need is a flat surface like a chair or a coffee table. And there’s no denying that they definitely work to target those hard-to-build muscles. Unfortunately, they’re also pretty hazardous to your shoulders.
The thing with tricep dips is, if they’re done with perfect form they’re probably not going to hurt you. But who among us is capable of perfect form all the time? It’s easy to let your shoulders slide forward at the bottom of the dip. Doing so puts excessive weight on the joint and removes its ability to stabilize you. That can lead to serious strain on your elbows and neck as well.
None of these exercises are particularly weird or extreme. In fact, if you head down to the gym and bum around for as long as it takes someone to drink a smoothie, you’ll probably see someone doing them. Remember: the maxim “no pain, no gain” doesn’t mean much if you’re in a hospital bed.