Is exercising more dangerous than being sedentary? Overall, probably not. But when you’re sidelined with an exercise-induced injury, you may wonder why you bothered to exercise in the first place.
When we think of injuries from activities, we often think of acute injuries—like concussions, broken bones, or twisted knees—that happen in contact sports. But there are also overuse injuries, which occur from doing the same repetitive motion over and over again, often in non-contact sports such as running, swimming, or even softball. In fact, 30% of all injuries in collegiate sports come from overuse injury, and the majority—62%—occur in female athletes).
But we often fail to consider injuries that come from simple exercises. Despite our best intentions to improve our health, we can sometimes cause ourselves harm.
Here are a number of exercise moves that could cause you injury or pain in your daily workout:
The regular kettlebell swing (aka: the Russian swing) is a great CrossFit exercise that, when done correctly, powerfully strengthens your glutes and hamstrings. But when done incorrectly, it can lead to shoulder problems, such as rotator cuff injuries and inflammation of other structures.
In the traditional swing, you dangle the kettlebell from your arms as you move into a slightly squatted position, letting momentum take the weight behind your thighs. Then you stand with a quick burst of speed, focusing on those glutes and hammies. The movement swings the kettlebell upward and in front of you, so you end up with your arms and the weight about parallel to the ground.
But, some trainers amp up the exercise (aka: the American swing) so that your arms end up overhead with the weight pointed to the ceiling. But this may take the work away from the glutes and hamstrings, putting it where it shouldn’t be—on the shoulders and lower back. Instead of feeling the burn, you’ll feel the pain (of injuries).
Here’s another move that may put undue pressure on the shoulders. In the lat pull-down, you sit or stand at a Universal-type machine, grip the bar in a position wider than the shoulders, and pull the weight down—either in front of your face or behind your head—with a focus on the latissimus dorsi, as well as the pectoral muscles.
But pulling the weight down behind your head may place a lot of stress on the anterior joint capsule of the shoulder, experts warn. Although there’s no research to show that this definitely leads to more injuries, it certainly is more risky to your shoulders than the front lat pull-down, according to researchers of one study. Plus, there’s really no sport or daily activity that uses the behind-the-neck movement. Lastly, the front lat pull-down elicits as much or more muscle activity than the behind-the-neck maneuver, the researchers noted. In short, the behind-the-neck lat pull-down increases the risk of injury, yet provides no extra benefit compared with the front lat pull-down.
Few exercises are as familiar and as basic as the ol’ pull-up—can there even be a wrong way to do it? You bet your sweat socks there is. Like the lat pull-down, the pull-up focuses on the latissimus dorsi muscles. But people who don’t have enough latissimus dorsi strength to begin with may compensate by using their upper trapezius and pectoral muscles. And, like the lat pull-down, doing pull-ups with improper form can lead to injuries, particularly shoulder impingement.
Hand position is also important. Researchers found that people who use a grip with their arms spaced wide or a grip with their hands in reverse position (palms of the hand facing toward you) were at greater risk for rotator cuff injuries compared with those who used a front grip (palms facing away). This is important because the reverse grip is often recommended as being easier for weaker beginners, yet it actually carries a higher injury risk than the front grip.
Seated leg extension
Just because it’s at the gym doesn’t mean it’s good for you. The seated leg extension is a prime example. You sit down at the machine, put your ankles beneath a padded bar, and then press your legs upward against the pad, lifting your legs so they’re parallel to the floor. The exercise isolates your quadriceps. But doing so may put other parts of your legs at risk, particularly your knees.
“Using a leg extension machine isn’t functional—there is no natural movement in life where you sit and straighten your knee with a 100-pound load against it,” physical therapist Joe Tatta, DPT, told CNN.
Because muscles and muscle groups are meant to work together, isolating any one muscle or group of muscles (like the quads) without strengthening the other muscles of the leg runs the risk of creating muscle imbalances, he noted.
“It also places undue stress across your knee joint, affecting the delicate cartilage under the patella,” Tatta added.
Doing bicycle crunches is as easy as…uh, riding a bicycle? Nope, but it is easy to get hurt doing them.
The problem lies in flexion of the spine, in which you round your lower back so you can bend forward at the waist. But this can compress the lower spine and cause a herniated disc. In fact, it’s the same force on the spine that causes a person to “throw their back out.”
The additional problem with doing bicycle crunches is that they twist the abdomen, usually at high speed, which adds pressure to the lower spine. If you do have a herniated disc, for example, this is exactly the exercise you should not do.
The cervical spine is at risk for injuries, too, because many people many people clutch the back of their heads and crane their necks back and forth when doing bicycle crunches. With all this twisting, turning, and pulling, the abs don’t even get the full workout that people expect from these exercises.