Dangerous Gym Equipment
Or, How to Get Strong and Fit With a Lot Less Risk
There’s a bit of a juxtaposition in the fitness world. You go to a gym to get in shape, or to make some new personal records, but some of that shiny equipment, the gear that is supposed to help you, might just injure you and set you back.
We’ve all heard the stories. Somebody’s cousin’s accountant’s veterinarian blew out his knee or back doing something or other at the gym. The stories can get pretty gruesome and they can easily dissuade you from exercising.
Luckily, the internet, as always, is there to provide you with way too much information. Just look up anything to do with “danger” and “gym” and you’ll get a list of equipment that seems to be designed by medieval torture experts.
There are Smith Machines, ab machines, leg presses, curls, adductors, abductors, shoulder and chest press machines, and many more. A little research shows that all of them can cause either acute injury or long term damage. And when you learn about them, it’s pretty natural to wonder why gyms keep choosing these items.
The big problem with these machines is twofold. First, they isolate a body part to the exclusion of the rest of your body and they also force you to follow an unnatural path that puts your joints in danger. These problems are only compounded when you move up in weight on these machines, as they can encourage poor form and cheating in addition to abnormal stress on the joints. Who hasn’t seen someone jerking their way through a repetition on one of these machines?
To compound the trouble of dangerous machines, poorly designed group classes and training can carry risks. To save on equipment costs for the facility, most exercise programs focus on workouts that can be done with a minimal amount of equipment, or no equipment at all. These workouts tend to be built around exercises like burpees, planks, pushups and variations on crunches. While these are great exercises for your chest and abs, they ignore the back half of your body and doing them exclusively can lead to hip, back and neck problems. This also tends to exacerbate problems that we already have from sitting and staring at computer screens and smart phones all day.
The fact is this, every activity carries risk. You can injure your back by sitting too long. You can trip while walking. If you do any activity enough, and that includes working out, you can expect a few minor injuries. Everyone who works out will encounter sore muscles, especially at the beginning of a training regimen, and minor aches and pains can hit even the most experienced and careful athletes.
With that warning in mind, we must also understand that the benefits can seriously outweigh the risks. Regular exercise, especially training that builds muscle, has been shown to fight off heart disease, osteoporosis, many types of cancer, diabetes…the list goes on. Studies also show that it helps with depression and dementia while reducing stress levels. Plus, it gives us the ability to do the things we love to do better, and to enjoy them more. Clearly, making exercise a part of our daily lives improves our quality of life.
But, how do we do it consistently when gyms seem to buy equipment that seems designed to cause injuries and setbacks? The key is to be smart about being fit. Choose activities and equipment that will help you while minimizing the risk. And the big key to this is in doing four things: using more of your body at once, allowing your body to move naturally, going for balance and starting in the right place.
Free weights are a great choice because they let you hit all of these requirements at once. When you pick up a dumbbell or barbell, you are forced to use nearly your whole body. Your legs help you lift, your midsection stabilizes you, the list goes on and on, varying with each exercise.
This approach also allows you to move naturally through a motion instead of locking you into a forced path, plus, because you have to keep your body stable, you work more of your body, gaining even more benefits.
Going for balance helps protect muscles and joints from injury. While we may get tempted to spot train areas that we want to stand out in a good way, like the abs, training just one area forces our bodies out of whack and can cause injuries. Instead, make sure that you balance your favorite exercises with workouts for the rest of your body. Again, most gyms, and especially exercise programs, seem ignorant about what to provide and program for their clients. Look for gear and instruction that provides plenty of pulling motions for your back in addition to pushing for your front side.
And remember, you don’t have to start lifting with heavy weights. Better to do a body weight or a goblet squat with a small dumbbell than to pile weights onto a leg press machine that will put your knees and lower back in danger. Start with what your body can do and build up gradually.
By working out your whole body, in a smart, natural, balanced way, and starting at a level that is right for you, you can gain all of the benefits of regular exercise while minimizing the risks.