Training for your sport should be physically exhausting but it shouldn’t injure you. Performing exercises when severely fatigued or with incorrect form can lead to injury—the exact opposite of what your training is supposed to accomplish. And some exercises are inherently risky. Here are some of them and, for each, a safer alternative to perform during your next workout. (See also Weight Room Injuries on the Rise: How to Buck the Trend.)
Running Stadium Steps
Problem: Running up and down stadium steps is certainly a tough workout, but it places a great deal of stress on your joints. It’s great for a calorie burn to work the leg muscles, but the potential harm to your lower back and to your knee, ankle and hip joints can cause long-term issues.
Safer Alternatives: Use a stair climber machine in the gym, where you can modify the speed, step height and knee position and get some upper-body support. Another option that reduces stress to the knees: fast walking with walking poles in each hand to lessen the force on the lower body.
Problem: Some trainers will tell you this strengthens the legs, but there is nothing scientifically sound about weighted running. The only thing we know about it for sure is that placing additional stress on the ankles can lead to hip and back problems.
Safer Alternative: Train your leg muscles individually. If your goal is to run faster or jump higher, you should do speed training and jump-specific training, assuming your level of fitness is advanced enough for these programs.
Problem: Coming up to a full sit-up position places unnecessary stress on the lower back.(1)
Safer Alternative: Perform Curl-Ups or other abdominal exercises. (See The Death of the Crunch?)
Problem: Excessively arching the back can lead to lower-back strain or irritation.(2). (See Georgia Volleyball Superman for proper form.)
Safer Alternatives: Keep the spine in a neutral position while in a prone position and raise only one leg or arm at a time. Other alternatives include performing single arm and single leg movements from a hands-and-knees position.
Problem: Doing fast trunk twists is actually not an effective technique to burn belly fat; and the movement can cause an injury to your lower back.
Safer Alternative: Slowly warm up and stretch your back before any kind of trunk rotation movements. To lose fat from the waist area, focus on a sound training program and good nutrition.
Weighted Side Bends
Problem: Holding a dumbbell in each hand and bending sideways can cause a back injury.
Safer Alternative: Perform Side Planks to strengthen your core; and focus on total body fitness and good nutrition.
Problem: Lunges are great for toning and strengthening your leg muscles. The problem is not the exercise itself, but common form errors, especially allowing the knee to go beyond the toes.
Safer Alternative: Perform partial lunges, where your muscles absorb the force instead of stressing the knee joint in an unsafe position.
Problem: Since the foot is placed outside the knee, this stretch may strain the inside part of the knee.
Safer Alternative: Stretch the thigh with the knee in a neutral position, or where the heel comes toward the middle of the gluteal muscles.
Standing Toe Touches
Problem: Repeated or prolonged standing toe touches may injure the lower back.(2)
Safer Alternative: From a hands-and-knees position, sit back on your heels to stretch your lower back.
Problem: This is a yoga pose in which you bring your legs over your head in the supine position.
Safer Alternative: From a hand-and-knees position, sit back toward your ankles.
(1) McGill SM. “Core training: Evidence translating to better performance and injury prevention. Strength and Conditioning Journal. 2010;32(3):33-46.
(2) McGill SM. Low Back Disorders, 2nd ed. Champaign Ill: Human Kinetics, 2007.