6 Dangerous Gym Exercises and Their Bodyweight Alternatives

Written By: Todd Kuslikis
May 24, 2016

Last week, A Shot of Adrenaline celebrated a new milestone, where we passed the 10,000 likes mark on Facebook. We’re incredibly humbled that new fans, readers and supporters continue to find us every day and we are constantly inspired to continue working hard to bring you new, refreshing content relevant to you and your fitness journey.

Now, for those of you who may be some of our newest followers, around here, we’re kind of big on bodyweight exercises.

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In our humble, calisthenic-favoring opinion, it gives you the best workout possible by using your own body. As we say in Todd’s Story, “It’s about self-mastery.”

There are plenty of benefits to bodyweight training, which we’ve detailed before. But today we aren’t going to try to sell you on bodyweight training. Instead, we wanted to reach out to those of you who still work with heavy weights and machines (we like to include everyone).

A lot of the exercises that utilize these heavy weights and gym machines can be very dangerous and lead to serious injury. And if you’re thinking of a career in bodybuilding, take a moment, reconsider your goals, and do literally almost anything else with your time. And if you won’t take our word for it, listen to this champion bodybuilder advise people to not be bodybuilders (warning: NSFW content).

Even if you don’t aspire to resemble an unnaturally muscular walking stack of meat, your best bet is still to avoid heavy weights and machines. But it will probably take more than our word to convince you. That’s why we’re going to dive deep into the world of benches, barbells, and weight machines and show you the worst offenders. And don’t worry, because we’re going to be offering you some great bodyweight alternatives that will not only give you a great workout, but be much safer for your body.

Odds are, if you’ve trained with heavy weights for a while, you’ve at least picked up some nagging pain from various exercises, if not much worse. So let’s get those dangerous exercises to line up straight, have them turn to the left, and you tell us which one of these guys hurt you…

Bench Press

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Next time you walk into a gym, take a look at the bench press area. Is someone using it? Of course they are. Nothing in weightlifting is used as a barometer for strength more than the bench press. How’s your core? Do you ever work your lower body? It doesn’t matter, just tell us how much ya bench.

The bench press is where a high level of injury in the weight room occurs. Especially with the flat bench press, shoulder pain is typical due to the restriction of the movement of the scapulae (shoulder blades). As a result, the movement of your glenohumeral joint (main shoulder) is greatly exaggerated.

You could counter this with a thin bench on which to lay, but then your feeling of security is compromised and you risk falling off.

This leads us to the biggest problem of the bench press, which is the fact that you’re holding a lot of weight directly above your chest, neck and throat area. Sure, a spotter can reduce the risk here, but that doesn’t guarantee anything.

In 2009, Stafon Johnson, a running back for the University of Southern California football team, suffered serious injuries when his hand slipped while bench pressing and the bar dropped directly onto his throat. This was during a team workout with a lot of potential spotters and helpers around.

Johnson went on to make a full recovery, but was probably lucky to survive. He required three emergency surgeries to repair his vocal cord, adam’s apple and torn muscles.

Bodyweight Alternative

No need to complicate things: do some push-ups.

Yes, the old stand-by for bodyweight exercises is the perfect alternative to using the bench press.

First of all, push-ups eliminate the risk of the shoulder pain attributed to lack of movement in the shoulder blades. Then there’s the fact that slipping while doing a push-up is inherently less dangerous than while benching.

Push-ups, like any exercise, require good form, or you’re going to hurt yourself no matter what. But on the whole, they’re a better route to take.

And don’t worry about getting bored with push-ups. There are a lot of variations that are extremely challenging.

Good Mornings

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Boy, you’d think something with such a pleasant title would have to be good for you. That’s usually the case, right?
As it so happens, even something that sounds positive can turn out to be the complete opposite.

And good mornings, it seems, are no different. If you’re unfamiliar, a good morning is an exercise where a person holds a bar over the rear of their shoulders, and bends at the hips while keeping their back arched. Return to the starting position by extending through the hips through your glutes and hamstrings. Finally, look up to the sky and thank your lucky stars you still have a functioning spine.

The inherent danger of good mornings is the precarious position in which you place yourself, bent over at the waist with a lot of weight bearing down on your spine. Much like the bench press, you could find yourself in a world of trouble if you cannot complete the lift.

Bodyweight Alternative

For beginners, give the Superman a shot. It’s a simple yet very effective exercise that strengthens your lower back. Here’s a helpful video with different variations. The Superman exercise takes place on the floor, which is nice considering that’s probably where you would have ended up doing good mornings anyway.

Once you’ve mastered Supermans and want to “raise” your performance, try inverted hanging leg raises. These require a pullup bar or something from which to hang and require outstanding core and lumbar control. But again, they’re completely absent of a heavy bar lingering threateningly just behind you.

Leg Extensions

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Travelling to the lower body, the first gym machine to banish from your workout log is the leg extension machine. This thing places the user in a seat with knees bent and has the user extend their legs outward in an effort to strengthen quad muscles.

Unfortunately, the leg extension only works the quad, which is generally stronger than the hamstrings anyway. Quads should be exercised in conjunction with other muscles like hamstrings or glutes, but with the leg extension it’s just the quad getting the workout.

People often mistake the leg extension as a means to prevent injuries, when it actually places dangerous torque on your knee joints because it pulls your shins back as you lower the weight.

It also applies constant ACL tension, so it’s especially hazardous for those with ligament injuries. This danger is exacerbated when using a lot of weight, which people tend to do because it completely isolates the quad muscles.

It’s also pretty common for those with patella or other knee pain to be prescribed a regimen of leg extensions. The idea is that a strengthened quad will alleviate pressure from the troubled knee area. The problem is, doing leg extensions with sensitive knees really, really hurts. So that’s out.

Bodyweight Alternative

Beginners should start with a walking lunge. Take a big step with one leg, center your weight as you sit backwards and drop your non-lunging knee so that it almost touches the ground. Then, in a controlled motion, bring your dropped knee back up and your feet together.

You can find examples of walking lunges all over the web, often with weights to present more of a challenge. But if you’ve mastered the walking lunge and want to increase the difficulty, don’t worry about the dumbbells; we’ve got something special for you. Those familiar with our programs probably know where this is going.

Yep, we’re talking about pistol squats.

Among the numerous benefits we’ve discussed before, you increase your balance and stability with pistol squats. You also seriously increase your mobility.

Now again, a fully executed pistol squat is a very difficult exercise. It will take a lot of practice, likely using the steps we outlined on our page. But the result will be a much stronger leg overall than what you’d get with leg extensions.

Leg Curl Machine

Sticking with the legs, we’re now shifting our focus behind those quads to the hamstrings. The leg curl machine is a staple in gyms and fitness centers.

The issue we have with this machine, just like the leg extension machine, is that it isolates a muscle group too much. In this case, it’s the hamstrings. Defenders of the exercise may say it’s a great workout for your hamstrings. And, essentially, it is. But that’s the problem. It’s a great exercise for the hamstrings, and nothing else.

A good hamstring workout also activates the glutes, so you risk pulling your hamstrings when that’s all you’re working. Eventually you’re going to exhaust your hamstrings, all while missing out on working your glutes as well as your hip extension (another must for hamstring workouts).

Bodyweight Alternative

Instead of ignoring your hips and glutes while working the hammies, grab a physioball and do some leg curls on the floor.

These are great because they’re going to get those other muscle groups to join in on the fun. As you’ll see, your hips are elevated so your whole lower body is getting a piece of the action. You can start with both feet on the ball as you curl, but as you get more advanced, you can lift one leg in the air for some single-leg curls.

And of course, after you finish getting a great workout, you get to catch your breath while sitting on a bouncy ball. Let’s not pretend that’s not a bonus.

Behind the Neck Shoulder Press

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You should be able to see what you’re lifting. That’s got to be a rule somewhere.

The problem with the BTN shoulder press is it compromises your rotator cuff, which is a series of four small, intricate muscles that stabilize rotation in the shoulder joint. The BTN shoulder press puts the shoulders in a terrible position from which to push or pull.

Even if you don’t injure yourself during the exercise, you risk over-stretching parts of the cuff, which can lead to injuries elsewhere.

Bodyweight Alternative

Pike push-ups are a great start for beginners. They’re a fairly straightforward exercise: Begin in standard push-up position with your feet slightly wider than shoulder-width apart. Walk your feet toward your hands while keeping your back straight. Then bend at the elbows, bringing your head down to the floor. Push back to the starting position and repeat.

When you’re feeling ready to move on from that, you may be ready for the handstand push-up.

This is not an exercise that you’re going to get on your first try. It’s a process, and the first step is proper balance. Start by doing a handstand and balancing your feet on the wall, to get a feel for being upside-down.

Then, slowly begin dropping your elbows in a controlled motion and, like a standard push-up, push back to the starting position.

We strongly recommend performing the standing push-up on a mat or a semi-soft flooring that can reduce impact, should you slip.

Hip Abductor/Adductor Machine

This is the one that really gets our blood pumping. And not in the way a good exercise should.

The hip abductor and adductor machines are the only item on this list that is dangerous, not only because they pose a risk of injury, but because they are an outright scam.

Say what you will about bench presses and leg curl machines, but they were probably created with at least the intent of progressing a person’s fitness. The hip abductor/adductor machines were created for one reason and one reason only: to prey on the insecurities of women.

Thighs are a very common area of insecurity for women, given that it’s a very normal place for stubborn fat to hide. But the myth of spot fat reduction — the idea that you can burn fat in a specific area by targeting that part of the body during exercise — has been so thoroughly disproven it’s got its own Wikipedia page.

Both the hip abductor and adductor machines (because if you’re going to scam people, you may as well double your money and make two useless machines, right?) are based around this fallacy, and surprise surprise, they don’t work. The internet is full of both fitness experts’ reviews and anecdotal stories from athletes chastising these hunks of steel.

Oh, and they’re also bad for your health, just in case you were wondering. They make your IT-bands too tight, which can lead to serious pain. Most of the muscles you’re trying to target are connected to the pelvis, which, in a seated position, does not align properly, so you end up not even working the muscles you wanted properly.

Bodyweight Alternative

Again, spot fat reduction doesn’t work, whether you’re in a machine or not, but you can still get a much better workout for your abductors and adductors with side lunges.

A simple bodyweight exercise, it’s incredibly beneficial for the lower body — you also activate your glutes, quads, hamstrings and more. And they’re great for both men and women.

That, or you can check the news on your phone. Or send a text to a friend. Or just sit quietly for a few minutes. They’re not great ways to exercise, but they all would be a better use of your time than using a useless machine that purposely exploits your insecurities.

Is there an exercise or machine that’s done you wrong in the past that we didn’t mention? If so, let us know in the comments!

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