The 5 Most Dangerous Exercises

…And Some Better Options

Injuries kill workout consistency. Avoid these high-risk exercises and replace them with smart moves that are even more effective.


Dangerous Exercises: Low Benefits, High Risks

No exercise is completely risk-free, but some are riskier than others. If you’re not considering the risk-to-reward ratio, you’re failing to consider a crucial aspect of good training: making every effort to prevent injury.

I never program the following exercises because the risks far outweigh the rewards, even when done with good form. Despite their popularity, none of these exercises are needed to improve your physique or performance in most sports. Sure, a couple of these must be trained if you’re a competitive powerlifter or strongman, but that’s probably not you.

1. The Heavy Mixed-Grip Deadlift

Don’t use the mixed-grip deadlift when doing sets of your 6RM or heavier. The chance of biceps injury on the underhand side is just too high.

This was verified in a 2021 research paper about deadlifts and biceps tendon ruptures. (1) The researchers performed a search on YouTube using the terms “distal biceps tendon rupture” and “distal biceps tendon injury” combined with “competition,” “deadlift,” and “powerlifting.” The videos underwent an evaluation for accuracy by three surgeons.

Among the videos reviewed, 35 injuries were found appropriate for an evaluation, and 25 were observed during the deadlift. Only in one deadlift injury were both forearms in supination. In the remaining 24, injuries occurred in the mixed-grip position, with ALL the biceps ruptures occurring on the underhand (supinated) side.

This isn’t a large sample size, but when 24 of the 25 injuries are occurring with the mixed grip, the pattern is pretty predictable. The odds are stacked against lifters who use a mixed grip for heavy deads.

What To Do Instead

Use a normal, double-overhand grip. Add wrist straps if grip strength is the limiting factor.

If you ARE training for a powerlifting meet, you can justify doing some mixed-grip deadlifts for your 1 to 3 RMs if that’s how you plan to lift in competition. Just know the risks and alternate supinated hands in practice.

2. The Preacher Curl with Full Elbow Extension

I’m a huge fan of preacher curls because they strengthen the biceps in the lengthened strength zone. But I never allow people to fully straighten their elbows at the bottom of the rep, no matter how light the load. The risk of biceps injury is too high.

What To Do Instead

Don’t lower the bar or dumbbells all the way down. Keep roughly a 15-degree angle at the elbow at the bottom of each rep. Make sure you can stay in control of the weight and stop before your elbow fully straightens, even if that means lightening the load.

Also, when using medium to lighter loads, don’t go to complete failure. The accumulated fatigue can also cause you to lose control of the eccentric or lowering portion of the rep.

And remember, research shows that going to complete failure isn’t needed for muscle gains. You just need to get close to failure at the end of each set (2).

3. The Tire Flip

Tire flips, once relegated to strongman competitions, have started to turn up in boot-camp-style classes and other “functional fitness” gyms. Not good.

A study on strongman competitors found that tire flips are the most dangerous of the following events (2):

Skilled strongman competitors experienced the highest injury rates doing tire flips. If it’s risky for them, it’s even riskier for non-strongman competitors.

What To Do Instead

Tire flips are basically an awkward deadlift. So just stick with standard deadlifts, trap-bar deadlifts, and single-leg deadlifts to strengthen your posterior chain.

4. The Yoke Walk

The chart above also shows that the yoke walk is the second most dangerous strongman event. And again, yoke bars are getting more popular with average lifters and even some trainers. Having non-strongman competitors carrying a heavily loaded frame has never made sense. It doesn’t have a direct carryover to any field, court, or combat sport. And it’s a totally unnecessary risk as a general fitness exercise.

What To Do Instead

The appeal of doing strongman events? They’re cool looking and create a unique workout challenge. But if you’re looking for a way to spice up your workouts while walking with weights, there are far less risky options, like standard farmer’s walk variations, advanced loaded carry drills, and sled work.

5. The High Box Jump

I absolutely program box jumps. They’re one of the best ways to train leg power safely. What I don’t program is HIGH box jumps. They’re incredibly risky and don’t increase your ability to jump higher. High box jumps get misused when the emphasis is on the height of the box instead of the height of the actual jump.

Stand next to a high box the same height as your waist. Now pick one leg up off the ground and flex your hip as high as you possibly can. The distance between the bottom of your foot and the top of the box is the actual height you’d have to jump to get on top of that box. The rest is just hip flexion. More info here: High Box Jumps – The New Tide Pod Challenge?

What To Do Instead

Use a box that’s no higher than knee height. Jump as high as you can without allowing your knees and hips to bend (flex) more than about 20 degrees when you land. This is safer because there’s little risk you’ll miss the jump or fall. And it’s more effective anyway.

References

References

  1. Kapicioglu M et al. The Role of Deadlifts in Distal Biceps Brachii Tendon Ruptures: An Alternative Mechanism Described With YouTube Videos. Orthop J Sports Med. 2021 Mar 25;9(3):2325967121991811. PubMed.
  2. Refalo MC et al… Influence of Resistance Training Proximity-to-Failure on Skeletal Muscle Hypertrophy: A Systematic Review with Meta-analysis. Sports Med. 2022 Nov 5. PubMed.
  3. Winwood PW et al. Retrospective injury epidemiology of strongman athletes. J Strength Cond Res. 2014 Jan;28(1):28-42. PubMed.
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I agree on all other accounts, but I do not think we need to restrict box jump height this much. I think that the “re-bend” of the hips and knees following a jump is an expression of elastic recoil through the lower limb. My athletes (and myself) report that they feel more “effortless” jumping to a box which requires a landing at approx 90 degrees of bend at the knees and hips, as opposed to the “pencil” style landing (land straight trunk, hips knees) that I used to encourage.

I also strongly believe that jumping onto higher boxes (again, aiming to land at approximately 90 degrees at the hips and knees) encourages greater outputs, due to the increased perceived challenge of a higher box. Again, this is based on my and my athletes’ anecdote, but having a challenging jump (as opposed to a non-challenging height) seems to encourage a flow state, and makes trainees feel more athletic*

Again, I fully acknowledge this is just speculation and personal experience. Overall, I really like this article

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I feel so much weaker when I use overhand in the deadlift. I guess this is just a “getting better at the technique you used (mixed grip)”. Mostly irrelevant now as I use TBDL as my main deadlift movement. I often need to deadlift up my RDL though and when using double over hand with straps I feel terrible with it, but I can still mixed-grip DL 60-80kg higher than that with relative ease. Maybe I should do a bit of practice DLing double overhead just for those odd occasions I need to DL up my RDL.

end of inner monologue

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Honorable mentions:
Smith Machine Squats
Smith Machine Decline Bench (the “Dull Guillotine”)

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Good article!
Interesting about tire flips. I really wouldn’t have thought of them as that problematic, but the explanation makes sense.
I’m also looking forward to the incoming intense debate over mixed-grip deadlifting.

I actually would not put

As an honorable mention on my own personal list; I don’t think they’re inherently dangerous. I think they can, in fact, be a regression to work back toward squats after injury (to take out the stability component). The problem comes if you line your heels up under the bar (rather than out front) - that’s definitely a recipe for a sad day.

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Really? I think they are severely underrated. They take all pressure off of the lower back, and allow deep knee flexion. I have not done a regular barbell squat in years.

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I think the Smith machine has an inherent ability to bring out unwarranted bravado in folks. That combined with a false sense of safety tends to be a recipe for injury.

Did the Smith machine do anything wrong? No, the fault lays upon the user.
Seat belts were also designed for safety too. Yet implementing them resulted in more car accidents because people felt safe enough to be less cautious.

I know now than a few people who have popped their knees because of ATG Smith Squats. They felt safe enough to do so because Smith Machine.

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I have never heard of knees popping due to the smith machine. As @TrainForPain said I would guess it was poor set up. They were essentially doing heavy sissy squats.

But, if you are going the route of blaming the user, the worst/most dangerous exercises would be the squat, bench and deadlift. What exercises cause more injury then those? Especially when taking into account bravado.

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Different strokes. We certainly agree on the “fault lies with the user”. I just think we could say it’s all dangerous if we take that route. I recognize here we’re talking degree. I see your point about load, but I’ve certainly witnessed some leg presses that make my patellar tendons pop just from watching. Personally, I’m limiting “dangerous” to position in this conversation (that’s in my head, like all the best conversations), and I think the smith squat is pretty friendly there.

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I’ll agree with this

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I have definitely seen a larger percentage of people who are flexing (slight bend) with their underhand arm doing deadlifts. The only thing saving them is that they are weak. I warn anyone I see doing it, for what it’s worth. The underhand arm must consciously be kept absolutely straight.

I have ruptured my right biceps, but not doing deadlifts. (My right hand is the underhand grip.) My initial injury of my right biceps was mentioned in the article about Scott Curls, doing dumbbell curls on the Scott Curl bench. I totally ruptured it (about 14 years later) doing leg presses by pulling too hard with my arm flexed. (10 days out from the Masters Nationals, my last leg day)

Leg Presses should be mentioned with a warning about pulling hard with flexed arms, IMO.

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I believe that every exercise is safe if done correctly. More people injure themselves on squats, bench, and deadlifts because more people squat, bench and deadlift. There are people that will never do upright rows because “they are dangerous”, or never do behind-the-neck presses because “they are dangerous”. If they don’t feel right, don’t do them. An individual’s anthropometry can make a massive difference and seriously skew an opinion on a lot of lifts.

Trap Bar Deadlifts are “safer” than conventional deadlifts, but that doesn’t mean that a conventional deadlift isn’t safe. Smith machine squats being unsafe due to user error is no different from a guy overloading his bench press and bailing on himself, or maybe even putting clips on and being unable to escape. Gironda presses are dangerous for many people, but there are far more stipulations to be measured than just a binary “yes, it’s dangerous”.

I’ve lifted 500lbs before but tweaked my back doing high-rep seated leg curls recently. I was foolishly trying to cheat progression using body English. Am I gonna avoid leg curls now? No.

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I’m totally with you on the deadlifts. Outside of competition, I see little reason to use a mixed grip. If one is competing, obviously you need to practice your competitive grip.

This is interesting, and I see what you’re saying, but definitely not something I’ve ever thought about.

I think this is a big one!

That was my problem. I never thought about it until it happened.

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First off, I really appreciate your intellectual honesty when sharing your personal experiences and insights. In that, unlike many lifters and coaches, you didn’t try to pass off your individual thoughts as the gospel truth or the way we should all do it.

I wish more people were like you in that regard.

In regards to your thoughts on high box jumps, I think you make excellent points!

When I write these articles, I’m often thinking about the common person in the gym doing things for the wrong reasons and potentially putting themselves at greater risk for no additional return. Hence the context of this article.

That said, under the supervision of a thoughtful coach like yourself, your rationale is very reasonable, and you’re prequalifying which of your athletes you’ll allow use a higher box because you’re confident they’ll be able to land it (given their past demonstrated ability), instead of simply “hoping” they will.

Thanks so much for taking the time to share your thoughts here. Your athletes are lucky to have you as their coach!

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Thanks so much! I appreciate you taking the time to read it and for sharing your positive feedback on it here.

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You’re absolutely correct! In that, as a whole, exercise is generally pretty safe relative to other things we do on a daily basis like driving.

You’re also totally right about this article being simplistic about calling these exercises “dangerous” as I’m speaking generally given the massively broad audience that reads this website.

I do that because most people who are training aren’t doing so with a detailed knowledge of programming. And, they aren’t with a truly qualified coach. They want clear and simple directions to follow from reputable sources.

The point of my article is to provide clear and simple directions while also sharing my rationale behind it, which is to encourage others to make more informed decisions on your exercise choices. In that it’s to simply consider that if an exercise elevates your relative risk even by 1%, you want to ensure that the juice is worth the squeeze. In that, it benefits you over other options.

In the case of the exercises I listed, unless one is training for an event that requires you to practice the skill of doing it; there’s no additional benefit added for the increased risk. And, given how badly an injury can set you back, any reduction in potential risk is something I’m happy to do.

This article is just what I think and why I think it. There are some articles I read from other coaches that really resonate with me, while other articles don’t fit what I’m about.

That said, I understand different people have different reasons for why they trying how they do. And, I certainly don’t think I’ve got the lock down on truth.

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@Nick_Tumminello it is really cool of you to come on here to continue the discussion and to do so in a way that is open to so many different points of view. Thank you!

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How about the 45 degree leg press? Especially when/if you press with your feet high up on the footplate, you can put enormous strain on the adductors in the bottom position, resulting in injury (groin/adductor strain is a common injury).

This is how I strained my adductors on the 8th rep in slow HIT style. I thought it was the first rep that caused most injuries? You learn tremendously from your mistakes.

What to do instead: Horizontal leg press. No problem what so ever (if you not overextend your knees in top position, that is - but who does that?).

What are your thoughts on this @Nick_Tumminello? Am I just making science of my own example? Have you experienced anything similar? Btw, thanks for your valuable input here, it was actually one of your articles that brought me to this site close to three years ago, where I chose to stay and learn.

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Of my multiple injuries almost everyone occurred after the first rep. In fact, I cannot remember an injury I got on the first rep. My Scott Bench curl injury happened on the 10th (last) rep.

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