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How to Make Exercise Safe for You

Fifteen years ago, fitness professionals had a list of “contraindicated” exercises. The list was an overreaction to the numerous injuries in the 70’s and 80’s when the fitness craze boomed.

Today, the fitness industry is more mature. It realizes that reality is more complicated than just having a list of “good” and “bad” exercises because what is contraindicated for one person may be perfectly fine for another.

In other words, there are no contraindicated exercises, just contraindicated people. An exercise can be safe or unsafe depending on who is doing the exercise.

Instead of contraindicated, the politically correct word these days is “risky” indicating that not only does the exercise require a higher level of fitness and skill but it also carries a higher degree of risk than other exercises.

An example of an exercise that is risky is the stiff legged deadlift. It is not a bad exercise that should not be done by anyone but it is a risky exercise that should be done only by someone with a strong back, flexible hamstrings, and almost perfect execution. It should definitely not be done by a novice exerciser. It is not even appropriate for an advanced exerciser who has a weak back or tight hamstrings.

Risk-benefit ratio.
The trick to enjoying the benefits of exercise while minimizing the risk is to analyze all exercises with the risk-benefit ratio in mind. The benefit should always outweigh the risk.

Athletes take great risks with their bodies for a gold medal or a juicy endorsement contract. For them, the “benefit” outweighs the risk. The average person who simply wants to be fit and healthy should not take the same risks.

The more advanced the exercise, the more risky it usually is because it requires more strength, flexibility and skill. There are many kinds of exercises. Choose the ones that match your own fitness level so the risk-benefit ratio will always be in your favor.

You would think that pain would be the best criteria to judge whether an exercise is unsafe or not but unfortunately, pain does not always show up right away. Luckily, you don’t have to wait until you are in agony to distinguish between a safe and unsafe exercise. You can learn from the knowledge and experience of fitness professionals who, through the years, have made certain observations about the factors that make any exercise unsafe.

Too fast.
This doesn’t mean that you should never do a fast exercise. The rule is that you should always be in full control of your movements. Compare a skilled boxer with a person just learning to box. The boxer’s hands are a blur as he goes into a flurry of punches. The beginner is awkward and uncoordinated. If the beginner tries to move as fast as the expert boxer, his joints will take a beating because he does not have the core control to stop the extra momentum created by his flailing arms.

Even simple weight lifting exercises can turn unsafe when excessive momentum is applied. So always remember to move at a speed that you can properly control. With relatively heavy weights, that is usually at a slow to moderate speed.

Too soon.
If you give your body just the right amount of challenge, it will adapt by getting stronger and fitter. But if you challenge it before it is ready, even a basic exercise will cause an injury. This is what happens to many beginners. They end up getting hurt because they try to do advanced exercises. Experienced exercisers can also get injured if they attempt to perform advanced exercises that are very different from their fitness skill. For example, if a fit cyclist tries to do an advanced yoga class, no matter how fit she is, the risk of injury is still high.

Too much.
The majority of exercise injuries are due to overuse. The first reason is simply too much exercise. You can end up with knee surgery because of excessive hours of cycling or running. The second reason is doing only one kind of exercise. Instead of spreading out the stress of exercise, it is continuously concentrated in one or two joints.

Too heavy.
Bicep curls are a simple and safe exercise except when done with weights that are too heavy. Then, it becomes an unsafe exercise putting stress on the lower back and the elbows. You can have the safest exercise program in the world designed for you, but if you lift weights that are too heavy, every single exercise in your program will turn into a dangerous one.

Not appropriate
If you have a structural abnormality or past history of joint injury, some exercises will never be appropriate for you. A shoulder stand is too risky for a person with neck issues because it flattens the normal curvature of the neck and places too much weight and stress on the delicate neck bones.

Wrong execution.
Abdominal curls are a pretty straight-forward exercise but many people do it wrong and end up hurting their necks instead of working on the abdominal muscles. Wrong execution is the reason for many exercise injuries. That’s why it is so important to get professional instruction – ideally in person but at the very least through books or videos.

Unnatural movement.
Behind the neck pull-downs and behind the neck military presses are examples of unnatural joint movements. These types of exercises go against the structural design of the shoulder joint. If you had to lift a heavy box overhead, you would not do it behind your neck because it is unnatural to do so. The body has its own wisdom. If we just listen, we won’t get hurt.

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