There’s an epidemic of articles out there crowing about the “5 Exercises You Should Never Do,” or warning you about the “10 Most Dangerous Exercises.” The nonsensical assumption at the heart of each is that your body is fragile and static, unable to adapt to new stressors.
If you’re reading this, your body is capable of tremendous adaptation. There are no inherently dangerous exercises. There are only exercises, movements, and positions that your body is or isn’t equipped to handle.
Your body is made to move. It’s built to solve problems in complex environments, often requiring you to move your spine out of neutral, take your knees past your toes, or lift with your back rather than your legs. None of these actions is necessarily bad, unless your body can’t handle that given demand.
We have to remember that injuries are simple math equations. Injury = Demand > Capacity.
If your body doesn’t work like a body should, then doing natural movements like squatting and crawling will set you up for injury. Rather than unilaterally label these movements dangerous, the emphasis should be on building a more capable ape.
So how do you know if a movement is safe for your body? There’s a simple checklist.
Joints Come First
When it comes to identifying safe movements, it helps to start with the joints. A good rule of thumb is, can you actively move your joint into the position needed to make this movement possible? If we look at the squat, you can check that your ankles, knees, and hips can actively pull into the necessary angles. If you can’t control this range of motion unloaded, then you don’t own that range.
Loading your body into that range with weight is asking your body to do more than it’s currently capable of. You’re forcing it to work overtime in a job it doesn’t know how to do in the first place.
Hold the Line
The next demand to check off your list is the ability to maintain position in an isometric contraction. If you can pull into position for a split second and then collapse into muscle cramps, do you really own that angle? In Functional Range Conditioning, we use isometric loads to increase neural drive and force tissue adaptation within the target range of motion.
The ability to ramp up an isometric contraction is critical to your ability to load the movement down the road. For example: can you pull your knee to your chest and hold it there? Can you increase your voluntary contraction even more? Not as easy as it sounds.
Own the Descent
The next checkmark on your list is the ability to slowly control the eccentric portion of the movement. Can you slowly lower into a squat? Can you control yourself down into the bottom of a push up?
We often bounce our way through movements and overemphasize getting the barbell off the ground, or hurling our chins over the bar. Own the movement on the eccentric portion, and you’re in better shape to control the concentric portion of the movement.
If you can check each of these boxes, then this exercise is likely one that your body can handle. Load it intelligently, and let your body recover. That’s safe progress in a nutshell.
If you can’t squat yet, how do you get there: