By Mike Mejia, M.S, C.S.C.S


Question: Coach Mike, I recently began a strength training program and my parents are worried about my safety. Are there any exercises in the gym that I should avoid?


Justin, age 16. Orlando, Florida.


Answer: Great question, Justin. While some lifts, like squats and deadlifts for example, are often mistakenly perceived as "dangerous", it's almost always faulty technique, and/ or using too much weight that is the cause of most weight room injuries. That said, there are a few lifts that even when performed correctly, can expose your body to potential injury. Whether it’s due to the unnecessary bio-mechanical stress they place on certain joints, or the fact that they contribute to the development of strength imbalances, the following are my top 5 lifts to avoid in the gym.


1. Upright Rows: The fact that this lift targets the upper trapezius (along with the deltoids) should already be a red flag for swimmers. Upper trap dominance, combined with subsequent weakness of the middle and lower traps, plays a key role in the development of shoulder injuries. When you add in the form required to do the exercise correctly, you're only making matters worse, in my opinion. The narrow grip puts your arms into internal rotation (a place swimmers definitely don't need to be). When you combine this with what's known as horizontal abduction, by drawing your upper arms out, away from your body, you're basically asking for a shoulder impingement. In this position, soft tissue structures such as tendons and ligaments can become "pinched" between bony prominences. Trust me, with the amount of yardage you're likely already putting in, this is the last exercise you need to do.


2 & 3. Behind the Neck Presses and Pulldowns: I've combined these two into one explanation because it's essentially the common position that's the problem here. Unlike the upright row that put your arms into internal rotation, these two exercises place them into external rotation. This isn't necessarily a problem, except for the fact that it's not a position that you want to load excessively. Not to mention the fact subpar flexibility around the shoulder girdle can place a lot of strain on the muscles of the rotator cuff in this position. Even if you have good flexibility, and are able to execute the movements correctly (which is seldom the case, by the way), you won't be getting as much muscle activation as when you perform these movements to the front of your body (as shown). You'll also be placing the anterior aspect of the shoulder under great deal of unnecessary stress.


4. Bench Dips: a.k.a. Shoulder Destroyers, as I like to call them. The simple fact is that there's just waaaay to much stress on the anterior aspect of the shoulder capsule with this exercise. And that's with your feet on the floor mind you; place your feet up on a bench to make it more difficult, or worse yet, put weight on top of your legs in this position, and you're just asking for trouble- especially if you use momentum by bouncing your way out of the bottom position. This exercise does little besides expose you to the risk of shoulder subluxations and dislocations. My advice, take a pass.


5. Leg Extensions: This might be a good exercise if you're a bodybuilder looking to improve quadricep development, but it’s pretty much useless for an athlete. The reason for this is twofold: 1. Leg extensions place a tremendous amount of shearing force on the knees, and in doing so, target an area where most athletes tend to be overworked anyway. 2. They don't involve the type of co-contraction you see with exercises like squats, deadlifts and lunges which lead to improved knee stability (when performed correctly). So, if vanity is your reason for hitting the gym, then be my guest and include leg extensions in your routine. However, if improved performance and injury prevention are your primary goals, there are a lot better exercises that you can do.