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Fitsmart: January 2014

The further I take my fitness goals, the more I value staying healthy and injury free.

January 7, 2014 
By Brad Lawrence

The further I take my fitness goals, the more I value staying healthy and injury free. Maybe it’s that older and wiser adage people keep telling me about; it could also be the fact that I’ve suffered a few injuries and am now more aware of the consequences that accompany an injury. Either way, it seems that every major conditioning setback I’ve experienced has been the result of an injury, and nothing is more frustrating than being hurt. Most active people, especially those involved in sports, suffer an injury at some point. I’m not suggesting that we accept the inevitability that we will all become injured: I’m suggesting that we go about our training in a smarter way – that we change our approach to training. Smart training begins with proper and safe exercise selection.

Proceed with caution
I think we’ve all walked through a gym at one point or another and seen someone performing an exercise that was an accident waiting to happen due to an unstable and erratic technique or simply by overloading the weight. In a busy gym, this happens daily. Some of these movements are clearly dangerous and some are more subtle.

If you feel like some of your exercises are hazardous, or you simply don’t feel comfortable with a certain movement, think about whether that particular exercise is necessary to achieve your goals. Is there a safer alternative to this exercise that will yield similar results? Are you uncomfortable with the movement because of the amount of weight? These questions should run through your head whenever you approach an exercise without full confidence, or the first time you try a new exercise. Think of exercise selection as a risk-reward situation – something firefighters are already accustomed to through our line of work.

We’re all built differently, and some movements just may not ever feel comfortable for your build. Here are a few common exercises you should skip for your own safety, as well as an alternative for each.


If you’re unfamiliar with the exercise, search the name of the exercise on Google or YouTube for a full demonstration.

Upright barbell rows
Upright rows were a staple when building the shoulders and are still not an uncommon exercise to find in gyms. Whether or not this exercise is inherently dangerous to you really depends on how your shoulder is built. There is a significant risk that this movement can compress the nerve. If this movement negatively affects your shoulder, there won’t be any immediate pain to warn you; the damage will be gradual and long term if the movement doesn’t agree with your body.

Alternative: I suggest using dumbbells if you insist on performing this lift, as this will free up movement in your shoulder, letting your shoulder muscles track freely without the nerve impingement. Also, avoid bringing your elbows above shoulder height. As an easy alternative, consider a bent-over row instead.

Behind the neck lat pull-down
In my opinion, the best machine in the gym is the cable set. Walk by a cable machine and you probably just walked by a lat pull-down of some sort (and likely a few guys wasting the cables with bicep curls, but that’s another issue). The problem with pulling the bar behind your neck has to do with shoulder flexibility. Unless you have extremely flexible shoulders, you’re externally rotating your shoulder and applying pressure with the weight. Very few of us can perform this safely, and the exercise is just as beneficial when you pull the bar in front of you as it is behind your neck.

Alternative: Pull the bar in front of your head right down to the chest, while relaxing your shoulders as much as possible. Try this until you can graduate to pull-ups. At that point, you can leave both these movements in the dust.

Weighted jump squats
Jump squats have proven to be a great way to add power and explosiveness. If you choose this exercise, be aware of the risks. You have a loaded barbell, a high-impact exercise, and your spine all coming together. I don’t think I really need to offer a much more detailed explanation as to why this exercise could become dangerous. This is an extremely difficult exercise to perform safely, even for the fittest among us.

Alternative: I’m a big advocate of plyometrics, but adding weight to a jump squat is an unnecessary risk you probably don’t need to take. Remove the weight. You’ll be able to jump higher and train more safely.

The list doesn’t end here; every exercise you perform has an alternative. Take the time with your exercise program and evaluate the movements you’ve chosen. Make sure your time at the gym leaves you fitter and healthier, with minimal risk to your body. As with any workout, make sure your body is warm and ready to train. For any complex movement, go through a short dynamic stretching routine in order to prime your muscles. The five- to 10-minute warm-up at the start of your workout is the best way to prevent injury.

Stay safe and happy training.

Brad Lawrence is a firefighter with the Calgary Fire Department and a certified personal trainer who specializes in training and nutrition for emergency responders. E-mail Brad at

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