Top 10 Injury Causing Machines in Gyms

by Kavan Wolfe (published on Sep 21)

A typical modern gym houses hundreds of individual pieces of exercise equipment, some of which appear purposefully designed to injure as many trainees as possible. Here are ten of the most dangerous exercise machines. Avoid these, and avoid any so-called personal trainer who recommends them.

1. Smith Machine

Smith_machine

A smith machine is just a bar built into an apparatus that restricts the bar to a vertical path, and sometimes prevents it from tipping sideways. Smith machines are dangerous because they lock the lifter into a vertical or near-vertical straight-line bar path. The smith machine can be safely used for short range-of-motion exercises such as shrugs and calf raises, where the natural bar path is close to vertical. However, for any compound lift such as a bench press, overhead press, squat or deadlift, the natural bar path is not a straight line. By interfering with your natural (and optimal!) movement, the smith machine increases the stress on your joints and stabilizer muscles. I tore ligaments in both my shoulders using a smith machine for overhead presses.

2. Leg Extension

leg extension

As you extend your leg into the locked-knee position, your shin bone rotates slightly. Leg extension machines interfere with this rotation. This puts unnecessary stress on the knee joint and can cause the knee cap to grind against the femur. Moreover, the quadriceps evolved to assist in running and jumping movements, not to provide torque against a rotating force.

3. Bent-arm Laterals Machine

laterals

Doing dumbbell laterals with your arms straight (but not locked) is reasonably safe and beneficial exercise. However, bending your arms, as this machine forces you to do, dramatically increases the stress on your rotator cuff and can lead to tears. The small muscles and tendons comprising the rotator cuff heal slowly and are difficult to rehabilitate.

4. Cable Row

Cable Row

Rows are a great exercise; however, rowing machines almost always suffer from the same problem. At the beginning of the exercise, you have to reach so far forward to grasp the handles that you inevitably overextend your lower back. This can damage your spine, the nerve cluster in your lower back, and your spinal erectors (the small muscles that hold your lower back straight. These are the sorts of injuries that don’t get better.

Suggestion: use a piece of chain and carabiners to bring the handles closer to you, or get someone to pull down on the cable so you can get into position safely.

5. “Ergonomic” Benches

ergo bench

The thing about ergonomics is that it has to be personalized to your body. These so-called ergonomic benches make assumptions about your height, weight, proportions, limb length, etc. Unless your body happens to fit these (often restrictive) assumptions, you’re out of luck. I can feel the benches in the above picture interfering with my shoulder movement. They also encourage taller people to move too close to the uprights (thus press to linearly) and encourage shorter people to move too far away from the uprights (thus endangering the shoulder in the initial lift). All of this serves to corrupt one’s pressing motion and endanger the shoulders, elbows and wrists.

6. The Pec Deck

pec deck

This sort of pec deck puts your shoulders in the inner dislocation position and can tear the shoulder ligaments or the rotator cuff.

7. Ab Twisters

Ab Twister

The spine is not meant to twist. Twisting the spine can damage the disks between your vertebrae. The kind of spinal twists they do in Yoga (slow, controlled stretches) are probably ok, but twisting against resistance encourages a faster and more violent movement that’s significantly more dangerous.

8. Ab Crunch Machines

crunch machine

Crunches do stimulate growth in the rectus abdominis (the six-pack); however, the full crunching your abs also full flexes your spinal erectors, putting maximum pressure on your lower back. Over time, this damages the disks in your back. Besides, most people’s abs are invisible not because they’re ill-developed but because their percentage body fat is too high. If you want your abs to show, hit the treadmill, not the crunch machine.

Suggestion: Composite exercises such as squats and pushups work your abs the way they were intended to work – as stabilizers. If you must do an ab-specific exercise, try the plank position.

9. Standing Calf Raise

calf raise

The calf is a very strong muscle. Working both calves at the same time on a standing calf raise can involve hundreds of pounds in a normal person, and over 1000 lbs. in a very strong person. This kind of weight compresses the spine, breaks blood vessels in the shoulders, and generally puts a lot of strain on joints. Standing calf raise machines often encourage this sort of practice because they often come with signs showing a two-leg movement.

Suggestion: Do calf raises one leg at a time. Hold a dumbbell in one hand and a post to keep you steady in the other.

10. The Decline Bench

decline bench

The decline bench is a shoulder-wrecker if there ever was one. Pressing on a decline bench puts extreme pressure on the shoulder joint and surrounding stabilizer muscles, meanwhile making it nearly impossible to press the weight in the natural back-toward-your-head arc. The slant of the board encourages the lifter to push from the shoulder instead of the chest, and to let the shoulders ride “up” (toward the head) when they should be rotating “down” and back (toward the feet). The decline bench is just an exercise clusterfuck. It’s biomechanical voodoo. Don’t use it.

Suggestion: If you must work specifically on your lower pecs, try a parallel bar dip. However, avoid an extreme range of motion (dropping past the point where your upper arms are parallel to the ground) or this too will put exaggerated stresses on the shoulder. (Note: never do dips behind your back – these endanger the rotator cuff.)

Conclusion

If you’ve used one of the machines profiled above for years without injury, consider yourself lucky it hasn’t hurt you yet and quit now! Yes, smoking hasn’t killed you yet either, but that doesn’t mean you should keep doing it. I am not a doctor; check with yours before starting a new workout program. Don’t just switch to free weights if you have no idea what you’re doing. Find a good book on weight training (The Insider’s Tell-All Handbook on Weight Training Technique, for example) and read it before you beat yourself up.

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7 Comments

  1. Jason says:

    I think you need to add benchpress here as well.

  2. Kavan Wolfe says:

    @Jason, the classic flat bench press with dumbbells or a barbell is a staple of weight training. Done with correct form, as part of a whole body routine, it is a very safe exercise. Bench press machines that corrupt you form, however, could certainly be added to this list.

  3. Michael Ferris says:

    Dear Kavan:

    On October 4 I hurt my back on the seated cable row machine. I’ve been to the Emrgency Room due to horrible pain, and the medical people think it is a sprain-strain. I have experineced much pain and at times could not walk or get out of bed from it. I was getting worse until about 2 days ago (today is Oct 25) but still have not fully recovered by any stretch of the imagination.

    Where did you get your information that this machine is dangerous? If there is strong evidence you could provide me with, I may attempt to convince the gym owner to remove this machine from his gym. I know it’s dangerous but I would need strong evidence to convince him of that.

    Sincerely,
    Mike

  4. Kavan Wolfe says:

    @Michael Ferris,

    I am not a medical professional. However, it seems obvious to me that, when using a seated cable row machine, some trainees bend much to far forward. Any time you bend your lower back, you risk tearing the connective tissue between your lower vertebrae. Grabbing hold of a heavy weight while your lower back is over-extended increases the chance of injury. I suspect this is what happened to you.

    I’m not aware of any studies that cover exactly this topic, but one doesn’t need an experiment to deduce from a basic understanding of biomechanics and psychology that these machines encourage people to bend too far forward.

    I recommend searching in google scholar or PubMed for medical studies on the subject. You might also try emailing some academic doctors who do research on back pain. Sorry I couldn’t be more help.

  5. Thanks a lot for the article! You saved me a lot of precious time deciding what direction to go,

  6. George says:

    Thank you a billion for making a website to warn people the dangers of exercise equipments at the gyms. It is very informative. I have read different websites the dangers of exercise equipments that are used in the gyms. I have to say that they are truly shocking stories that those exercise equipments can have physical affects on people.

  7. George says:

    Thanks for sharing the shocking stories about the dangers of exercise equipments that are used in the gyms.

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