Injury & Rehab
Dangerous exercises and personal training:
a new paradigm

Paul Wright believes it is time for a shift away from classifying individual exercises as ‘safe’ or ‘dangerous’ and towards a model in which each exercise is prescribed based on the specific abilities and history of the client you are working with.

The fitness and health industries have come a long way in the education and training of their professionals. This progress, though, has also brought its challenges.

Back in the 1980s, educators like myself used to travel the country presenting two and three-day training programs providing attendees with the qualifications to be registered as a fitness leader in Australia. During these most basic of programs we always included a presentation titled ‘Potentially Dangerous and Contra-Indicated Exercises’ – a personal favourite.
In this presentation we analysed a broad range of exercises and movements that were classified – by the powers that be – as high risk, and marked them as ‘never to be done’.

The simplicity of this lecture and the basic black and white delivery left all attendees with a very clear and definite understanding of what exercises to avoid in their exercise to music classes and weight training sessions.

You can probably see where I am going with this: the level of education attained by most health and fitness professionals has now reached such a high standard that it is possible for them to argue a case for the inclusion of even the most extreme of movements into a client’s program.

To compound the issue, expert presenters routinely stand up at fitness conventions around the world and contradict the previous speaker’s opinion on the relative safety of a specific exercise – leaving the poor delegate confused and unsure about who to believe and what exercises are safe to include in their programs.

The explosion of Crossfit, MMA and boot camp programs have now thrown in the variables of speed, competition, extreme equipment variety and mixed terrain to even further confuse the average health and fitness professional wanting to provide a safe and effective workout for their clients.

I believe it is time for a shift away from the old paradigm of thinking, in which we classified individual exercises as safe or dangerous and everything in between – and moved towards a model where each exercise is analysed in relation to the specific client you are working with

Many of the old ‘rules of safety’ need to be taken from their high position of authority and thought of in a more general sense – instead of being referred to as some divine principle that came down from the mountain carved into a stone tablet.

I am sure you are familiar with many of these ‘rules’, including, but not limited to:

  • Never bend your knees more than 90 degrees when doing squats
  • Always keep your knees in line with your second toe when squatting or lunging
  • Never squat lower than where you can maintain your lumbar lordosis
  • Keep your knees over your feet when squatting
  • Never do press behind neck or pulldown to the back of the neck
  • Don’t let your elbows go past the horizontal when dumbbell bench pressing
  • Never combine lumbar flexion with rotation.

If you take a good look around any CrossFit, MMA, boot camp or even many conventional gym settings, you will see a large number of these ‘rules’ being broken or at least challenged to some degree.

I must admit that I like the idea of set rules and definite guidelines for people to follow; however, it seems that in the modern fitness environment these rules are no longer useful and are just leading to confusion. So where does that leave us as health and fitness professionals wanting to keep our clients safe – and ourselves out of court?

I think the new paradigm is one that relies more on utilising the higher level of education and training of our professionals and empowers them to conduct more comprehensive pre-exercise screening of each and every client.

The ‘new professional’ armed with this knowledge can then design an individual exercise program that takes into account such factors as past injury, training history, training goals and other physical limitations revealed in the pre-exercise evaluation.

A client with a history of meniscal trauma will be guided to limit the range of knee flexion when squatting and to watch for excessive twisting of the knee during step up tasks – not because of one of the rules above, but because their individual history demands extra caution.

A client with a history of shoulder instability, meanwhile, will be told to avoid deep dumbbell bench presses – not because of a general rule, but because their individual situation makes this exercise more risky than it’s worth.

The model moves from one of the naming and shaming of specific exercises and movements to one of individual exercise prescription based on sound history taking, physical examination, biomechanics – and common sense.

FREE Webinar for Network Members

If you are interested in finding out more about ‘safe and dangerous’ exercises register for Paul’s free webinar ‘The Truth about Dangerous Exercises and Personal Training’ at www.TheTruthWebinar.com

That being said, there will always be a place for ‘Rules and Guidelines’ – we just need to be aware of the limitations of these recommendations and their application to real life exercise situations.

Ace World War II fighter pilot Douglas Bader once said ‘Rules are for the obedience of fools and the guidance of wise men’. While this may seem a little harsh, the sentiment could perhaps be better expressed today as ‘Rules are for the obedience of the beginner and the guidance of the experienced’. If you are a rank beginner with minimal training you are best off following the guidelines, but as your experience and skill levels grow you will be able to move towards a more individual and holistic exercise prescription approach for your clients.


Paul Wright, BAppSc (Physio), DipEd (PE)
Paul is one of Australia’s leading health and fitness educators, a previous Network Author of the Year and Presenter of the Year, and a featured presenter at health and fitness conventions around the world. He is also the founder of thePTProfessor.com – an online education portal for fitness professionals.