How Dangerous Is Lifting Weights, Really?

Apart from unfounded opinions and feelings, there's nothing of substance to support the 'lifting is dangerous' myth.

For as long as I can remember, weight training has been largely viewed as a dangerous activity.

The first bite of this reality was served to me as a young soccer player.

The gym exercises we were allowed to do and the instructions that accompanied them painted a clear picture. Straining yourself with very heavy weights would cause physical damage. Complex movements were best avoided. Barbell Squats were never to be done past 90 degrees. Knees were not supposed to travel past the toes.

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For as long as I can remember, weight training has been largely viewed as a dangerous activity.

The first bite of this reality was served to me as a young soccer player.

The gym exercises we were allowed to do and the instructions that accompanied them painted a clear picture. Straining yourself with very heavy weights would cause physical damage. Complex movements were best avoided. Barbell Squats were never to be done past 90 degrees. Knees were not supposed to travel past the toes.

Leg Presses, Leg Extensions, Leg Curls, Calf Raises and similar machine-based movements dominated our lower-body training. Why? Because they were "safer."

Fast forward to today, and not much has changed. In many circles, lifting heavy free weights still gets a bad rap.

Anyone who trains hard and heavy in the gym and coaches others to do the same can relate to the opposition we face each and every day out there on the gym floor and social media.

"Squats hurt your knees!"

"Deadlifts destroy your back!"

"Take it easy with those weights!"

"Stop lifting 500 pounds. What's the point?"

These are just a few of the oft-heard rallying cries blurted out by the misguided masses. Their passion for denigrating heavy barbell-based workouts is only surpassed by their ignorance regarding everything that has to do with productive training and getting strong.

At the same time, sports injuries are on the rise across the board.

The overwhelming majority of injuries I have seen hockey players incur took place on the ice, not in the gym. Yet lifting weights often gets branded as a perilous activity by people inside the hockey world, whereas the actual sport of hockey does not.

Never mind the sport involves brutal collisions that can leave you paralyzed, knife-sharp skate blades that can slice through skin and tendon, and rock-hard pucks traveling at 100 miles per hour which can leave broken bones in their wake.

I love the sport of hockey, but you're telling me barbell training is riskier than that? Gimme a break.

Have you ever noticed that, without fail, proponents of the "lifting weights is dangerous" dogma have zero experience doing it in a productive and technically proficient manner?

When pressed for objective facts or numbers to back up their views, all they can come up with are vague anecdotes. They once daintily half-squatted 135 pounds (with a pad wrapped around the bar, as you would expect), only to have their knees ache for the next few days. Bob, the colleague of their brother-in-law's second cousin, used to do those God-awful deadlifts for years, and now he's on permanent disability due to back issues.

See? Barbells are dangerous!

Or they'll point to one of the many "lifting fails" compilations on YouTube where gym idiots "train" with the worst form you could ever imagine. It says a lot about these people if they think that's what real lifting looks like.

Anyway, in any legitimate debate, facts trump feelings. So, let's focus on cold, hard data on sports and weight training related injuries. And the data tell us some very interesting things.

Injury Rates in Popular Team Sports

Below, you will see NCAA injury rates in a variety of sports captured over a 16-year period (1988-2004).

The first number lists game injury rate per 1,000 athlete-exposures. The number in parentheses depicts practice injury rate per 1,000 athlete-exposures. An athlete-exposure is defined as 1 athlete participating in 1 practice or game.

  • Women's volleyball 4.6 (4.1)
  • Men's baseball 5.8 (1.9)
  • Women's basketball 7.7 (4.0)
  • Men's basketball 9.9 (4.3)
  • Women's ice hockey 12.6 (2.5)
  • Men's ice hockey 16.3 (2.0)
  • Women's soccer 16.4 (5.2)
  • Men's soccer 18.8 (4.3)
  • Football 35.9 (3.8 fall football / 9.6 spring football)

And what about everybody's favorite low-impact pastime: jogging?

Recreational runners experience 10 running-related injuries per 1,000 hours of running exposure.

Assuming one athlete-exposure equals about one hour of sports participation (which is not farfetched since most sports practice lasts about an hour), we can estimate the injury rate for jogging to be somewhere around that of spring football and more than double that of men's basketball practice.

All of these figures, while certainly interesting, don't mean much on their own. We need to compare them directly with injury rates among those who lift heavy weights—powerlifters, Olympic lifters and bodybuilders—to see the full picture. After all, everybody knows strength sports are much more dangerous than chasing a ball on the field or running a few miles on the track. Right?

Maybe not.

Injury Rates in Lifting

Per 1,000 hours of training, Olympic lifters experience 2.4-3.3 injuries.

Powerlifting doesn't fare much worse, with injury rates ranging from 1.0 to 4.4 per 1,000 hours.

Bodybuilding has the lowest rate of all strength training activities at just 0.24 injuries per 1,000 hours.

As you can see, all three main modes of weight training have equivalent or lower injury rates than any of the popular field sports.

In light of this evidence, it's funny how we defend any and all sports injuries, but vilify those that have anything to do with the weight room.

Rolled your ankle in soccer practice? Suck it up.

Concussed by a blindside hit on the ice? All part of the game, Son.

Smashed by a linebacker and out for eight weeks with a broken collarbone? That's the risk you take when you step on the gridiron.

But according to some, the athlete who puts 405 on his back and proceeds to complete a set of technically competent Squats is asking for injury. The same people downplaying sports injuries are usually the vocal ones commenting on Instagram or Twitter that it's only a matter of time before this lifter's kneecaps explode.

Weight Training Is Not Your Enemy

The fear-mongering around weight training has to stop. Apart from unfounded opinions and feelings, there's nothing of substance to support the "lifting is dangerous" myth.

Strength training is one of the strongest tools we as human beings have at our disposal for enhancing physical, mental and emotional wellbeing. If it's scaled appropriately, just about anyone can do it, and most can safely handle loads far beyond what they believe provided they progress appropriately. You can argue about which age it makes sense for a youngster to spend significant time training with a barbell, but the idea they need to wait until they stop growing to safely lift weights is flat-out wrong.

Yes, if you're lifting like a fool and ignoring warning signs from your body, there's a chance you'll get hurt. There are certain people who do that, and they need to be called out. But lumping all weight training in with these numbskulls just isn't fair.

As evident by the numbers above, lifting weights isn't inherently more dangerous than any other popular sport.

Well-executed barbell training doesn't produce an endless pile of battered bodies. If it did, strength athletes would suffer exorbitantly high injury rates. As we just discussed, this isn't the case.

Lifting heavy things is difficult. Effortless action doesn't create winners. Overcoming struggles and hardships does. And in the weight room, nothing is harder than proper barbell training.

Problem is, people are inherently lazy. They'd rather go through four sets of 15 on the Pec Deck Machine, chase the pump on Leg Extensions and bang out a few sets for the pipes, capped off by 30 minutes of mindless movement on the treadmill than a hard session of triples on Cleans and Squats.

Barbell training keeps you honest. Like Henry Rollins wrote, "two hundred pounds is always two hundred pounds." No wonder so many shy away from it. There are no shortcuts for the weak-bodied nor the weak-minded.

It's laughable (not to mention extremely hypocritical) how many of those who diss a healthy activity such as barbell training smoke a pack of cigarettes per day, gorge on junk food laden with sugar and harmful chemicals, waste their weekends in a booze-fuelled stupor, or walk around carrying an extra 50 pounds of jiggle.

Man, I could swear all those things were more dangerous than lifting weights!

Deeming weight training "dangerous" may be the number one excuse people use to avoid it. It's time we stop accepting it.

References

Photo Credit: Jesus Trillo Lago/iStock

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Topics: WEIGHTLIFTING | HEAVY WEIGHTS | HEAVY LIFTING | OLYMPIC WEIGHTLIFTING