If you’ve heard that weightlifting is dangerous and you want to know what science has to say, then you want to read this article.
Many people think weightlifting is inherently dangerous, and I understand why.
When you compare deadlifting, squatting, and bench pressing gargantuan amounts of weight to other forms of exercise, like jogging, cycling, or calisthenics, weightlifting looks more like a death wish than a discipline.
Poke around on Internet forums and you’ll find plenty to feed your anxiety.
Personal stories range from the tame–mild joint and muscle aches and the like–to the downright horrific and debilitating, with some long-time bodybuilders so incapacitated that they can’t even tie their shoes until the ibuprofen kicks in.
If that isn’t enough, there’s plenty of video evidence, too.
I’ll save your eyes (and appetite), but trust me–serious weightlifting injuries can be particularly gruesome.
And so weightlifting, and strength training in particular, has been saddled with a bum rap for decades now.
Thankfully, the tides are changing and strength training is gaining more and more mainstream popularity, but many people still think that the dangers of weightlifting far exceed the benefits.
Well, as you’ll soon see in this article, while weightlifting does have its “dangers,” they’re not nearly as bad as many people think.
Ironically, research shows that it’s actually one of the safest kinds of exercise you can do…when it’s done properly.
That, my friends, is the catch.
When done incorrectly–and there are many ways to mess it up–weightlifting can become very dangerous, very fast.
So, if you want to understand what science really says about the dangers of weightlifting, the benefits it has to offer most everyone, and how to do it as safely as possible, then let’s dive in.
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How Likely Are You to Get Injured with Weightlifting?
There’s a saying in sports that “you’re always between injuries.”
That may sound a bit morbid and pessimistic, but there’s a kernel of truth there, too.
Anyone that has played sports competitively for any period of time knows that injuries eventually occur, even if they’re only mild, and weightlifting is no exception to this rule.
Do it seriously for long enough and you can count on at least having to occasionally deal with problems of the “nagging” variety, like tendonitis, joint pain, or excessive muscle tightness.
That said, research does show that bodybuilding is one of the safest sports you can “play.”
Case in point:
In one review of 20 studies, scientists found that, on average, bodybuilding produced just one injury for every 1,000 hours of training.
To put that in perspective, if you spend 5 hours per week weightlifting, you could go almost four years without experiencing any kind of injury whatsoever.
Researchers also noted that most of the injuries tended to be minor aches and pains that didn’t require any type of special treatment or recovery protocols. In most cases, rest with a bit of ice and heat wins the day.
Now, as we move into more intense and technical types of weightlifting, like CrossFit, Olympic weightlifting, and powerlifting, the injury rate rose, but not nearly as much as you might think. These activities produced just 2 to 4 injuries per 1,000 hours of training.
For comparison, sports like ice hockey, football, soccer, and rugby have injury rates ranging from 6 to 260 per 1,000 hours, and long-distance runners can expect about 10 injuries per 1,000 hours of pavement pounding.
In other words, you’re about 6 to 10 times more likely to get hurt playing everyday sports than hitting the gym for some heavy weightlifting.
The payoff for weightlifting is tremendous as well, delivering a number of health and fitness benefits that you simply can’t get from other types of sports and exercise.
Here’s a short list of what a well-designed weightlifting routine can do for you:
- Stronger, healthier joints
- Increased levels of muscle mass
- Greater insulin sensitivity
- Enhanced heart health
- Improved brain health
- Greater longevity and quality of life
- Higher bone density
- Lower risk of fracture
- Increased metabolic rate
- Improved flexibility
When you compare all of that to the rather negligible risk of injury, and the generally mild nature of the injuries that most often occur, the choice is clear:
Choosing to lift weights is far better than choosing not to out of fear of getting hurt.
The reality is if your number one goal in life is to experience no physical injuries whatsoever, then your only surefire option is to never leave your bed.
Every time you step into your car, take the stairs instead of the elevator, or, hell, type on a computer, you’re flirting with injury to one degree or another.
Dealing with risk is just part of life. All we can do is weigh the probabilities and potential upsides and downsides, make choices that are most likely to play out in our favor, and do everything we can to create positive outcomes.
Now, I mentioned earlier that my enthusiasm isn’t for weightlifting per se, but weightlifting that’s done safely and intelligently.
If you’re going about your training properly, you can be squatting hundreds of pounds every week and have healthier joints and a lower risk of injury than a guy who just walks his dog around the block a few times per week.
If you’re going about it recklessly, though, then every time you step in the gym, you’re asking for trouble.
Let’s look at the major differences between these two approaches.
How to Avoid Weightlifting Injuries
Many weightlifting injuries aren’t caused by training too intensely, but by failing to fully recover from previous workouts.
Sure, you can find people that have ripped a pec while benching, collapsed while squatting a bending barbell, or jackhammered their lower back with a heavy pull, but these worst-case scenarios rarely happen.
The reality is most weightlifting injuries are insidious and give you plenty of time to change course before the bottom falls out.
You know, your knee feels a little stiff the day after heavy squats. You shrug it off and keep going. A few weeks later, it’s starting to hurt while you squat. “No pain, no gain,” you say, and keep going. A few more weeks and, well, now it just hurts all of the time.
These are called “repetitive stress injuries,” or RSI’s, and they’re the bane of every athlete. They’re not painful enough to keep you on the sidelines, but cause just enough trouble to hinder progress.
Fortunately, the solution is simple: a bit of rest is all it usually takes.
Once an RSI has set in, the only way to get through it is to avoid the activity that caused it, and that means avoiding certain exercises or, in some cases, training the muscle group altogether.
Now, as I mentioned earlier, if you spend enough time in the gym, you’re probably going to experience an RSI of one type and severity or another, but let’s look at some preventative things that you can do to stave them off for as long as possible.
If It Hurts, Don’t Do It
This might seem like common sense, but we all know that “common” sense isn’t really all that common.
The rule here is simple:
If something hurts, stop immediately.
I’m not talking about muscle soreness or lactic acid buildup, but pain. If a rep hurts enough to make you wince, that means you need to stop.
Pain is a warning that something is wrong, and if you don’t listen to your body’s warning, you’re asking for it.
So, when you hit pain, stop, rest for a couple of minutes and try the exercise again. If it still hurts, do something else and come back to it next time you’re programmed for it and see how it goes.
If it’s still a problem, do a substitution instead. Don’t think that you “have” to do any exercise, even if it hurts.
Now, if you aren’t sure if something qualifies as pain or the normal discomfort of training, ask yourself these two questions:
Is the pain on both sides of my body, or just one?
When you perform exercises correctly, both sides of your body are fairly equally subjected to stress.
Thus, if one side starts to hurt more than the other, it’s more likely to be a sign to stop rather than muscle burn or fatigue.
Is the pain concentrated around a joint?
These are the types of pains that you’re most likely to encounter because muscle strains and tears are very uncommon.
Aches and stiffness generally go away if you warm up properly, but genuine joint pains won’t (in fact, they’ll generally get worse).
Thus, when they do happen, simply rest the affected joint(s) until the pain is completely gone.
One of the easiest ways to get hurt in your weightlifting is getting greedy.
Maybe you’re feeling particularly strong one day, or you want to impress or one-up someone in the gym or just move the progressive overload needle faster, so you load the bar with a weight that makes your spidey senses tingle.
This is almost always a bad idea.
It increases the likelihood that your form will break down, it can place more stress on your joints and ligaments than they can handle, and it can increase the likelihood that you’ll fall behind in recovery.
A much smarter, and ultimately more effective, approach to progression is one that’s slow and steady.
If you’re new to weightlifting and you can add 5 pounds to your big lifts every week or two for the first several months, you’re doing great.
If you’re an experience weightlifter on a proper bulk, then gaining just 1 rep per week (and thus adding weight every few weeks) is good progress. Fractional plates for “microloading” can also be helpful here.
Progressing this way also helps with the next point…
Be a Stickler for Good Form
Wanna know one weird trick for immediately increasing your whole-body strength by at least 10%?
Use shitty form!
“Cheat reps” are an easy way to add weight to the bar, but they also reduce the quality of the training and increase the risk of injury.
Remember that the goal when you perform a resistance training exercise isn’t to haphazardly lift as much weight as possible, but to carefully control it through a full range of motion.
This not only protects you from injury but also makes each and every rep, exercise, and workout that you do more conducive to muscle and strength gain.
This is especially important with compound exercises like the squat, deadlift, and bench press because while they’re not inherently dangerous, they generally involve the heaviest weights and most technical skill.
Thus, there’s a big difference between cheating on the last rep or two of isolation exercises like the dumbbell curl and lateral raise versus a barbell pull or press.
So, the takeaway here is simple:
Don’t sacrifice form for the sake of progression.
Instead, learn proper form for every exercise that you perform and stick to it.
The Bottom Line on How Dangerous Weightlifting Really Is
Weightlifting isn’t nearly as dangerous many people think.
In fact, it’s generally one of the safest sports that you can get into, less dangerous than hitting the soccer field or running trails.
That said, it also must be approached responsibly.
Respect your body and what you’re demanding of it, and realize that it’s almost always reckless weightlifting that leads to the haunting types of injuries that make many people afraid to touch a barbell.
So, while you can expect your fair share of mild muscle and joint aches and pains as you progress as a weightlifter, you also can, on the whole, remain health and injury-free so long as you…
- Don’t try to push through pain.
- Don’t rush progression.
- Don’t sacrifice form.
Happy and healthy training!