Some exercises can cause damage to bones, muscles and surrounding tissues, make it more likely that you will injure yourself or worsen a pre-existing injury or medical condition. Avoid bouncing while stretching, standing toe-touches (touching your toes), full squats, sit-ups (crunches) and double leg raises. They can all cause injury.
You may have heard warnings about exercises referred to as 'contraindicated'. A contraindicated exercise is a movement that is not recommended because it is potentially dangerous.
It may involve extreme movements of a joint beyond its normal range (such as toe touches), movements that involve excessive rapid or repetitive twisting, or sustained or held movements (such as a held sit-up). These exercises are considered unsafe for the general population.
They may make injuring yourself more likely or worsen a pre-existing injury or medical condition. Avoid or modify potentially harmful exercises to make sure you are exercising safely.
When deciding if any exercise is safe, you need to consider the technique and the load, as well as your personal circumstances, such as any previous injuries and your fitness level.
Bouncing while stretching
It is mistakenly believed that 'bouncing' as you stretch (ballistic stretching) helps muscles to stretch further. Sudden overstretching stimulates the stretch reflex causing the muscles to contract even tighter in an attempt to prevent injury. Bouncing is counterproductive as it can cause small tears to the muscle tissue, which are experienced as muscle soreness or tenderness.
- Don’t bounce.
- Concentrate on slow, sustained stretches.
- Hold the stretch for 10 to 20 seconds.
- Once the muscle feels comfortable, gently increase the stretch and then hold again.
Bending down to touch the toes, with straight legs, can overstretch the lower back muscles and hamstrings and stress the vertebrae, discs and muscles of the lower back and hamstrings. Adding a twisting movement to the toe-touch can cause damage to the joints.
Alternative stretches for the abdominal muscles or the lower back muscles and hamstrings include:
- Avoid standing toe-touches altogether.
- Stretch the hamstrings and lower back muscles by placing one foot on a low bench or chair, with both legs slightly bent so as not to stress the knees joint and, keeping your back straight, gently reach forward with your arms.
- An alternative hamstring stretch involves lying on your back with both knees bent. Straighten one leg by lifting it towards the ceiling, keeping the knee slightly bent. Support the straight leg by clasping both hands behind the knee. Hold. Repeat for the other leg. You should feel the stretch on the back thigh of the straight leg.
- An alternative lower back stretch involves sitting cross-legged on the floor. Slowly lean forward, keeping your back straight, reaching your arms out to the floor. Hold.
The deep (full) squat
Full squats push the knee joint past 90°C. Whether they are done with or without weights (a barbell or a weight held across the shoulders or in the hands) this can strain the ligaments, cartilage and muscle of the knee joint and lower back, and create problems with the tracking (movement) of the kneecap.
- Perform half-squats instead (45°C bend of the knee).
- Use a mirror to check when your knee joint is at 90°Cº. You could also ask someone else to watch you or seek instruction from a qualified fitness professional.
Two common but potentially harmful variations of the sit-up include anchoring the feet (where your training partner holds your feet) or keeping the legs straight along the floor. The hands are held behind the head or neck, and the upper body lifted. These types of sit-ups strain the lower back and tend to target the muscles of the hips and thighs rather than the abdomen.
- Avoid this style of sit-up altogether.
- Perform abdominal curls instead. Lie on your back with your knees bent, feet flat on the floor and arms folded across your chest or alongside your body. Breathe out and curl your ribcage towards your pelvis.
Double leg raises
This exercise involves lying on your back and raising both legs at the same time. This places enormous stress on the lower back. Another potentially harmful variation is to lie on your stomach and lift both legs at the same time.
- Don’t perform double leg raises.
- Perform the exercise one leg at a time, making sure your hips remain stable throughout the movement. Keep the other leg bent, with your foot on the ground.
‘Lat Pulldown Behind the Neck’ or ‘Shoulder Press’
The ‘Lat Pulldown Behind the Neck’ and ‘Behind the Neck Press’ should be avoided, especially if you have been told you have instability in the front of your shoulder.
- When deciding if any exercise is safe, you need to consider the technique used and the load, as well as your individual condition, such as injury history and fitness level.
- Be guided by a qualified fitness instructor. Or if you have a pre-existing injury or medical condition, consult a sports medicine doctor, exercise physiologist or physiotherapist.
- There are many changes during pregnancy such as changes in body shape and size that pose potential risk of increased injury. It is essential that all women discuss their exercise plans with their doctor as each pregnancy is different.
- Increasing the speed of any exercise can increase the risk of injury.
- Avoid or modify any exercise that causes you pain or discomfort.
Where to get help
- Your doctor
- Exercise physiologist ESSA Exercise & Sports Science Australia
Things to remember
- Some exercises are best avoided because they can cause damage to bones and muscles (musculoskeletal injury).
- Potentially harmful exercises include bouncing while stretching, standing toe-touches, full squats, straight-legged sit-ups and double leg raises.
- Avoid or modify any exercise that causes you pain or discomfort.
You might also be interested in:
- Aerobics - preventing injury.
- Australian rules football - preventing injury.
- Canoeing and kayaking - preventing injury.
- Cycling - preventing injury.
- Dancing - preventing injury.
- Exercise intensity.
- Exercise safety.
- Fitness centres - how to choose one.
- Golf - preventing injury.
- Healthy ageing - stay physically active.
- Heat stress and sport - reducing the risks.
- Lawn bowls - preventing injury.
- Martial arts - preventing injury.
- Orienteering - preventing injury.
- Physical activity - it's important.
- Resistance training - advanced.
- Resistance training - beginners.
- Rowing - preventing injury.
- Rugby Union - preventing injury.
- Running and jogging - preventing injury.
- Soccer - preventing injury.
- Squash - preventing injury.
- Surfing - preventing injury.
- Swimming - preventing injury.
- Tennis - preventing injury.
- Touch football - preventing injury.
- Water polo - preventing injury.
- Windsurfing - preventing injury.
Want to know more?
Go to More information for support groups, related links and references.
This page has been produced in consultation with and approved by:
(Logo links to further information)
Physical Activity Australia (formerly Kinect Australia)
Fact sheet currently being reviewed.
Last reviewed: March 2011
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Content on this website is provided for education and information purposes only. Information about a therapy, service, product or treatment does not imply endorsement and is not intended to replace advice from your qualified health professional. Content has been prepared for Victorian residence and wider Australian audiences, and was accurate at the time of publication. Readers should note that over time currency and completeness of the information may change. All users are urged to always seek advice from a qualified health care professional for diagnosis and answers to their medical questions.
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