Weight Training: The Safest Physical Activity Out There?

1 04 2013


I really enjoy taking conventional wisdom and proving it completely wrong. Saturated fat is the devil, they say- nope; sugar and processed foods are the real problem. Eggs give you heart disease, they say- false; being overweight and sedentary is responsible for this. Lifting weights is dangerous and unsafe, they say; again, wrong. Let me explain…

Recreationally, weightlifters, powerlifters and people who engage in regular weight training at the gym report lower injury rates than most sports, including running. Traumatic injury especially, is extremely rare. Many people assume that weight training will lead to knee and back problems (which is why the squat and deadlift have gotten a bad name). This is simply not true. Can you injure yourself performing these exercises? Of course you can! You can also injure yourself stepping of a curb or slipping in the shower. Many studies have been done proving the safety and benefits of weight training. One such study was performed comparing the injury rates per 100 hours of several sports. The results? Weightlifting proved to be one of the safest activities around, safer than other sports such as football, basketball, soccer, running, etc. [Hamill, B.P. (1994)]. Another such study assessed the simple back pain of a weightlifting group vs. a control group of typical active men; 23% of the weightlifters experienced back pain compared to 31% of the control group [Granhed (1988)].


About 1 weightlifting participant in 1000 will get injured

A good friend of mine and I were actually  discussing the safety of squats the other day. We’ve both been lifting weights seriously for over a decade, have both competed in Strongman and powerlifting, and he himself is a professional strength and conditioning coach. Neither of us have ever been hurt while squatting, nor have we ever even seen anyone get hurt while performing squats. Compare that to the long-distance runners that the two of us know and almost all of them have had issues like shin splints, plantar fasciitis, stress fractures or other overuse injuries. In fact, one study [Lopez AD (2012)] systematically reviewed studies on the incidence and prevalence of the main specific RRMIs (running-related musculoskeletal injuries) over the past few decades and found the following:


A total of 28 RRMIs were found and the main general RRMIs were medial tibial stress syndrome (incidence ranging from 13.6% to 20.0%; prevalence of 9.5%), Achilles tendinopathy (incidence ranging from 9.1% to 10.9%; prevalence ranging from 6.2% to 9.5%) and plantar fasciitis (incidence ranging from 4.5% to 10.0%; prevalence ranging from 5.2% to 17.5%). The main ultra-marathon RRMIs were Achilles tendinopathy (prevalence ranging from 2.0% to 18.5%) and patellofemoral syndrome (prevalence ranging from 7.4% to 15.6%).


This systematic review provides evidence that medial tibia stress syndrome, Achilles tendinopathy and plantar fasciitis were the main general RRMIs, while Achilles tendinopathy and patellofemoral syndrome were the most common RRMIs for runners who participated in ultra-marathon races.”

My conclusion? Most other sports, especially long-distance running, seem to have a much higher prevalence of injuries (~1/10) than weightlifting (~1/1000).

But I’ve always heard that squats are bad for my knees!

About that…

In the 1960’s, a man named K.K. Klein (interesting initials…) published a paper called “The deep squat exercise as utilized in weight training for athletes and its effect on the ligaments of the knee” which hypothesized that the deep squat exercise would stretch ligaments of the knee and cause knee instability. Using a device that Klein created, they compared the lateral and medial ligaments of experienced weightlifters (immediately after doing squats) vs. people who had never performed squats. The results found that weightlifters had more unstable ligaments than sedentary individuals and Klein concluded that deep squats caused knee instability and that squats should never be done below parallel. This study was published in numerous journals, and the squat was vilified; the myth exploded from this one study.

What was the problem with the study?

75138_525791467448098_598412664_n– They had no controls

– They used subjective testing

– The study was not reliable (countless studies have been done since the 1960s proving that squats do not cause injuries; no study could reproduce these same results)

– There was experimental bias (Klein’s device used a physical force to manipulate strain, which had no control over load; he was also not blinded during the study)

– The weightlifters had just performed squats and were warmed-up, while the control group was cold; of course the weightlifters ligaments had more laxity! They were warm!

Long story short, Klein’s study was the first published and gave people a reason to eliminate a challenging exercise from their workout recommendations. Once his findings were in print, rumour spread rapidly and people accepted that squats were unsafe. Despite this, hundreds of studies since have shown:

– Ligament injuries are extremely rare with squatting

– Retired weightlifters have less symptomatic arthritis than the general population

– No degenerative diseases or issues have been found in the knees of aging weightlifters when compared to controls

– There is a low incidence of arthritis in those who load the knee through full range of motion (ie, deep squats)

– Squats may prevent injury and are an effective rehabilitation tool for people with knee problems

– Squats can strengthen connective tissue, bones, ligaments and tendons, increasing quality of life as we age

– Patellar tendonitis is the biggest concern with squatting. This comes from overuse, and is annoying, but not debilitating. Take time off, work on mobility, problem solved.

In conclusion, squats are a low-risk, high-reward exercise. Incidence of injury is extremely low and significant health and performance benefits can be gained. Weight training is far from dangerous, and across-sport injury rates support this claim.

Nope. He squats below parallel. Like a champion.

Nope. He squats below parallel. Like a champion.

For additional information on the safety of weight training, I’d like to refer you to the Exercise Prescription webpage detailing this wild truth, with references to several other studies and sources.

As I’ve said before, almost everyone should be doing squats and deadlifts, and squats especially should be a large focus of most weight training programs.

For more information on weight training and how to work it into your life, you know how to find me!