Why Safe is Unsafe

Why Safe is Unsafe

Andrew Charniga


Figure 1.  Collegiate female volleyball players training (with Marine drill sargent) for the upcoming season. 

Despite a long history of employing weight training for athletes; a rational methodical approach to strength training for dynamic sport in the USA has yet to emerge. Previous essays have dealt with unfortunate outcomes arising from this irrational methodology evolution (Charniga, A., 2016-2017, www.sportivnypress.com).

For instance, the rise to international prominence of American weightlifting in the 1940s and rapid fall by the end of the 1950s was determined to be primarily the result of a national failure to develop a rational, scientific based training system designed to acquire the skills requisite of modern weightlifting (Charniga, “There is no System”, www.sportivnypress.com).

As it turns out, a scientific approach to develop a training methodology in weightlifting sport did not seem to be necessary. In the aftermath of World War II, traditional powers in the sport Germany and Austria were on their knees.  The Soviet Union (an emerging power in the sport) had suffered some 25 million casualties. By contrast, USA had a huge advantage not just in weightlifting; but, international sport in general with an abundance of food, insignificant loss of infrastructure and a  massive, thriving  economy. 

“Never underestimate the difficulty of changing false beliefs by facts.” Henry Rosovsky.

In the absence of a rational approach to training for weightlifting sport and the logical offshoot of applying such methodologies to strength training for sport; three factors were at work in the post war period. These factors are still prevalent today:

/ a simplistic view of human strength as the mere production of force from muscular contraction; to the exclusion of all its manifestations, not the least of which is the cultivation of inter –  muscular coordination and the potential of strain energy from of tendons and ligaments;

/ a secondary educational system which produces terribly flawed research of little practical value; even promoting unsound practical applications to the real world;

/ an American predisposition to commercialize anything that can be commercialized, which of course includes knowledge of training.

Evidence for these assertions abound.

For example, certification courses are a big business in the USA. These courses cover the gamut from strength and conditioning (multiple organizations such as National Strength and Conditioning Association), Olympic weightlifting (multiple levels from multiple organizations) personal training, athletic training, NCAA, sports medicine, kettlebell training, ad infinitum. With the many millions of dollars spent on these certification courses no one bothers to ask: what certifies the certifiers selling this stuff? 

Despite this, or for that matter, because of all of this knowledge, circumstances such as the very few listed below have become commonplace:

/ University inflicted rhabdomyolysis from high intensity overload {links 1 – 3}

/ University inflicted catastrophic deaths from overexertion {link 6}; “more than 30 collegiate football players have died since 2000 from overexertion”.

/ Unsound military training methods purchased by universities and professional teams; applied to athletes, including children {links 4&5}

Professional teams, universities and schools routinely hire quasi – military training practitioners such as ex – navy SEALs; and/or, have copied bodybuilding methods of exercising to fatigue, log carrying and so forth; without making a reasonable effort to research the efficacy of such training.

“Non-battle injuries resulted in more medical air evacuations from Afghanistan and Iraq than battle injuries,” explained Keith Hauret, an epidemiologist at the U.S. Army Public Health Command, or USAPHC. “The leading causes of these non-battle injuries were physical training and sports.” {Veronique Hauschild, 2015}

For example, universities and professional teams with far more money than common sense; to name only a few: the University of Michigan; University of Oregon; Ohio University; Northwestern University; Atlanta Falcons; Stanford University, U Of Arizona; U of Maryland and many others have hired SEALs; and/or practitioners of military methods for training football, basketball, volleyball players and other athletes.

Why would these university ‘brain trusts’ and professional teams spend money on military training of collegiate and professional athletes; with university staffs bulging with PhDs and coaches with certifications? Consider the quote below:

“…the primary health threat to troops for more than two decades …. muscle, joint, tendon/ligament and bone injuries like knee or back pain that are caused by running, sports and exercise-related activities such as basketball and weight-lifting.” Veronique Hauschild, 2015}

So, combat troops were in less danger dodging bullets and roadside bombs in the Iraq and Afghanistan theaters than they were engaging in the military’s exercise regimens, lifting weights, playing basketball and the like. 

Figure 2. Female collegiate basketball player preparing for the upcoming season carrying ammo cans; accompanied by barking marine drill instructor. Major universities have annual athletic budgets of upwards of $100 million; hundreds of millions have been and continue to be spent on facilities and training equipment. Instructors and coaches are required to have advanced degrees and certifications. Where do the ammo cans come from? 

Driving a trend to apply quasi – military training and the like is the false belief that the strength developed with increased muscle mass and accompanied by the forced onset of fatigue with large numbers of repetitions in simple exercises will have a positive carry – over to dynamic sports.

Arguably the single most important element in most if not all dynamic sports is coordination. The cultivation of coordination is impossible without developing muscle relaxation skills; voluntary as well as involuntary. The quasi – military training and the overwhelming majority of simple muscle building fatigue inducing strength training exercises which are popular in the USA are of course antithetical to developing a complex of coordination and muscle relaxation skills.

For example, the Atlanta Falcons NFL team infamously folded in the final minutes to lose the 2017 super bowl. This  despite having a virtual insurmountable lead late in the game. This incident came on the heels of two successive off seasons training with the navy SEALs.

The quasi – military SEAL training the team purchased consisted of such ‘sports specific’ activities as carrying logs, push ups, rolling truck tires and various other low skilled endeavors, to develop leadership skills; ostensibly, with fatigue resistant players. Apparently, no one in the Atlanta organization stopped to recognize in the NFL the athletes are highly skilled and that simple exercises to fatigue are antithetical to refining coordination, an indispensable quality to the elite sportsman.  

 Safe is Unsafe and Unsafe is Safe

Most strength training and conditioning exercises and techniques employed by coaches, personal trainers, athletic trainers and the like emanate from certification courses. They are safe because they are simple and consistent with academic beliefs and certification courses. In many cases, most are in fact unsafe. Whereas these techniques and exercises may be safe to practice in the weight room; they are in fact unsafe to practice over the long term for athletes in dynamic sports (figures 1 – 3;5).

Unsafe safe exercises and techniques generally are dynamic in character, more complex, with large range of movements in joints, require rapid change of direction and multiple switching back and forth of muscle groups. Exercises such as knee bends where knee hip and ankles are fully flexed (figure 4) are safe because they are consistent with activities typical of dynamic sports (Charniga, 2015 – 2019, sportivnypress.com). Large bending of joints facilitates the same in unanticipated circumstances in dynamic sports such as falling, rapid change of directions and so forth.    

For instance:

The half/parallel squatting technique, thanks to the widespread of misinformation by means of certification exams, innumerable word of mouth, medical, academic, coaches, therapists, athletic trainers, personal trainers and so forth, is the predominant exercise  technique in the USA for strength training the legs.

Figure 3. University female soccer player doing partial squats in power rack. Male coach applying ‘skills’ approved in certification courses, spots the athlete. Note position of spotter’s hands.  This is an exercise technique that favors chrondromalcia patella and degenerative alterations of the spine (Hartman, 2013).

According to Hartman’s review (2013), half squats and/or squats  to parallel, where the line of thigh is about horizontal; subjects the the knee joint to the highest “compression forces”, i. e., the knee angle of most strain on the joint. The lumbar spine is also subjected to excessive sheer forces because the trunk is leaning forward excessively, away from the vertical. This technique is designed to control flexing at knee and bending of ankle joints.

“Recommendations for half or quarter squats to avoid degenerative changes in the knee joint may be counterproductive. If the cartilage tissue of the odd facet is inadequately stressed then it receives insufficient nourish­ment that leads to consequent degeneration and atrophy. This result is confirmed by animal studies in which cartilage tissue was exposed to hypopression by unweigh­ting the extremities.” H. Hartman, 2013

Furthermore, in spite of evidence to the contrary (Hartman, 2013) the technique of  restricting the forward shifting of the shin in squatting  this technique is considered ‘safe’.

Figure 4. Squatting all the way down; allowing shins to move well in front of the knee is safe because of the “wrapping” effect  after knee angles of 80 – 90°. Fully flexing the knees distributes the stress evenly over the meniscus, i.e., “enhanced load distribution” (Hartman, 2013). Charniga, photo

Safe unsafe exercises and techniques such as the parallel or half squat to a bench and so forth, are in fact unsafe, when applied chronically over the long term. These exercises are static or close to isometric in character. Typically the coordination structure is very simple.  They are excessively choreographed to restrict range of movement in joints; especially the knee and ankle. Employed chronically over a long term an athlete’s skills in dynamic sports will  deteriorate.

Muscles have to contract and relax rapidly in dynamic sports. Static exercises do not contribute to this skill; inhibiting it over the long term. 

Furthermore, an athlete’s performance in dynamic sports depends on reciprocal innervation of agonist and antagonist muscles. Muscle antagonists must be relaxing faster than agonist muscles are contracting for an athlete to achieve rapid, smoothly coordinated movements. Speed of muscle relaxation is especially critical in the event of unanticipated falls; or, otherwise unexpected circumstances which necessitate rapid reactions to dissipate or otherwise re – distribute mechanical energy and avoid injury. 

Safe unsafe exercises and techniques can be made up exercises for sale; or direct outgrowths of fostering textbook ideas into the real world, bodybuilding/powerlifting exercises, weight machines and so forth.

Unsafe safe exercises and techniques are mostly dynamic in character. These exercises conform to muscular actions typical of dynamic sport where there are rapid changes in direction; rapid shifts in muscle tension and relaxation. Athletes training with these exercises and techniques are better prepared to react to unanticipated circumstances because they are better able to reflexively release muscle tension rapidly and move throughout a sufficiently large amplitude of motion in joints to dissipate or re – distribute mechanical energy.

 The aberrant injury rate to the lower extremities in American athletics has been cited as proof positive one of the main causative  factors is chronic application of safe unsafe exercise techniques; widely utilized at all levels of American sport (see Charniga, “Flat tires”and Brittle Basketball players, www.sportivnypress.com 2019).

Figure 5. A self proclaimed expert (PhD) in mobility demonstrating how to learn the squat.

Besides inane procedures for safely performing squat (see figure 5); the literature shows that the half and quarter squat present a long term risk of degenerative alterations of the knee joint:

“…apparent higher risk for chondromalacia, osteoarthritis, and osteochondritis in deep squats are unfounded. With the same load configuration as in the deep squat, half and quarter squat training with comparatively supra-maximal loads will favour degenera­tive changes in the knee joints and spinal joints in the long term.” H. Hartman, 2013

So, there is no upside to the very commonly employed safe method to learn squats as illustrated in the figure 5. Safe is in fact unsafe. 

Whether it be volleyball players crawling about the grass with rope draped across neck as in figure 1; or, straining at half squats in a power rack; rolling truck tires; beating ropes to fatigue; these exercises and many other techniques of the same vein are inappropriate for dynamic sports.  

Figure 6. Real world conditions more than adequately refute terribly flawed research of what constitutes safe and unsafe exercises and technique. And, the predisposition to apply these abberrant ideas from certifications and the like regarding balance of muscle strength; restricting movement to linear alignments; restricting movement of the ankle with tape, braces and so forth. Charniga photos. 


“…the deep squat presents an effective training exercise for pro­ tection against injuries and strengthening of the lower extremity. Contrary to commonly voiced concern, deep squats do not contribute increased risk of injury to passive tissues.” H. Hartman, 2013

So, what makes a safe exercise unsafe. A safe exercise or technique is based on false assumptions; creates conditions where application to the real world of turning, twisting, falling, tackling and so forth will not apply. On the contrary, unsafe exercises like deep squats, full range of motion lunge and others are in fact safe because the techniques and movements conform to real world conditions of dynamic sports.

Links to statements:

1/ http://www.sportingnews.com/ncaa-football/news/nebraska-players-hospitalized-tyjon-lindsey-and-defensive-dylan-owen-rhabdomyolysis-scott-frost/1e47qxljr8fp913t0zutt301h6

2/ http://www.hawkcentral.com/story/sports/college/iowa/football/2016/01/08/iowa-settles-lawsuit-ex-player-injured-workout/78519382/

3/ https://www.oregonlive.com/ducks/index.ssf/2017/01/oregon_ducks_workouts_hospital.html

4/ “Sixteen-year-old killed when log falls on him during high school football drill” https://www.theguardian.com/sport/2017/aug/10/high-school-football-player-dies-log-drill

5/ “SEALs die while training in swimming pool” https://nypost.com/2015/04/27/navy-seals-die-in-swimming-pool-training-accident/

6/ https://www.acsh.org/news/2018/09/28/30-ncaa-football-players-have-died-during-workouts-2000-hbo-reveals-13456


1/ Charniga, A., “It is all connected” I-III; www.sportivnypress.com

2/ Charniga, A., “Achilles tendon ruptures and the NFL”, Practical solutions to the problem of Achilles tendon rupture and the proliferation of injuries to the lower extremities of football players, www.sportivnypress.com

3/ Charniga, A., “There is no system” I-VI; www.sportivnypress.com

4/ Charniga, A., “Reflexive Release: Should Female Weightlifters be Injury Prone?” www.sportivnypress.com

5/ Hartman,H., Wirth, H., Klusemann, M.,  “Analysis of the Load on the Knee Joint and Vertebral Column with Changes in Squatting Depth and Weight Load”, Sports Med, (2013) ;43:993-1008 DOI 10.1007/s40279-013-007-6