Ranking Exercises by How Useful — Or Dangerous — They Are

Step-ups? Deadlifts? Crunches? Which will get me ripped, and which will literally rip my body apart?

The gym is a profoundly dangerous place. Compact bison boys are teetering around clanging concrete together, some lady is dancing on a treadmill, and all the while, you presently have 180 pounds of steel awkwardly poised above your chest while sweat leaks into your eyes. It should be no surprise, then, that in a period of less than 20 years, almost one million Americans were treated in emergency rooms for injuries related to weight training alone, meaning that number would surely be much, much greater if you were to account for all of the treadmill choreographers out there.

Some significant causes of these injuries are people pushing themselves too far beyond their limits, and even more likely, people simply performing exercises that are either inherently dangerous or tough to get right without professional help. So, I asked decorated personal trainer Jonathan Jordan to help me rank an assortment of exercises by how beneficial they are — from muscle-building to (literally) back-breaking.

Rack that barbell, and listen closely before you tear something. 

1) Pallof Presses: Named after physical therapist John Pallof, the pallof press works out the core and is one of the most accessible exercises out there, as the amount of weight you use can be easily lowered. Because it can be performed on a cable machine or by using a resistance band, you never have to worry about awkward, heavy weights crashing down on you. Combine the relative safety of this exercise with, as Jordan explains, the potential that the pallof press has to restore the poor posture that many of us have from “chronic sitting and using mobile devices,” and you have our number one pick for most beneficial exercise. Below, you can see Jordan displaying how the pallof press is done.

2) Planks: An exercise that might be more familiar than the pallof press, planks are another workout that Jordan says is necessary for our core strength, something that everyone can benefit from now that we subsist in chairs, staring at our screens all day long. And again, the potential for injury is slim to none — as you can see in the video below, planks are pretty easy to get right.

3) Seated Cable Rows: Seated cable rows primarily work the back muscles, which can also help us negate the unpleasant goblin humps we form due to our increasingly digital lifestyles. That’s why Jordan places these toward the top of our ranking. Another obvious reason is, similar to the pallof press and planks, they can easily be performed without hoisting hefty weights above your body, highly reducing the chance of injury. 

4) Reverse Flyes: Reverse flyes target the muscles of your upper back, which as Jordan reiterates, are muscles that everyone needs to exercise more nowadays. Unlike the exercises above, which are essentially foolproof, Jordan does warn that you need to be a little more careful with reverse flyes — specifically, since the upper-back muscles tend to be small, this is one of those exercises that should be performed with light weights and a higher number of reps. Moreover, be sure not to overextend your shoulders; check out the video below for an example of how reverse flyes are done correctly.

5) Kettlebell Goblet Squats: Squats are a great exercise for leg muscles — particularly, quadriceps, hamstrings and calves — and they can help you build an ass that even this watermelon would be jealous of. However, normal squats can put a lot of pressure on the knees, which could result in you tumbling backwards and smashing your head on the ground. Kettlebell goblet squats, meanwhile, involve holding the weight in front of your body, and as Jordan says, “front-loaded squats are safer for most than back-loaded ones.” As with any squat, though, make sure to keep your knees directly over your feet.

6) Step-Ups: Another leg exercise, Jordan says, “Most of us need some single-leg work to work on imbalances, and this one is the safest.” Step-ups are an extremely simple exercise, but be careful to work your way up to taller boxes, lest you end up tripping over one and squishing your face into the floor.

7) Hip Hinges (like Deadlifts): Hip hinges are the movement pattern necessary to do deadlifts, but there are several other kinds of hip-hinge exercises out there, too, as you can see in the video below. Hip hinges are good exercises for both your hips and lower back, areas that many people need to work on, but as Jordan warns, “Many folks lack the mobility, back strength and core strength, and they do these wrong.” So, unless you have some weightlifting knowledge under your belt and have been in the gym for a while now, maybe stick to some of the more basic back exercises higher up on this list. Or, as Jordan suggests, “Start with a limited range of motion, and work with a professional for a session or two to ensure proper form.”

8) Seated Dumbbell Shoulder Press: Shoulder presses are great for achieving toned, well, shoulders, and using dumbbells as opposed to a barbell provides more room for error. All in all, Jordan says that this is, “a great exercise, but this explosive move without training can be dangerous.” More specifically, you might end up tearing your shoulder muscles or screwing up that joint, which would certainly keep you out of the gym for an extended period of time. If you want to give it a try, start with light weights and pay attention to the form used in the video below.

9) Kettlebell Swings and Olympic Lifts (Snatches, Cleans and Push Presses): These are all explosive maneuvers that are excellent exercises for the whole body, however, they can be incredibly dangerous. “These are the most complex, explosive and advanced moves you can do,” Jordan emphasizes. “They require excellent mobility, power, strength and coordination. They are an Olympic sport. When done correctly, they’re incredible, but so many people come to me hurt, with messed-up shoulders and backs from not respecting the training it takes to build up to them. Work with a professional first.” Seriously, these require proper training and technique (yeah, even kettlebell swings).

10) Crunches and Sit-Ups: Bet you never saw that coming. “Please, never do these,” Jordan says. “It’s murder on your spine.” Instead, if you want to workout your core, which you should, he suggests opting for more forgiving exercises, like the ones at the top of our ranking.

Now go mop up that pool of sweat you left back there. C’mon, man.