Risk vs Reward in exercise selection

Every exercise, and by this I mean the physical exercise and the method with which it's applied i.e. sets, reps, tempo etc, can be placed on a scale of risk vs reward and ineffective vs ineffective.

A casual stroll around any busy gym will reveal a wide variety of exercise techniques being delivered by trainers and regular gym-goers and I can guarantee this - most of what see will not be the most effective way of achieving their goal. Many of the most effective training methods/techniques are being overlooked for more "flamboyant" and potentially dangerous exercises. This deviation is driven by numerous factors.

Why are sensible, effective exercises being overlooked?


Training can be boring as there is often a great deal of repetition of similar movement patterns. It can be tempting to throw in new exercises just to mix things up which is fine. As we know, the law of law adaptation dictates that the body will plateau if new training stimuli is not applied. However, more often than not, variation is there for the sake of variation and a core selection of effective exercises are neglected or relegated for less effective "party trick" exercises. This can be especially true for the personal trainer who has numerous clients. Change is often implemented because the trainer gets bored of delivering the same exercises everyday. In this case the needs of the trainer are outweighing the needs of the client.

Lack of knowledge

By far the most widespread variance in exercise is caused by lack of knowledge. Here I can't really fault the regular gym-goer. The odds are stacked against them as there are very few sources of sensible mainstream training advice currently out there. It's a question of knowing where to look and who to trust. If your main source of fitness advice is Muscle & Fitness or some crossfit WOD from your friends instagram account then you are doomed.

The burden of responsibility rests firmly on the shoulders of fitness professionals and as previously mentioned in other posts there is a real lack of quality in the industry. Computer based qualifications, 1 day courses and the influx of "transformation specialists" (bikini and swim short competitors who often take drugs and usually don't have an industry recognized qualification) have seen to that. Don't get me wrong, some of these guys do a good job but there is far more to personal training than gaining muscle an getting someone ripped.

The responsibility of the fitness professional is to apply the correct training protocols to their clients in accordance with the perceived risk to the client based on their current abilities and goals.

Variation should be introduced in the form of progression or in accordance with the goal of the client.

This can only be done effectively if the trainer has adequate knowledge, and the integrity to stick to a series of exercise progressions that may not have whistles and bells but are what the client needs. 

If the client has no interest in long-term sustainability and achieving maximum results and simply just wants to have fun then who cares. Just enjoy the chance to experiment as long as the exercise selection is safe and well balanced.


Unfortunately the current fitness climate is hot for something I call enter-trainment. Much of what we see in the gym is fueled by social media. You only need to look through any fitness feed to see a multitude of handstands, olympic lifts, human flags, couples squatting each other, 1000 rep challenges etc etc.

Simply put we have two arms and two legs held together by a torso with a head on it. A great deal of variation can be used to train this body but in reality it is mechanically sound moving through a limited number of movements. Variation outside these movements reduces the efficiency of the levers and the muscles that drive them.

Is it worth it?

Let's take a look at a few exercises that you might see and compare them on a scale of risk vs reward. We will also factor in the role of the ego, effectiveness and the fun factor.

Squat on exercise ball

I have seen bodyweight and barbell versions of this exercise.

Target - Quads, glutes, hamstrings, adductors, core

Effectiveness - Poor. The extreme difficulty of the exercise will limit both loads and posture thus negating the the supposed benefits.

Risk vs reward - Extremely risky. I have witnessed the downside of this exercise. A broken arm.

Verdict - The extreme risk for the minimal reward make this exercise possibly the most stupid exercise out their unless you are a circus performer.

Try instead:

A single leg rear foot elevated or a single leg box squat. These are far more effective exercises. Heavy loads can be employed as long as the technique has been mastered. Mastering the technique involves the correct balance between postural strength, co-ordination and proprioception and more closely mirrors a natural movement pattern.


Barbell bench press on an exercise ball


Target - Pecs, delts, triceps, core, glutes

Effectiveness - This exercise is very effective at challenging the muscles involved.

Risk vs reward - Again, having been given a first hand account of the damage even an empty olympic bar can do to the human face and that I have personally seen 2 anti-burst exercise balls explode like grenades i would categorize this exercise as high risk.

Verdict - The benefits of this exercise, namely working the pressing muscles whilst engaging the core can easily be achieved, and surpassed by safer exercises.

Try instead:

A single arm dumbbell press on either a bench or a ball when a level of control has been reached. More load can be lifted due to bilateral deficit and the core engagement is superior to the barbell version.


More examples

This exercise seems to be very popular on Instagram at the minute and I have a feeling we will see every Tom, Dick and Harry give this a go in an attempt to get some likes.

Without doubt a skillful display of core control. However, broken teeth or a fractured cheek bone are not worth it. This exercise is identical to rolling along a strip of tape on the floor. The only difference is the added danger.


As you can see from the above charts. There is a strong correlation between high risk exercises and egotistical/fun exercises. While some high risk exercises are also very effective there is usually a less risky exercise that is also as or more effective.

When considering athletes, the role of the strength and conditioning coach is to keep their athletes healthy for sport.

When considering the average client who just wants to be a bit stronger, look a little better and live a healthy life whilst maintaining freedom of movement for as long as possible, some of the exercises above do not contribute to this aim.