Risky Fitness

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Two weekends ago, one of the most recognizable fitness models in the world, Greg Plitt, was struck and killed by a train in Burbank, California. The 37-year-old, who you may know from the show Work Out or his more than 200 magazine covers, had been shooting a workout video with his camera crew at the time. Though the accident occurred in a restricted area without a permit, it wasn’t the first time he had filmed in such a location — videos he’d posted previously featured trains whizzing by, or Plitt doing pushups on the tracks.

Some reports say he thought the oncoming train — which was approaching from behind him — was on the next track over. Others say that he was trying to outrun it for effect. In a report in the L.A. Times, Plitt’s girlfriend, Christina Stejskal, said he “was just trying to get the best shot.” Regardless of how it occurred, it was a tragic event that resulted in the death of a positive powerhouse who inspired many.

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The accident also raises questions for me about risk verses reward in the context of fitness. It seems simple, I’m sure: Don’t film workout videos on active railroad tracks. But, I see or hear about lesser versions of this scenario playing out all the time, most of them preventable.

In an era where many of us film at least part of our workouts on a regular basis (albeit as a more casual production, say, for Facebook or Instagram), it can be tempting to show off for the camera, to try something new or extra flashy, to go for broke. Unfortunately, too often that ends up is…well, broke. If you don’t believe me, hit “play” on any of the hours’ worth of gym bloopers footage available on any video-hosting site.

For example:

Don’t get it twisted: I’m not suggesting that we need to fear exercise, or that we shouldn’t explore what we are physically capable of. The human body isn’t fragile, and in fact, when we use exercise to break down muscle fibers to an appropriate degree, we regenerate tissue and become even stronger than before.

What I am suggesting is a more conscious weighing of the risks versus the rewards when it comes to the decisions we make on our path to better fitness.

1) Be Mindful of Others

Unless you’re working out in your own home gym, chances are you’re not the only one on the training floor. Yet there are those rare gym-goers who seem blissfully oblivious to this fact, walking into the path of a swinging kettlebell or embarking upon activities that endanger others (such as dropping equipment near others or performing ballistic movements like barbell snatches outside of designated areas).

The solution is to bring more mindfulness to your actions. The gym isn’t a place to check out mentally — it’s a place where thousands of pounds are being slung around (sometimes at great velocity) at any given second, so sloppiness can come at a heavy cost. Practice situational awareness as you navigate your environment, and put equipment away when you’re done with it so that it doesn’t trip up others and potentially wreak havoc.

2) Don’t Take Ill-Advised Chances

Would you make the same decision if the camera weren’t rolling? If not, reevaluate what you’re about to do. The Beast and his 725-pound bench press attempt springs to mind….

Man Attempts 725 Pound World Record Bench Press… by SimplyJustRandomness

I can relate to the desire to get the best, most exciting shot, and this urge is by no means limited to the realm of fitness. (See also the trend of extreme wedding photos, where brides and grooms stand in the middle of busy streets.)

And while I’ll happily acknowledge that all PRs come from taking small chances, from doing something you’ve never done before, there are safeguards you can put into place (such as taking small jumps in weight, asking for a spot, setting up the safety pins in the rack, or filing for permits to shoot photos or videos in restricted areas) that can prevent disasters from occurring.

3) Evaluate Exercise Selection Carefully

Exercising caution extends even to the movements we choose to include in our workout plans. If you’re a hardy motherscratcher who never seems to gets hurt, go forth and include whatever you like, within the context of smart programming. If certain body parts are creaky, on the other hand, then by all means, modify certain exercises to suit your body or swap them out entirely.

When it comes to box jumps — known tearer of Achilles tendons and causer of dramatic spills — keep the reps low, treat each one as its own individual act of perfect exertion, and take heights you’re very confident you can make. Or, just do another exercise that develops pop and hop, such as jump squats or banded kettlebell swings.

Another example worth examining is Olympic weightlifting. The clean, the jerk, and the snatch are absolutely gorgeous lifts that also happen to require more coordination and explosiveness simultaneously than just about anything else you can do in the gym. Many people lack the mobility to do the complete versions of the snatch or clean, at least right away. It’s advisable to start out with shoulder, hip and ankle mobility drills and the power (versus full squat) versions of these exercises. Or, again, just straight-up substitute them out and find something else that works to develop the same speed and power. (Of note: The current head of strength and conditioning for the men’s national rugby team considers box jumps an acceptable substitution.)

I adore the benefits of sprinting: It develops big power and big work capacity, and burns fat like a champ. But, it’s a high-impact activity and not everyone’s hamstrings are prepared for the task. Hill sprints can lessen the impact on the joints and prevent hamstring pulls, as well. Or, do “sprints” with something that better controls range of motion, such as a rowing erg or a stationary bike.

Lastly, even something as seemingly harmless as burpees can be a risky maneuver for some, causing lower-back or knee pain. You can easily modify the movement by elevating your hands or simply stepping your feet back instead of jumping them back. (I cover these variations and more in greater detail in “Excuse Me: Burpee Substitutions and Modifications.”)

There are no wholesale solutions to preventing accidents and injuries occurring in the realm of fitness, but there are steps you can take to play it safer…and injury-free always looks good on camera.

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Author:Jen Sinkler

Fitness writer and editor, workout connoisseur, meditator, proponent of spandex, former rugby player; never, ever without lip gloss.

8 Responses to “Risky Fitness”

  1. January 26, 2015 at 7:26 pm #

    What a horrible tragedy in the death of Greg Plitt. It’s hard to imagine a shot that would be “worth it” you know? I think this also goes into the world of boot camps and extreme fitness classes where clients don’t think they’ve got their money’s worth if they’re still able to walk once it’s over. I like our tips here too– especially being mindful of others. It’s so important to respect all of the potential dangers in the gym, because when you don’t, that’s when the gym actually becomes a dangerous place!

  2. terry
    January 27, 2015 at 12:46 pm #

    Informative ty

  3. Bob
    January 28, 2015 at 11:28 am #

    So, um, don’t be stupid? If that were possible, we’d have far fewer Darwin awards.

    For a really interesting view of how we really make decisions, read “Thinking, Fast and Slow” by Khaneman. We aren’t normally stupid (much of the time), but we aren’t exactly as rational as we’d like to believe, either.

  4. January 31, 2015 at 7:42 am #

    As a person who works on the railways, I really feel sorry for the railcar driver who just happened to be on duty the day that fellow decided that standard safety protocol just wasn’t necessary.
    I know more than a few drivers that have had to change careers simply from being involved in too many incidents like that.

    On the other content, good article, good reminders!

  5. February 1, 2015 at 2:12 pm #

    It is truly ridiculous how Greg died. I too am a bit of a thrill seeker and sometimes push the limit when on camera but not to that degree. I go after pr lifts and things I know I am capable of doing or might be capable of doing. I do not make my clients do things that they probably are not ready for. If someone cannot do a pushup I am not going to have them attempt a handstand pushup. We just started doing clean and snatch variations in our small group sessions and some people are ready for the full versions, some people are ready for modified versions, and some people are not ready at all. A good trainer can find a good exercise alternative for virtually any lift for any client.

  6. February 7, 2015 at 1:42 pm #

    As a family member of an person who was killed by an train AND a railroad employee who has been involved in far too many fatality investigations, I want to give a reminder that ALL tracks, whether active or not, are private property and trespassing on those tracks is actually a crime. The number one rule of railroad safety is: expect trains on any track, in any direction, at any time. When you combine a lack of knowledge and awareness with distraction (I.e. Filming a video) – the results are never good. Trains, especially commuter trains, are unbelievably silent. Most people think, ‘I’ll hear it coming’ or ‘how could anybody possibly be hit by a train?’. That attitude contributes to a false sense of security that sadly ends in tragedy. I am sorry for Mr. Plitt’s untimely death and the pain that his family is having to endure at such a devastating loss.

  7. February 18, 2015 at 1:48 pm #

    I appreciate the details about how to avoid injuries.It never occurred to me, being a woman, that someone would “grandstand” and try to do more than (s)he were trained to do.

  8. March 10, 2016 at 10:54 pm #

    It is sad to know that Greg died while filming his exercise regime. A bit of cautious approach could have been taken up by him while filming or at least his crew should have kept tab of the surroundings, especially while shooting near train tracks. There are many risks involved while exercising outdoors and one needs to be extra careful with the equipment and people who are in the vicinity. As a matter of fact, I always give importance to my surroundings while at gym or outdoors.

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