Avoid this machine at the gym like the plague

Over the past few months I’ve been talking about back injuries in firefighters. First I cleared up a few myths about back injuries (see myths). Now I’m going over exercises that firefighters should AVOID. (See those I’ve discussed so far: sit-ups, back extension machine and prone hyperextension.)

Over these past few weeks I’ve explained that some exercises we do in our workouts, while they may not hurt at the time, place a great deal of stress on the vertebrae and actually cause more damage than good.calf raise 2

Using the calf-raise machine is an example of a problematic exercise because it puts a TON of compression force on the spine. That compression force presses down hard on your vertebrae and is just asking your jelly donut-like disc between your vertebrae (the intervertebral disc) to come squishing out. That’s what we call a herniated disc and typically herniated discs develop over long periods of time by repeatedly doing motions that place high compression forces on the spine (bending over while lifting also produces high compression forces.)

Now you may be thinking this: if I never subject my spine to stress, is it going to be prepared for the physically demanding work of firefighting? As long as you do some exercise, then yes.

See, muscular contraction of the core/back muscles, which occurs during most exercises, applies compression force on the spine so you would have to be sedentary to avoid any. During exercise your goal should be to exert an appropriate amount of force on the spine – enough to stress the joint without causing undue damage. Some exercises, like this one, exceed a healthy level of stress.

You’re better off working your calf muscles without placing weight directly onto your shoulders. For example: calf raises holding hand weights, box jumps (or any kind of jumping) or using the leg press machine to work the calves are all fine choices.

Have you ever experienced back pain or an injury and found that an exercise you were doing was actually causing the problem rather than helping it? Let me know in the comments below.

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By | 2018-06-01T07:14:44+00:00 May 14th, 2014|Uncategorized|6 Comments

About the Author:

Dr. Karlie Moore has a PhD in Exercise Science and Nutrition and specializes in firefighter health. She has conducted fitness testing on hundreds of firefighters and has created the most comprehensive online wellness program for fire departments called the FitCulture program. Dr. Moore is also married to a firefighter and so understands their lifestyle and the health challenges associated with it.


  1. Richard Giles May 26, 2014 at 5:24 pm

    Yes, there are many was other than this machine to work you calves!
    And thank you for your on-going news letters!!

    • Karlie May 26, 2014 at 9:08 pm

      You’re welcome Richard! Hope things are going well for your department.

  2. Chris van Beek February 6, 2016 at 4:31 pm

    Could the same not be said for things like squats and squat variants? How about shoulder press? Or clean and press? Wouldn’t any exersize placing weight on or above shoulders put load excessive load stress on your spine?

    • Karlie February 6, 2016 at 9:09 pm

      No. The problematic point is when the force vector is going straight down the spine, and that is only when weight is placed right on top of the shoulders while standing straight up. You’re only doing that for a short time in all other exercises. It’s Ok to place some force on the spine. But when it’s constant, like in the calf raise, it becomes excessive and the cons of the exercise outweigh the benefit (because you can certainly work your calves in many other ways). There may be times when you can’t avoid it at work. That doesn’t mean it’s also a good idea to do during your workout – it means you should avoid it.

  3. Bill Potter October 17, 2018 at 8:26 pm

    I believe a rowing machine contributed to a herniated disc. After months of rest and a few injections I slowly started going back to the gym. All the other machines seemed to help, but when I started rowing again my sciatica started coming back. Never went back to that machine and I’ve been pain free since.

    • Karlie Moore October 17, 2018 at 8:55 pm

      Good to hear and thanks for sharing Bill!

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