Minor injuries in the weight room are fairly common, but they don’t have to be. Follow these points to stay as healthy and pain free as possible.
- Proper exercise form – It’s best to get an experienced lifter or trainer to help you with your exercise form, but the important points that apply to most weight lifting exercises are pretty basic. First, try to keep your spine braced in a neutral position whenever possible. By neutral position I mean maintain the natural curvature of your spine, and don’t let it round forward or excessively arch backwards, as that can put a lot of pressure on your discs. Second, when doing upper body exercises try to keep your shoulders pulled back and down which is a stable and strong position for the shoulder joint. Each exercise has its own nits to proper form, but those two items alone will go a long way.
- Warm up – your PE teacher probably taught you this in elementary school, but it bears repeating. Before lifting anything heavy, raise your body temperature with a general warm up such as 5-10 minutes on a stationary bike or walk on the treadmill. Then begin your planned exercises for the day with a light weight (no more than 40% of 1 rep max) for 10-20 reps and work up in weight from there. A good warm up will raise the temperature of your soft tissues, increase synovial fluid in the joints, open the capillaries to the muscles, and help you dial in your form, all of which will lower chance of injury and increase your performance.
- Muscular balance around each joint – try to develop your muscles evenly so that you don’t create imbalances that pull your joints out of proper alignment. The most common offense is over developing the muscles visible in the mirror at the expense of the muscles in the back of the body. Beginner guys are notorious for doing a lot of chest and bicep work while neglecting the upper back and rear deltoids, which ends up pulling their shoulders forward into an unstable position. Another example is doing leg exercises for the quadriceps while neglecting the hamstrings which can create instability in the knee. Strive for balance.
- Strengthen the critical stabilizers –prevent the most common injuries in the weight room by keep the stabilizers of the shoulders and lower back nice and strong. Google rotator cuff prehab exercises, and do one or two of them either as a warm up or finisher when you train shoulders. To strengthen the stabilizers of the lumbar spine, make sure your routine includes plenty of core work for both the spinal erectors and abdominal muscles. Two of the best are Romanian deadlifts and planks. Single arm lifts such as single arm deadlifts, single arm farmer’s walks, and single arm overhead presses are also excellent for building stability in the core. Note that crunches are not sufficient to strengthen the abs for spine stabilization because they work the superficial rectus abdominis rather than the deep transverse abdominis muscles.
- Maintain your mobility – we’re all born with great mobility, but as we get older our bodies tighten up which can make it hard to maintain proper form when we exercise. Common problem areas for people who lift weights are tight pecs, lats, and hamstrings. If you sit in a chair for most of the day, add tight hip flexors and thoracic spine to the list. Tight pecs and lats or a rounded thoracic spine will put your shoulders out of alignment when you press and put undue stress on your rotator cuff. Tight hamstrings or hip flexors will pull your lower back out of its neutral position when you squat or leg press. Try stretching those areas a few times per week after you exercise to avoid problems, and throw in some foam rolling or massage to loosen up any particularly tight areas. Massage is the better option but foam rolling is cheaper and more convenient.
- Proper recovery – make sure you incorporate enough rest time, food, and hydration in your workout plan. A muscle or tendon that is still fatigued from previous workouts is much more likely to get injured than one that’s fully recovered. It’s hard to give specific recommendations with regard to recovery because everyone is different and has different recovery abilities. My advice is to listen to your body and don’t jump into a drastically heavier or more difficult workout routine without giving your body time to adapt to it. Do a variety of exercises and change your workout routine periodically so that you don’t subject your joints to the same repetitive strain over and over again. It’s also generally a bad idea to train with over 90% of your 1 rep max (1RM) on any particular exercise for several weeks in a row. Spend more time with weights that are below 80% 1RM to save your joints and help your muscles and connective tissue recover from those times when you decide to go heavier.
The above list might look daunting, but putting them into practice is relatively easy. Good form and adequate warm up should become a normal part of your routine and will become second nature before you know it. When you design a workout routine, keep an eye on recovery and balancing your muscle groups, and throw in a couple of light exercises for the rotator cuff and core. Stretch the areas I mentioned a few times a week and foam roll any problem areas. I totally get it that doing those things isn’t as fun as slinging weights around, but the payoff is avoiding the pain and frustration of injuries.