10 Steps to Avoiding a Weight Lifting Injury
Simple steps to keep you strong and safe in the weight room
By Dan Cassidy—Some guys know exactly when it happened. They may have heard a pop in their shoulder, or felt like someone slapped them hard across the back of their leg. For others, it wasn’t a sudden snap that sidelined their workouts, it was just gradual overuse that caused joints or muscles to wear down. If you’ve injured yourself during a weight lifting workout, you’ll never want that to happen again—even if it means giving up on your routine. But fear not—regardless of your experience or ability in the gym, there are tried and true methods for avoiding a weight lifting injury well into your 30’s, 40’s, 50’s and beyond.
What Causes Weight Lifting Injuries
There are two types of common weight lifting injuries.
1. Overuse/Aging. Years of intense workouts take their toll on the body. Cartilage wears down and muscles, tendons and ligaments can become less limber. Dehydration and overtraining also play a role in overuse injuries. All of these can be a recipe for disaster unless you know how to work around them.
2. Traumatic. These injuries are most often accompanied by immediate pain or a “popping” sound that signals something is seriously wrong. Traumatic injuries can land you in the emergency room, rehab, or worse.
There are many ways you can injure yourself during weight training; luckily, there are steps you can take to avoid getting hurt at all. We spoke with experts ranging from orthopedic surgeons to personal trainers and compiled a list of tips, guaranteed to help you stay in great shape and out of the doctor’s office.
How to Avoid a Weight Lifting Injury
1. Use proper form. Using proper form is critical if you want to prevent an injury. All of the experts we spoke with agree that using poor form is the quickest way to end up hurt. So how do you know if you’re using the right form? According to Mike Fantigrassi, National Academy of Sports Medicine Student Success Manager, a personal trainer can teach you proper technique. Or, if you’ve been hitting the weights for years, ask a friend to use video or photos to catch any flaws in your movement: “Before using heavy weight, make sure you have good technique. Ask someone to watch you perform an exercise or even record it with a cell phone to see if you have good form. Ask for help and get coaching from a qualified fitness professional if you’re unsure of how to perform an exercise.”
According to Dr. Vonda Wright, the best way to track your form might be more obvious than you’d think: “Those mirrors in the gym are not there just for vanity—they’re actually there to make sure your knees are not over your ankles when doing squats, or that your hands aren’t too wide during those wide-grip bench presses.”
2. Do smart exercises. If you’re worried about injuries, the best exercises to use are those that are functional and strengthen your core; pushups, lunges, and balance work are all great. Dr. Wright says that weight training doesn’t look quite like it once did: “There’s a trend to get away from machines and really focus on functional training in 3 planes of motion. In order to get really strong, agile and powerful you need to use balance and gravity, and you can’t do that in a machine. Also, guys should not be afraid to try things they don’t think are manly—Pilates, yoga, and spin class are all great for building functional strength and endurance.”
3. Avoid dangerous exercises. Which are those? Dr. Wright says to think back to what your high school football coach taught you; those Olympic bench presses, squats and deadlifts are all excellent exercises if your technique is flawless, but for most men those exercises offer more risk than reward. “Most guys who have a busy life outside the gym revert back to what they knew in high school—which is what your football coach taught you, who didn’t really know much about weight training to begin with. That’s often Olympic lifting done incorrectly or to fatigue, which is where your form will fail.”
Want another exercise that can land you in rehab? Plyometrics can lead to muscle strains, tears and worse if done without warming up properly. This brings us to our next point…
4. Warm up properly. This means raising your body’s core temperature through some light cardio for at least five minutes, and ideally incorporating some very-low resistance dynamic exercises that will prep your body for upcoming stress. Using a foam-roller to work out any kinks in your muscles is another great way to prep your body, according to Fantigrassi: “Warm up properly by performing self-myofascial release and stretching for tight areas. Common muscles that would benefit would be calf complex, hip flexors, lats and pectorals. These areas become tight from wearing shoes and sitting all day.”
5. Use the right weight. Don’t be the guy in the gym who lifts twice as much as he should, grunts so everyone hears it, and has awful form. Before long he’ll be on the sidelines, while you’re working to improve your game.
6. Get a spotter when lifting with free weights. This is one of the simplest ways to avoid an injury but can also be the most important for certain exercises.
7. Stretch. Stretch after your workout. Stretch during your workout. Stretch before you begin weight lifting, after you’re already warmed up. Muscles lose their elasticity with age, especially for guys in their late 30’s and 40’s, so stretching can help fight off any injuries caused from tight, shortened muscles. According to Dr. Leon Popovitz, co-founder of New York Bone and Joint Specialists in New York: “You absolutely need to stretch. I recommend stretching before, taking a break during your workout to stretch, and then stretching again after. That significantly decreases the incidences of injury while the activity is going on, and it also significantly decreases the likelihood of an injury after. This is especially important as you get older, because muscles lose their elasticity and sometimes some of their blood supply with age.”
8. Don’t be a weekend warrior. Having a busy schedule during the week doesn’t mean you should pack all of your physical activity into the weekend. If you do, you’ll likely spend your Monday morning at the doctor’s office. Dr. Wright says that guys who care about long-term health need to make fitness a daily investment, not something reserved for the weekend only.
“If you sit at a desk all week and you let your butt go soft or your hip flexors weaken, you will not perform on the weekend like you remembered performing before. That’s when guys jump up and land on their Achilles and it pops, or they pull their hamstring. You just can’t get the benefit of a consistent investment in your body with 36 hours on the weekend.”
9.Take care of your body outside the gym. This means getting enough rest and staying hydrated, eating well, and having proper posture. It should come as no surprise that a guy who takes care of his health will be less prone to all sorts of ailments, including injuries while hitting the weights.
You’re more likely to sustain a weight lifting injury if you use poor form, do dangerous exercises, lift too much too soon, or don’t take care of your health. Luckily, there are several preventive steps you can take to ensure you stay in the gym, out of the doctor’s office and on top of your game. Mind your form, choose your exercises carefully, establish a daily fitness routine, and you’ll have no trouble keeping up with your fitness goals.