Lifting Smart

Some simple precautions can help you avoid injuries when working with weights.

by Linda Melone, CSCS

June 2013

You’re really pumped by the results of your weight routine—increased strength and better muscle definition provide all the motivation you need to keep pushing yourself. But now your lower back hurts, and you wonder if you haven’t pushed too hard.

The increased popularity of weight lifting has brought with it a rise in injuries. A 2010 study published in the American Journal of Sports Medicine found a 50% increase in weight training-related injuries between 1990 and 2007, and US hospitals treated more than 970,000 such injuries during that time. Roughly 90% of them occurred during free weight workouts.

When done correctly, weight training offers many important physiological and psychological benefits, says Yariv Maghen, MD, an orthopedic surgeon with Somers Orthopaedic Surgery & Sports Medicine Group in the New York metropolitan area. “Free weights allow flexibility in the form of exercise and amount of weight lifted, but they have risks associated with their use,” Maghen notes. “Injuries are all too common for those who don’t use proper technique, don’t take into account an accurate assessment of their own levels of fitness and strength, and don’t take commonsense precautions.”

Maghen says the most common injuries seen with free weights are muscle strains of the lower spine, wrist sprains and crush injuries from dropped weights. Keep these following tips in mind to reduce your injury risk.

1. Use slow and controlled movements
Each exercise involves two phases: a concentric move, when the muscle contracts, and an eccentric move as you return to the starting position, in which the muscle stretches.

“It’s particularly important to do both parts of the movement slow and controlled,” says Irv Rubenstein, PhD, exercise physiologist and founder of S.T.E.P.S., a fitness facility in Nashville, Tennessee. “Performing the eccentric slowly helps you avoid snapping your joints,” a particularly important point when performing knee extensions (a popular leg machine) and overhead presses (a shoulder exercise). Practice a two-second count on the concentric move and four to five count on the eccentric.

2. Train all your muscles, not just the ones you can see
Men like to work their chest and back muscles, says Rubenstein, and ignore the smaller muscles such as those on the upper back. Reverse flies, an exercise that strengthens the posterior shoulder muscles, are helpful. Rotator cuff muscles stabilize the shoulder joint and benefit from regular work, which may reduce the risk of injuries.

3. Use correct form
Ask a qualified instructor or watch a video to find out the proper way to do an exercise, says Maghen. “You should understand the movement and focus on the muscles you’re targeting.” Several leg exercises in particular lend themselves to poor form. For example, squats, lunges and leg presses (machine) tone and strengthen the leg muscles and the glutes, making them a favorite exercise among women. “Women have a tendency to allow their knees to turn in while doing these exercise, which can lead to knee injuries,” says Rubenstein. Keep knees aligned, not turned in or out, when performing these moves. In addition, don’t use momentum to lift any weight—work the muscle instead. And if lifting heavy amounts of weight, use a qualified spotter for overhead movements such as bench and dumbbell presses.

4. Start out slow
Avoid doing too much too soon to avoid injury, says Maghen. “If you’re just starting out or are returning to the gym after being away for awhile, start with lighter weights and work your way up to heavier ones.” For strength and muscle tone, the National Sports and Conditioning Association (www.nsca-lift.org) recommends using a weight you can lift for 12 repetitions. The last few reps should be challenging but doable. Once you can easily perform 15 reps, increase the weight slightly, in increments of no more than 2 1/2 pounds for the upper body or 5 to 10 pounds for the lower body at a time.

5. Stretch after lifting
Stretch the muscles you just worked, preferably while they’re still warm from your workout. “Stretch slowly and carefully until you feel tension on the muscle; hold for 10 to 20 seconds,” says Maghen, “then slowly and carefully release it.” Maghen recommends doing each stretch once. Never stretch to the point of pain and never bounce in an effort to gain more flexibility. Bouncing or “ballistic” stretching makes the muscle tighten up to protect itself, and may even lead to muscle tears, says Rubenstein.

6. Treat strained muscles immediately
If you feel as if you strained a muscle, first try rest, says Maghen. Avoid heavy lifting or strenuous exercise, but continue with light activity in order to maintain range of motion. Stretching, creams with ingredients such as arnica and pain relievers may help. Apply either ice or heat. “Ice decreases inflammation and soothes pain, while heat loosens ligaments and increases blood flow to an injured area,” says Maghen. Use whichever feels best. Supporting joints nutritionally as you age is important; supplements containing glucosamine, chondroitin, MSM, black cherry and esterified fatty acid carbons may be helpful.

7. Know when it’s time to see a doctor
Most injuries from weight lifting do not require a visit with a doctor, says Maghen. “However, one should seek medical attention in cases of a prolonged recovery from what you think is a ‘muscle strain.’ Some of the more serious injuries are usually obvious. They include severe pain, deformity, and loss of function or significant weakness as seen in biceps tendon and pectoralis (chest) tendon ruptures.”

Weight lifting is a great addition to any exercise routine, but only if you use some commonsense precautions to avoid injury.

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