Like much of the advice in the world of health and fitness, the subject of avoiding and treating working injuries is full of broscience and gymlore.
Some people will say squatting past parallel puts your knees at risk. They’re wrong.
Others will say touching the bar to your chest on the bench press is bad for your shoulders. They’re wrong, too.
We’ve all heard that deadlifting is a surefire way to wreck our lower backs. Wrong, wrong, wrong.
Nevertheless, as with any physical activity, the risk of injury is there. If you’ve lifted weights for any amount of time, you know someone that has gotten hurt.
Shoulder injuries and back injuries seem to be the most common, but there are many other strange types of injuries that leave us scratching our heads (“how the HELL did he/she manage to do that??”).
Well, in this article I want to talk about common mistakes that increase your risk of injury, and how to speed recovery if you’re currently injured, or sustain an injury in the future.
Table of Contents
The truth is many people use the boogieman of injury as an excuse to train improperly–to not push themselves, to use poor form, and so forth.
You see, weightlifting just isn’t a very dangerous activity. One study found that injuries sustained during recreational and competitive weightlifting are substantially lower than injuries from other sports such as football, gymnastics, and basketball.
Weightlifting injuries are on the rise, however, which is most likely because the number of people doing it are also on the rise. Mass movements like CrossFit don’t help either, as a bad instructor is all it takes for a large group of people to increase the risk of injury.
So, the good news is this: if you train with proper form and avoid the mistakes discussed below, your risk of injury is actually quite low.
Let’s now look at the 4 most common mistakes people make in the gym that increase the risk of injury.
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According to research conducted by the Center for Injury Research and Policy, the most common way people injure themselves while weightlifting is dropping weights on themselves.
And how do people increase the risk of dropping weights on themselves?
They ego-lift. They stack the plates and just hope for the best.
I actually cringe when I see skinny guys load 3-4 plates on either side of the squat bar, only to perform shaky quarter reps with a spot. All it will take is a slightly too fast descent, or a momentary tweak of the back or knee, and Humpty Dumpty will have a great fall.
Trying to lift too much weight also puts excessive strain on your joints, tendons, and ligaments. By working with weights that you can properly handle, however, and by doing full, controlled reps, you not only avoid that problem, you also make better gains, and improve flexibility.
Here’s the bottom line: if you can’t get full reps, you’re using too much weight, and you’re increasing your risk of injury. Simply lighten the load, do full reps, improve your strength, and only move up in weight when you can keep it fully under control.
This is similar to the first mistake, but not the same.
Form mistakes go far beyond the heavy half repping that give a bad name to the big compound lifts like the squat, deadlift, bench press, and military press. You can work with proper amounts of weight and use a full range of motion and still put yourself at a considerable risk of injury.
- If you round your back during a deadlift, or hyperextend it too far at the top, you’re asking for a lower back injury.
- If you flatten your back and round your shoulders at the top of a bench press, or flare your elbows out too much, you will probably have shoulder problems at some point.
- If you let your knees bow in when you squat, or extend them too far past your toes, you can really hurt them when going heavy.
- If you do your overhead/military presses behind your neck, and your body is built like most people’s, you’re increasing your risk of injury. (Strangely enough, some people’s bodies just mechanically can handle this type of movement, but most don’t do well with it.)
Most exercises have little quirks like these, which is why you should take the time to learn proper form on everything you’re doing, and make sure to stick to it.
Bodybuiling.com’s videos are a great resource for this, and you may also like my articles on how to deadlift and how to squat, as these are two vitally important lifts that many people do incorrectly.
Many people’s warm-up routines consist of a few minutes of static stretching.
This is a bad way to go about it.
Static stretching before exercise has been shown to impair speed and strength, and not only fail to help prevent injury, but possibly increase risk of injury due to the cellular damage it causes to muscle and its analgesic effect.
First Warm-Up Set
12 reps with 50% of your working set weight
Rest 60 seconds
Second Warm-Up Set
10 reps with 50% of your working set weight
Rest 60 seconds
Third Warm-Up Set
4 reps with 70% of your working set weight
Rest 60 seconds
Fourth Warm-Up Set
1 rep with 90% of your working set weight
Rest 120 seconds and then start your workout
By doing this warm-up routine, you will not only help prevent injury, but you will probably actually find that you can lift more weight while maintaining proper form.
This might be obvious, but many people don’t quite get it:
If something is hurting, stop your set. Don’t try to push through pain.
If you experience pain, stop your set. If an exercise always bothers you, do something else.
Realize that pain is a warning that something is wrong, and if you don’t heed it, serious injury can follow.
Probably the worst injury I’ve witnessed was a guy in his 60s at a bench meet. He had just barely struggled out one rep with about 350, and then started rubbing his elbow. He then told the guys to load more weight so he can go for a PR. Everyone was rooting him on.
He gets under the bar, unracks it, gets halfway down and we hear a POP above the noise of the crowd. Fortunately, the spotters were on the ball and saved him from what looked like a near decapitation. His elbow blew out, and I overheard an idiot telling him to just ice it and he’ll be fine. Solid advice.
The point is don’t be stupid.
Aches and stiffness and such are common enough and usually go away once you warm up, but ignore and try to “alpha” your way through pain, and you’re asking to get hurt.
If you avoid the above mistakes, your chances for injury are quite low. But stuff can happen, so let’s talk about how to recover from workout injuries.
First, if the injury is serious, you should see a doctor. But the most common injuries are strains, and those are fairly easy to recover from if you take the following actions.
The most important part of recovery is rest.
Don’t put any stress on the affected body part(s) until they’re fully healed.
People that violate this simple principle can wind up with chronic injuries that become quite a problem.
Once the injured area feels healed (no more pain through a full range of motion), start slowly in training it again. Work with lighter weights and see how you feel the next day, and gradually work back into your normal routine.
Ice helps you recover by reducing inflammation and swelling and internal bleeding from injured capillaries and blood vessels. As long as there is pain and inflammation, ice will help.
You should begin treatment with ice, not heat (which we’ll talk about in a minute), and I recommend keeping a damp cloth between the ice pack and your skin to avoid discomfort.
Don’t apply ice for more than 15-20 minutes at a time, but you can rotate on and off all day.
Like ice, compression helps you heal by reducing swelling and inflammation.
You can combine compression with ice by wrapping over the ice pack.
By raising the affected part above your heart, you speed the blood’s journey back to your heart, which reduces swelling and aids in removing waste products from the area.
Heat stimulates blood flow, which helps your body bring more nutrients for healing and remove waste products.
You don’t want to use heat right away, however, because it aggravates inflammation.
The general advice is to use only ice for the first 3 days to reduce swelling, and then to introduce heat, and alternate between the two (heat for 15-20 minutes, followed by ice, followed by heat, and so forth).
Are there any other mistakes or recovery methods that I missed? Have anything else to add? Lemme know in the comments below!
+ Scientific References
- Herman, K., Barton, C., Malliaras, P., & Morrissey, D. (2012). The effectiveness of neuromuscular warm-up strategies, that require no additional equipment, for preventing lower limb injuries during sports participation: a systematic review. BMC Medicine, 10. https://doi.org/10.1186/1741-7015-10-75
- McMillian, D. J., Moore, J. H., Hatler, B. S., & Taylor, D. C. (2006). Dynamic vs. static-stretching warm up: The effect on power and agility performance. Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research, 20(3), 492–499. https://doi.org/10.1519/18205.1
- M A Moore, R. S. H. (n.d.). Electromyographic investigation of muscle stretching techniques - PubMed. Retrieved July 30, 2020, from https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/7453508/
- Macpherson, P. C. D., Schork, M. A., & Faulkner, J. A. (1996). Contraction-induced injury to single fiber segments from fast and slow muscles of rats by single stretches. American Journal of Physiology - Cell Physiology, 271(5 40-5). https://doi.org/10.1152/ajpcell.1996.271.5.c1438
- Hart, L. (2005). Effect of stretching on sport injury risk: A review. In Clinical Journal of Sport Medicine (Vol. 15, Issue 2, p. 113). Lippincott Williams and Wilkins. https://doi.org/10.1097/01.jsm.0000151869.98555.67
- La Torre, A., Castagna, C., Gervasoni, E., Cè, E., Rampichini, S., Ferrarin, M., & Merati, G. (2010). Acute effects of static stretching on squat jump performance at different knee starting angles. Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research, 24(3), 687–694. https://doi.org/10.1519/JSC.0b013e3181c7b443
- Winchester, J. B., Nelson, A. G., Landin, D., Young, M. A., & Schexnayder, I. C. (2008). Static stretching impairs sprint performance in collegiate track and field athletes. Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research, 22(1), 13–18. https://doi.org/10.1519/jsc.0b013e31815ef202
- Morton, S. K., Whitehead, J. R., Brinkert, R. H., & Caine, D. J. (2011). Resistance training vs. static stretching: Effects on flexibility and strength. Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research, 25(12), 3391–3398. https://doi.org/10.1519/JSC.0b013e31821624aa
- Pinto, R. S., Gomes, N., Radaelli, R., Botton, C. E., Brown, L. E., & Bottaro, M. (2012). Effect of range of motion on muscle strength and thickness. Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research, 26(8), 2140–2145. https://doi.org/10.1519/JSC.0b013e31823a3b15
- Kerr, Z. Y., Collins, C. L., & Dawn Comstock, R. (2010). Epidemiology of Weight Training-Related Injuries Presenting to United States Emergency Departments, 1990 to 2007. In American Journal of Sports Medicine (Vol. 38, Issue 4, pp. 765–771). SAGE Publications Inc. https://doi.org/10.1177/0363546509351560
- M H Stone. (n.d.). Muscle conditioning and muscle injuries - PubMed. Retrieved July 30, 2020, from https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/2205781/