Here's what you need to know...
- Don't go overboard on stretching. Too much will actually cause injuries. And it's the flexible side that gets hurt, not the tight side.
- Too many warm-up sets on the bench press can lead to pec tears.
- Many lifters are better off bringing their stance in, even when doing wide-stance squats and deadlifts. All lifters should avoid wide-grip bench presses.
- Sticking to a program for too long can invite injury, but so can changing programs too often.
- Common sense is the best injury prevention. Focus, and stop it with dumb training tricks.
Prevent Injury, Increase Consistency
The best way to deal with injuries is to keep them from happening. Here are eight ways to train injury-free.
1 – Warm Up The Right Way
Excess warming-up and stretching won't reduce the incidence of injury and may even increase it. Do practice sets instead. Rehearse proper form and technique, but don't go overboard.
Too many warm-up reps can decrease strength and performance since lactic acid significantly impairs the nervous system's ability to recruit high-threshold motor units.
Ramping up the weight in excess can increase injury risk as well. Researchers have found that pec tears from benching are linked to too many reps in a warm-up.
Practice the exercise you're about to train, pyramid the load upwards until you reach your working weight, and keep the reps below 6. It's better to do more sets at low reps than the opposite during a warm-up.
Stretching is another story altogether.
The chance of injury is greater if one side is tighter, but what you might not realize is that the flexible side is the side most likely to be injured!
If a significant contralateral imbalance exists, perform a 2:1 ratio of stretching – start and end with the tight side. Having asymmetries is common, but strive for balance.
Don't stretch your back first thing in the morning. In fact, you may want to avoid any physical activity right after rolling out of bed. Wait at least an hour after waking. That's the critical period since your tissue is super-hydrated at that point, resulting in a significant loss of strength in the spine so that the risk of injury is heightened.
There's not a lot of evidence to suggest that stretching reduces injuries. Though Australian researchers did report that the average person would need to stretch for as long as 23 years to prevent one injury. But it would be more efficient to get injured once every 23 years than to waste so much time stretching!
Instead, do dynamic warm-ups using a pendulum style of motion where speed and range are increased gradually each rep. Here's a sample of dynamic stretching using this method:
Start with a small range of motion and each time try to go a touch further, building up to maximum range over several attempts.
2 – Adjust Your Stance and Your Grip
There's nothing in the rulebook that says you have to stand with your feet a certain distance apart.
If a wide-stance squat or sumo-style deadlift is too wide, reduce it a bit. For many people, doing these movements edge-of-the-rack wide is a hip killer, but doing them semi-wide – just a bit wider than shoulder width – causes no pain and leads to better results.
Pressing is another issue. Unless you truly wish to trash your shoulders over time, forget about doing a wide-grip bench press. In fact, even mid-grip is problematic for a lot of lifters with many years under their belt, but close-grip is fine.
If overhead pressing is an issue, use a closer grip on the bar and reposition your elbows slightly forward into the scapular plane. That helps quite a bit.
If it still bothers you, go to a neutral grip, either with a bar, log, or dumbbells. In fact, neutral-grip pressing in general is a much healthier approach for your shoulders.
3 – Avoid Training ADD
Sticking to a program for too long and trying to force further adaptation once progress has stalled can invite injury. But so can changing programs too frequently.
This is one of the issues people have with CrossFit – the random WOD approach may, at best, stall results after the initial "newbie gains" stage. At worst, it can cause injury.
The same logic applies to performing only your favorite exercises every program (you know, the ones you're good at).
Exercise variety is important and you should emphasize the moves you're not so good at. A chain is only as strong as its weakest link. Work on your weaknesses and you'll not only improve your performance, you'll reduce the chance of injury.
4 – Don't Be a Spaz
If you watch the average gym goer perform a set of 10 reps on the bench press, the bar is lifted in so many directions and trajectories that it looks more like a rodeo bull ride than weight lifting. One rep touches the upper chest, another touches the upper abdomen, another touches mid-chest, and so on.
To your nervous system, it's more like doing 10 sets of 1 rep than vice versa.
And if we take into account Newton's second law of motion, where force equals mass times acceleration, going far too quick or using too much weight can place a high amount of force on the body and may result in injury.
It can also place a high amount of force on training equipment and cause injury. I saw a guy doing lat pulldowns with the entire stack. He was swinging so violently to lift the weight that the cable snapped. The lat bar smacked him in the face and he fell backward, his head hitting the concrete floor behind him. He lost. Darwin won.
Reset before your sets. Control the weight. Use explosiveness and momentum for the appropriate exercises.
5 – Rethink Rigid Parameters
Be flexible with training. Intensity should be predetermined, but volume (more sets) should vary depending on the day and your level of recovery.
Dropping a rep or two per set is fine, but any more than that isn't. Stop at that point from going any further with that exercise or your body may force you to stop!
If you plan to bench 5 sets of 5 reps with 315 pounds, and you get 5 reps out on the first 2 sets but barely muster 2 reps on the third set, stop there. Trying to attempt a fourth set is inviting trouble. Just move on to the next exercise.
If you plan to do 5x5 with 315 and you only get 2 or 3 out on your first set, pack up your stuff and leave the gym. You're not ready to train that day. You need another day of recovery.
Be mature enough to read your body and it'll reward you with many good years of training.
6 – Fix Muscular Imbalances
Muscle balance between upper and lower hemispheres, front and back, and right and left sides of the body, matters. How many guys do you see in the gym who have serious upper body development but look like they're walking on pogo sticks?
Or the ones that work only the "mirror" muscles and forget those that they can't see? Neglect certain muscles long enough and you'll set yourself up for injury.
Take the shoulder, for example, the most commonly injured joint. It happens to be the most unstable joint in the human body, held together essentially by a small group of muscles known as the rotator cuff.
Giving these muscles attention is a step toward injury-proofing your shoulders, but how do most people do it? Whether for prehab or for rehab, they most often use elastic resistance.
Don't do it! Due to the unnatural ascending resistance curve, this form of training may not be the best option for injury prevention and may lead to re-injuries. Use free weights instead.
Elastic tubes and bands encourage the disproportionate development of accelerators versus decelerators and can lead to injury.
In fact, out of 16 cases of rotator cuff tendonitis reported by the national synchronized swim team of Canada, 15 of them were corrected by eliminating tubing and using dumbbells instead.
7 – Focus
The eyes direct the spine. So if you're doing squats with a few hundred pounds on your back when an attractive woman walks by you and you let your head swivel her way, consider the consequences.
Do you see where you can get in trouble? Concentration is important not only for the lifter, but for the spotter as well.
And stop looking sideways at the mirror when you're doing an exercise where the head should face forward.
8 – Prevent the Freak Accidents
Although common sense about safe lifting practices and environment should apply in every situation, it doesn't always work that way. We've all seen the freak accident that occurred last year to CrossFit athlete Kevin Ogar, which might have been avoided if those plates weren't stacked behind him.
Dr. Mel Siff once ruptured the adductor magnus of his left leg. It happened while he was jerking a 325-pound bar overhead and his front foot slipped on baby powder left on the platform by a preceding lifter. Siff landed in a full ballet splits position and ended up black and blue from his knee to his ribcage.
There was one incident at an upscale health club in Toronto. A trainer had her middle-aged, sedentary client perform a very "productive" move on their first workout: jump on an upside-down Bosu ball and stick the landing.
The client lost her balance, fell backward, and hit her head on a nearby lat pulldown machine and suffered a concussion.
Consider the risk-to-benefit ratio of doing any movement. If the risk is high and the benefits are low, chances are it's just plain stupid. Being able to train consistently without injury beats the hell out of being able to do risky tricks.
You know how to play it smart, but will you follow through? Clear the area, make sure it's safe to lift, and don't do anything stupid. Common sense is the best injury prevention.