Wednesday, December 19, 2012

Injury Prevention 101

When people think about lifting weights, they primarily think about becoming more muscular.  But the benefits of weight lifting extend far beyond that.  As I've discussed previously, weight lifting can have positive effects on both the endocrine and metabolic system.  But pumping iron also aids bone density and strengthens connective tissue--a desirable side effect that is often overlooked.  Working at a physical therapy office, I see a wide range of patients with a wide range of injuries that need to be rehabilitated, but the one trait they share is that their injuries could have either been prevented, or at the very least ameliorated, by strength training.  I'm not saying people don't hurt themselves doing stupid things; I am saying that doing stupid things won't hurt as badly if you develop your body.  Here are a few more ways to help keep yourself from going under the knife.

1.  Strive for Symmetry!
Symmetry isn't just important to bodybuilders--any individual at any time can help their body out by straightening up, evening out, and making it a habit.  Even small postural tendencies can cause serious problems over time.  Hitching one shoulder because you always wear a backpack (but only use one strap because you are sooo cool) can gradually lead to shoulder and neck problems--even back and hip problems if the imbalance is not corrected.  

Many individuals end up seeking surgery to fix the problem once it becomes too advanced.  But many of these same individuals could have also corrected their imbalances and instabilities with years of weight training.  For those of you who have no interest in muscular size, let me assuage your fears: it takes a LOT of weight to build a lot of muscle, a moderate balanced approach can yield amazing health benefits without bulking you up.    The bottom line?  Adding strength training to your current protocol can help you learn to pay attention to your body and control either side more intuitively, leading to improved posture, gait, and balance.   

2.  Resist the Rise of the Machines!
Selectorized training machines grace nearly every fitness facility these days, and they serve a number of purposes.  Most of them fall into the category "easy to use."  But easier isn't always better.  There is a wide spectrum of quality in the fitness industry, and not every machine is made with strong attention to details such as strength curve, plane of movement, or even something as simple as hand positioning.  Be wary of new machines and progress slowly.  Just because the machine got made doesn't mean it's worth using.  Some machines may even require modified use in order to be effective (restricted ROM, added padding in the seat or back to alter the angle of movement, etcetera).  Additionally, machines "lock" you into a position and can restrict movement.  This can be both good and bad.  The restriction can aid isolation, but it can also hinder natural and desirable adjustments to your form which may recruit additional stabilizers in a desirable manner.  Many trainees need those extra stabilizer muscles to be strengthened as well!  Free weight exercises also force significant core activation, whereas machines are more forgiving of sloppy posture and gummy structure.  Bottom line?  Proceed with caution and avoid where possible.

3.  Plan for Proportion!
Proportion is another aspect of your training that can help prevent injury.  Training each bodypart equally--not just your favorites--will help alleviate common problems such as knee imbalances, acromioclavicular (AC) joint impingements, and even hip and back problems.  Many of these imbalances can lead to surgery if left uncorrected.  You'd be surprised how much stress your own outer quadriceps can put on your knee in addition to stresses added by running, walking, skiing, golfing, etcetera.  Shoulder dominance, another common effect of lopsided training, can lead to impingements in the AC joint, often involving the biceps tendon and "rotator cuff."  Stressing each bodypart individually can help offset tendencies like these.

Isolation of the target muscle plays a large role here as well.  While it's true that over-isolation is a common mistake you should be aware of, most inexperienced trainees actually end up relying heavily on stabilizer muscle groups and secondary movers to complete reps, rather than primary muscle groups.  This could be due to a number of factors: weakness, inattention to detail, structural issues, and/or chronic postural habits.  Whatever it is, it's yet another reason to drop that plate and pick up a quarter!  Forcing your body to lift weight beyond its capacity is dangerous not only because it can cause immediate injury, but also because training in a sloppy manner gives your muscles bad habits which can lead to further developmental deficiency and injury.  For example, allowing the triceps and shoulders to significantly aid the chest during pressing movements not only limits chest growth but also causes further chronic adduction of the AC joint (adduction = rotation towards the center line) which can cause biceps tendon stress in addition to existing imbalances, many of which fall under the "rotator cuff" umbrella.  The four "rotator cuff" muscles are small, relatively weak muscles that need to be gently trained and stretched when impingement (tightness, pain, limited ROM) is detected, and strengthening the back and chest will also greatly aid shoulder health.

You can improve knee health with weight training as well.  Supporting the knee equally from all directions will prevent injury.  For most people, this means strengthening the inner thigh and hamstring.  You really want to support the connective tissue with layers of muscle on all sides, that way the sudden stress of an event such as a fall or a twist will naturally be spread more evenly throughout all that resisting tissue, instead of allowing one ligament or muscle to bear the brunt--think of strength like armor: you kinda want it all over, no?

4.  Trim the Fat--Literally!
Ok, ok, so weight training isn't for everyone.  But even small positive lifestyle adjustments can prevent future problems.  Excessive bodyweight will negatively impact every aspect of your physical health, that's all there is to it--connective tissue, bone, and muscle are no exceptions.  Heavyset folks will see faster degeneration in the lower extremities than their height-weight proportionate (HWP) peers, just because they are putting that much extra wear and tear on themselves by carrying 50 or 100 extra pounds around (or even more!).  Imagine how much force is being exerted on muscle and connective tissue during any type of activity resulting in an injury.    Now imagine if the person were significantly overweight: the crushing force exerted on the knee, the tearing forces on the shoulders and hips--the injury becomes multiplied and exacerbated beyond belief.  Years of inactivity make recovery more difficult as well, leading to even more inactivity.  Considering the myriad other complications excessive fat storage can bring, it seems like motivation to be healthier should be a no-brainer.  

Hope this helps.  Next post will be on working around existing injuries, as well as various rehab techniques for common problems.


  1. Really Enjoyed this Post!

    1. Glad you enjoyed it, thanks for commenting! :)