There are two philosophies that most guys take on in the face of a training-related injury. They either stubbornly work through the pain, or sit on the sidelines with resistance bands, core strengthening exercises, and excessive stretching. In both cases, you’re probably going to see some lost progress. And while these recovery-type exercises are definitely the better choice, and are probably good to include in your repertoire anyway, why wait for an injury? Skip the recovery period and get ahead of potential injuries with a proper training routine. Lifting safe doesn’t have to get in the way of getting stronger. Here are 6 tips that can be incorporated into any training philosophy.
Keep That Back Flat
We’ve said it before and we’ll say it again; good form is critical – to both strength development and injury prevention. The most dangerous form mistakes are related to rounding in the lower back. The lower back (called lumbar spine) is not designed to bend - that's why strength trainers and dads alike are always telling you to lift with your knees and hinge at the hips. When you lift heavy weights without a flat back, you risk putting pressure on your spine and causing a very painful injury.
The tricky thing about maintaining proper posture is that you can’t watch yourself while you're lifting. If you’re lucky enough to have access to a personal trainer or a gym buddy, practice your lifts in front of them and have them critique your form. If you don’t have the luxury of a training pal, record a video of yourself performing a set or two, and make corrections for the next time.
Stay Sore - Pay Attention to Pain
There are guys who believe that a workout’s effectiveness can be judged according to how sore it leaves you the next day. While the merits of this belief can be debated, there’s no doubting that soreness and pain are not the same. While still sometimes painful, delayed onset muscle soreness, or DOMS, feels more like weakness or stiffness, and it usually sets in about 24 hours after training and disappears again within a few days. Pain, on the other hand, is something that’s not to be messed with. Muscle pain will hit immediately after an injury and is most commonly felt deep in the lower back or in the joints. Anytime you experience a pinching sensation or numbness or tingling in your limbs, you’re dealing with injury-related pain.
While you can (and should) work through soreness, you should respect and work around pain. Look to perform variations of problem exercises to keep the progress without the pain. If it’s the bench that’s giving you problems, try using dumbbells or a new grip variation. Google has got plenty of alternatives for every muscle group.
Control Your Progress
They say that you’ve got to learn to walk before you can run. And though many gym rats don't relate well to running analogies, the same adage applies to weightlifting. While it may seem like it’s a good idea to add as much weight to the bar as quickly as you can, you’re more likely to end up hurt than you are seriously strong. When you lift more than you can handle, your body will try to compensate with improper form. This is why distance runners never increase their weekly mileage by more than 10%. Add weight slowly but surely, it’s the best way to see sustainable, injury-free results.
Maintain Strength Balance
It’s obvious when a guy trains his upper body and ignores his (chicken) legs. While it may not be as visually striking, similar imbalances can arise in the chest and back muscles. If you perform more pushing exercises than pulling exercises (bench press, we’re looking at you), you can develop postural and strength imbalances, which can lead to injury. When planning your training routine, look to incorporate an equal amount of volume (weight x reps) on your rows and pull-ups as you do on your bench and dumbbell presses.
Stop Short of Failure
Muscle failure, or liftin’ ‘till you can’t lift no more, can be a great way to build strength and break through a plateau. Because of its purported benefits, you’ll see a lot of people training until failure every day in your local gym. But despite its effectiveness, training until failure can be quite dangerous. If you’re going to hurt yourself in the gym, it’ll either be on the first rep or the last. When you’re struggling to get the weight up, it’s easy to sacrifice proper form and leave yourself vulnerable to injury.
Now we’re not telling you to take it easy, but if you stop a few reps shy of failure, you’ll need less recovery and will be able to get back in the gym sooner (yay?).
Avoid the Machines
There was a time where fitness machines were all the rage. If you had a muscle you wanted to train, the gym (and The Shopping Channel) had a dozen fat-frying, muscle-making machines to help you out. Today, people are taking a different approach. Despite all of the knobs and gadgets, fitness machines are not a one-size-fits-all solution, and can only be customized so much. The fixed rotation points can be very strenuous on your joints if they're not set up correctly. Though it may seem counterintuitive, free-weights are the better way to stay safe in the gym, plus they’re much more effective for building strength.
Another often overlooked aspect of injury prevention is rest and recovery. Without adequate sleep and nutrition, you can tire out your central nervous system and do more harm than good in the gym. Protein is a critical part of a proper nutrition plan. If you’re having trouble hitting your daily targets, scoop up some Suppy protein and you’ll be well on your whey.