How to Avoid Exercise Injury

A common cause of injury is doing too much, too soon, but how do you know if you're doing too much? It's hard to know what your body is capable of, but there are things you can do to make exercise safer:

Ease Into Exercise to Avoid Injury

People in physical therapy
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  • See your doctor: This isn't necessary for everyone but, if you have an injury or illness, are pregnant, are on any medications or if you're a senior, getting a clean bill of health and advice for what to avoid can help keep you injury free.
  • Start with no or low impact cardio: Walking, cycling, swimming or the elliptical trainer are easier on your joints and connective tissue. Working your way up to high impact exercises like aerobics or running will ensure your body builds the strength and endurance to handle the impact.
  • Keep it slow: Start with 10-20 minutes (or whatever you can handle) at a moderate intensity, or a Level 5 on this perceived exertion chart.
  • Ease into Weights: Start with a basic total body program that targets your major muscle groups 2-3 days a week. Start with 1 set and choose a lighter weight, gradually adding sets or weight each week when the exercises feel easy.
  • Rest: Take rest days whenever you feel very sore or fatigued. It may take a few weeks of consistent exercise to build the strong foundation you need to exercise more.
  • Add intensity gradually: Once you can do cardio for 30 minutes at a time, add intensity or try different workouts, such as interval training. For your strength training, add intensity by lifting heavier or changing your exercises and sets.

Warm Up to Avoid Exercise Injury

If you're in a hurry, you may want to skip your warm-up and get right to the nitty-gritty, but cold, stiff muscles can lead to injuries. Think of your warm up as a necessity for preparing your body for what's to come. That warm-up gets your blood flowing more easily, increasing the length and elasticity of your muscle fibers. That allows you to perform better and protect your body from injury.

  • Warming Up for Cardio: Start at a light intensity of your chosen activity and gradually increase it over 10 minutes. For example, if you're a runner, you might start with 5 minutes of brisk walking before moving into 5 minutes of light jogging.
  • Warming Up for Strength or Stretching: Try 5 - 10 minutes of moderate cardio or do warm up sets of each strength training exercise. For example, if you're doing a bench press, warm up by using a light weight for 1-2 sets of 16 repetitions. If you're lifting very heavy, you may need more than one warm-up set to prepare your body.

Many people stretch before their workouts to avoid injury, but experts have found it doesn't work and it may even set you up for injury. If you do stretch, make sure you do it after your warm-u- or, even better, after your workout when your muscles are warm and you're ready to relax.

Focus on Form to Avoid Exercise Injury

Bad form is one of the easiest ways to hurt yourself. Adding weight to movements forces your body to work harder to stay in alignment and your body will want to cheat to make the movement easier. Hunching your shoulders, heaving the weights up, arching the back or using momentum put your body at risk and make the exercises less effective. These tips can help you stay on track:

  • Learn good technique: Learning from a professional, whether it's a coach, trainer, instructor, e-course, online resource or a trusted video, is your best bet for learning good form for different exercises. Avoid copying what other people are doing at the gym. Even people who look buff and experienced may not be doing exercises correctly.
  • Engage your abs: This is a good rule of thumb no matter what you're doing, but especially for any exercise where you're bending over, pushing weights overhead or lifting very heavy weights.
  • Watch yourself: If you're at the gym, get into a position where you can see yourself in the mirror without straining. Some people feel weird watching themselves, but it's the only way to know if you're in the right position.
  • Pay attention to your posture: Keep your joints in alignment during all of your exercises and avoid arching or hyperextending the back. For example, if you can see your feet during pushups or if your knee is going in a different direction than your ankles and feet during squats or lunges, you know you're out of alignment.
  • Avoid locking the joints: This can put too much stress on the joints, which can cause injury. You want to keep the stress on the muscles you're working and keeping a slight bend in the joints can help you do that.
  • Pick up your weights correctly: You'd be surprised how many people hurt their backs before they even start working out because they don't pick up their weights correctly. Whenever you're lifting something heavy, bend your knees and keep your back straight while bracing the abs. Lift with your legs, rather than your back, which isn't as strong as the lower body.
  • Think about the muscles you're working: Focusing on your biceps during a curl or your glutes during a squat can help you adjust your form to get the most out of each movement.

Hire a Personal Trainer

When you're not sure how much exercise you need or what exercises you should do, a personal trainer can give you some guidance as to what you can safely handle. Just a few things a trainer can do include:

  • Fitness assessments: Doing pushup tests, posture assessments and other fitness tests gives him an idea of your fitness level and any issues you may need to work on before exercising. For example, if you have chronic lower back pain, he may want to work on strengthening your core or stretching tight muscles before getting into heavier training.
  • Technique: A trainer can show you how to do each exercise and adjust your form or positioning to get the most out of them.
  • Guidance: Your trainer can help you figure out which exercises you need to do, how much weight you need and how many sets to do. During different exercises, she may ask you questions about how you feel so she can assess if you need more or less intensity.
  • Advice: Once your trainer has worked with you a few times, he can give you advice on what to do in your own exercise sessions. He may also give you basic advice about your diet, although he shouldn't give you specific menus or meals to follow unless he's a nutritionist or a registered dietician.
  • Change: Even if you master different exercises and workouts, it's hard to know how to change things when they get easier. A trainer can introduce you to new exercises, workouts, and techniques to keep things fresh.

Even if you're an experienced exerciser, there are a number of reasons to hire a personal trainer, whether you want fresh workouts or more ideas for getting to the next level.

Stay Fueled and Hydrated

If you don't eat before your workout, you may get a drop in blood sugar that leaves you weak, tired and cranky. Some people even get nauseous, which is why all gyms should have trashcans strategically placed throughout the building. When you're weak, tired or out of it, you're much more likely to hurt yourself. Your body needs energy for your workouts, so eating 1 to 2 hours beforehand will keep you fueled and ready. There's a myth that working out on an empty stomach can help you burn more fat, but it's tough to burn fat when you're too hungry to exercise. Eating something will give you the energy you need to work harder and burn more calories. A few basic tips:

  • Eat 100-200 calories an hour before your workout. You may need to experiment to find what feels best for your body. If you're exercising in the morning, you may want something lighter, like juice or a granola bar.
  • Avoid too much protein or fat just before your workout. They take longer to digest than carbs and may lead to gastrointestinal problems that will make you regret working out so close to your meal.
  • Stay hydrated. Dehydration leads to a bad workout and poor performance. Drink about 16 oz in the hour before you exercise and sip water throughout your workout. If you're working out for longer than an hour, you may want to use a sports drink.
  • Refuel after your workouts. Elizabeth Quinn, sports medicine expert, recommends combining protein with carbs within two hours after exercise to help your body repair and refuel. Many people find a fruit smoothie is a good post-exercise choice.

Know When To Rest

Your body makes most of its progress during your rest days and it's those rest days that also allow your body to repair and heal after tough workouts. If you don't give your body enough rest, you risk overtraining and that can lead to injuries. This is especially a problem for regular exercisers. You're used to your body being strong and may push yourself to keep going, even if your body isn't up to it. It's the pushing that can lead to overuse injuries, so look for these red flags that may be telling you not to exercise:

  • You feel exhausted or very fatigued.
  • You feel sharp pain in your joints or muscles. It's never a good idea to work through pain and doing so could make things worse. If you feel pain, stop what you're doing and take a break. You may be able to go back to your workout without problems, but if it's nagging you, move onto something different or stop your workout. If it's something that continues for several days or weeks, make an appointment with your doctor.
  • You feel dizzy or lightheaded.
  • You're sick. If you have a fever, the flu or an upper respiratory infection, working out may make things worse. If you have a stuffy nose or a light cold, you may be able to do light workouts, but you should check with your doctor.
  • Your performance is in the toilet. If you can't lift as much as you normally do or your heart rate seems higher than normal, that's a sign you may need to rest. Taking a few days off may be just what you need to come back even stronger.

It's sometimes hard to know when to back off and rest and you may worry that you'll lose fitness or gain weight if you take time off. Taking a few days of or even a week won't affect your fitness and, if you're worried about weight gain, monitor your calories more closely and realize that rest is what you need to get back on track.

Change Your Workouts

Doing the same thing over and over for weeks or months on end is another common reason for injury. Anytime your body does the same motions using the same muscles, your risk overuse injuries. Doing other activities that work your muscles in a different way is a great way to avoid injuries, boredom, and plateaus.

  • Try new activities: Think of how you normally work your body and look for activities that are completely different. If you like running, a low or no impact choice like swimming, cycling or the elliptical trainer will allow your running muscles to work in a different way, helping to protect you from injury.
  • Focus on variety: If you're not training for something specific, cultivate an interest in a variety of activities to keep your body strong in different ways. When you enjoy more than one thing, like swimming, kickboxing, and the elliptical trainer, you always have options for workouts, a bonus if your chosen workout isn't available.
  • Vary your intensity: Doing only high-intensity workouts, like heavy strength training or interval training, may put you at risk for an injury. Include slower, easier workouts to work different energy systems and help your body recover from harder workouts. For strength training, try periodization. You can lift heavy and focus on building muscle for a period of time (usually 4 weeks) and then switch to lighter weights to build endurance and give your muscles a chance to work in a different way. Cathe Friedrich's Shock Training System is a great example of this.
  • Change your schedule: Another way to keep things fresh and avoid injury is to change your schedule from time to time. If you always workout 6 days a week with cardio and strength training, try paring down to 3 or 4 days one week, lightening your cardio and strength workouts. You'll still maintain your fitness while giving your body a little more recovery time.

Listen to Your Body, Not Your Ego

One common way to hurt yourself is to do more than your body is ready for. This happens when you let your ego take over, say, at the gym when the guy next to you is bench pressing 250 pounds or the woman on the treadmill in front of you is running at a 10 mph pace. It's easy to let your competitive juices take over and think, "If he can do that, so can I!" Perhaps you can, but you also run the risk of being wheeled out on a stretcher. To avoid that:

  • Do your own workout: It's okay to be inspired by others and to push yourself a little harder than you would on your own, but listen to your body and back off if you realize you've gone too far.
  • Avoid maximal lifts if you're a beginner: Testing your one rep max is tempting, especially for younger guys, but it's also the number one way young people hurt themselves. One study showed that males from 13-24 years old often injure themselves by lifting too heavy and dropping weights on themselves. You should have a strong foundation and good knowledge of proper exercise technique before you try maximal lifts.
  • Approach new exercises cautiously. If you've never tried an exercise, start with light weights to get used to the movement. Too often, we feel compelled to use a heavier weight, just because we see other people doing it. That's a good way to compromise your workout and possibly injure yourself.
  • Use a spotter. Always use a spotter if you're lifting very heavy weights. If you don't have one, stick with supported machines such as a Smith machine or a squat rack that allows you to safely rack the weight if it gets too heavy.

Avoid Weekend Warrior Syndrome

For some people, the weekend is the only time they have to (or want to) exercise and, once warm weather hits, spending all day at an amusement park, hiking up mountains or going on long bike rides can cause unexpected overload injuries. Sprained ankles, shin splints, tennis elbow and foot pain are just a few injuries that can happen when you go from the couch to the golf course or mountain without any preparation.

To avoid weekend warrior injuries:

  • Start Slowly: Instead of going straight for that 14,000-foot mountain or 18-hole golf course, start with short, easy hikes or a few days at the driving range to get a sense of where you are and what your body can handle.
  • Prepare Ahead of Time: A little light training and preparation can give your body a strong foundation and help you avoid hurting yourself:
  • Add Intensity Gradually: If you're not much of an exerciser but want to work towards a coming event, say hiking up a mountain or a 5K race, start with what you can handle and only increase the intensity (whether it's mileage or time) by about 10% each week to avoid injury.
  • Take Lots of Breaks: If you do decide to head out for that 3-hour tennis match, take plenty of breaks to recover and stay hydrated. Fatigue and dehydration can sneak up on you, putting you at risk for hurting yourself.
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