Common Exercise Injuries and How To Avoid Them

October 19, 2015
knee injury for athlete runner. woman in pain after hurting her leg while training for fitness marathon

Being injured is no fun at all but fitness-related injuries are all too common. It’s quite ironic that something we do for our health can also hurt us; possible very seriously.

Some gym injuries as just down to bad luck; it’s just your turn to tweak your back or pull a hamstring but while the occasional injury is almost inevitable, there is a lot you can do to keep your risk of injury to the absolute minimum.

In this article you’ll learn what to do to reduce your risk of injury.

Types of injury

Gym injuries tend to fall into two main categories: Acute and chronic.

Acute – this type of injury can almost be thought of as an accident. A trip, a pulled muscle, an unexpected impact – these are all examples of acute injuries. Acute injuries are normally caused by not warming up properly, trying to lift too heavy a weight or poor exercise form and usually come on suddenly and unexpectedly.

Chronic – these are normally the result of an accumulation of stress over time. Long term poor exercise form, bad program design, ignoring small acute injuries, general overuse and not resting enough can cause long-lasting aches and pains that, if left untreated, may ultimately become serious enough to force you to stop exercising until they have healed. Examples of chronic injuries include biceps tendonitis, carpal tunnel syndrome, golfer’s elbow and runner’s knee.

With acute and chronic injuries, avoidance is the best policy.

Warm-up properly

Your body is a complicated machine made of 206 bones, 600-plus muscles, dozens of organs, miles of blood vessels, gallons of fluids and millions of cells; it’s no wonder it goes wrong from time to time! Going from being sat at your desk or lying in bed to exercising very hard can be big shock to your system. In the same way your car runs better when it’s warm, your body will benefit from a proper warm-up before strenuous exercise.

A good warm-up should prepare your body for the activities that follow so the length and type of warm-up you perform is very dependent on what your workout entails on that particular day. In addition to hopefully lowering your injury risk, a good warm-up should also prepare your body and mind to work as effectively and efficiently as possible. In other words, a good warm-up should help facilitate a good workout. Most warm-ups should include some or even all of the following…

  • Pulse raising activity – light cardio
  • Dynamic stretches
  • Joint mobility exercises
  • Foam rolling
  • Technique practice
  • Feeder sets for strength training (sub maximal sets of the exercises you will be doing)
  • Technique drills

How long should your warm-up be? Good question! It really depends on a few factors…

  • Cold weather? Warm up for longer
  • Early morning workout? Warm up for longer
  • Hard workout planned? Warm up for longer
  • Cold weather? Warm up for longer
  • Early morning workout? Warm up for longer
  • Older exerciser? Warm up for longer
  • Feeling sore or stiff? Warm up for longer
  • Been sedentary for a few hours? Warm up for longer
  • Easy workout planned? Shorter warm-up
  • Been active already? Shorter warm-up
  • Warm weather? Shorter warm-up

A warm up should be at least five minutes and as long as twenty or even thirty minutes is you are training especially hard.

Of course, there is no guarantee that warming up will prevent you getting injured but not warming up will almost certainly increase your risks. Yes, you could save ten minutes by skipping your warm-up but you could lose months in return if you get injured. When it comes to injuries, it’s better to be safe than sorry so DON’T skip your warm-up and if you really think you haven’t got time to warm-up, it could be argued that you haven’t got time to work out either!

Looking after your muscles

Muscle injuries are usually the result of overexertion or not warming up properly. If you are a recreational exerciser, you should have no problem keeping your risk of muscle injury to a minimum. We’ve discussed warming up already and avoiding overexertion is simply a matter of increasing the volume and intensity of your workouts gradually over time and not doing too much too soon. If you are a hardcore weightlifter, powerlifter or bodybuilder, you will probably lift weights close to or at your strength limit but that’s the name of the game. To reduce your chances of injury, ramp up your weights over a series of warm-up sets to ensure your muscles are ready for your big work sets, for example…

  • 20 reps with 20kg (empty bar)
  • 10 reps with 40kg
  • 5 reps with 60kg
  • 3 reps with 80kg
  • 10 reps with 100kg (first work set)

Notice how the reps decrease as the weight increases up to the first work set. This will ensure you are warmed up but not fatigued. The heavier your first work set, the more steps you should take to reach it. If you are doing multiple exercises per muscle, you won’t need to warm up as much for the subsequent exercises – one or two preparatory sets should suffice.

Muscle injuries can be very painful but, thankfully, usually heal quite quickly because muscles have a good blood supply and get all the nutrients they need to repair themselves in a timely fashion. A few days rest and plenty of ice followed by a gradual return to training is all that is needed if you have a mild to moderate muscle injury. More severe muscle injuries may require surgical intervention though so seek medical advice if you feel you have a severe muscle injury.

Looking after your joints

Extreme ranges of movement and unnatural movements can be harmful to your joints and just because an exercise is good for your muscles doesn’t mean it’ll be good for your joints. Joint injuries can take a long time to heal if they heal at all so it really pays to look after your shoulders, elbows, back, hips and knees if you want to stay pain-free.

Reducing your risk of shoulder injury

Your shoulders are very mobile but in anatomy, mobility comes at the cost of stability and the less stable a joint is, the more prone it is to injury. There are a number of exercises that are known to be risky for shoulders so consider leaving these exercises out of your workout routine…

  • Barbell press behind the neck
  • Lat pull down behind the neck
  • Pull-ups behind the neck
  • Narrow grip barbell upright rows
  • Smith machine bench press
  • Shrugs with shoulder rolls

Also, make a point of doing an equal volume of exercise for your pushing and pulling muscles and strengthen your rotator cuff muscles by performing external rotations and other pre-hab exercises.

Reducing your risk of elbow injury

Overextending your elbows can result in joint injury so take extra care when you straighten your elbows under load; don’t snap your elbows straight. While it’s okay to fully extend your elbows in pulling exercises like rows and pull-ups (under control of course) it’s not such a good idea in pushing exercises like the shoulder and bench press.

The most common elbow injuries are golfer’s elbow and tennis elbow which are forms of tendonitis usually caused by overuse. Like all overuse injuries, rest is the main way to treat these painful conditions and ignoring them will only make the problem worse.

Reducing your risk of back injury

Most exercises, fitness activities and activities of daily living use your back and a bad back will not only make exercise painful and difficult but may mean you can’t even do your normal daily jobs and chores. Gym back injuries are usually caused by lifting weights with a rounded back or having a weak core and, very often, it’s a weak core that leads to the rounded back.

Your spine is structurally strongest when there is a slight inward curve in your lower back – this is commonly referred to as a neutral spine. This position means that your muscles are providing the support and not the passive discs and ligaments which are easily injured. Maintaining neutral spine requires strong core muscles.

Too much sitting and poor posture generally means that most of us are very comfortable with a rounded lower back and habitually adopt this position when exercising. Lots of crunches and sit-ups compound the problem.

Strengthen your core, learn to slightly arch your lower back, become more aware of your posture and stop exercising when your lower back becomes rounded and you’ll significantly reduce your risk of back injury.

Reducing your risk of knee injury

Knee injuries are usually the result of overuse, strength or flexibility imbalances, twisting a loaded knee, poor foot/knee alignment and excessive ranges of movement. Your knees are arguably the hardest working joint in your body and if you want to stay active and pain-free, you MUST look after your knees. Lots of running on hard surfaces and high-impact cardiovascular exercise can increase the wear and tear on your knees, especially if you are on the heavy side, so consider limiting these activities if you have any hint of a knee issue. Make sure your quadriceps and hamstrings are both equally strong and flexible, never force your foot up toward your butt at the expense of your knee  and always make sure your foot and knee are pointing the same direction when you perform squats, lunges and leg presses. Finally, lay off the leg extension as the shearing force on your knee in this exercise can be quite injurious.

General injury risk prevention

There are a few general things you can do to further minimize your risk of injury…

  • Dress appropriately for the activity you are doing – this includes footwear. Worn out sneakers can cause chronic injuries.
  • Adjust exercise machines to fit your individual height and limb length. This is especially true of exercise bikes. Be aware that some machines just won’t suit you and if you try and use a machine that doesn’t fit you, you are MUCH more likely to get injured.
  • Use a spotter for bench presses, squats, supine triceps extensions and any other exercise where you could get crushed by a heavy weight.
  • Check that the equipment you are using is safe and in good working order. Make sure collars are done up securely, stability balls are free of splits, cables are not frayed and weight selector pins are properly in place.
  • Get proper instruction if you are unsure how to perform a particular exercise. Poor exercise technique can lead to injury so make sure you find out how to do your exercises properly. If you are unsure, ask!
  • Listen to your body and don’t ignore aches and pains. A small ache can turn into a major injury that takes weeks to heal so it’s okay to cut your workout short if you aren’t feeling 100-percent. A day of rest could save you a month of lost training time.

Being injured can completely derail your fitness endeavors and prevention is better and more time-efficient than cure. Use the information in this article to reduce your risk of injury so you can continue to exercise regularly and reap the benefits of your efforts.

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  • Adam Mowafi

    A well define tips & techniques but apart from these i must say a well-trained coach or instructor should be there to look when you are new & doing workout for the 1st time. They help you with the techniques of workout & reduce the risk of your injury.