Have you ever had an injury that kept you from lifting weights for a few days or weeks? Frustrating, isn’t it? Fortunately, strengthening your muscles through weight training actually lowers your risk for injury. In addition, compound exercises that work more than one muscle group at a time enhance functional fitness, which makes you more resistant to falls and injuries related to the things you do in everyday life. Still, improper weight training places you at risk for injury, and an injury can keep you sidelined for weeks or even months. The good news: Weight training injuries are less common than with most other sports and the benefits are substantial.
Common Weight Training Injuries
Have you ever experienced shoulder pain after weight training? Shoulders are particularly prone towards injury. Being the most mobile joint in your body, it’s not surprising they’re injury-prone since with mobility comes the potential for instability. Fortunately, you have ligaments and four muscles called rotator cuff muscles that connect your shoulder blade and upper arm. These smaller muscles raise and rotate your arm. They also stabilize your shoulder and give it some protection against injury.
One of the most common shoulder-related problems you can experience if you lift weights is shoulder impingement syndrome. Symptoms include shoulder discomfort in the front or sides of your shoulders when you do overhead presses, lateral raises, or bench press. Impingement happens when the rotator cuff muscles become irritated at the point where they attach with the acromion of your scapula, the bony prominence on your scapula or shoulder blade. Sometimes shoulder impingement is caused by an anatomical problem, but it’s more commonly brought on by using incorrect form when you do shoulder exercises.
What can you do to avoid this fate? You can lower your risk for shoulder impingement by strengthening the muscles in your neck and upper back as well as your shoulders. Always warm up before lifting, and use impeccable form.
Another relatively common shoulder problem is rotator cuff strains and tears. Remember the four muscles we mentioned that stabilize your shoulder – the rotator cuffs? These muscles can become stretched or torn. The most common symptom of a rotator cuff tear is shoulder pain, but unlike shoulder impingement where you experience discomfort only when you lift, rotator cuff tears may hurt at other times, even when you’re not working out. Sometimes rotator cuff muscles tear due to age-related degenerative changes, but poor form when doing shoulder exercises is another cause. Recovery from rotator cuff tears involves rest and physical therapy. If that’s not effective, other options include steroid injections into the area to reduce inflammation or, less commonly, surgery.
The best way to prevent rotator cuff weight training injuries is to do a balanced shoulder workout that includes exercises that strengthen the rotator cuff muscles. Also, work on strengthening your chest, arms and upper back as well to take some of the stress off your shoulders. Rotator cuff tears can take months to heal, so focus on preventing them by using good form and not lifting too heavy.
Back Weight Training Injuries
It’s true that weightlifting can improve the health of your spine, but training incorrectly can lead to lower back strain or, even worse, a slipped disc. In addition, the risk of a disc herniation becomes higher with age. Intervertebral discs, the tissue that lies between the vertebrae in your back, act as shock absorbers when you move your spine. The outer layer of each disc is firm, but the inner layer contains a jelly-like substance. A disc herniation is when the jelly-like interior of the disc bulges outward. The worst case scenario is when the disc material moves outward enough to press on a nerve root. As you grow older, you accumulate changes to these discs, which increase the risk for herniation.
More common than disc herniation is sprains and strains. Lumbar strains and sprains involve overstretching, and sometimes tears, to the muscles and ligaments respectively in the lower back. This can happen due to poor lifting technique, overuse or a sudden twisting movement. When performed properly, resistance training lowers your risk for this type of injury.
How can you prevent back weight training injuries? You can’t control the aging factor, but you can lower your risk for lumbar strain or disc herniation by keeping a neutral spine when you do an exercise like bent-over rows, deadlifts or squats. All too often people round their back when doing these exercises, usually because they’re using too much weight. Your spine is better able to handle forces when in a neutral position. Strengthening all the muscles in your back and core in a balanced manner will also protect your spine.
If you sit a lot, you likely have tight hip flexors and hamstrings, which can also increase your risk for lower back injury. Add hip flexor stretches to your routine to lengthen the muscles.
Suggestions for Lowering Your Risk for Weight Training Injuries
Don’t try to lift more than you’re capable of lifting with good form. Perfect your form before going heavier.
Train in a balanced manner. When you work one muscle, train its antagonist as well so strength development is balanced. Muscle imbalances are a frequent cause of injury.
Periodize Your Workouts to Avoid Overtraining.
Always do a warm-up before lifting. Begin with a 5-minute cardio warm-up to increase blood flow to the muscles you’ll be working. Then do a warm-up set using light weights before proceeding with the full workout.
Know your body. If you have a history of back or shoulder problems, you may have anatomic issues that increase your risk for injury. Get them evaluated and modify the exercises you do to reduce your risk for injury.
Don’t train through the pain. If you’re experiencing discomfort when you do a particular exercise, modify your workout so you’re not doing movements that cause discomfort. The worst thing you can do is keep working through an injury. It will only take longer to heal. A minor overuse injury that would have responded to a week of rest or workout modification can turn into a major problem that lingers.
The Bottom Line
Shoulders and backs aren’t the only body parts you can injure, but such injuries are among the most common. The majority of weight training injuries stem from overuse and poor form and are usually muscle strains or ligament sprains. Use the tips above to lower your risk for injury, and if you do experience pain when lifting, don’t be a toughie and try to push through it. It’s not worth it. Finally, make sure you’re giving your muscles enough rest and recovery time.
Neurosurg Focus. 2006;21(4)
Am J Sports Med, 21(3):461-7.
Related Articles By Cathe:
Related Cathe Friedrich Workout DVDs: