Exercise places a significant amount of stress on your body and that’s both good and bad. On the plus side, you NEED stress to make your body change. The downside is too much stress can lead to burnout or injury. It was a German physician, Hans Selye, who first coined the term “adaptation syndrome” to describe how the human body responds to stress. Adaptation syndrome consists of three stages:
The Alarm Stage
This is the first response your body makes when you’re stressed. An example is the “fight or flight” response. When you’re under stress, your body releases a variety of stress hormones, including adrenalin, norepinephrine, and cortisol. If the stress is brief, these hormones quickly return to normal.
The Resistance Stage
This response happens if stress is ongoing. When the stress is more prolonged, your body adapts in a way to give it more lasting protection against stress and injury.
The Exhaustion Stage
If stress is ongoing and relentless and there’s no period of recovery, your body’s reserves and ability to adapt can become exhausted. We see this in athletes who overtrain or become injured.
The key to staying injury free and not becoming mentally or physically exhausted is to train in stage two (the resistance stage), where your body is forced to adapt, without entering stage three where exhaustion or injury sets in.
Now, let’s look at ways to reduce your risk of becoming injured or overtrained:
To Stay Injury Free: Alternate the Intensity of Your Workouts
Ingrained in many people’s minds, and also promoted by the fitness industry, is the idea that exercising more and with greater intensity is better. Even muscle soreness is seen as a “badge of honor.” Vigorous exercise DOES have health benefits that light to moderate intensity exercise doesn’t but doing a HIIT workout every day is exhausting. Plus, there’s no need to do it daily. Two times a week is enough to get the full benefits. Do it more than this and you risk entering the “exhaustion stage.” Train intensely but give your body enough recovery time too.
To Stay Injury Free: Don’t Skimp on the Warm-Up
You’re more likely to get injured when your muscles are cold, especially if you work out in the morning. The purpose of a warm-up is to increase blood flow to the muscles you’ll be working so that they’re supple. The preponderance of studies show that warming up before a workout reduces the risk of injury.
What constitutes a warm-up? Light jogging in place, arm swings, kicks, punches, anything that works your muscles lightly without resistance. When you’re lifting weights, after a warm-up, use a light weight first to get your muscles ready for a heavier resistance. Most injuries happen to cold muscles that aren’t properly warmed up.
What about stretching? Stretching increases flexibility but there’s not enough evidence to say that it lowers the risk of injury. Save stretching for the end of your workout.
To Stay Injury Free: Add Variety to Your Workout
Just as you don’t want do to a high-intensity workout every day, avoid doing the same workout daily. Runners do this and end up with overuse injuries, like Achilles tendonitis and plantar fasciitis. That’s because they do the same repetitive motion over and over again. A better approach, even for a diehard runner, is to cross-train. With cross-training, you work different muscle groups so that you’re not overtraining a particular muscle group. Cross-training keeps all of your muscles conditioned, which is important for reducing injuries. Adding variety to your workout also helps you avoid a training plateau.
To Stay Injury Free: Do a Balanced Workout
When you weight train, balance exercises where you push against resistance with pulling exercises. Doing this trains the agonist muscle as well as the antagonist to ensure balanced muscle and strength development. Muscle imbalances can lead to alterations in movement patterns that ultimately lead to tendon or ligament damage. Working the agonist and antagonist muscle group creates more balanced strength development. Also, be sure you’re not overtraining some muscle groups while ignoring others. Some people stick more to the exercises they enjoy rather than doing a balanced workout.
To Stay Injury Free: Focus on Form Rather than How Much Weight You’re Lifting
One of the quickest ways to get injured is to sacrifice form to lift more weight. Don’t make this mistake. Always use light weight or even no weight in the beginning, until you can do the exercise with good form. Then, gradually increase the weight. When you use a weight heavier than you can handle, it throws your body out of alignment when you’re doing the exercise. This increases your risk of injury. Focus on form first.
To Stay Injury Free: Do Functional Strength Training
Functional strength training can lower your risk of injury both when you lift and when you perform activities you do during your daily life, like housecleaning, moving furniture, gardening, carrying out a heavy bag of garbage etc. Functional strength training is working against resistance in a way that improves the movement patterns you do in your daily life and when you lift weights or play sports.
The best functional exercises are compound exercises that work multiple muscle groups at the same time, like squats, deadlifts, lunges, push-ups, pull-ups, and bent-over rows. Isolation exercises that work one muscle group, like triceps extensions and biceps curls, do little to improve your functional strength. Don’t forget about training your core as well. A strong core gives you greater protection against injury.
To Stay Injury Free: Listen to Your Body
Experiencing aches and pains? Don’t ignore them. It’s tempting to train through them but you could end up with a long recovery period, should the injury worsens. If you experience unusual soreness or persistent pain, give yourself a day or two off and then modify your training until you’re pain-free. Don’t let a small injury turn into a big one.
Finally, make sure you’re wearing shoes with good ankle support and that properly support your arch. If you’re doing plyometrics, wear a shoe with a sole thick enough to absorb shock when you land from a jump. Too many people try to train with shoes that have thin soles and wonder why their feet or legs hurt.
The Bottom Line
Don’t forget that strength training, in and of itself, prevents injuries. It does this by strengthening the muscles and the bones underneath, giving you more resistance to injury if you fall. In response to training, your ligaments become more flexible and less likely to be strained or torn. The key is to train using good form and add variety and balance to your routine. It’s better to prevent an injury than it is to suffer with it after the fact.
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Int J Sports Phys Ther. 2013 Apr; 8(2): 138–144.
ACE Fitness. “What is Functional Strength Training?”
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