You may have noticed at your local gym that weight lifting is becoming tres a la mode among the spandex and sweatband set. Unfortunately, this upswing in resistance training also means an upswing in injuries. An article in the New York Times recently reviewed a study of weight lifting injuries over an 18-year period, which showed there were almost one million Americans who visited an emergency room, injured, as the result of weight lifting. Ninety percent of those injuries were attributed to free weights. While women were more likely to drop the weights, resulting in fractures, men were more apt to create strains or sprains. Either way, as fantastic as it is that people are realizing how much they can alter their bodies with a couple of dumbbells, it makes you feel like a dumbbell when you drop one on your foot.
So let’s look at 10 ways to avoid upping your insurance premium while still obtaining the physique of your dreams:
1. Warm up. Yes, you’ve heard “warm up before exercising” since junior-high PE class, although most of us looked at it as a way for lazy instructors to burn up class time. But are we really aware of the benefits of warming up before resistance training? Increased muscle and body temperature reduces the risk of strains and sprains, and also allows the muscle to contract more forcefully. Warming up creates less overall stress on the heart and activates your body’s natural cooling system, a.k.a. sweat, to prevent overheating. Warming up creates greater range of motion around a joint and helps us get mentally prepared for the task at hand. So take 5 minutes, jump on a treadmill, and give your muscles a chance to wake up.
2. Use your thumbs. What gives us greater dexterity than most animals on the planet? Yes, it’s our opposable thumbs. And yet, a great number of people do not include this strongest of digits in their weight lifting routines. It’s similar to the way the British upper class sips their tea, only no one needs their pinky to stabilize a teacup. Without your thumb, your fingers cannot create a complete circle, which in turn means a dumbbell could go flying. So stop trying to look pristine and actually grip the weight with all five digits.
3. Get by with a little help from your friend. Asking for help in the gym, or even from someone you live with, is often as painful as asking for directions on a road trip. Yes, you want to appear like the superman or superwoman who’s strong enough to handle it alone, but sometimes a spotter can make all the difference between success and a squished pinky toe. They don’t need to spend all day with you, and in fact, you can politely thank them and offer to return the favor if needed, while simultaneously walking away. But asking for 30 seconds of their time could save you a lot more time in an emergency room.
4. Record your progress. If you’ve done P90X, Tony has drilled into your head the importance of recording your weights and repetitions, every time you work out. This is extremely important not only to create consistent change in your physique, but also as a safety measure to keep you from overdoing it. Since most of us cannot remember our mother’s phone number, how do we expect to recall every single weight of dumbbell we used over the last several days, weeks, or months? And if we aren’t sure where we left off, how are we to know where we are going? It’s pretty common for someone to confuse the number, try to go too heavy, and end up knocking themselves in the head with a dumbbell. (At least I would like to think it common, since I once gave myself a concussion.) Start where you left off, and make small increases according to your workout plan.
5. Have lighter weights/bands available. Yes, you can use those 20-pound dumbbells for bicep curls, and yes, you can get through 6 repetitions very effectively. But as your form starts to fail, an injury is more likely to occur. So, as opposed to throwing in the towel and watching that TurboFire video from your couch like it’s an episode of One Life to Live, have lighter weights or resistance bands available to continue your set. Or consider investing in dialing weights like the Bowflex SelectTech Dumbbells, where making the weight lighter or heavier is one click away. Whatever the case, do not assume that one pair of dumbbells is going to be enough to work your entire body safely.
6. Consistently check your range of motion and momentum. It’s really easy to go a little bit farther than we should, which can cause all kinds of problems. This is the original intention for mirrors lining the walls of gymnasiums. Yes, it was actually to check your form, and not just to stare at your big, beautiful biceps. But since most of us don’t have mirrors lining our living rooms, make sure you are using the appropriate range of motion for every exercise you do. In other words, don’t let your elbows go beneath you in a chest press, don’t let your knees go out over your toes in a squat, and don’t hyperextend your back in a lat pull. Should you be unaware of the proper range of motion for an exercise, ask for some assistance.
7. Slow down, Turbo. Be slow and controlled about every movement. This is not an exercise in momentum. And although there are amazing cardiovascular benefits to weightlifting, it’s not like you are trying to sprint around the track with a vampire bat chasing you. You can keep a good pace without letting momentum take over. Not only is it much safer, but much more beneficial to your overall progress.
8. Accessorize appropriately. This isn’t a suggestion to wear a rhinestone weight lifting belt—although that’d be kind of cool—but to use some basic innovations in resistance training equipment in order to stay safe. Weight lifting gloves can be an inexpensive and invaluable tool in helping maintain grip on free weights, barbells, and pull-up bars. Tony Horton’s PowerStands can take strain off wrists, forearms, and elbows when doing push-ups. The P90X Chin-Up Bar can change your grip to accommodate a more comfortable or versatile pull-up. Bowflex SelectTech dumbbells can take strain off your upper extremities and back by only requiring you to use one set of dumbbells to do everything, and not bending over to pick up 10 different sets. A plyometrics mat can take strain off your knees, ankles, and hips by creating extra cushion while jumping. And using a Beachbody Balance Ball or Squishy Ball to assist in core work can make your spine more comfortable, while working your abs. Using the right tools can sometimes make a huge difference in results—and safety.
9. Assume the position. One of the most horrifying things to observe as a fitness professional is how people actually get into position with their dumbbells. Lying down to do a bench press and reaching down with your arm behind you to pick up 30 pounds is way too common—and dangerous. Or how about the diving forward, as if you were entering a pool, to pick up dumbbells for a set of squats? From my perspective, watching that is scarier than Friday the 13th falling on Halloween. So to avoid strains as the result of bad pick-ups, use the following rules:
- When picking up dumbbells for a standing exercise, try to start with them on a rack or chair at waist height. If they are already on the floor, pick them up one at a time, with bent knees, and put them someplace higher.
- When using dumbbells for a seated exercise, or lying-down exercise, put one on each knee to begin. As you lean back, lift each knee one at a time to help you get the weight into place.
- If you are using dumbbells for a prone or kneeling-on-one-knee exercise, make sure the weight is already within arm’s reach and maintain a flat spine as you lift it up.
10. Clean up after yourself. Not to sound like your nagging mother, but don’t be a slob, even in your own home. Many injuries happen as the result of someone tripping over that weight or medicine ball someone left lying on the floor. As my mother used to say, it takes just as long to put it where it belongs as to throw it on the floor. We know this isn’t really true, but if it keeps you from slamming into the ground, a couple extra seconds is worth it.
If you’ve spent any time with P90X or ChaLEAN Extreme, you know the transformative power of resistance training. And with a bit of preparation and thoughtfulness, it can be an injury-free endeavor as well. Just remember that getting injured will derail your training faster than a visit to Hometown Buffet. It’s worth a little extra energy to avoid it.