Injuries are the ugly cousin of progress. The longer you consistently lift heavy objects, pound the pavement, continue to jump further and aim higher in your training, the greater the wear and tear on your musculature, connective tissue, and ligaments.
Now, whilst injuries are the quickest halter of training progress you are likely to encounter in your fitness career, they are also relatively easy to avoid when you employ some simple techniques into your everyday training.
So without delay, let’s delve a little deeper into the 3 easiest ways to avoid injuries that you can regularly implement in your training regimen.
Tip 1 - Warm up EVERY Exercise
Now, this doesn’t mean crack out the foam roller and a 10-minute jog on the treadmill before every exercise. What I mean by this is that every time you go to your next exercise in a given session, start your first set with the weight at about 30% of your 1RM for that exercise.
For example, you have just completed leg extensions on leg day and are prepared to delve into the squat rack. In theory, you have just activated the main musculature of the legs including Rectus Femoris, Vastus Medialis and Vastus Lateralis (the quads) making the warm-up for the squat 'redundant'.
However, this is where the dynamic stretch (i.e. the stretch performed by conducting the exercise with little to no load to cause exercise specific warm-ups) is actually incredibly necessary. This is because every exercise hits an entirely different musculature in terms of firing order, loading the strength/torque curve of that given range of motion, as well as total working weight used.
So going back to the leg extension being used as a warm-up for the back squat example, whilst the quads and knees are now well warmed up, the rest of the posterior chain including the glutes, hamstrings, lower back and core are not. Therefore, to prevent injury, it is ideal to go from the finishing set of the leg extension to a very light set of squats.
This may look something like starting with 60kg for 5-8 light reps, then 90-100 kg for a further 5 reps after a short rest, and one more ‘feeler’ set at approximately 100-120kg (depending on your working weigh) to really get the neurological connection primed with the correct firing order in the working musculature of the back squat.
The same is true for every other exercise, cable fly to bench press is another great example. Both exercises hit the anterior deltoid, triceps and pec major but the load pattern, load during the lift and overall weight difference is what will necessitate a very light warm-up set on the bench press to truly dodge the risk of pesky injuries!
Tip 2 - Activate Your Weak Points First
While belting out a whopping bench press may impress your training partner, if not properly approached, it can be the downfall of an otherwise healthy shoulder girdle.
Apart from utilising dynamic stretches to warm up between every exercise, another useful tip to avoid injury can also be employed; muscle activation!
If you are going to hit heavy bench press for example, and want to stave off shoulder impingement longer than it takes to film a 3 plate PB then listen up!
Activate the stabilising musculature and tendons involved in the exercise before you get under the bar.
On chest for example, the secondary stabilisers include the rotator cuff (i.e. Supraspinatus, Infraspinatus, Subscapularis, etc) as well as lower traps, rhomboids and most of the meat of the Posterior Deltoid and Serratus Anterior.
So knowing that the muscle you are about to attempt to pummel requires the stabilising action of a host of surrounding working tissue, it would be wise to perform some key exercises to enable such activation. In this example, Dumbell or Cable Lat Pull Overs would be perfect, followed by some Face Pulls, and finally some Behind the Neck Lat Pull Downs. These 3 exercises will only add about 10 minutes to your next Chest day, but will ensure longevity and safety during the following work performed by the Pectorals.
For leg days, Glute activation via Hip Thrusters and Glute Bridges would be ideal, followed by hamstring working exercises coming before those hitting Quadriceps. Again, this is warming up the posterior chain and activating musculature used in the primary lifts otherwise neglected by the common trainee.
Whilst many understand that the back squat hits the Glutes, how many of us actually wake up the next day and feel sore in their derrière? Barely any, and this is because the exercise does indeed involve Glutes, but only partially unless they are being activated to encourage firing during the movement, all of which is greatly enhanced by precursory exercises used to 'turn them on'.
Now, the reason this prevents injuries is that by not loading the correct muscles during your working sets, you are typically overloading others. The Skeletal Muscular System acts in a compensatory manner in the face of arduous tasks and will perform the task being asked of it, with whatever muscle fibres it can recruit to move the weight. So, whilst you may squat pain free for some time without proper Glute involvement, over time your body will compensate by loading the Quadriceps to move the weight that the Glutes are not, which results in muscle imbalances of the posterior chain, and typically increased lumbar lordosis (over-arching of the lower back).
Left unchecked, and when combined with other Lumbar loading exercises like Deadlifts, and all of a sudden you have the recipe for an acute Lower Back Injury, of which started from your inability to activate the Glutes before squatting in the first place.
The same is true for Pectorals and Shoulder Impingement.
By activating secondary stabilising musculature before you perform a lift, you will very quickly see drastic changes where you feel an exercise targeting, often causing new growth and even strength increases as you learn to fire the correct muscles to perform the task at hand.
So without any further delay, let us look at the 3rd and final tip to prevent muscle injuries!
Tip 3 - Periodise your Training
I recently spoke to a Powerlifter who regularly Deadlifts nearly 300kg in competitions at a body weight of just under 100kg. I asked him how he can so reliably lift triple his bodyweight in a competition, and especially when he has several comps per year?!
This would imply that for most of the year, he could lift 300% of his body weight off the floor.
Now as a far less strength oriented trainee, I have personally sustained injuries incorrectly Deadlifting almost exactly half this weight, and so I asked my Powerlifting friend how he can remain so injury free at the same time?!
The answer was smart Periodisation of his training.
Most people would think that if he can lift 300kg on comp day, then he can lift 300kg on any given day.
The reason he stays injury free is all in the strategic increasing and decreasing of loading. For 12 weeks or so leading up to a comp, he would lift a disgusting amount of volume across all 3 compound lifts at a sub 1RM %, often testing his real 1RM only 3-4 times a year outside of a competition setting.
This high-intensity phase peaks around competition and allows his strength to peak just when he needs it.
What you don’t see is that this strength block is followed by a deload phase of minimal volume, several hypertrophy blocks at rep ranges of 8-15 with much lower weights and finally, back into the strength training blocks ready for next comp. All year the volume is altered so as to prevent wear and tear as lifting at your maximal capacity all year will quickly result in grinding your joints to dust as well as creating significant metabolic waste/systemic inflammation from intense training loads.
The best way to train with the goal of long-term injury prevention is to do just what my Powerlifting friend does. Lift at lower intensities for parts of the year, moderate intensity for a potion and heavy for a portion of the year, always working with a percentage of your 1RM that will only ever approach 100% about 2-3 times a year. This ensures the body can go through times of repair and rejuvenation, both mentally and physically, and isn’t just being pummelled all year round at maximal intensity!
So there you have it, three training strategies to prevent injury in both the short and long term, all without compromising your training progress!
So to remain unhindered by pains and niggles from training, ensure to always activate stabilising muscles before your major lifts, activate muscles involved in every exercise with dynamic warm-up sets, and finally, vary your training intensity year-round to minimise prolonged wear and tear on your body.
Because after all, you only have one!