The only results we want are those that come safely. Here’s how to avoid injury in the gym.
We bet the nation hasn’t ever been so achey as it is a week after the gyms opened for the first time since lockdown. That said, it’s one thing to have more-painful-than-you-remembered DOMS from putting your muscles under load again. It’s another to be injuring yourself from unsafe technique or overdoing your training.
“Typical injuries in the weights room are shoulder injuries from over extending in a stretch, back injuries from lifting too heavy off the ground and, a lot of the time, knee injuries from doing high impact exercise without the proper form and technique,” says personal trainer Veowna Charles. “As for being able to tell the difference between expected soreness and over doing it or being injured, it’s a fine line. But the body isn’t something to mess with – if you feel uncomfortable, you need to stop and rest.”
Hiring a personal trainer is the best place to start if you want eyes on you while lifting, and we’d always encourage that a beginner talks to an expert to get in-person expertise on technique (a lot of gyms offer complimentary sessions when you join).
But if long term coaching isn’t in budget right now or you just need a quick refresher, we’ve turned to the experts for advice on how to stay safe now you’re back in the weights room – whether it’s for the first time ever or just the first time this in months.
“Leave your ego at the door,” reminds Strong Women Collective member Emma Obayuvana. While we are big believers in lifting heavy weights, it’s not big or clever to keep adding on more plates when your body can’t take it. “After a few months off, you need to remember that you won’t be where you were. Try playing with movements just using the barbell, rather than adding on weight, so your muscles start to remember the shapes.”
Verona agrees: “Starting off with bodyweight training is something that most people don’t want to do to get into weightlifting, but can be very beneficial.” Just like adding weight can exaggerate muscle growth, adding load to imperfect form will exaggerate your mistakes.
Mind to muscle connection
“Understanding what exercise you’re doing and what muscle groups you’re meant to be targeting is so important” says Veowna Charles. Not knowing which muscles should be taking the load is a recipe for disaster as you won’t know when you’re doing it wrong.
This does take time, working through the movements and learning what muscles to squeeze, what part of the body to push through. Doing research before working out is also important – our Technique Tuesday series on Strong Women’s Instagram sees trainers talk you through simple steps of the basic movements, like press ups and glute bridges.
Emma also suggests avoiding complicated moves for now: “Really consider structuring your workout around fundamental, basic movements that the human body can perform,” she says. That means push, pull, hinge and squat variations come first.
Don’t go in cold
An often neglected part of any workout, a dynamic warm up is essential to avoiding injury. “You increase blood flow to your muscles, joints and connective tissue. Those parts of your body then have a greater range of movement and they’re able to accept the load that you put on them with a greater efficiency,” says Emma.
She recommends doing some mobility work and then focusing on the movement patterns that you are going to use during the workout. For example, if your plan is to squat, do some bodyweight squats and pause squats as part of your warm up before adding weight.
Perfect your timing
Maintaining the right tempo during your reps is crucial to protect yourself from injury. “Chances are you may be rushing too much. Speed won’t help you build muscle strength; instead make sure you’re performing your exercises slowly and correctly,” says physiotherapist for Bupa healthcare Michelle Njagi.
But it’s also about what you do between your reps that counts, too. While it’s crucial to rest enough for the muscles to reset, resting too much could cause damage, says Michelle. “You don’t want your muscles to cool down too much. Aim for a rest time of under five minutes between your sets; this should give you enough time to cool down and rest, but not enough for your muscles to relax completely.”
Engage the core
“Everything comes from the core, no matter if you’re doing a squat, a deadlift or a bench press. If you’re using weights or machines, you’ve got to learn to engage it,” says Veowna. This means constantly keeping that tailbone tucked, thsose ribs down and, according to Veowna, working on the breath: “It’s important to understand when to breath, when to hold it and know about the valsalva manoeuvre. This just means holding pressure in your core so that you can have a stronger form,” Veowna adds.
Check yourself out
“If you don’t have a trainer or a friend, watch your form in the mirror,” says Emma. That way, if you feel a niggle, you can pull yourself up on it. Or, if you feel more engagement through one muscle than another, you can check your placement.
It’s important to not be looking at your form all the time though, and just glance to see where you’re at at certain points of the movement so you don’t compromise on that very technique you’re trying to perfect. The same goes for looking anywhere really: limit distractions and focus on the moves themselves.
We’ve said it once, we’ll say it again: stop pushing yourself so hard! Lifting weights is hard and it takes recovery time, so overtraining will do more harm than good. “If you don’t give your body the rest it needs, you’re at a greater risk of becoming injured. You’ve got to let your body heal and muscles relax,” says Michelle. “If you’re more tired than usual, feel restless or struggling to sleep, chances are you may be working out too hard. Listen to your body and rest up the next day after a tough workout.”
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Chloe Gray is the senior writer for stylist.co.uk's fitness brand Strong Women. When she's not writing or lifting weights, she's most likely found practicing handstands, sipping a gin and tonic or eating peanut butter straight out of the jar (not all at the same time).