woman holding a barbell

How to safely return to strength training and avoid injury

Posted by for Strength

Returning to strength training when gyms reopen in England next week should be handled with care. We turn to the pros for expert advice on how to prevent injury and improve overall form and technique – so you can train with confidence.

Women and weightlifting are no longer entirely estranged concepts. While this is certainly to be celebrated, there are caveats. Studies show that higher oestrogen levels (equating to less muscle mass), greater flexibility and wider pelvises are all genetic factors that can increase the incidence of strength training injuries within females. 

Couple that with the fact that gyms are reopening in England next week, with many of us returning to intense strength training for the first time in a long time, and you could be forgiven for wanting to approach the bench with caution.

Dr Catherine Spencer-Smith, a sport and exercise medicine physician specialising in female patients, shares some of the most common types of injuries: “I see a lot of upper body problems from overuse in the shoulders and overloading on the upper back. I also see lower back issues from poor technique and core strength, and hip and groin injuries caused when women go too deep into a weighted squat.”

Personal trainer Tess Glynne-Jones says that knees are also susceptible to female strength training injuries. In fact, a 2018 study revealed that women are up to four times more likely to tear the main knee ligament than men due to hormonal differences. Tess says, “There are many reasons why knee problems occur, but one of the most common is from bouncing out of the bottom of a squat.”

So, from shoulders to knees and everything else in between, what can we do to avoid them?     

Preventing strength training injuries

The idea that we can achieve goals through force of will is a modern mainstay, but to apply this to weightlifting and increasing kilos before nailing proper form can have serious repercussions. Tess says this is a common occurrence. “Don’t go too heavy; it’s tempting to do too much too soon but adding 1-5kg per week (depending on the movement) is more than enough,” she advises. “Practice tempo work – taking three seconds on the eccentric (the muscle-loading movement, eg going down into a squat) and one second on the concentric (returning to the start position) – to give you time to perfect your technique.” In other words, adopt an easy-does-it mindset. Favour long-term habits over quick wins to help you avoid setbacks. 

Dr Spencer-Smith takes a similar form-focused approach. “You may want to ask someone to watch your movement as you lift to identify any imbalances (ie a strong side),” she says. “I see a lot of instances where a woman may be weaker in one glute and when she lifts, she powers up through one leg causing a rotation to happen.” This is especially notable if you’re a fan of group classes where, chances are, the instructor isn’t able to assist and monitor everyone’s alignment.

The perfect squat

Then there’s lifestyle. According to Dr Spencer-Smith, a balanced diet encompassing all macronutrients (protein, carbs and fats) with enough calories to maintain weight is a given, but “people often forget about sleep”. What’s more, research shows that adults who sleep for eight hours per night have a 68% lower risk of sports injuries than those who sleep for six hours. Why? A solid dose of shut-eye promotes protein synthesis, muscle recovery, immune system function and modulation of the body’s inflammatory response – basically everything we need to workout without hurting ourselves.

Dr Spencer-Smith is also a proponent of combining strength training with yoga. Not only does five-to-ten minutes of stretching make for a worthy warm up or cool down by encouraging blood flow to muscles, yoga can help prevent injury by strengthening weaker areas. Fi Clark, head of yoga at Fly Ldn explains: “It’s important to practice more than one discipline of exercise to avoid straining joints with too much repetitive movement. Yoga is great to isolate and strengthen muscle groups around joint areas that are vulnerable as you hold single poses for longer.” 

Life lessons from strength training

Treating strength training injuries

Besides prevention, yoga is also lauded for its ability to treat strength training injuries. “It’s a good tool to increase body awareness and understand how to rehabilitate with certain alignment cues and props for support,” says Fi. “With increased flexibility and agility through yoga, there is then a greater range of mobility in the body to work deeper into tight areas of facia.”

But as with finessing your form, ‘easy-does-it’ counts here too. “Depending on the nature and severity of the injury, I would suggest starting with two gentle practices a week and building it up from there,” says Fi. “I wouldn’t recommend dynamic or power flows as the faster pace means there’s less time to pay attention to alignment and modifications which could aggravate the injury further.” Instead, opt for restorative or yin yoga as less physically taxing practices.

There’s a clear common denominator within Tess and Dr Spencer-Smith’s advice on further treatment methods: identifying the underlying issue. “If the reason you got injured is because your ankles are unstable, then work on stabilising the ankles,” says Tess. “Assess the reason as to why you got injured and work from there.” To do so, Dr Spencer-Smith urges you to seek qualified help from the correct professional. “Don’t let your personal trainer be your therapist,” she says. “You need to see a physio or sports doctor that is clinically trained on the musculoskeletal system.”

Putting your trust in someone with credence will pay off, and even elite athletes have learnt to listen. “I often treat female GB rowers,” says Dr Spencer-Smith. “They don’t always have the support they need as they’re starting out. They might be strong but when you watch their movement their technique is off, so they’re sometimes required to take time out and recuperate.”

Disclaimer: everybody is different, and what works for others may not work for you. Know that pushing through will only exacerbate issues, and honour what your body is trying to tell you.

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