How to protect your back, neck and hamstrings when you strength training.

5 tips for reducing your risk of injury when you’re new to strength training

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Want to get stronger? You won’t be able to deadlift and squat heavy if you don’t nail your form – and these expert-backed tips will help to keep you injury-free and more powerful.

Strength training can be a dangerous sport. When you’re lifting heavy, you can run the risk of injury. But no matter how much we’d like to place the blame fully on the equipment, in many instances, harm occurs as a result of incorrect form.

A whopping one in five of us hurt ourselves at some point when exercising with poor form, and the majority of strength training injuries occur while using free weights. 

However, gym closures over the past year have afforded fewer opportunities to obtain professional guidance or train with a friend who can highlight our mistakes – pushing these injury numbers even higher. Over 7 million Brits have been injured while working out during the pandemic, particularly those using weights and at-home equipment. 

While our efforts to maintain a consistent strength training regime during the past 18 months are certainly worth applauding, these figures serve to highlight the importance of maintaining good form – whether you’re in your living room or at the gym. 

Avoiding the pain game

Although nobody likes to feel sore or in discomfort, this is far from the only reason you should maintain good form when strength training. “Getting injured means you just have to stop – there’s no way of getting around it really,” states Sarah Lindsay, personal trainer and founder of Roar Fitness – and we all know how frustrating that can be.

But it doesn’t end there: correct form is vital if you want to see those gains, too. “The exercises you’ve selected are there for a reason,” Lindsay continues. “If you’re not doing them properly and activating the right muscles, they’re not going to be effective in achieving what you’re trying to achieve.”

Just because you’re not lifting 50kg, it doesn’t mean that there’s room to slack and let your form slide – it’s key to maintain it, even if you’re ‘only’ using your own bodyweight. “It’s important (to keep good form) if you are loading,” says Sam Prynn, personal trainer and founder of StrongHer gym, “whether that’s using resistance bands or holding two bottles of wine!”

If you can’t perform a move properly with a heavier weight, drop it to something lower rather than trying to force it incorrectly. “It is always form first,” Lindsay adds. 

Check yourself before you wreck yourself

It’s not just strength workout newbies that are at risk: even seasoned lifters aren’t immune to poor form. “For people who train a lot, you get into some bad habits and they can become ingrained,” Lindsay states. “Then their chances of repeating poor movement patterns and causing a long-term issue is more likely.”

Prynn notes that rounded backs are one of the biggest mistakes she sees when it comes to incorrect style. “It’s either a slump of the shoulders, so rounding the upper part of your back, or overarch and overextension,” she says; and research concurs that upper and lower trunk injuries are two of the most common (although this understandably varies according to the type of lifting).

So how can you keep yourself in check, especially if there’s nobody around to monitor you or share advice? 

How to maintain good form while lifting

Look in the mirror

This is perhaps the most obvious approach, as we all have one and any free-standing mirror can be maneuvered to where you need it. However, depending on the move you’re performing, it can pose a few challenges. “Facing the mirror, you can’t see straight-on if your back is flat or not,” Lindsay states. “And if you turn sideways to the mirror, if you’re going to squat or deadlift, you have to turn your head to look. Then your spine isn’t neutral and that’s not ideal, either.”

For moves that aren’t so mirror-friendly try the following:

Video yourself

A year of Zoom calls means we’re well past the awkwardness of seeing ourselves on screen. “Set your phone up next to you while you’re doing it,” proposes Lindsay, so “you can…do the replay to see how it looks.” This also gets around the issue of straining your neck to see yourself in a mirror.

In addition to looking back over the footage yourself, Prynn suggests sending it to a training friend or fitness professional to review, too. 

Go for a PT session

Can’t afford time with a personal trainer on a regular basis? For beginners, a one-off session is beneficial to learn how to correctly perform key moves. More experienced weight trainers can find it advantageous to check-in with a professional occasionally to avoid settling into bad habits.

Watch online tutorials

The Strong Women Training Club technique videos are a great place to start, as you can see professionals performing moves the way they should be done; then look in a mirror or video yourself to compare your form with theirs.

Get an online workout pal

Just because you’re working out at home doesn’t mean you have to be on your lonesome. Dial into a Zoom or FaceTime call with a fellow strength training friend and monitor each other’s technique as you would do in-person. 

Making the right moves

Chances are, you perform a variety of exercises during your strength training routine, but there’ll definitely be some you do more than others. So, we asked our experts to share three of the most common moves and how to do them properly.

Deadlifts

“If you’re doing a standard deadlift, then the weight will be on the floor; but if you don’t have the range to do it from the floor with a flat back, put it on blocks to raise it up a bit,” says Lindsay. Ensure your “feet and hips are shoulder-width apart, [with] hands on the bar just on the outside of your legs, making sure your hands are even.”

Next, keep your “bum down, [and] back flat – ensure that neutral spine goes all the way up through to the head, so not looking up and lifting the chin,” she continues. “Then initiate the movement with the legs.” On the return back down, your form should be as it was on the way up.

Squats

While there’s some debate about whether your knees should go over your toes during this exercise, there are other elements to bear in mind, too. “Make sure your whole foot is connected to the floor,” Prynn explains. “You want to think about your knees driving out, so they’re not collapsing in.” Keep “your chest up, so you’re not collapsing forward,” she adds, as this is another move where having a flat back is key.

Chest press

You’ve got two options for this, first up – on a bench. “With dumbbells in each hand above your chest, bend the elbows,” Lindsay says, so they’re at a 90-degree angle. “Take the dumbbells down next to the chest, with the hand over the elbow. Go down slowly, then push back up to the top position.” She also recommends not letting the dumbbells touch at the top, as this takes some of the tension off of the chest.

No bench? Doing them from the floor still offers a good workout. Follow the same technique as above, but “as soon as your elbows touch the floor, don’t rest at the bottom – drive back up again,” explains Lindsay.

Below is a video on how to do a chest fly, which is very similar to a press but for the fact that the arms come out horizontally, rather than vertically above your head.

Next time you’re unsure whether you’re doing a move correctly, remember that there’s no harm in checking! With a number of easy ways to monitor your form, it’s definitely worth taking the time to do so – we guarantee your body will thank you for it in both the short and long-term.

There’s no room for smugness, as it’s not just strength newbies who are at risk: even seasoned lifters aren’t immune to poor form. “For people that train a lot, you get into some bad habits and they can become ingrained,” Lindsay states. “Then their chances of repeating poor movement patterns and causing a long-term issue is more likely.”

Prynn notes that rounded backs are one of the biggest mistakes she sees when it comes to incorrect style. “It’s either a slump of the shoulders, so rounding the upper part of your back, or overarch and overextension,” she says; and research concurs that upper and lower trunk injuries are two of the most common (although this understandably varies according to the type of lifting).

So how can you keep yourself in check, especially if there’s nobody around to monitor you or share advice?

Look in a mirror

This is perhaps the most obvious approach, as we all have one and any free-standing mirror can be maneuvered to where you need it. However, depending on the move you’re performing, it can pose a few challenges. “Facing the mirror, you can’t see straight-on if your back is flat or not,” Lindsay states. “And if you turn sideways to the mirror, if you’re going to squat or deadlift, to look…you have to turn your head. Then your spine isn’t neutral and that’s not ideal, either.”

For moves that aren’t so mirror-friendly, panic not: instead, you can…

For more tips on how to maintain good form, check out the SWTC How-To library or join us for one of our full-length classes.

Images: Getty/Stylist

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