"To keep the body in good health is a duty... otherwise we shall not be able to keep our mind strong and clear."
Snap. Crackle. Pop. What's that sound? Rice Krispies? As if. Everyone knows by now that cereal doesn't even taste good. Nope, that's actually the sound of your joints and tendons splitting apart. Take my workout today for example. It was another normal lower body day for me at the gym, until I saw something AWFUL.
This kid was bench pressing for reps and really pushing failure. Sure enough, the bar fell on his chest, so he proceeded to roll it over his groin and bounce it off and on to the floor. Having not been paying attention until I saw the bar on him, I rushed over and asked him if he needed a spot. "No thanks, I'm good." You're not good. You're a moron. Now, even though he was being grossly negligent, people often hurt themselves doing less idiotic things.
So How Does One Avoid Injury At The Gym?
Over the years, I've been able to avoid any serious injury at the gym (save for a slight pectoral tear). I've known guys who undergo multiple surgeries for pec tears, shoulder tears, and more.
I'll give you my top 10 tips more making sure you keep yourself safe while making those gains.
1. Get a Spotter
As you might have inferred from my story above, having a spotter is essential on some exercises. The bench press is definitely the most popular lift you need a spotter for. If you can't find a gym partner, ask someone at the gym to spot you for one set and perform the rest of your sets with dumbbells. Alternatively, dumbbell push ups can be a good substitute for benching.
Standing barbell overhead presses probably won't require a spotter (you have to get to a point where you're pushing your bodyweight for reps before that becomes an issue) as long as you keep your glutes squeezed and lower back straight. Seated variations shouldn't require a spotter, but might depending on what you're doing (it's hard to kick up heavy dumbbells up for an overhead press using your legs).
Pulling exercises, as you might expect, aren’t really spotter-friendly. If you load up too much weight on deadlift and throw out your back, all your "spotter" would be able to do is watch.
2. Warm Up
How do you warm up at the gym? Do you swing your arms around and jump on the bench? Or do you perform one quick warm up set just to get on with the workout? I don't care how tight you are on time – you NEED to warm up.
For some exercises (like deadlifts), you'll eventually end up doing more warm up sets than working sets. But sometimes that's the nature of the game – it takes a while to get ready to pull double your bodyweight off the ground for reps.
First, you want to spend 5-10 minutes doing dynamic and static stretching. The focus of your stretches depends on what you're hitting. If you're doing heavy pressing, warm up your rotator cuffs and upper body muscles. If you're doing leg exercises, stretch everything in your lower body, especially your hamstrings, hip flexors and lower back. If you're deadlifting, stretch EVERYTHING. Literally. This is the king of all exercises for a reason.
Beyond the stretching, make sure you're performing at least three warm up sets for your first exercise (or first and second exercises, if you're following an upper/lower split).
3. Don't Go Too Heavy
I'm a HUGE fan of doing heavy lifting in every weight workout. I like to do an upper/lower split with each workout focusing on one of the big 4 lifts (bench press, overhead press, deadlift, and squat).
However, you should NEVER be going heavier than a five rep max on a regular basis. Even at that, I'll do one or two sets at this weight for each workout's big lift (which usually ends up being 5 or 6 reps for me) and then back off the weight for the remaining sets of the exercise (going down to anywhere from 70% to 75% of my 1RM).
Frankly, going heavier than 85% doesn't focus on muscle growth. Powerlifters and Olympic lifters often go as high as 90% or 95% of their 1RM on a regular basis, but that's for the purpose of training the nervous system to use more of the muscle already available. It's not very effective for growing the muscles themselves. In fact, even these guys will periodize their training so that every few weeks or so they back off on the weight significantly to let their bodies recover.
4. Avoid Training To Failure
"ONE MORE MAN! ONE MORE!!!!!!" How many times has some knucklehead spotter yelled this at you?
Training to failure (A.K.A. pushing a set to the point where the bar is falling down on you and you can't get it up) is a waste of time. I learned this the hard way when I used to train to failure on all my sets and go heavy. Instead of building a bigger chest, I would fry my nervous system and end up overtraining. Once in a while, I would even pull something.
The way to avoid this is to monitor your rep speed. Perform the exercise as fast as you can (don't slow it down on purpose) and pay attention to when your reps get slower. When the reps start to slow down, finish the set on that rep or the next one – you want to stop one or two reps shy of failure.
5. Avoid One Rep Max Training
How much do you bench? How much do you squat? Believe it or not, when people ask you that, that doesn't mean you should head over to the gym and try to do one rep to failure on an exercise.
The problem is that this is incredibly popular, largely due to professional sports leagues at the college level and beyond. Scouts are constantly looking for the best talent and focus on what athletes can perform for one rep on their big lifts to help assess that talent.
Few people realize that this is freaking dangerous. If your head isn't in the right place (relationship drama, family problems, etc.) or you're having an off day (bad night of sleep, uncomfortable bowel movement, etc.), you won't be able to lift your best, and it’s more than likely that you will fail to do even one rep as you struggle and grind the weight.
In fact, even a three rep max can result in injuries for numerous bodybuilders. The heaviest I go on a regular basis is an occasional attempt for a five rep max. This way, even if I'm having an off day, I'll still be able to get out a few clean reps.
If you do have to do a one rep max for athletic purposes, please limit it to no more than twice a year per exercise.
One popular method of training I've noticed is when people load a weight beyond their 1RM and use a lifting partner to only perform the eccentric portion of the movement. If someone's 1RM on bench is 225lbs, they'll lower the bar with 245lbs to their chest and have the spotter help them pull every rep up.
This is just as dangerous as missing a 1RM – you're pushing your muscles to their absolute limits and that puts them at huge risk. I knew guys in college who used this method frequently and just ended up with nasty muscle tears.
7. Avoid Risky Exercises
Some exercises are just not worth the risk. I'm not talking about deadlifts or squats though. Would you believe me if I said that preacher curls are one of the riskiest exercises you could do?
In short, here's a basic list of exercises to avoid and why:
Mixed Grip Deadlift – Risk of bicep tear.
Preacher Curl – Risk of bicep tear.
Skull Crusher – Risk of elbow injury.
Behind The Neck Overhead Press – Risk of shoulder injury.
Behind The Neck Pull Ups – Risk of shoulder injury.
Cleans and their variations – Risk of... frankly a lot of things, including slipping a disk in your lower back or tearing your shoulder.
Leg Extension Machine – Risk of knee joint injury.
The list could go on, but in general stop any exercise immediately if you feel pain or joints popping out of place.
8. Be Careful With Range Of Motion
Range of motion isn't everything. The general rule thrown around is the greater the range of motion, the more activation your muscles receive.
Well if that's the case, should bodybuilders cut out bench press variations and stick to the close grip bench press? Or should powerlifters start deadlifting with dumbbells instead of the barbell since they have to pull higher?
Range of motion is definitely important, and cheating on it from workout to workout makes it difficult to track progress. It is NOT, however, always better to use a greater range of motion.
For pressing exercises especially, be wary of your range of motion. Ideally you want to tap your chest for both vertical and horizontal pushes. Sometimes this just isn't possible though. If you have ridiculously lanky arms like Kevin Durant, you'll tear your rotator cuff trying to tap your chest during a heavy bench press session.
9. Wear Comfortable Clothing
The most serious injury I've had at the gym was a minor pectoral tear. It wasn't just the benching that did it, however. I had a bad habit of wearing older shirts that were getting a bit small for me and were tight around my torso. Thinking nothing of it, I would progress through my upper body routine and feel serious pressure on my chest during weighted pull ups and other movements. If I had been wearing looser clothing, I might never have torn it.
If you want to play it safe, wear a sleeveless. If you're self-conscious about your size or are just starting out, wear an elastic, comfortable shirt. I learned the hard way that gym attire can make a huge difference.
10. Be Wary On Low Sleep
When I was more stubborn, I didn't care how badly I slept the night before a workout. I'd saunter into the gym on three hours of shuteye and try to hit deadlifts for heavy sets. This mentality could have ended VERY badly for me. If you're running on low sleep (less than five hours), then I would do three things:
Warm up more than usual.
Perform light weight (nothing heavier than a 10 rep max).
Relax – lifting heavy weights, especially during complex movements like deadlifts, are too stressful for you to attempt without proper rest. This is what partly contributed to my pectoral tear.
There you have it, 10 effective ways to avoid injuries at the gym and keep your progress moving forward. Truthfully, sometimes you won't be able to identify what caused an injury. My pec injury was a combination of lack of sleep, bad form and improper clothing. But by implementing these tips, you might save yourself a trip to the doctor or physical therapist.
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