5 Tips For Staying Injury-Free in the Gym
Everyone knows that there’s some risk of injury associated with exercise. But with some thoughtful guidance, the risk can be highly minimized. In fact, exercising mindfully will not only minimize injuries in the gym, but it will also go a long way to protect your body from injuries out in the real world. Here are five key things you can do to stay injury-free in the gym:
1. DO A PROPER WARMUP
No, I don’t mean jump on a stationary bicycle for 10 minutes and call it quits, nor do I mean do jumping jacks until you can’t breathe. Be mindful of your warmup because it’s going to set the tone for the rest of your workout.
A really solid warmup might consist of 4 phases:
General warmup (this is where you’ll get your stationary bicycle, elliptical, or easy-jogging fix; should take roughly 5-10 minutes).
Dynamic warmup (this is where you’ll do some dynamic mobility exercises which will gradually increase your range of motion, think passthroughs prior to a workout containing shoulder and chest exercises).
Workout specific warmup (this is where you will mimic the movements of the exercises to come by doing some light or bodyweight options to prepare, usually in a circuit. Think ‘air squats to prepare you for back squats’).
Static stretching (this is where you’ll stretch any problematic parts of your body that you know hinder you from getting a good workout, think ‘hip and ankle stretches to prepare you for squats’).
The general warmup shouldn’t take more than 10 minutes, while the rest of the warmup phases will take about the same amount of time. It’s important to note that the warmup shouldn’t tire you out, it should get your mind and body ready to fire on all cylinders for the workout that’s about to begin. Tip: save your stretching for the end of the warmup, when your body is warm it becomes more flexible and safer to stretch.
The benefits of a warmup are serious and should not be tossed aside like a worn-out jockstrap on the floor of your high school locker room (sorry for that imagery folks). To get down to it, a good warmup will: increase your heart and respiratory rate (which means your heart and lungs will be better prepared to deliver blood and oxygen to the rest of your body), increase tissue temperature (which means your body will be warmer and better prepared for movement), and prepare you mentally for the exercise that’s about to come (keep your head in the game). All three of these benefits will make you more efficient and protect you in the gym.
Be prepared. Warm up.
2. DO A PROPER COOL-DOWN
Just as a warm-up is important to get the body to an increased state of readiness for physical activity, a cool-down is equally important to allow your body to return to its normal state. By exercising we place stress on our body, without a cool-down we neglect the opportunity to nurture ourselves back to a regular state.
A cool-down is very similar to a warm-up and really consists of the same phases. It should begin by a gradual decrease in workout intensity. This might mean a light jog or 5-10 minutes on a stationary bicycle at the end of the workout, which will allow your heart rate to drop gradually. After that, you could do some dynamic stretches followed by static stretching and/or foam rolling.
When our bodies cool down post-exercise they have the tendency to tighten up. By maintaining ideal length-tension relationships in our muscles we help prevent future injury due to muscle tightness. The general cool-down will assist in breaking up some lactic acid that’s built up during your routine, and the stretching will help you thwart any developing muscle imbalances.
Altogether a cool-down is an effective way to be nice to your body and aid your recovery. Don’t skip it.
3. MOBILITY AND RANGE OF MOTION WORK
Mobility and ROM work are off the radar for most newbies in the gym. It’s fair to assume that they are something that more advanced fitness enthusiasts are more inclined to be interested in compared with a casual gym-goer. But if you’re interested in compound lifts like the squat and deadlift, then mobility and ROM are crucial in keeping you safe.
Without an efficient range of motion and enough mobility, these compound lifts become dangerous to perform due to the limitations placed on your body by tight or over/underactive muscles. Performing these exercises without an optimal range of motion (especially with heavy weights) will almost surely result in injury.
Yoga is a fun way to develop a relationship with stretching. Personally, it’s how I transitioned from being someone who never stretches to including stretching into my weekly routine.
Mobility work is not as straight forward as simply stretching, but it’s well worth the time investment, especially if you’re serious about your gains and want to keep your muscles and joints healthy. If you’re interested in exploring mobility plans without a trainer, you can check out Romwod, The Ready State, or grab a book on the subject, like Becoming the Supple Leopard, by Dr. Kelly Starrett.
4. EXERCISE 'CONTROL'
What I’m referring to here is a ‘mind-muscle connection’ which you’ve probably heard referenced by some bodybuilding giant on a random 1 am YouTube rabbit hole. But you don’t need to be 200lbs with 6% BF to learn how to feel the mysterious mind-muscle connection and establish control of movement.
What we’re really talking about here is being mindful while performing your exercises. It’s something that comes with practice. So while you’re lifting, try hard to keep your mind on your form and how you’re executing the lift. For example, if you were performing a bicep curl, you’d need to remember to keep your core engaged, chin tucked, and that you’re using your bicep to pull the weight up without compensating with momentum from other muscle groups. Instead of you know… getting angry and lifting as quickly as you can because that guy you didn’t even really like that much never called you back 6 weeks ago and you hate him. Don’t do that.
Focusing on your form will go a long way in protecting you from injuries. Not only will it minimize the risk of injury while performing the exercise, but it will also help you build muscle safely so that it can in turn protect you outside of the gym as well.
5. A GOOD PROGRAM
A thoughtfully planned out program will include proper warmup routines, varied exercise selection, and adequate rest times which will be easier for your body to take on compared to the abuse of putting yourself through the same 10 exercises at max effort for weeks on end (we were all noobs once and that’s OK).
If you’re fairly new to exercise it’s easy to get stuck in a routine that works for you for months at a time and still see gains, which is great! But remember that varied exercise selection and trying something new will help keep you safe and prevent overuse.
Personally, I never start a workout without a decent warmup (one that will prepare me for what follows), and never leave the gym without doing some stretching.
If you haven’t been including a warmup and a cool-down into your workout, give it a try! While it might seem like a chore at first, it’s well worth the time investment and will drastically improve your performance over time while also keeping you safe.