How to avoid injury while strength training

Strength training, also known as weight training, resistance training and muscle training, has a range of benefits. By using your body weight or equipment, you can build muscle mass, strength and endurance. However, it's important to use the correct techniques and warm up and cool down properly. Otherwise, you risk injuries that can put you out of action for a long time.

Injuries from strength training

These often include:

Rotator cuff injuries

Your rotator cuff is the group of muscles and tendons surrounding your shoulder joint. Injury causes inflammation or a tear in these muscles and tendons, and it's a common cause of shoulder pain. This can make it difficult to carry out everyday tasks that require arm movement, such as hair brushing or getting dressed.

Rotator cuff injuries are common in athletes who play tennis and baseball, or construction workers, since the injuries are caused by repetitive overhead motions. The two main types of rotator cuff injuries are a rotator cuff tear, which can develop after an injury or if you dislocate your shoulder, and tendinopathy, which is pain around the tendons of your rotator cuff because they cannot repair themselves. Tendinopathy is usually a result of wear and tear over time.

A GP or physiotherapist can examine you and ask you to perform certain movements if you suspect you have injured yourself. An X-ray or ultrasound scan might be necessary to diagnose a rotator cuff injury. You might be referred for physiotherapy, given steroid injections or require surgery, depending on the severity of the injury.

You can reduce your risk of a rotator cuff injury by having good posture in your shoulder blades, stretching often and doing simple strengthening exercises. You might also need to make adjustments to your exercise regime if it is causing discomfort or strain to your shoulder.

Hamstring pulls

Your hamstrings are strong bands of tissue located at the back of your thigh, and injuring them causes the tendons or muscles to strain or tear. Pulling your hamstring happens when one or more of the muscles gets stretched too far. This is usually a result of sudden, powerful movements, and can occur when you are running, jumping or lunging. You are more likely to suffer a hamstring injury if you have already had one in the past. While they typically cause relatively little pain and have a short recovery time, there are three grades of hamstring injuries. A pull can take days to heal, but a grade two or three tear might take weeks or months to heal fully.

You can reduce your risk of injuring your hamstrings by regularly stretching and warming up properly before any exercise.

Disc herniations

A herniated disc (sometimes called a slipped disc) is a common back injury. We have vertebral discs between each vertebral bone in our spine that act as cushions. They help to absorb impact and guide movement in the spine. When they rupture and herniate, it can be painful and can cause symptoms to travel down your legs as pressure is put on your nerves. This type of injury can be caused by a sudden extreme movement or by repetitive poor movement when weightlifting, which is why good form and correct technique are essential.

Symptoms of a herniated disc include pain or decreased sensation in your back, buttocks, thigh, and calf. You might also experience numbness or a tingling feeling and weakness in your muscles. Your GP will be able to examine you and identify which area of your spine has been affected, based on the location of your symptoms. It's important to be aware of the 'red flags' for back pain to look out for - if you have any of these, you should seek urgent medical help.

A herniated disc usually gets better slowly. You might need to rest at first if the pain is very bad, but gentle exercise afterwards can aid the healing process. It's important to start off slowly and gradually increase your physical activity safely. Painkillers can also be prescribed.

Tendonitis

A tendon is a band of tissues attaching your muscles to your bones. Tendonitis is the irritation and inflammation caused by micro tears in your tendons, prohibiting them from performing a smooth, sliding motion as normal. Tendonitis is commonly caused by minor stress and repetitive motions. However, it may also be a result of sudden impact or injury.

The symptoms of tendonitis include slight pain during or after a workout, which persists over time and after a period of rest. It might intensify to a burning sensation and lead to swelling or redness in the affected area. Tendonitis commonly occurs in the base of the thumb, wrist, shoulder, knee, elbow, hip or Achilles tendon.

You can lower your risk of tendonitis by warming up properly before exercising, taking things slowly and gradually building up your activity, stretching gently and limiting repetitions of forceful movements. It's also important that you don't ignore your pain or leave it to worsen, as pain is your body's way of telling you that something is wrong. Don't push through the pain to continue exercising. Stop, rest and consult your GP if it persists.

Tennis elbow

Tennis elbow is when you have pain around the outside of your elbow. Its medical term is lateral epicondylitis, and it is often caused by repetitive movements of the wrist and arm. Despite its name, however, it isn't just athletes who suffer with this injury, as it can affect anyone whose job includes those types of motions, including painters, plumbers or butchers.

Golfer's elbow (medial epicondylitis) is similar to tennis elbow but the pain is felt on the inner side of your elbow.

The pain from tennis elbow mainly occurs where the tendons of your forearm muscles attach to a bony bump on the outside of your elbow. You might find that the pain spreads to your forearm and wrist.

While anyone can be affected by tennis elbow, it is most common in adults aged 30-50 and those who use poor technique while playing sports.

Tennis elbow can be treated with rest and over-the-counter medications. However, your GP might suggest physiotherapy, a steroid injection or surgery if your symptoms do not ease.

How to prevent muscle injuries

Fitness coach Ollie Kerr adds that, as well as happening as a result of performing too much exercise too quickly, these injuries can occur when you lift weights that are not appropriate for your current ability level. Any changes to the intensity level of the workout should therefore be made gradually over time.

Alongside rest, he recommends eating a good diet and remaining hydrated to speed up the recovery process. Ice, compression and elevation can also be effective techniques for the initial treatment of the majority of sport-related injuries.

"If you warm up suitably, work within your limitations and give yourself time to recover between exercises and workouts, injuries caused by strength training can mostly be avoided, although they do inevitably happen from time to time," he says.

The importance of warming up and cooling down

"The aim of the warm-up is to increase heart rate and subsequent blood flow, which allows more oxygen to get to muscles to prepare them for exercise, and helps prevent injury. It is therefore extremely important to warm up prior to taking part in any form of exercise," explains Kerr.

A study with rabbits actually supported the idea that warming up provides a protective mechanism in the muscle, which reduces risk of injury. The study found that this protective mechanism requires greater length of stretch and force to produce a tear in the rabbit's muscle.

Likewise, cooling down after your workout is just as important as what you do during your workout. It helps to regulate blood flow, giving your heart and blood vessels a chance to ease their way out of physical activity.

Kerr suggests jogging on the spot for a warm-up. Combine this with big, dynamic movements and exercises through which you move your body through its full range of motion. This prepares your body for strength training, while static exercises in which you hold a position are more beneficial at the end of a workout.

Further tips for preventing injury whilst strength training

  • Don't push yourself beyond what's comfortable.
  • Build up slowly.
  • Take breaks.
  • Ask for help if you need it, rather than struggling.
  • Wear correct gear.
  • Learn proper technique.
  • Listen to your body.

Seeking advice

It might be wise to contact your GP if you have sustained an injury, and pain or discomfort continues despite resting. Kerr also suggests consulting a qualified fitness instructor or personal trainer before starting a new strength-training routine. They can help you develop an effective and achievable strength-training programme and ensure you are doing exercises properly.

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