It’s ironic: Strength training can help prevent numerous muscle and joint injuries, yet many people still get hurt in the gym. The good news is that old injuries can be protected and new ones prevented by just slightly altering the way you work out.
Here’s a joint-by-joint look at some of the most common areas that cause us pain — and how to tweak your routine to end up stronger than ever.
Problem Area: Shoulders
Because of its structure, your shoulder joint is one of the most vulnerable areas on your body, and up to a third of weightlifting injuries occur here.
“You can exert relatively large forces on the shoulder because of the lever arm, so you need to [strengthen the] rotator cuff muscles that hold the shoulder in place,” says Dr. Ronald Karzel, an orthopedic surgeon and shoulder specialist at the Southern California Orthopedic Institute in Santa Clarita, California. “Women are also a bit more flexible and tend to have looser shoulder joints, so heavier lifting can put them at greater risk.”
In addition, your shoulder blade moves along with your arm to allow for greater range of motion. Therefore, if you’re tight in your back or chest, or if your shoulder blade is in the wrong position when doing a move, you’ll cause irritation to muscles and tendons.
Solution: Shore up your rotator cuffs with Y’s and T’s, and learn how to properly “pack” your shoulder blades into the proper position with Pull-Ups Plus. Also, stretch the muscles of your back and chest regularly to facilitate greater range of motion in your upper body as a whole.
Y’s and T’s
Setup: Lie facedown on a stability ball with your chest and trunk supported, and your legs extended behind you, feet shoulder-width apart. Grasp a light dumbbell in each hand, arms extended toward the floor.
Move: Slowly lift your arms up to form a Y, gliding your shoulder blades together and downward. Hold for a beat and then lower the weights back down. Next, lift your arms straight out to the sides in a T. Concentrate on moving the shoulder blades closer to your spine as you hold that pose.
Tip: Imagine pushing your abs against the ball. This will keep your back from getting strained and will facilitate easier breathing.
Setup: Take a shoulder-width overhand grip on a pull-up bar. Let your bodyweight pull your shoulders up into a shrug and “unpack” your shoulder blades.
Move: Squeeze your lats to “pack” your shoulder blades down and back. Then drive your elbows down and pull your chin up above the bar. Slowly let yourself back down by extending your arms, then unpacking your shoulders to complete one rep.
Tip: Don’t swing your legs or allow your body to “kip” — the entire movement should be slow and controlled.
Problem Area: Low Back
Although your spine is designed to absorb shock, the discs in between each vertebra are especially sensitive to torque.
“Low-back pain is fairly common and is most frequently a result of improper lifting technique, tight hamstrings and hips, and weak glutes,” says Sarah Ehrsam, MA, and Certified Athletic Trainer at College of the Canyons in Santa Clarita, California. In addition, repetitive movements like flexing and twisting can do damage to your sensitive discs, eventually causing them to bulge or pinch. And performing lifting exercises improperly or with a rounded back can mean a spinal injury down the line, especially if you’re going heavy.
Solution: Your core muscles are actually designed to protect your spine by resisting movement, so this cable anti-rotation exercise will challenge those muscles to resist turning, while the barbell deadlift will strengthen your entire posterior chain to ward off injury.
Setup: Assume a half-kneeling position perpendicular to the cable machine, with the knee furthest from the machine on the floor and the cable at chest height. Grasp the handle with both hands and bring it to the center of your chest.
Move: Press the cable handle away from your chest in a straight line. Pause, then return slowly to the start. You should feel your core fighting the pull of the cable in order to maintain balance. Work both sides to create equality in your midsection.
Tip: If you feel like you’re tipping over, angle your front foot outward to widen your base of support. Since the abs and low back engage all day to maintain posture, they should be trained for endurance rather than strength using light resistance and high reps.
Setup: Stand behind a barbell with your feet slightly wider than hip width and your toes just underneath the bar. Squat down and take an overhand or alternating grip on the barbell. Flatten your back and pull your shoulder blades together.
Move: Extend your legs, driving through your heels and keeping your back flat to pull the barbell straight up along the front of your body until you’re standing. Return back down the way you came and repeat right away.
Tip: Keep your neck aligned with your spine; don’t arch up to look in the mirror.
Problem Area: Hip and Knee
Knee injuries such as ACL tears are three to four more times likely to occur in female athletes, which experts say could be caused by varying hormones, wider hip angles or poor training form on moves like squats.
“The knees can collapse inward, the heels may come up off the floor, one hip may rise higher than the other and the chest sometimes pitches forward,” says Reba Wek-Lake, CSCS, NASM-CPT and owner of Kinetic Spark Fitness in Valencia, California. If those incorrect movement patterns are repeated, over time your nervous system will believe you want to move like that, which can be damaging to your knees, hips and back. Training in only one plane — e.g., forward only, like a cyclist or runner — can also create problems such as iliotibial band (IT) syndrome, marked by pain and tightness on the outside of the hip and knee.
Solution: A one-legged squat will isolate each hip individually and retrain your brain and muscles to work together properly, while the treadmill shuffle strengthens the deeper hip muscles to help correct improper form.
Start: Stand on one foot and extend your other leg in front of you, finding your balance.
Move: Bend your standing knee and slowly lower your glutes toward the floor, tracking your knee over your toes. Lower as far as you can while maintaining form, aiming for parallel if possible. Extend your leg and drive back up to standing. Do all reps on one side before switching.
Tip: If you have trouble balancing, hold on lightly to a stable object such as a bench or machine.
Start: Stand on the treadmill facing sideways with your knees bent in an athletic position.
Move: Start the treadmill at a slow pace (1.0-2.0 mph) and begin shuffling sideways, maintaining your athletic stance and keeping your feet shoulder-width apart. Do one to five minutes on one side, then switch.
Tip: As you get more comfortable, increase the speed incrementally, but not so much that you trip over yourself. Also avoid crossing your feet one over the other to avoid stumbling.
Problem Area: Wrists
There’s a reason humans don’t walk on their hands, and if you’ve ever avoided push-ups or planks because of wrist pain, you know what we mean. Prolonged, weight-bearing hyperextension can cause pain and swelling in the hands and wrists, exacerbating chronic issues like carpal tunnel syndrome.
If you have wrist issues, you should avoid moves and equipment that can cause pain, such as straight barbell biceps curls, and should use kettlebells to help strengthen your wrists all the way around. You can also eliminate overflexion or extension of the wrist by keeping it straight during a move, such as doing push-ups on a set of bars, or doing dips on a machine with a neutral grip.
Solution: Mountain climbers done on a stability ball on the elbows removes the wrists from the equation altogether while still challenging your core.
Stability Ball Mountain Climbers
Setup: Begin in plank with your feet together and your elbows on top of a stability ball. Lock your shoulder blades and tighten your abs.
Move: Bring one knee up toward your chest and hold for one to two seconds. Return to the starting position and continue, alternating sides.
Tip: If the stability ball is too unstable (causing you to slip or roll), put your feet up against a wall or use a couple of weight plates to brace yourself.
Flex Your Muscle
Everyone knows that foam rolling and static stretching can help improve flexibility and mobility — which ultimately help prevent injury — but when should you do which one? It’s probably the opposite of what you think.
Foam rolling is better to do right off the bat, even before your dynamic stretching and warm up. Foam rolling helps relax the Golgi tendon — the nerve receptor that asks a muscle to contract — and as a consequence assists your muscles to stretch out preworkout so they’re more ready to work and less susceptible to injury. Roll out the parts you’re going to train that day as well as any others that are chronically tight or bothersome. Roll along the muscle belly until you find a tender spot, then pause and hold for 60 seconds. (Note: Only roll over muscles, never roll along joints or bones.)
Static stretching, where you stretch a muscle to its farthest length, should be done postworkout when your muscles and joints are warm and supple. This helps gently relax your muscles back to a resting length after having just spent a lot of time contracting and can improve range of motion and assist with recovery. Stretch all the large muscle groups thoroughly, holding each stretch for 30 to 60 seconds while breathing deeply.