Blame the squat for your back pain or the lunge for your knee ache. If you exercise, odd are you have experienced some kind gym injury. Sadly, most people play the blame game and never find out the real cause for their injury. Or they simple cross off the “bad” exercise from their workout list.
A gym injury has many blamers, from your own fitness level, age, and anatomy, to technique, exercise choice and order, and equipment. While this list can be long there are some common mistakes that most people make that lead to injury, and can be easily prevented by taking some measurements. Here are five to watch:
When performing lifts that can potentially cause serious injury to the low back, it is essential to maintain the back in a flat (i.e. neutral spine position) or slightly arched position. Failure to do so will place considerable pressure on the intervertebral discs, particularly the disc between L4 and L5, and L5 and S1.
Fix It: Obviously, you should first check that you have a flat or slightly arched back. But muscles and joints rarely work in isolation so also you must check other body parts—your feet, knee, and upper body—which are involved in the exercise and help maintain the position of the low back. For example, in the deadlift and squat you should hold the chest up and out with the shoulder blades pinched together. Holding the chest up and pinching the shoulder blades back keeps the low back in the ideal flat or slightly arched position.
2. Injury: Knee pain by locking your knees when doing leg extension
In a recent paper by the Mayo Clinic, the author explains that in this open chain exercise—(i.e., an exercise in which the distal limb is free to move as opposed to a closed chain exercise, like the squat where the foot is planted and the lower leg does not move)—the shear force is placed on the knee. This makes it more dangerous to the joint’s ligaments than the compression forces placed on the knee as in a squat.
Fix It: Avoiding high volume in sets (i.e. more than 3 sets), reps (more than 10 to 12), or load (an amount you only can lift for a low number of reps, such as less than 8). Equally important is to take a look at your gym leg extension machine. Interestingly, the more recent versions of leg extensions have seats in which the buttocks are below the horizontal level so when the leg is extended it is difficult to lock the knee. Look at your gym’s machine. If your butt is below your knees you are in a much safer position.
3. Injury: Shoulder pain by going beyond a 90-degree angle when doing the bench press
Perhaps the most common injury in the gym among men is “shoulder pain,” and often the pain can be attributed to using too much weight when performing a bench press or using poor technique. Going beyond 90 degrees places a disproportionate amount of stress on the anterior deltoids, subscapularis, and the joint capsule during the initial phase of the ascent. Once the lifter passes the sticking point in the lift, the pectoralis major is in a much more mechanically advantageous position and can contribute more force to work your chest. However, prior to this, the shoulder joint must bear the entire load until the pectoralis muscles can do the job properly. If the lifter performs the lift while using too much weight then the combination of the two factors is likely to result in injury.
Fix It: Break your habit of going beyond the 90-degree angle. Switch to a neutral grip—palms facing in— and a dumbbell instead of a bar chest press, which reduces some of the shoulder load (below). Even better, perform a regular DB chest press lying on the floor. This will force you to reach a perfect 90-degree angle.
4. Injury: Back pain by not keeping the weight close to your body when doing deadlift, back row, DB squats, and others delicate exercises
Keeping a barbell or dumbbell as close to body as possible is like a system of levers at work. When one lifts weight, the force generated by the muscles depends on the weight and the distance that the resistance is away from the fixed hinge. The further the distance from the fixed hinge the more stress you put on this area.
Thus, by not keeping the weight as close to the body as possible increases the length of the resistance arm, which in turn increases the mechanical resistance that must be overcome. This places extra stress on the vulnerable intervertebral discs and other soft tissues (i.e. muscles, ligaments, joint capsules, etc.) in the area. This is why you can hurt your back doing the deadlift, in which the most vulnerable fixed hinge area is the joints in the lumbosacral region.
Fix It: Perform these exercises with dumbbells and not bars, which are easier to manipulate according to your body position. Keep them close to your body at all times.
5. Injury: Muscle back strain from turning the head when squatting
Looking down (or to the side) can interfere with you keeping a rigid core, which is critical to maintain stability in the low back and perform the exercise correctly.
Fix It: The following steps are directed toward maintaining the position of the low back and not letting the weight move forward of the balls of the feet. If the weight shifts forward (or to the side) it will be difficult to prevent it from going down (or to the side).
— Eyes focused straight ahead or slightly upward
— Head in line with the spine or slightly hyperextended
— The trapezius is relaxed or slightly stretched allowing the chest to be held up and out with the shoulder blades pinched together
— Back is flat (i.e. neutral spine) or slightly arched
— Your weight is balanced between the middle and balls of the feet, but the heels are in contact with the floor.