Injury-Free Zone? Prepping to Return to the Gym

By Martha Michael

Make a Triumphant Return to the Gym

If the last time you darkened the door of a gym the big names in fitness were Power Rider, NordicTrack and ThighMaster, you may not recognize today’s equipment. But just because there’s new automation, don’t get too excited -- you can’t leave your workout to artificial intelligence. It’s still all you.

And whether you step up to the treadmill, the StairMaster or the free weights, you need to be careful. After years away from the gym, you’re in trouble if you don’t prepare yourself for this new era of weight training.

Lots of Options

It will blow your mind how much there is to do at the gym now and you may be tempted to try every weight machine. But your body can’t take that much output right out of the gate, so if you find yourself spending hours at the gym trying out everything, you’ll regret it.

An article on BreakingMuscle.com says that warming up is one of the four main deterrents to incurring injuries when weightlifting. When you’re in a hurry to work out and bypass warming up, you set yourself up for pulled muscles or strained ligaments. The purpose of warming up is to stretch your ligaments, tendons and muscle groups, and improve blood circulation.

“The technical and functional unpreparedness of the lifter is the cause of the most injuries and damage,” the article says.

If you lift weights without working up to it, you can incur any number of injuries, including:

  • Bone fractures
  • Dislocations
  • Muscle strain
  • Contusions

Preparation can help you preclude the possibility of missing a lift and getting hit by a falling bar. Like a skier learning to fall, get the necessary instruction before using free weights.

Counteracting Specific Injuries

Refrain from overtraining. In addition to lifting too much weight, another mistake is training beyond your ability to recover. You can adapt to higher loads, but you’ll inevitably find yourself injured if you continue training without unloading.

Weightlifters sometimes offset the problems of overworking a certain area by countering with a contrasting, mirror-image exercise. For instance, after squat sessions you can do forward bends or hang from a bar, adding weights to the legs to decompress the spine.

Low-back pain is a common problem for weightlifters because of the excess weight on the spine, squeezing vertebral discs and straining ligaments. You can split up your squat workout to minimize the negative effects of back loading.

The shoulders are a common area of damage from weightlifting injuries, as well. If possible, overhead pressing is preferred, but don’t move up to heavier weights before being adequately warmed up.

To avoid knee injuries, such as patellar tendonitis, a good warm-up is essential. Get expert advice about how to bounce out of your squat properly so you don’t stretch the ligaments in your knees.

You protect your neck vertebrae through proper preparation also. Even small weight loads can damage your neck if you roll the bar from your shoulders down your neck, which sometimes occurs if you start the back contraction too quickly. You may want to use a towel for padding or use a safety bar, which has padding at the neck and handles that give you control throughout the weightlifting exercise.

Alternatives to Gym Equipment

Various injuries can be attributed to the use of specific pieces of equipment, according to an article in Men’s Journal suggesting alternatives to fitness machines in gyms.

The Chest Fly is designed to sculpt your pectoralis muscles, but with the amount of time we spend sitting, typically at computers, and work the chest on other gym equipment, your shoulders are already pulled out of alignment. With more time on the machines, your joints can become impinged as well.

The problem with the “pec deck” is the way it can pull your arms backward and injure your shoulder joints as you relax at the end of each set. It’s safer to replace your time on the chest fly with dumbbell lifts and do a “suspended flye.” Free weights move in a safer range of motion.

While many people think the seated leg extension prevents injuries, it increases the torque on your knee joints when you lower the weights and pull your shins backward. Another problem is the imbalance it can create between your hamstrings and your quads, which also affects the knees. Since quads never work alone -- always in tandem with other muscles -- the article suggests involving your entire lower body to further strengthen your quad muscles.

It’s safer to do forward lunges and squats -- both front and split -- in place of the seated leg extension machine.

Treatment for Injuries

It’s easy for eagerness to rule the day, so you still might overdo it, especially if you aren’t a fitness expert. Your best bet is to discuss your plan with a chiropractor before you sign on the dotted line at the gym. Creating a customized fitness plan that includes preparation before you take your first lap around the circuit offers you a better chance of starting a successful program.

Maintaining a routine of chiropractic care while you train is more likely to keep your experience injury-free, as well. And if you do strain a muscle or incur pain in the shoulders, neck or knees, you can get it treated right away.

Remember that just because equipment is new and probably superior to the stationary bikes you rode in the ‘80s and ‘90s, you should still proceed with caution. The fitness industry moved forward while you sat out, so you’ll see how some things change, but in other ways history repeats itself. You probably won’t leaf through the Yellow Pages to find the newest gym, but you may find Arnold Schwarzenegger on the bench press when you get there.

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