Avoiding Injuries in Strength Training

Anyone who’s worked out consistently for long enough has no doubt had to deal with an injury at some point. Setbacks can be frustrating, but if you train hard, eventually some type of injury may be inevitable.

In spite of over two decades of strength training, however, I’ve been fortunate enough to avoid anything serious. The worst I’ve had to deal with was a strained rotator cuff, some mild tendinitis and a few cuts, scrapes and bruises (mostly from freerunning and parkour). If you train smart, you should be able to avoid any serious injuries as well.

Listen to Your Body

One of the most common questions I get asked is, “Is it okay to work out every day?” There is no universal answer that applies to everyone, as individual conditioning varies greatly from person to person. As a general rule, however, let your body rest if you feel sore, achy or tired. If you want to work out and you’re still sore from a previous session, you might take a day to focus on flexibility or work around your sore muscles using a split routine. Another option is to simply do a low-intensity active recovery workout.

You might not always like what it has to say, but listening to your body is the best way to avoid injury. When you have aches and pains, you need to back off. Pay attention to how your body responds to different training programs and act accordingly.

Balancing Act
It is important to make sure that your strength training routine doesn’t favor any one movement pattern too heavily. The phrase antagonistic balance refers to maintaining a healthy symmetry between opposing muscle groups. If your routine is all push-ups and no pull-ups, you’ll likely wind up with shoulder problems and poor posture. Likewise, neglecting your glutes, hamstrings and lower back can also lead to joint pain and postural issues. This is why deadlifts and/or back bridges should be a mainstay of any fitness regimen.

Gradual Progress
People who get injured in training usually do so because they attempted something far outside of their capabilities. While ambition is a great asset, you’ve got to be objective about what your body is realistically capable of handling. I’m all for pushing the boundaries of human performance, but you have to do so gradually!

Check out my master list of exercises to get an idea of how to progress intelligently in the world of bodyweight strength training. You’ll typically want to get to about 10 reps of a given exercise before moving on to harder progressions. For static holds (like planks and L-sits), aim for a 30 second hold or longer.

Live and Learn
Injuries may sometimes be unavoidable, but I believe we are all ultimately responsible for our own fate. Be smart, stay humble and pick yourself up when you fall. If you do get injured, perhaps you can learn from the experience and avoid repeating your mistakes. Remember, an expert is just a beginner who didn’t quit.

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  • http://twitter.com/amardpatel amar patel

    Good article. I hurt my MCL 1.5 years ago almost, and given the doctors diagnosis and how I was feeling I too eagerly returned to weight training a few months post injury without giving myself enough time to strengthen up.

    I’m still feeling the effects of that mistake unfortunately. But, I’ve certainly learned from my mistake. Gradual progress is key.

  • http://www.AlKavadlo.com/ Al Kavadlo

    Thanks for your comment, Amar.  Experience is always the best teacher.  You’ll come back and eventually be stronger than ever if you take your time.

  • Marc B

    Nice post Al with genuinely good
    advice. I work as a doctor in an Emergency Department over in the UK and see a
    lot of sports related injuries. Ankle, knee and shoulder seem to be the
    commonest. I also train in Brazilian Jiu Jitsu and have had my fair share of
    injuries too…

     

    I couldn’t agree more
    with your comments about listening to your body and training within your capabilities.
    I frequently see and treat injuries that have been caused by people simply
    working ‘outside their comfort zone’ or trying out a high impact exercise like squash after years of
    inactivity. 

    Keep up the good work!

  • Marc B

    Sorry about the weird spacing. Not sure what happened there

  • http://www.AlKavadlo.com/ Al Kavadlo

    Thanks for your comment, Marc!  No worries on the formatting.  It’s nice to get the endorsement of a medical professional! 

  • Daledykes

    Al -

    Interesting, your reference “deadlift and/or back-bridge.” As you probably know, one of th chief criticisms levied against bodyweight training is that you can’t replicate the deadlift with just your body. But I’ve noticed that gymnasts have HUGE traps and they don’t deadlift. But I bet they could lift a ton if they did.

    Presently, I’m performing shoulders-feet elevated unilateral hip thrusters … along with plenty of pullups and inverted rows. And I have to think I’m hitting all the ‘deadlifting muscles’ as a result.

  • Daledykes

    Al -

    Interesting, your reference “deadlift and/or back-bridge.” As you probably know, one of th chief criticisms levied against bodyweight training is that you can’t replicate the deadlift with just your body. But I’ve noticed that gymnasts have HUGE traps and they don’t deadlift. But I bet they could lift a ton if they did.

    Presently, I’m performing shoulders-feet elevated unilateral hip thrusters … along with plenty of pullups and inverted rows. And I have to think I’m hitting all the ‘deadlifting muscles’ as a result.

  • http://www.facebook.com/people/Evan-McGrath/1629450025 Evan McGrath

    I recently strained my rotator cuff, I’ve been doing some stabilizing exercises and stretches to remedy it, is their anything you could specifically recommend?  

  • http://www.AlKavadlo.com/ Al Kavadlo

    Deadlifts are one of my favorite exercises, but you can definitely hit every single muscle with bodyweight only.  As for your traps, handstands and handstand push-ups are great for them.  http://www.alkavadlo.com/2011/05/handstand-push-ups/

  • http://www.AlKavadlo.com/ Al Kavadlo

    Bummer about your rotator cuff, Evan – make sure you give it plenty of recovery.  I can’t really give you specific advice on your injury under these circumstances.  Try to find a physical therapist or trainer in your area who can work with you in person.

  • http://personaldevelopmentx.com Max Bronson

    Hi Al,
    I hurt my elbow about 6 weeks ago when I started doing negatives for pull ups. I can’t do a full pull up at my current bodyweight of 140 KGs. My elbow tendon became sore. I used an ice pack for the next two days and rested for a week. Now when I do negatives for pull ups, I no longer have the pain and I’m slowly getting stronger. I can take longer to lower myself. I’ll keep you updated and let you know the day I can do my first pull up.

  • http://www.AlKavadlo.com/ Al Kavadlo

    Glad you were smart enough to back off when your elbow started to hurt.  You probably need to drop some weight if you want to get better at pull-ups without overtaxing your joints.

  • Kevin G

    I messed up my rotator cuff too (tendonitis) from doing too much gymnast work too quickly. Some things that have helped me are light and easy one arm deadlifts (hand is normally in the neutral position, some days it feels better facing the anterior direction) lots and lots of rows (to the shoulder not to the hip), L-sits and curls, but those are all exercises specific to me. NEVER do any movement that causes pain, if it hurts, don’t do it.
    Also, something I’ve found very helpful is avoiding any ‘sensations’ during a movement. Basically if any type of signal comes up (slight pull, stretch, or discomfort) while doing a movement I’ll modify it in order to get rid of the sensation, which could be as easy as shortening the range of motion of the movement or changing my hand or feet position.
    *Note, I’m not a doctor or a physical therapist, just someone whose shoulder is also messed up and has been fixing it for about a month. So far pain is greatly reduced and nonexistent unless I move it in one of it’s still weak directions and the shoulder popping I used to have is completely gone. Message me if you want to talk more ideas for testing.

  • http://www.AlKavadlo.com/ Al Kavadlo

    Good advice, Kevin.  Thanks for sharing!

    Also check out this related post on pain and discomfort: http://www.alkavadlo.com/2010/05/pain-and-discomfort-knowing-the-difference/

  • http://www.facebook.com/people/Evan-McGrath/1629450025 Evan McGrath

    Thanks a lot for the advice guys, I’ve been doing these exercises I’ve found on the Global Bodyweight Training website http://www.globalbodyweighttraining.com/shoulder-rehab-exercises-for-better-bodyweight-training/ for shoulder impingement, it seems to have helped my mobility and posture.  I still get a decent amount of strain and discomfort, it’s interesting how you mentioned that you avoid doing any kind of exercise that causes discomfort as my physio exercises that were advised for me to do (not the ones from that link) are unavoidably painful.  My physiotherapist has implied that I suffered from a minor strain and not a tear or anything and that while it may be painful I need to stretch and strengthen that area.  So I just recently started training again avoiding exercises with a focus on my shoulders and anything that puts too much of a strain on the shoulder itself.  I just know how complicated the muscles and joint of the shoulder can be and am glad to absorb any fresh info that could help my situation :)
    Thanks again fellas!

  • http://www.AlKavadlo.com/ Al Kavadlo

    Right on, Evan – GBT is a great site! 

    It can be a delicate line between pain and discomfort, but if you don’t trust your physiotherapist, you might want to look for someone else.

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  • http://www.AlKavadlo.com/ Al Kavadlo

    Thanks, Kathryn!

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  • http://www.brightmedical.com/wound-care WOUND CARE SUPPLIES

    I have read and heard this from top athletes and bodybuilders. They
    claim we are better off doing partial squats or wall squats. Supposedly,
    leg extensions put a lot more pressure on the knee cap and meniscus. @MIKKY :)

  • http://ralphania.com/ ラルフローレン子供服

    Speaking true that after an injury, it is critical to give the body the time and treatment it needs to heal before returning to weight-training. This does not necessarily mean totally abandoning a strengthening workout. If shoulders are injured, for example, legs can still be worked safely, and vice versa.

  • Anonymous

    Are these exercises specific to hoopers because they strengthen the same muscles that we use in hooping, or balance us by strengthening the muscles we don’t work out by hooping, or both? Is the goal to improve performance or prevent injury? @EMMY

  • http://www.AlKavadlo.com/ Al Kavadlo

    This advice is applicable to anyone, regardless of what sport they might play.

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  • Michelvandenhoek

    My advice to you is to give bodyweight rows a try to train your back musculature. Hang two ropes from your pullup bar, about shoulder width apart from eachother.

    Grab the ropes and hang backwards, then pull yourself up by pulling the ropes. You can change the difficulty by changing the angle of your spine in relation to the floor. Parallel to the floor is high intensity while perpendicular to the floor is zero intensity.

    The same technique of changing the angle of your spine in relation to the floor can be used in pushups as well.

    This way you can do bodyweight exercises despite your high mass.
    Happy training!

  • Drizzt117

    Pain is a brilliant teacher, but injury stops progression!!

  • http://www.AlKavadlo.com/ Al Kavadlo

    Good point! Thanks for stopping by!