We all know that physical activity improves health and helps prevent chronic diseases, and there are more awareness events being held to boost its practice. Weight training has been gaining popularity and, despite studies suggesting that their frequency is inferior to that of team sports, the truth is that, as with every form of physical activity, injuries happen, too. The truth is that there is nothing intrinsically unsafe about weight machines or weights. What you do with them is what can leave you with an injury! And since injuries are the last thing anyone would want, let’s see the fundamental aspects of preventing it.
1. Go for a good warm-up
While the timing of a meal or the last 5 minutes of the workout are situations that can be changed or dismissed when it is strictly necessary, disregarding a proper warm-up should not be an option! Warming up prevents injury in many ways: it increases not only circulation and blood flow, raising the body’s temperature, but also the flexibility of the muscles, making the body less prone to injury and more resistant to weights. Furthermore, a proper 10-minute warm-up routine increases the production of synovial liquid by the synovial membranes (the tissue that coats the joints) by up to 13%, which lubricates and feeds the articular cartilage.
Besides preparing the body for the metabolic stress of the workout and to be able to perform the movements in a more natural way, a proper warm-up also brings mental benefits and allows you to get “in the zone”. Being focused when working out is a criterion for performance and safety! Before starting off the workout, besides doing dynamic stretching, we should spend at least five to ten minutes performing an aerobic activity consisting of exercises that activate every joint and connective tissue that are going to be engaged during the workout.
While the rowing machine or the cross trainer machine simultaneously work the upper and lower limbs, other machines, such as the treadmill for walking or jogging, the Stairmaster, or the bicycle, work mostly the lower part of your body. Therefore, to ensure that the upper part of the body also warms up with these three last examples, you should move your arms vigorously and in different directions!
2. Start off with light weights
We often see people coming to the gym and immediately start off with their routine exercises, with heavy weights and no warm-up. “I don’t want to waste time” or “I don’t need that” are some of their excuses. Starting right away with heavy loads is an irresponsible attitude, because not only it increases the risk of losing control of the movement and hurt oneself, stretching too much the muscles (or even crushing the fingers or joints!), as well as putting other people that might be close at risk.
Before beginning the working sets of the first exercise of the workout plan, we should perform warm-up sets, which consist of 1-2 sets of 8-12 repetitions of the same exercise, but with no weights or with a light load, as a rehearsal for “activating” the respective muscles. This allows the activation of the neural path that connects the Nervous Central System to the muscles, which aid in motor coordination and mind-muscle connection, contributing to keeping you focused throughout the session. It further allows the oxygen to pass more easily from the bloodstream to specific muscles so that later you can mobilise muscle glycogen more efficiently.
3. Proper breathing control
Breathing is often the more neglected and least understood component during the workout. Naturally, when you lift weights, your blood pressure increases exponentially, but temporarily. If we add sustaining the breath during the execution of the exercise, the pressure inside the thoracic cavity will increase, which will consequently raise blood pressure even more. Nonetheless, this has the disadvantage of hindering blood circulation in the muscles and overloading the heart; moreover, when we finish the exercise, stop sustaining our breath and breathe in, the muscles will finally relax, the blood will start flowing again and the blood pressure drops. This sudden drop may cause syncope (loss of conscience) and make us drop the weights and, consequently, hurt ourselves.
The most effective way of breathing during the workout is performing the exercise movement with the same speed of our breathing. You should breathe out when you lift the weight (concentric stage) and breathe in when you go back to the initial position (eccentric stage), without holding your breath at any time. This way, you can better control the variations in blood pressure and avoid undesirable and dangerous situations.
4. Employ proper technique
When we perform a given exercise, the main goal should be to adjust our body to the movement, that is, to establish the proper balance and form of a given exercise. Studies indicate that shoulders, elbows, knees, hands, and wrists, as well as the lumbar region, are the more frequently injured areas, and thus, before increasing the weight, it is essential to have a good execution technique so that you don’t create harmful tensions on any joint or muscle.
A poor technique should be corrected right from the start, not only to immediately reduce the probability of causing injury but also to prevent the creation of incorrect routines — and all of us know that old habits die hard! As a general rule, we can say that, for a proper execution:
- The movement should be controlled, with no impulses, favouring the eccentric movements (if you want to learn more about the types of movement, click here);
- You should focus on a proper mind-muscle connection;
- You should perform complete ranges of motions to avoid muscle shortenings and imbalances;
- You shouldn’t lock/block the joints with complete extensions (for instance, you shouldn’t completely extend the elbows when you train the triceps);
- You should maintain a proper form throughout the execution of the exercises, from when you grab the weight (for example, when you lift a weight from the floor, you should do it by bending your knees, avoiding leaning your back forward and causing unnecessary strain on the spine) to when you put the weight on the ground (you shouldn’t “drop” the weights!) — crush injuries caused by falling weights are the most common in weight training!
5. Cool down
In addition to a proper warm-up, it is important to finish the workout with some minutes of slow pace aerobic training, to help relax and reduce the tension in the muscles. This allows the heart rate, respiratory frequency and blood pressure to return to their initial values and avoids eventual dizziness and drops in blood pressure that might occur when we abruptly stop after finishing an exercise, especially in people suffering from hypertension or heart problems. Although stretching after the workout does not produce relevant reductions in Delayed Onset Muscle Soreness (DOMS), finishing with 15-to-30-second static stretches, for 2 to 4 repetitions, may help relax and allows a better flexibility.
6. Rest, eat, hydrate!
Although the stimulus to increase the size and strength of a muscle goes through exercise, only with proper rest and nutrition is the body able to recover the energy and the lost fibres, also adding new fibres and developing strength and muscle mass. The recovery of a muscle may take up to 72 hours, depending on variables such as age, genetics, fitness level and trained muscles. Ignoring the necessary time to recover may lead to injury, and even to muscle tear, so listen to your body and plan to have rest days for a proper recovery. Also, keep in mind that sleeping 7-8h a day is themes effective way to recover physically and psychologically! Another fundamental factor is diet, because the glycogen stores get low with training. You should go on a proper diet to help your body recover, repair the tissues and get stronger.
Hydration is equally fundamental when we work out because we lose a lot of fluid through sweat, in an attempt of our body to keep a temperature of about 37oC. After 1 hour of exercise, our body ends up losing more water than that we are able to produce; and if the body is dehydrated, training performance will decrease— an dehydration eventually harms our health. As a general rule, we should drink about 0.5L of water before starting the workout and 200 ml of water per every 20 minutes of training, but these numbers vary according to each person’s body weight. We cannot rule ourselves by the thirst sensation because when it occurs, we are already dehydrated! Proper hydration helps control tiredness, reduces the risk of having muscle cramps and promoter blood circulation, glycogen transport to cells and toxin elimination.
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