By Brian Grant PT, DPT, CSCS

When it comes to building size and strength, there are several boxes needing checked to make these goals a reality. Researchers, coaches and athletes spend their entire careers searching for answers to questions like these: Which exercises are best? What is the best workout split? And perhaps above all else, how important is…cardio?

If questions like these keep you up at night, kudos. Clearly, you demonstrate a superior willingness to learn and apply what it takes to gain size and strength. That said, there is one variable that can make each of these questions moot—a single boogeyman haunting your aesthetic aspirations. That is, of course, injury.

Injury can render you ineffectual at the gym for days, weeks or even months. Certainly, injury cannot be eliminated altogether, but you can mitigate the chances of getting hurt initially or expedite the recovery process if injury should occur.


Weight training is already on the lower end of injury occurrence when compared with common team sports such as basketball or football.[1] Further, conventional hypertrophy-style and power lifting training is at the lower end of this lower end, incurring less injury than sports like strongman. The odds are already in your favor.

However unlikely, preventing injury requires a plan. As a physical therapist and weightlifter, these plans are what I do. Though it would be impractical to regale dozens of specific injuries and how to avoid them, there are certain actionable principles you may add to your training that can keep your body feeling both strong and functional.

3 Tips to Avoid Exercise & Workout Injuries

1. Warm-Up Intentionally

Everyone you’ve ever met would agree that warming up is important. Not only does warming up reduce the risk of injury by lubricating joints and increasing blood flow, but it also allows for increased force development, strength and power. Not to mention the mind is able to mentally prepare for intense exercise.[2] An appropriate warm-up is more than a few minutes on the stationary bike though. It includes three distinct facets.

  • Begin with light cardio or plyometrics

Increasing the heart rate to triple digits is the first step in warming up well. This may be accomplished in as few as 3-4 minutes, but breaking a slight sweat will make the remaining warm-up more efficacious. This portion may include exercises like jumping rope, climbing stairs or even walking on an incline.

  • Resist all three planes of motion in some form

As lifters, we live in the sagittal plane of motion. The sagittal plane includes movement you might refer to as “forward and backward.” Deadlifts, biceps curls and even sprinting are all examples of sagittal plane motion. However, lifters should be competent in moving and loading in what we call the frontal (side-to-side) and transverse (twisting) planes of motion as well. Examples of this might include lateral step-ups, diagonal lunges and the pallof press.

 

  • Finish with lift-specific movement

There’s an old adage: “The best warm-up for squats is to squat.” It’s tough to argue with that logic. Finishing your warm-up with technique practice that is significantly sub-maximal in terms of load. This primes the body and brain to begin your first working set.


2. Listen to Your Body

The human brain is a fascinating piece of machinery. Sifting through thousands of bodily messages each and every second, the brain is hardwired to keep us surviving and thriving. As such, it’s pretty attuned to perceive mental, emotional or physical threats. For the purposes of this article, the lattermost threat is of top priority (though getting injured under the barbell does induce a certain emotional turmoil).

Pain is useful in that it’s the first alert that something is wrong. No, this does not mean every bump and bruise requires you to pack up and head home for your protein shake. However, when “bad pain,” as opposed to the “good pain” us lifters know and love, presents itself, run through this checklist.

  • Check your form on a given exercise

Inadequate form can stress tissues in ways they are not meant to be stressed and thus cause pain. If this doesn’t do the trick…

  • Modestly lighten the load or shorten the range of motion

This checkbox mostly applies to heavier, compound lifts such as the squat. For instance, if performing a full-depth squat with 300 pounds on your back is causing low back pain, consider either performing partial squats or dropping down to 250 pounds for longer sets. If this doesn’t do the trick.

  • Try again another day.

Though this is not the sexiest of all scenarios, you will save yourself time, effort and gains by simply holding off on this painful exercise for a few days before attempting it again.


3. Go to Failure

Everyone enjoys taking sets to muscular failure, right? Right? Of course we do, and after all, why shouldn’t we? When performed correctly, squeezing out each and every rep on a given exercise is both rewarding and in some cases, necessary for optimal gains in size and strength.[3] However, when it comes to preventing injury, avoiding unnecessary failure is vital.

Unnecessary failure refers to two different things:
  • Going to failure far too often
  • Going past technical failure

What Does "Going to Failure Too Often" Mean?

The first definition is self-explanatory. Training to muscular failure is fine provided it isn’t done all too often. It should be used strategically and also sparingly, most often with isolation exercises and near the end of your workout.

What Does "Going Past Technical Failure" Mean?

The second definition is easy to understand but difficult to realistically adhere to. Technical failure refers to the point at which your exercise mechanics begin to deviate in order to produce additional reps. Though tempting, when your exercise mechanics break down, your body is put at a markedly greater risk of injury. Everyone knows the person whose dumbbell curls turn into a pseudo-kettlebell swing. Physical stress is no longer being placed on the working muscle or muscles, but instead, the connective tissues take a beating.

Do yourself this favor, and be your own critic. Your body will thank you for it.

References

1. Keogh, J. W., & Winwood, P. W. (2017). The epidemiology of injuries across the weight-training sports. Sports medicine, 47(3), 479-501.

2. Haff, G., & Triplett, N. T. (2016). Essentials of strength training and conditioning (4th ed.). Champaign, IL: Human Kinetics.

3. Schoenfeld, B. J., Grgic, J., Ogborn, D., & Krieger, J. W. (2017). Strength and hypertrophy adaptations between low-vs. high-load resistance training: a systematic review and meta-analysis. The Journal of Strength & Conditioning Research, 31(12), 3508-3523.