Fitness Articles

Avoiding Injury in the Weight Room

Don't Be the Biggest Dumbbell in the Gym!

Navigating your way around the weight room can sometimes feel like an obstacle course—especially if you are not familiar with the surroundings. You can easily injure yourself if you're not being careful or attentive. In probably the largest study ever performed on weight room injuries, University of Arkansas researchers looked at weight-training injuries over a 20-year period and found that:
  • The body parts most often injured in the weight room were the hands (23% of injuries) and the upper trunk (18% of injuries).
  • Soft tissue injuries (such as muscle pulls and strains) accounted for 64% of diagnosed exercise injuries
  • Forty percent of injuries occurred while exercising at home (and 18% at fitness centers).
Just as the manufacturing world works by the slogan that "Quality is job number one," safety should be your number one priority when you're at the gym. Strength training, like many actions in life, shares both risks and rewards. But you can keep the benefits and reduce your risk of injury by following these 10 safety tips for strength training.

Safety Tip #1: Always warm up.
Think of your muscles and connective tissues as cold rubber bands. If you were to pull hard on a cold rubber band, there is a good chance it will break, and your muscles are similar. A warm up serves to elevate your heart rate and increase blood flow throughout your body to prepare the muscles you are about to exercise. It should last about 5-10 minutes, at a low intensity that increases your breathing rate and makes you break a little sweat. Try to choose an activity that involves all muscle groups, like the rowing machine, elliptical trainer (with upper body handles) or power walking.

Safety Tip #2: Use machines first.
Some people believe that you are not really "strength training" until you graduate to the free weights. This is not true. Both machines and free weights have advantages and disadvantages, but the machines are the best starting point for beginners. When using a machine there's little to no chance that you'll drop a weight on yourself; it's simple to change your weight by moving the pin along the weight stack; and the machine ensures that your body is in proper position for good form and a lower risk of injury. Once you've trained with machines for a few weeks, you can gradually move up to free weights.

Safety Tip #3: Start with a light weight.
When starting a strength training program—or even trying a new exercise that you haven't done before—it's wise to select a lighter weight that you can lift comfortably. If your body is heaving, leaning or rocking for momentum to help you lift, or you can't lift the weight with proper, controlled form, then the weight is definitely too heavy and could injure your muscles or joints. It may take some trial and error if you're just starting out, but aim for a weight that you can lift for 12-15 repetitions in good form. Once you've mastered that weight, increase it by no more than 10% (5 more pounds if you started lifting 50 pounds) at your next session.

Safety Tip #4: Stretch between sets or exercises.
Trying to fit in the "trinity" of fitness (cardio, strength and flexibility training) can be tough when you're crunched for time. But all three components are important for a sound—and safe—workout program. Make the best use of your time though by stretching between sets or exercises. The downtime between sets should be about 1-2 minutes anyway, which is plenty of time for you to stretch the muscle group you are exercising. For example, if you are using the leg extension machine, you can stand and stretch your quadriceps between each set. This way when you finish your strength training you will have also completed your stretching, which also helps prevent injuries!

Safety Tip #5: Exercising opposing muscles equally.
Training every major muscle group is safe and desirable. We all have some muscle groups that we love to work on, and others that we tend to neglect. Don’t be guilty of working just the muscles that you see in the mirror (chest, shoulders, arms, and thighs). If you only work the front of the body, for example, this can create an imbalance that makes you more prone to both pain and injury. Training all muscle groups equally ensures symmetry (muscle balance) and safety. So make sure to target the opposing muscles too—biceps and triceps, chest and back, abdominals and lower back, and quadriceps and hamstrings, just to name a few.

Safety Tip #6: Mirrors are your friend.
Sometimes mirrors get a bad rap. No doubt they can be intimidating, but they also can be a great tool to ensure you are performing an exercise correctly. Sometimes looking in the mirror when using machines helps you see the weight stack as it descends (to prevent it from touching down between each rep). When using free weights, the mirror can be invaluable when checking your posture and body position during an exercise. You are not being vain by looking at yourself when you exercise! Just as a track athlete uses a stopwatch, a mirror can be a valuable tool when strength training—at home and the gym.

Safety Tip #7: Slow down.
The speed at which you lift weights is crucial. Look around your gym and you will see some poor examples of technique, mostly for the sake of lifting heavier weights than a person can handle. Heavy weights and fast, uncontrolled movement is an injury waiting to happen. When lifting weights, your movement should be slow and controlled—without momentum, swinging or swaying. Try to lift using a “2-4 count” instead, lowering the weight twice as slowly as you lift it. As you raise the weight, exhale and count "1…2." As you lower the weight, inhale and count "1…2…3…4." This ensures slow, steady movement, which minimizes your risk of injuries like muscle pulls and strains.

Safety Tip #8: Stop if it hurts.
No pain, no gain, right? Well, sort of. If you ever feel sudden pain during exercise, do not try and work through it. You are not a wimp for stopping, but wise to listen to your body’s warning that what you're doing is not good. But it's important to understand the difference between pain and fatigue, which is essential in strength training. Pain is a sharp feeling that you should stop. Fatigue is the "burn" that builds gradually when you're working against resistance to overload your muscles. The burn you feel after lifting 8-10 reps is fatigue, and that's a good thing!

Safety Tip #9: Keep your hands away from all moving parts.
You're most likely to injure your hands when lifting weights, so pay attention to where you're placing them. When working with weight machines, keep your fingers and hands away from any moving parts—especially the weight stack. If you need to adjust the weight or seat position, don’t do it on the fly. Take the time to stop and adjust safely. If using dumbbells or other free weights, make sure to use care when racking the plates and/or dumbbells. A moment of carelessness can cause weeks of pain and regret!

Safety Tip #10: Ask for help.
When all else fails, ask for directions! Don’t be embarrassed to ask for help. When I was a Wellness Director for the YMCA, I always worried about the member who never asked for help. Even if you have an orientation to the equipment, you probably will not remember everything. If so, ask questions! That is why fitness centers are staffed and why you pay membership dues. Also, don’t depend on watching someone else to determine how you should do something. Get help from certified trainer or qualified instructor. You can also get answers to your questions by posting on SparkPeople's Message Boards.

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Member Comments

  • "Sadly, the photo accompanying this article shows bad form. The guy has his knees bent more than a 90-degree angle, and they are past his toes. That puts undue pressure on the knee joints and can cause injury. - 6/22/2012 1:48:14 PM"

    Poppycock when a 300 plus pound sumo wrestler can go down his butt on his ankles without knee injury the whole 90 degree never past the toes mantra has no real substance. At 90degrees with your weight to the rear you place the maximum shearing stress on the knee joint. The current research has demonstrated the fault in stopping in that position.
  • I think that using a photo of one of the worst muscle imbalance exercises you can do negates the thrust of the article. When do you ever push weight using just your quadriceps muscles when you are seated?
    Very informative post and like to add to avoid exercise injury warm up and stretch before regular exercises and make sure you are hydrating before, during, and after your workout. Dress properly for your workout, always listen to your body and stop if it hurts.
    Most of this article is nothing more than common sense. If you're at the gym and are using weight machines - READ AND FOLLOW THE INSTRUCTIONS!!! It doesn't take a rocket scientist to figure out how the machines work.

    Sadly, the photo accompanying this article shows bad form. The guy has his knees bent more than a 90-degree angle, and they are past his toes. That puts undue pressure on the knee joints and can cause injury.
  • ... Okay, I understand advertising to pay for the site. Really, I do.

    But how do feminine hygeine products have ANYTHING to do with the underlined words? Please fire that marketing "genius".
  • Advocating machines, static stretching and tempo lifting?

    This is one of the worst articles I've ever read on this site. Yes, not crushing your hands under weights and not lifting more than you can safely and with good form will avoid injury. No kidding.

    There has been plenty of research done by folks with actual degrees that has shown static stretching may increase injury while weightlifting, speed of repetition is unimportant so long as proper form is maintained, and that some machines, especially the Smith machine and Leg Press can be dangerous to joints.
  • I never fail to hurt my ankle when I try to lift weights. Short of wearing ankle braces that never fit me right, I have yet to find anything that actually works to prevent MY ankles from being messed up.
  • Thanks...this was very informative.
  • My #1 tip for avoiding injury is to RESPECT THE WEIGHT. A weight is never safe until it is re-racked properly. Pay attention to form even when re-racking, returning the cable to the start, etc. 100% of my gym injuries have been from neglecting to follow this rule.
    I agree with BOB240. Almost all of the injuries and difficulties I've had in the weight room have related to using machines, not free weights (or bodyweight exercise). One of the worst culprits is the machine they use to illustrate this article. It's very easy to use this machine to lift more weight than your lower back can handle. My sister (an RN), my back doctor and my trainer all pointed to this machine as one of the primary sources of strain that led to two ruptured discs in my back. Frankly, most of the machines in the gym that are used for leg strength exercises are a problem. I think people are much better off learning how to do body weight exercises and exercises with free weights under the supervision of someone very knowledgeable, like a trainer.
  • The use of machines is dubious - many, such as Smith machines encourage bad form and have restricted movement which can lead to injury.

    Machines TEND to isolate small muscles muscles (exceptions being leg press, lats pulldowns) and mislead people as to what they are actually achieving. There is no point sitting on a biceps machine for hours doing bicep curls - biceps don't grow that way...

    First and foremost you need someone who knows what they are doing to teach you "form" on free weights. In particular, concentrating on compound movements with light weights. This is an efficient/quick and safe way to build whole body strength which in the long term will protect you from injury and improve your strength.
  • I think the biggest take away is don't be afraid to ask how to use equipment correctly. You will look more foolish using incorrectly than you will look asking how to use (not to mention the potential for injury). I've seen more men than women use equipment incorrectly. I always figured the men just thought they should just "know", so punted instead of asked. Every once in a while I will watch and think, "Wow, he is really going to hurt tomorrow."
  • This is helpful. Sometimes I rush my workout and miss some key steps (warm-up, stretching), but I will make a better effor moving forward.
  • Wonderful article, If I get a chance to go to a gym I will remember this article.

About The Author

Jason Anderson Jason Anderson
Jason loves to see people realize the benefits of a healthy, active lifestyle. He is a certified personal trainer and enjoys running races--from 5Ks to 50K ultramarathons. See all of Jason's articles.

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