By Linda Melone | Edited by Elena Doxey
You work hard to maintain a strong, well-toned body, but weightlifting can do more than help you look good. It increases cardiovascular health, improves conditioning, and can even increase workplace productivity.
There are, however, risks associated with using free weights and the amount of time you spend weightlifting. According to data sourced from the National Electronic Injury Surveillance System, there are an average of 49,246 weightlifting injuries per year.
Here are some important tips to keep in mind to reduce your risk of injury.
Use slow and controlled movements
Each exercise involves two phases: a concentric move (when the muscle contracts), and an eccentric move (as you return to the starting position), in which the muscle stretches.
It’s important to perform both parts of the movement in a slow and controlled manner in order to prevent a weightlifting injury. Be sure to perform the eccentric move slowly to help avoid snapping your joints, particularly when performing knee extensions (a popular leg machine) and overhead presses (a shoulder exercise). For proper timing, practice a two-second count on the concentric move and a four-second count on the eccentric move.
Train all your muscles, not just the ones you can see
Ignoring smaller muscles (such as those in the upper back) can increase the risk of injury. Experts suggest doing reverse flies – an exercise that strengthens the posterior shoulder muscles. Rotator cuff muscles stabilize the shoulder joint and benefit from a regular workout, which can help reduce the risk of weightlifting injuries.
Use correct form
Ask a qualified instructor or watch a video to learn the proper way to perform an exercise. It’s important to understand the movement and focus on the muscles you’re targeting. Quite often, several popular leg exercises have topped the list for being performed in poor form.
For example, squats, lunges and leg presses (machine) tone and strengthen the leg muscles and the glutes, and are therefore favorite exercises. Just be sure to keep your knees aligned (not turned in or out) when performing these moves to reduce your chance of injury. In addition, don’t use momentum to lift any weight – work the muscle instead.
And if lifting heavy degrees of weight, use a qualified spotter for overhead movements, such as bench and dumbbell presses.
Start out slow
Avoid doing too much too soon. Whether you’re just starting out or are returning to the gym after having taken a break, it’s best to start with lighter weights and work your way up to heavier ones. For optimal strength and muscle tone, the National Sports and Conditioning Association recommends using a weight you can lift for 12 repetitions.
The last few reps should be challenging but doable. Once you can easily perform 15 reps, increase the weight slightly – in increments of no more than 2 1/2 pounds for the upper body, or 5-to-10 pounds for the lower body – at a time.
Stretch after lifting
Stretch the muscles you have just worked, preferably while they’re still warm from your workout. The rule of thumb is to stretch slowly and carefully until you feel tension on the muscle. Hold for 10-to-20 seconds, and then slowly and carefully release it.
Do each stretch once – and never stretch to the point of pain. This should help gain more flexibility, and will decrease soreness and lactic acid buildup in muscles. Bouncing or “ballistic” stretching makes the muscle tighten up to protect itself, and may even lead to muscle tears, so avoid this practice at all costs.
Treat strained muscles immediately
If you feel you’ve strained a muscle, try resting first. Experts suggest you should continue with light activity to maintain range of motion, but avoid heavy lifting or strenuous exercise. Stretching and using creams that contain arnica and pain relievers may help. And be sure to apply either ice or heat. Ice decreases inflammation and soothes pain, while heat loosens ligaments and increases blood flow to an injured area.
Use your best judgement to determine which treatment feels best. And don’t forget about your joints. As we age, it’s important to support joints nutritionally by taking supplements that contain glucosamine, chondroitin, MSM, black cherry, and esterified fatty acid carbons.
Know when it’s time to see a doctor
Most weightlifting injuries do not require a visit to a doctor; however, one should seek medical attention in cases of a prolonged recovery from what you think is a ‘muscle strain.’ Some of the more serious injuries are usually obvious. They include severe pain, deformity, and loss of function or significant weakness, which can be seen in biceps tendon and pectoralis (chest) tendon ruptures.
If done properly, weightlifting is a great addition to any exercise routine. Following the important tips listed above will keep you feeling fit (as well as helping to stay off the injured list).
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