Brad Gillingham is an experienced weightlifter. In fact, he's an International Power Lifting Federation world champion. His best lifts in competition have been 832 pounds in the squat, 611 pounds in the bench press, and 843 pounds in the deadlift.
But even a champion like Gillingham has to cope with injuries due to carelessness in the gym or slacking off on warm-ups. Last winter, for instance, he developed a strain in his lower back.
"One of the guys in the gym didn't put the weights away properly," he recalls. "As I came down from my lift I hit the loose weight and jarred my back."
Earlier, he developed a similar injury because he was in a hurry. "I've learned from my own mistakes," he says. "When you're running late, it's real easy to cut your warm-up time, and I've developed injuries when I didn't warm up properly."
Weight-Training Injuries on the Rise
The same principles apply just as much to everyday athletes who work out in the local gym or at home, says Chester S. Jones, PhD, associate professor of health sciences at the University of Arkansas in Fayetteville. In a review of data from U.S. emergency rooms, he found injuries from weight-training activities and equipment have increased 35% over a 20-year period. The hand was injured most often, followed by the upper trunk, head, lower trunk, and foot.
"A lot of these injuries are due to carelessness and lack of common sense," says Jones. "Many people are setting up exercise equipment in their homes, so they have to take responsibility for it."
His advice: Work out at a gym and get instructions on how to use the equipment from someone who's properly qualified. If you do decide to work out at home, take precautions: Wear gloves and shoes, he says. "It's amazing how many toe injuries we saw."
Jones and his co-authors learned children under 4 were three times more likely to be injured in the home than children 15 or older. "That means their parents have home gyms and children are exposed to their equipment. At a gym, staffers take responsibility for patrons' safety. When you have exercise equipment in your home, then you have to make sure your children can't get access to it."
Weight training is basically safe, Jones emphasizes, especially compared with other sports activities. "Previous research has indicated weight training can be beneficial in preventing osteoporosis, and it helps develop muscular strength and general health. When done correctly, following appropriate safety guidelines, weight training is a great activity."
Stick With the Basics: Proper Nutrition, Rest, Warm-up
The most important principles to prevent injury, Gillingham says, are proper nutrition, proper warm-up, and enough rest between workouts. "Whatever your personal goals are, you need a training plan so you have an idea what you're going to do when you go into the gym."
Paul Lauer, a certified personal trainer in New York City, suggests you work each muscle group once a week. That means you might do an upper body workout one day, then cardiovascular exercise the next day.
For someone who just wants to be in overall good shape, two weekly sessions with weights plus three days of cardiovascular exercise makes a good schedule, he says.
A substantial percentage of Lauer's clients seek him out for help in recovering from injuries due to improper weight-training methods and sports-related injuries. Though each person's workout depends on his or her specific situation and goals, a thorough warm-up is essential.
- Typically that might start with 10 minutes on a stationery bike.
- Then, if you're going to work a particular region of the body, stretch and warm that area.
When you work out with weights you need protein to rebuild muscle tissue, Gillingham and Lauer agree. Gillingham recommends supplemental protein powders. "Everyone's using them, and they're great in their place, but they don't replace protein from foods," Lauer warns.
If you haven't exercised in awhile and you're going to start weight training, start slowly, says Gerard Varlotta, DO. "We see lots of people who make a New Year's resolution to start exercising again. They think they can start at the same level they left off, and they forget they may be 20 years older now."
Notice whether you already have pain in any region, says Varlotta, a sports medicine rehabilitation physician at New York University Medical Center and the Rusk Institute in Manhattan. "You could reaggravate areas that have previously been injured or have some degeneration. Give it a try, but if you experience discomfort that doesn't go away with rest and over-the-counter anti-inflammatories, then consult someone about ways to modify the exercise."
As we age, all of us are likely to experience some degeneration in the joints, he notes. That doesn't mean we should stop exercising.
"Exercise actually is protective, but like anything else, too much isn't good," he says. "Start with light weights, use limited arcs that don't cause any pain, do a number of repetitions that doesn't cause any difficulty, and increase the exercise level slowly. You do want to take the muscle to fatigue; you don't want to go over the edge of the cliff."
If you run into any training-related problems, consult a specialist in the musculoskeletal system, Varlotta says. Ideally, look for a physiatrist or rehabilitation specialist with an interest in sports medicine. If none is available, look for an orthopaedist. A rheumatologist can also be helpful, particularly for tendinitis and arthritic problems.
"If you have some disposable income, consider working with an athletic trainer, so you can learn how to do the exercises in the right way and at the right level," he recommends.