Injury Avoidance

By:  Doug Daniels

The unfortunate thing about powerlifting is that injuries sometimes may be easier to come by than strength increases.  Because of this, it's important that we train with injury avoidance in mind.  I didn't want to write an article that got too deep in physiological terms and the like.  Number one, I'm not a medical professional and number two, I never really got a lot out of knowing that my 'vastas internalis was suffering from acute microtrauma'.  That type of article has it's value, don't get me wrong, but I feel I can offer more to our readers by giving common sense information about how to avoid injuries. 

      Let's look at some common causes for injuries, many of which can be avoided or at least greatly reduced.  First is using improper form.  I know we authors harp on this time and time again, but there's a good reason for it.  Improper form is probably the number one reason for injuries.  There are two major reasons for improper form.  The first is not knowing how to perform the lift, and the second results from the lifters desire to use more weight or get more reps.

      Using proper form requires a high degree of discipline and courage.  The proper form for each of the powerlifts, or other weight exercises, must be performed on all reps of all sets.  Learn to execute the lift properly on the light sets so this form can be carried through to the heavy ones.  Don't just mindlessly proceed through your light or warm-up sets.  Feel the groove and concentrate on proper form.  For the squat, that means keeping your back flat and as erect as possible.  Keep the chest out and your elbows back.  For the bench, lower the bar in a controlled manner to the chest and press with power upwards.  The deadlift should be similar to the squat, back flat and erect, pulling with the legs as much a possible.  Obviously everyone cannot and should not perform the three powerlifts the same way.  Body structure and flexibility require each lifter to find their best technique.  Find a knowledgeable lifter for guidance and study other lifters and photos for more information.  Take videos of your lifting and either evaluate them yourself or again, ask someone knowledgeable for their opinion.

      There' a lot of pressure to always increase the weight or get one more rep each workout. Don't be overly concerned with always needing to add 5 pounds a week to your squat sets or getting 1 more rep to your bench.  If you even add 5 pounds monthly, that would add up to 60 pounds in a year and I'm sure just about everyone would be satisfied with that.  5 pounds a month may be a little optimistic, but if you think over a longer period of time, you will be less inclined to force progress before your body is ready for it.

      Too often to get that last rep the lifter may twist and bend during the lift and pull or tear something.  In order to get this last rep; the lifter uses sloppy form or another body part to move the weight. One important thing to remember is the relative amount of an increase.  For a 500 pound squatter, adding 5 pounds is much, much less than a 200 pound squatter adding 5 pounds.  By the same token, if you are doing low reps (1-5), an additional rep is much more than getting one more on a 10 rep set.  In the low rep scenario, there is less room for error.  This does not mean that higher rep, lower weight sets can be executed mindlessly, always concentrate at the task at hand.   Increase only when proper form can be achieved and maintained.  One workout resulting in an injury can have infinitely more impact than getting one more rep using precarious lifting form.  

      Along with bad form are ballistic movements or extreme extension during an exercise.  Ballistic movements occur when a lifter rebounds hard down on the bottom of an exercise, hoping that the momentum upward will give an extra boost to complete the rep.  Some lifters perform exercises such as leg presses or hacks by crashing down on the bottom.  What can result are extremely sore knees and a possible pulled groin, then they have to wear knee wraps during leg extensions because their knees are sore.  Seldom do they ever think why they're sore.

      Lifters abuse the bench press also.  Too many times in order to get that extra momentum to complete the rep; lifters drop the bar down hard on the chest.  This opens the lifter to possible rib cage injury.  This crashing down with the bar also may put the lifter in bad position for the push upwards and may cause muscle pulls elsewhere.  Muscle pulls can also occur when a lifter lifts or bridges his buttocks high off the bench in order to lift the weight.  I've seen some lifters bridge so high, you could almost drive a Ford Expedition under them.  Keep you buttocks in contact with the bench at all times and use your benching muscles to lift the bar, not your legs and hips.

      We always read that full extension and contraction are critical in getting max results.  Trouble can occur when a lifter stretches too far, too heavy, and too often on a muscle that is not strong or flexible enough to handle the stress.  I've caused myself pain by stretching my pecs and shoulders too far and too heavy on dips.  I agree a lifter should practice a full range of movement, but an exaggerated stretch is asking for trouble.  The best way is to control the weight down to a comfortable extension or stretch.  Make sure you get in a few warm-up sets with increasing range of movement as well as weight.  You can apply my suggestion to all your exercises remembering to lower the weight at a moderate speed in a controlled manner.

      Flexibility is crucial.  Flexible muscles and joints can be key to avoiding injuries. Unfortunately, many lifters shun working on flexibility thinking it's a waste of time. Not only can it decrease the incidence of injury, but also increased flexibility may allow a lifter to improve his lifting style and actually lift more weight! I would get a book on flexibility for specific exercises and techniques but be sure concentrate on your hamstrings and shoulders.

      Overtraining can't be overlooked as a cause of injuries.  In a quest for gaining size and strength, we sometimes will try to do too much.  Most lifters can take increased volumes of training for only so long.  When overtraining starts to set in, strength and energy levels start to tail off.  Aches and pains mount and our concentration lessens.  Thus, we're ripe for that good old injury bug-a-boo.  My suggestion is to follow some of the guidelines I have written about since I've been writing for PLUSA:

1. Train each power lift once a week.  You can gain this way.
2. Take a 1-week layoff from weight every 12-16 weeks or after a major meet.
3. Limit your amount of sets and reps as well as amount of exercises.
4. Don't use the same set/rep scheme for more than 4-6 weeks at a time.  That way you can't overstress your body on heavy weight and low reps for too long of a time.
5. Provide your body with the nutrition and rest it needs to recuperate from injuries and normal training.

      General physical and emotional well being can't be overlooked as a potential cause of injuries.  If you're under the weather physically, your strength and recuperative abilities will be sub-par.  Concentration levels will also be lower, so in this case, don't go heavy or perform any low rep sets.  Take a light or medium workout. Perhaps do some abs or calves to satisfy that urge to workout.  If you're really feeling out of it, consider skipping your workout altogether. One or two lost workouts will not have any significant effect on your strength levels, but one unfortunate session could end your career prematurely.  Take a step back and start up again with a short ease-in period following any minor illness.  Emotional well being can be considered in the same vain.  If you're going through a stressful situation at work or at home, you will not be able to put your full concentration and effort into your workout.  You're just asking for trouble due to sloppy execution of your exercises or not being mentally into your workout.  However, a good workout can be great medicine to get your mind off your problems and channel that energy towards a productive goal.  But again, I suggest taking it easy on the weights.  Lower your intensity level back a bit and live to lift another day.

      If you ever are in doubt about an injury or pain, seek medical attention before you resume training.  Aches and pains are intrinsic to powerlifting; you must listen to your body and learn to tell the difference between minor pains and more severe pains that require a trip to the doctor.  I have also found that though doctors are skilled in their field, it's best to consult a sports medicine doctor if you can find one.  Most regular doctors are not knowledgeable enough about weight training to guide the lifter back into resuming training again if and when the injury allows it.  The answer may be to give up weights or other sport activities altogether.  I've gotten the old 'take up swimming' suggestion before as, I'm sure, some of you have.  That sometimes may be the only recourse, but if a doctor has a sufficient sports medicine background, he can be more sympathetic as well as knowledgeable. Use good form and common sense in your training and get adequate rest and nutrition.  Injuries still may occur, but you can lessen their frequency and severity. Injury avoidance should be an integral part of your training regimen.

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Reproduction of this article, in whole or part, for any purposed other than personal use is prohibited without written consent. Copyright 1998 Doug Daniels.