How to Avoid Lifting Injuries
By Chris Manrodt

Are you just getting started in Powerlifting? Have you heard about lifting but aren't sure what it really is? Are you interested in playing a sport, but need to get bigger, stronger, or both to crack the starting line-up? This section of the Strength On-line Page is devoted to helping the beginner. A lot of the lifting information out there is written for folks who compete regularly in Powerlifting meets, or who have a several years of lifting experience. I will attempt to make this column humorous and interesting as I try to shed light on the basics of successful, injury free lifting.

The number one reason for powerlifters leaving the sport is injury. The reality is that if you compete, then somewhere along the line, you are likely to be faced with some kind of lifting injury. That’s the bad news. The good news is that the vast majority of injuries can be avoided. Most seasoned lifters know how to avoid injuries by “listening to their body.” This is a nice way of saying, “I used trial and error, and now I know not to do certain things.” I’d like to use this space to share insight on how the beginning lifter can avoid some of the common injuries that occur in the iron game.

How did this happen?
At the moment that the pain begins to subside after injuring one’s body, the analysis of the cause begins. Many will point to the simple: “You were squatting. Squats will get you hurt.” 

Others will point to the stupid: “You used free weights. If you had used a machine, this wouldn’t have happened.”

Still others point to the age-old remedy: “Don’t lift. Just go running instead.”

Please, do not heed these well-meaning advisors. Instead, look back at your training log, and review your last few workouts. Yes, that’s plural “WorkoutS.” 

You may be thinking, “I felt my shoulder while I was benching. Doesn’t that mean it was caused by the bench press?” Well, not necessarily. Injuries to muscles and joints occur because of a stressor that the body can’t quite handle (at that time.) The stressor may have occurred during some other movement, but then manifested itself during a later exercise, or after your workout, or maybe even the next day. 

So, how can you tell when it occurred?
Here are a couple of common scenarios that can cause muscle injuries:
An unintended static contraction: A lot of injuries occur to muscles when they are not the prime movers in the lift. For example, you may be seated at a chest-supported rowing machine, and you are pulling away with your arms and lats, when suddenly a sharp pain shoots through your lower back. This happened to me some time ago, and it was caused by the fact that I was pushing with my legs and flexing the lower back muscles against the chest support of the machine. Because I was focusing on my arms and lats, I didn’t even realize I was doing it. It didn’t help me move the weight in the rows, but it made my lumbars contract with maximal force against an immovable object. I had hurt myself twice in one year this way, until one time I pushed so hard with my legs that the whole apparatus slid across the rubberized flooring. Then it hit me what I was doing.

Another common example of static contraction is the shoulders in the squat. When the bar is placed across the back, you instinctively push against it with your arms. Obviously, you can squat more than you can press behind the neck (I hope!) So, you may be doing a maximum effort static contraction with your shoulders in a protracted position, unless you consciously remember to not push with your arms. I have found that sometimes I have to cut short a set of high rep squats because my shoulders are burning so bad, or I get a muscle spasm in one of my delts. I have solved this problem by gripping the bar wider, and not as tightly.

Overuse: Many times, an injury is not the result of a single repetition, but as a result of the hundreds of reps before it. By training a muscle, you are causing the muscle fibers to break down, thus forcing them to rebuild stronger. If you break down too many muscle fibers, and they are not able to recover, then the muscle is unable to meet the demands that you are placing on it. Training squats and dead lifts every week, then training assistance movements for the lower back after both lifts causes many lower back injuries. Then they lift with increasing intensity each week. Eventually, the back is trained on a heavy load without adequate recovery, and bang!! You can barely get out of bed.

How to avoid overuse injuries: For one thing, don’t go nuts!! If you are a beginner, you don’t have to go to failure on every set. In fact, you may not need to go to failure on any sets. Second, change your routine periodically, so that you are not placing the same stress on the body every week. Slight variations to movements can cause the body to adapt and recover much better. Third, if you are still sore from your last workout when you try to hit the same muscles again, your training volume may be too high. 

And most importantly, you must get adequate recovery between workouts. That means getting enough sleep, eating enough protein, and enough total calories. And it means taking it easy when life gets stressful. Major stress events like arguments, traffic accidents, and major life events like marriages, graduations, funerals, et cetera, cause physiologic changes that reduce your ability to heal from workouts. If stuff is going on in your life like this, you may not want to go for that extra set of hyperextensions.
Where am I most likely to get hurt?
Without a doubt, the most common muscle injuries from powerlifting occur to the shoulders and lower back. The shoulders are made up of a complicated network of small muscles. These muscles must work together to provide the range of motions that we have with our arms. And in general, these muscles are not very strong individually. The best ways to avoid shoulder injuries is to try and hit the shoulders from as many angles as possible, using light weights, as in 10 pounds or less to start.
You should also avoid putting your shoulders in a vulnerable position. Let me illustrate. Put your arm down at your side. Now raise it about 45 degrees to the side, and then move it back and forth, like if you were walking. Now put your arm at 90 degrees and do the same. Now raise it another 45 degrees higher and repeat. The difference you feel is the relative flexion of the shoulder joint, and the shoulder muscles being placed at a disadvantage due to the angle of force. 

So, how do we avoid this in lifting? When doing movements like lateral raises or flyes, try not to exaggerate the movement. In fact, I never raise my arms above horizontal when I do lateral raises. I also avoid flyes altogether. 

The other place you need to be careful is when doing rows and pull downs. Depending on your shoulder flexibility and strength, the stretch position of the row can put your shoulder in a compromised position, especially as you increase the weight. You may need to experiment with how far you can let the weight move away before pulling it back in again. This point may change as the weights increase, so be careful.

The other source of many muscle injuries is in the lower back. I already talked about over-use, but another cause is bad form. If you arch your back when you do heavy squats, the lower back is protected. When your back starts to bow, you increase the stress on it. The same goes for dead lifts. You can also have bad form with other exercises. I can’t tell you how many times I have seen a guy use too much weight for standing bar bell curls, then jerk the weight up, and then grab their lower back when they are done. 

To summarize, there are really three major reasons for injuring a muscle: over-use, poor exercise form, and ego. In order to avoid muscle injuries, you must realize the limitations of your body, and not exceed them beyond what you are capable of. Lifting is all about pushing those limits, but that means being smart about it.

I realize that I have not talked about major injuries like muscle tears or joint problems, but those are really topics for a qualified medical professional.

What if I do hurt myself?
In my experience, the best medicine for a muscle twinge or pain is to ice it as soon as it happens, unless you don’t feel it until the next day. I have also found that stretching really helps, too. Stretching helps to improve blood flow and that can accelerate healing. If the muscle area starts to look like it has a big bruise, or if your range of motion is impeded, than you probably want to talk to a medical professional.

For more information on getting started check out the archives section here on Strength Online or drop by the Q&A forums.

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        prohibited without written consent. Copyright 1999 Chris Manrodt.