As it turns out, the athletes, fitness trainers, instructors and gurus we idolize and attempt to emulate in the gym don’t just work incredibly hard on perfecting their physique, they also put serious effort towards not getting injured. They know that building muscle and endurance takes time, and that, if you get injured, you’re out for the count until you’re fully healed, which sets you back in training.
To help you get the most out of your fitness regimen, we asked these top trainers and athletes to share their best-kept secrets for preventing injury.
Too often, people jump into a fitness program going 100 mph right off the bat—either because they want to fit in with other folks in the class who are moving at a higher pace or so they can achieve more immediate results. Not a smart idea, experts say. “When we work out, our heart, lungs, muscles, brain, kidneys, skin, face, joints and entire body have to go into a different state of energy use,” explains Ben Boudro, C.S.C.S., owner of Xceleration Fitness in Auburn Hills, Mich. “Muscle that isn’t use to moving a certain way is breaking down and your body can’t keep up, which leads to injury.”
The best approach is easing into it at your own pace and taking your time. It can’t all happen at once, so go slow the first few times until you find your groove. Your chances of injury will go way down.
For any activity that stresses the muscles, a proper warm-up is essential to prepare your body for what it’s about to undergo. “Warming up increases blood flow to the extremities you will be using during your exercise,” says Gary Guerriero, physical therapist and co-owner of U.S. Athletic Training. “This blood flow increases soft tissue mobility and the firing pattern of the musculature, or the arrangement of muscles in your body.” One of the most important, and often overlooked, parts of your warm up is stretching, an essential ingredient when people are building mass and strength that allows for normal range of motion, proper alignment and body mechanics.
Building lasting strength has to be done in a measured and purposeful way, meaning you have to acquire your baseline to move forward and handle more advanced exercises. This is why training variables become very important as you progress. “Three key variables to keep in mind are frequency (the number of reps), intensity (the resistance or poundage) and duration (the number of sets),” says Guerriero. “If you run, the frequency would be the mileage, the intensity would be the speed, and the duration would be the number of workouts per week,” says Guerriero. Trying to increase too many variables too quickly is a sure way to find yourself out for weeks—or months—with an exercise injury.
Our body is made primarily of water, which helps carry nutrients, electrolytes and virtually every other substance in your body to your muscles and organs. While it’s important for our day-to-day functioning, it’s particularly essential during a workout, when our heart rate increases and our muscles require more blood and oxygen. “When we stretch, our muscles are basically ringing out all of the impurities from the food and liquid we eat and drink,” says Boudro. “But if we’re dehydrated, our muscles and joints will stiffen up, preventing us from experiencing that gliding effect where we feel limber and mobile.” The American College of Sports Medicine recommends drinking at least 16-20 fluid ounces of water or sports beverage at least four few hours before an exercise, 3-8 fluid ounces every 15-20 minutes during an exercise that lasts less than 60 minutes and 3-8 fluid ounces after exercise. This helps aid in the prevention of injury and weight loss during the exercise and changes in electrolyte level, which could ultimately affect performance.
There might never be a Magic Bullet in the health and fitness world, so foam rolling and other self-myofascial release tools might be the closest thing. “While getting a massage every day sounds amazing, it probably won’t fit into most people’s budget, which is why foam rolling is often referred to as ‘the poor man’s massage,’” says Mike Deibler, professional running coach and owner of San Diego Premier Training in Carlsbad, Calif. “It improves muscle tissue quality, blood and water flow in the muscle and fascia and decreases stress on joints, meaning it allows the muscle to move through ranges of motion.”
While you can roll just about any muscle, start by focusing on the muscles surrounding the joints you’re most concerned about.
“Weekly changes in your exercise routine are beneficial in allowing your muscles to contract in different positions,” says Drew Morcos, physical therapist and founder of MOTUS, a functional movement approach to clinical rehabilitation. In addition to preventing injury and challenging your body in different ways, switching up your aerobic activity level is good for your cardiovascular system. For example, if you’re trying to shed weight with treadmill workouts, it’s a good idea to mix other endurance activities into your regimen, such as a HIIT class at the gym or incorporating plyometrics into your routine to get your heart rate up. Or, simply add to, or enhance, your “traditional” exercises and movements to make them more dynamic and applicable to daily living. “Instead of just doing an in-place lunge that you did the day before, try doing a lunge with an added rotation element, [like a wood chop exercise] while adding a dumbbell weight in-hand,” suggests Abby Kramer, D.C., chiropractor and holistic physician in Glenview, Ill. “This not only works the lower body, but the upper body as well as stabilizing the core.”
When you’re exhausted from the work week and the seemingly endless to-do list that’s piling up on your smartphone, it can be tempting to take shortcuts during your workout. But experts say this is one of the easiest ways to acquire an exercise injury. “If you’re executing a squat, for instance, and your knees are constantly falling over your toes, you’re putting added strain on your knees, which can lead to knee pain or injury,” explains Los Angeles-based celebrity trainer Elizabeth Foster. “I’m constantly correcting knee issues with my clients, so I remind them anytime I see those knees traveling a little too far forward.” If you’re attempting to try a new move or exercise, do a little research to make sure you’re executing the move correctly. If you can’t afford a trainer, ask one to watch you do a few reps. Many will be happy to assist you and monitor your form.
It might be tempting, but try not to use a weight or machine that’s too advanced or heavy for you, as lower back or arm pain is likely to follow. “Doing a strength exercise improperly can cause strains, pulls and even breaks,” says Chicago-area based NASM Personal Trainer Meghan Kennihan, USATF Run Coach. “Endurance activities, such as running, biking and swimming, also have simple, but essential, techniques. If you don’t learn from them, you’ll eventually be on the sidelines.” Improper shoes for runners also cause injuries, so be sure to do your research and speak with professionals who can help ensure you’re wearing the right equipment.
While muscle soreness after a high-intensity exercise is normal, constantly feeling sore is not. “If working out is a painful experience, you’re not only doing the exercise wrong, but you’re also going to burn out or quit,” says Kennihan. Rather than push your body into pain, thinking you’re going to gain, use proper technique and be patient” Getting stronger takes time and you certainly won’t achieve these goals if you’re injured. If something hurts (even if it’s just for a day) avoid training that area or apply some corrective exercises beforehand. “Your body will key you into what’s going on, so it’s important to listen to those cues so to avoid further injury,” says Foster.