5 Tips for Avoiding Common Strength Training Injuries
Follow these guidelines to prevent aches and pains from interfering with your workout routine.
When you’re on a workout streak, the last thing you want is an aching lower back or tweaked elbow derailing your fitness routine. But even as you’re increasing the demands on your body, there are steps you can take to avoid common resistance training injuries.
Overall, strength training is quite safe. “Strength training and particularly traditional or Tonal-type strength training has a relatively low injury rate compared to many other types of physical activity,” says Troy Taylor, Tonal’s Senior Director of Performance. Traditional strength training actually has a lower risk of injury than team sports, multiple reviews of studies have found.
When injuries do occur during resistance training, they’re most commonly found in the shoulders, lower back, elbows, and knees, in the form of sprains, strains, and tendonitis. “Joints that have lots of degrees of freedom have a little bit more vulnerability to injury, because of their large range of motion,” says certified personal trainer and Tonal coach Tim Landicho.
Strength training injuries break down into two categories: acute injuries that occur suddenly because of an awkward movement or poor mechanics; and chronic, or overuse, injuries that come on gradually after frequent, repeated movements. Both types of injuries differ from your standard post-workout muscle soreness which usually peaks within 48 hours after exercise.
If you experience a strength training injury, you should consult with a physical therapist or other medical professional for a diagnosis and treatment plan that’ll get you back to your workouts. But to reduce your risk of getting hurt in the first place, follow these tips outlined by Taylor and Landicho.
1. Watch Your Form
“Technique is very important,” says Taylor. This doesn’t mean your form needs to be perfect for every rep, but you should be lifting with foundational movement competency—meaning your form should be locked in before you load on the resistance, he says. If you’re just starting out, try a session with a personal trainer or a beginner-level program (such as Strength Basics for Beginners with Coach Joe Rodonis) to get familiar with the basics of classic lifts including squats, deadlifts, bench presses, and rows.
Using Tonal features such as Form Feedback and Smart View will also give you tips to improve your form in real-time. “If you’re getting tons of form feedback, that might be a good cue to turn on Recovery Weight, which reduces the amount of weight you’re lifting, to work on that technical pattern,” says Taylor.
2. Lift With Control
Faster isn’t always better when it comes to lifting. Going for quick reps over quality ones can increase your injury risk. You should always aim to lift with control, Taylor says—even if you need to drop the resistance—so you aren’t jerking the weight around (which increases your injury risk). It’s easier to control your form when you’re moving slowly, as relying on momentum to move quickly can mask poor form, Landicho adds.
Even better: Slowing down your reps increases time under tension, allowing your muscles to accumulate more mechanical tension that stimulates hypertrophy, or muscle growth. “Not only does [lifting with control] reduce the risk of injury, if you’re trying to build muscle, it arguably makes your workout more effective,” says Taylor.
3. Add Mobility and Prehab Training
Often, proper form is limited by a lack of mobility. “People have a lot of underlying dysfunction from desk jobs and sitting around,” says Taylor—and you’ll only exacerbate your injury risk by adding weight to an already dysfunctional movement pattern. Mobility sessions help you access a larger range of motion, which will increase the amount of control you have moving within that range. Being able to control your movement through every part of the lift allows you to safely add more load or perform more reps with better form. Tonal offers mobility sessions for specific joints as well as full-body sessions, such as All-Over Mobility Flow with Coach Kendall “Woody” Wood.
Along with mobility, you can also supplement your lifting with “prehab” exercises, or exercises that promote healthy movement patterns to prevent strength training injuries. The specific type of prehab you do will depend on your personal limitations, weaknesses, and movement tendencies. As a starting point, try the full-body “world’s greatest stretch,” which Landicho recommends because it addresses many major joints at once. “In addition to being a great warm-up move, it can also be a useful assessment to notice which areas are lacking mobility or control so that further work can be done for those areas,” he says.
For more focused prehab, Landicho suggests focusing on your core and posterior chain. Those two categories are responsible for strengthening the relationship between the ribcage and pelvis,” he says. “Without the ribcage-pelvis foundation in place, we have a decreased return on investment from the other mobility and stability work that we do.” To strengthen the core, he recommends planks, dead bugs, and hollow holds, while his top posterior chain moves include glute bridges, single-leg glute bridges, and hamstring walkouts.
4. Increase Resistance Gradually
Lifting too much too soon, in terms of resistance or overall volume, is a common cause of injury. “At a high level, injury occurs when the stress or demand placed on your body exceeds what it’s capable of,” says Landicho. If you dramatically increase the amount of weight you’re lifting in a given exercise—or go back to your old weights after a long break—you’re more likely to compromise your form. “Under fatigue, you get technical breakdown which causes injuries,” says Taylor.
To avoid drastic spikes in intensity or volume, make sure your training follows the principle of progressive overload, which calls for gradually and methodically increasing training stress over time. As a general rule, Taylor suggests increasing your training volume by no more than 10 percent per week and adding a deload week every four to 12 weeks to give your body time to recover. This type of focused training drives adaptation without putting you at risk for injuries. Instead of doing random workouts where the intensity may vary widely, follow a well-designed multi-week program (like the ones led by expert coaches on Tonal) that’ll safely challenge you.
5. Don’t Skip the Warmup
It’s tempting to jump straight to your main lifts when you’re trying to save time in your workouts, but a solid warmup helps prevent injuries. During a warmup, your tissues become more pliable and your nervous system starts firing within your muscles, both of which prepare you for the stress of a workout, Landicho explains.
“A warmup should gradually go from low-intensity to high-intensity so that by the end your body’s at a place where you’re ready to lift,” he says. “We want to gradually dial up a warmup, not go from zero to 100.” Over the course of the warmup, your body should physically feel warmer as your heart rate and breathing rate increase.
Your warmup should also progress from stable to more dynamic movements that mimic the exercises you’ll be doing in your workout, Landicho adds. For example, if your workout includes deadlifts, you might start with a pillar bridge to work on stabilizing your hips and core (essential for strong deadlifts), progress to a bodyweight hinge pattern that mirrors your big lift, then wrap up your warmup with a set of deadlifts at a reduced weight.