Monday, April 13, 2009

How Not to Hurt Yourself While Working Out

Today I received a letter from my health insurance company informing me that individual coverage is apparently not available in the state of North Carolina. Which means I'll be shopping around for new coverage, which means I'll be trying my damndest not to get hit by a bus or contract scurvy until that kicks in. I'll also be exercising greater care in the one place I'm most likely to get injured: the gym. Ok, so I know most injuries occur in the home. (Whatever, just go with it.)

Exercise-related injuries are a regular thing, and they're generally caused by overtraining, incorrect form, or improper use of equipment. In other words, they're your fault. Unfortunately, it's hard to know when you're doing something wrong until you hurt yourself.

So I've done by best to come up with a list of common mistakes that can lead to injury, followed by advice on how not to get yourself hurt. All helpful, natch.

  1. Watch where you're going. It's a gym; there's a lot of crap in there to bump into and trip over. I know, it's easy to get distracted by all the sweaty grunting people and the big shiny flatscreens, but keep an eye out for dumbbells on the floor or flailing body parts.
  2. Turn the machine on, then start moving on it. Sounds like a given, right? I'm mostly referring to the treadmill. It's a good idea to stand on the side rails, get the machine moving at a slow speed, and then carefully step onto the tread and increase speed. Of course, some machines won't power on until you start pedaling, like many elliptical trainers. Not much you can do about that.
  3. Warm up. I repeat, warm up. It never fails to amaze how many people I see step onto the treadmill, push the start button, and then start running. I'm not even capable of that---I need a good four or five minutes of walking to get my body prepared to run. Without a warm-up, don't be surprised if you experience shin pain, or side pangs, or muscle cramping. Instead, begin at a low intensity and gradually increase to workout intensity over a period of five minutes or so. This will redirect blood flow to the muscles you'll be using, making them more pliant and sending them the oxygen they need to perform optimally, resulting in better muscle endurance (and less pain) for your cardio workout.
  4. Warm up for resistance exercises, too. Perform movements at a low (or no) weight that mimic the exercises you'll be doing in your workout. Avoid passive stretching; you need to prepare your muscles for the varied and often extreme ranges of motion you're about to put them through.
  5. Lift with your legs. This old adage is trying to tell you not to pick up weights with your back. Which is good advice, but an even better suggestion? Lift with your legs and core. You always want to activate your deepest abdominal muscles, the transverse abdominus, in preparation for any lifting movement. This means drawing your abs in toward your low back (while still breathing) before pressing up through a squat or deadlift, lifting dumbbells in a front raise---anything that could aggravate your back.
  6. Wear proper attire. We've talked about this before, so I'll sum up this point as follows: Breathable shirt. Breathable shorts/pants. Loose or stretchy to allow for movement. Supportive shoes with cushioned soles. Sandals are unacceptable. Got it?
  7. Don't swing anything or do anything involving lots of momentum. Plenty of exercise descriptions employ words like "swing" or "kick" to give you a visual of a movement. A leg extension, for instance, might involve "kicking" your lower leg out from the knee joint. In reality, however, most strength training movements involve actions like squeezing, contracting, or flexing. Meaning that there should be focused, intentional muscle movement at all times. Even if it looks like a kick.
  8. Breathe. Tensing up through the back, shoulders, and chest can be an indication that you're not breathing properly, and therefore not opening up your muscles to allow for complete and correct movement. So relax, let your shoulders fall down and back, open your chest, relax your grip a little, and breathe.
  9. Take a day off. A major cause of gym-related injury is not giving your body time to repair and recover from exercise. So is doing the same workout over and over. Together, these are known as overtraining. So mix it up, and give yourself a break from time to time. You've certainly earned it.

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