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How to avoid the most frequent injuries in the gym

The enthusiasm to get in shape and to start training should not make us forget about the risks to the body when certain recommendations from physical trainers are not taken into account.

Each new exercise routine carries a new risk of injury: torn ligaments, pulled muscles, or injuries from overuse of certain machines or weights. With an estimated 8.6 million sports and recreation-related injuries each year in the United States alone, these fears are not unfounded.

However, before you let this fear stop you from starting a new exercise routine, the good news is that most sports injuries are “related to overuse rather than trauma, which means they don’t usually require surgery,” Dr. Matthew Matava, an orthopedic surgeon and sports medicine specialist at Washington University in St. Louis, told The New York Times.

With proper precautions, a well-rounded exercise routine can be developed that maximizes benefits and minimizes risk of injury. To learn about the exercises that make us especially vulnerable to injury, the American newspaper turned to a mix of sports doctors, physical therapists and athletic trainers to get their consensus on the most common mistakes people make, and how to prevent them.

  1. Watch your back when deadlifting

Rounding -or hunching- the back is one of the main mistakes. The deadlift, in which the lifter starts in a squat and pulls a weighted barbell into a locked, upright position, is one of the most iconic lifts. However, its simplicity is deceptive.

“Deadlifting is one of the best tools, if done correctly, and one of the most dangerous things to do if done wrong,” said Cameron Apt, a sports coach at the University of Rochester.

The deadlift begins with the lifter in a squat position, with a neutral spine, meaning the back is neither arched nor rounded. During this movement, even a slight rounding of the spine can put excessive pressure on the muscles of the lower back, potentially leading to deflection or worse.

“It’s not even necessarily that people have bad form, it’s that people underestimate how much of a dynamic, hyper-focused exercise deadlifting is,” said Femi Betiku, a physical therapist at the New Jersey Riverdale Physical Therapy Center.

For those who are less experienced, there are a number of alternative exercises that can offer similar benefits and put less stress on the lower back. For example, the hex-bar deadlift, in which the wide hex-shaped bar that surrounds the lifter reduces pressure on the lower back.

For those who want to deadlift, paying close attention to form is essential. When working with beginners, the Apt often has clients practice the movement without weights. “We will see people for weeks before giving them weight,” he assured.

It is also essential to listen to the body and adjust when necessary, especially if fatigue begins to affect form. “There’s nothing wrong with forcing fatigue,” Betiku said. “It’s about being aware that ‘I’m fatigued, I have to focus on my form 100%’.”

  1. Use the correct technique to bench press

When most people think of weightlifting, the first thing that comes to mind is the bench press. It is an emblematic exercise that can cause rotator cuff injuries if done incorrectly.

The rotator cuff is especially vulnerable because many tendons, ligaments, blood vessels, and nerves run through a narrow path, called the subacromial space, between the shoulder blade and the humerus. “It’s a very small space that’s almost like a driveway,” explained Lauren Shroyer, an athletic trainer for the American Council on Exercise, who specializes in chronic injuries.

A common mistake is to slouch your shoulders up, almost like slouching in a chair, which can put a great deal of stress on this area. Shroyer explained that this can lead to impingement syndrome, a painful condition caused by the shoulder blade rubbing against the rotator cuff. The same can happen if the bar is lifted over the head, instead of across the chest. To avoid this, make sure your arms are shoulder-width apart, shoulder blades tight, and the barbell lowered to mid-chest.

Another common problem is lifting too quickly, which can lead to an acute injury, such as a pectoral muscle tear. When this happens, the lifter often feels a snapping sensation, loses control of the weight, and now “one nipple points one way and the other points the other,” Matava said. “We see it a lot,” she added, often in inexperienced lifters trying to lift more weight than they’re prepared for.

Pectoralis muscle tears are excruciating and tend to occur when lowering the weight to the chest. Although lowering a weight or lowering your body may seem like the easiest part of an exercise, it also creates a higher risk of injury because muscles contract and lengthen. This injury risk is also increased because lifters feel like the hard part is done and they’re less focused, according to Dr. Michael Maloney, a sports medicine physician and orthopedic surgeon at the University of Rochester.

Other examples of these types of risky moves would be lowering the bar to the ground during a deadlift, walking or running downhill, lowering your body during a pullup, or returning your torso to the ground during a squat. To avoid this, specialists recommend working to maintain concentration throughout the exercise.

  1. Take into account the frequency with which we run

In his own clinical practice, Dr. Matava most often treats weightlifting and running injuries. “Of the two, probably the one I watch the most is running,” he said. Most of these injuries are related to overuse. In the case of racing, it’s about the ‘too much’ rule,” he asserted. “Too many kilometers, too many slopes, little rest”.

A very common problem in runners is knee pain, specifically patellofemoral pain syndrome, often called “runner’s knee”. Runner’s knee is thought to be a nerve irritation caused by a muscular imbalance between the quadriceps, hamstrings, and hip muscles that pulls the kneecap out of alignment. To prevent it, experts advise increasing your mileage gradually and incorporating regular strength training.

The good news is that while runner’s knee is a problem, research shows that running can help strengthen cartilage in the knees, and that runners are less likely to develop arthritis than their non-runners.

Another common overuse injury among runners is stress fractures. This usually happens when a runner tries to put on too many miles too fast, without taking enough rest days. The impact of running causes microfractures in the bone which, when given time to heal, lead to stronger bones. However, if a runner starts running more miles, without taking rest days, these microfractures accumulate to the point of injury.

Both injuries typically occur because runners “did something out of the ordinary compared to what they were trained to do,” Matava said. Typically, these stress fractures occur in people who have just started running or who decide to quickly increase their training. A good rule of thumb is to limit your mileage gains to less than 10 percent a week.

  1. Be careful when performing dynamic movements

One of the most common acute sports-related injuries is a meniscus tear, which at least 10% of people will sustain in their lifetime. The menisci are cartilage discs that act as shock absorbers, located at the ends of the femur and tibia. Most tears are caused by cartilage degeneration, making it more susceptible to injury, and can occur during bending or twisting movements such as box jumps, weighted squats, or during sports such as tennis, soccer and basketball.

Meniscus tears usually occur during highly dynamic movements. The risk of injury increases when these movements are performed too quickly, with too many kilos or without having practiced the movement enough. For example, in squats, if a person has “too much weight and goes too low, the meniscus can tear,” according to Matava.

As with other injuries, the risk increases towards the end of a workout, when fatigue begins to set in. When it comes to progressing in the gym, there is a tension between pushing yourself to get better and pushing yourself into injury. Shroyer’s advice is to focus on the idea that “next week I’m going to be able to do more, because I gave myself the time I needed to recover.”

When it comes to a training routine, the expert recommends combining consistency with gradual progression. “I always encourage people to do something they trust. To take it easy, but to do it. Exercise can put someone at risk for injury, but not exercising puts someone at risk for poor health.”

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José Martí
José Martí
Nacionalista cubano, poeta, filósofo, ensayista, periodista, traductor, profesor y editor.

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