I’ve been spending some time on Quora recently. A far cry from my unproductive Facebook time, Quora has a unique engagement, that has inspired me to write extensively on questions that people present.
It’s led to some great research and deep insight into what I do everyday, of which, one of the biggest things I do daily is consider best practices for injury prevention when weight training – AKA resistance training.
When it comes to what is safe to do in the gym, what is not and what is questionably used, you will not find a completely unanimous resource on the topic.
I’ve heard some good and bad arguments for various styles of lifting, almost all of these are dependent upon the context of the exercise and the desired outcome of utilizing a particular exercise.
However, my first guideline addresses what I believe to be THE SINGLE MOST IMPORTANT THING to consider when training.
1) If it hurts, DON’T DO IT.
In no particular order, here are some other general suggestions or guidelines for weight training with optimal effectiveness and injury prevention that go a long way:
2) Neutral Spine is the next most important thing to keep in mind when training in the gym, no matter what the exercise, neutral spinal position should always be emphasized whenever possible — except perhaps in no-load circumstances like flexibility exercises.
The spine should curve out near the shoulders, in at the neck and in at the low back whenever loaded with external weight.
The position will change relative to the execution of the lift and the direction of gravity in some cases, so your deadlift position might appear to be more flat than your squat position but this is the difference in expression of shear vs compression forces and how the spine deals with the differences in those forces.
Bottomline: If you’re cranking on your spine into a heavy arch, or a heavy rounding, it’s only a matter of time before your spine loses this battle.
Remember your head and spine are perhaps the two most important things to protect when weight training, period.
3) Weight Lifting — training in a gym-like environment — is pretty much the only sport where your weight should almost always be on more predominantly back on your heels when executing a lift in a standing position.
Meaning if you lunge back your weight is predominantly on your front heel. This recruits the larger more protective muscles of the hips and takes the stress off the knees.
However, this doesn’t mean that you should squat, lunge or deadlift on peg legs with your toes off the ground.
Think of it more like a 60/40 split between the front of your heel (not the very back) and the balls of your feet (this relationship is also often called the short-foot).
You don’t want weight into your toes and just slightly more pressure put into the heel vs the balls of your feet.
4) ‘Fixed Position’ barbell work — implying training with dumbbells is a different technique — should watch the position of the elbows relative to the shoulders.
Bench or the barbell shoulder press is an easy example, most people do this with far too wide a grip, poor shoulder control or technique and ruin their shoulders as a result.
Keep your elbows in, roughly 45 degree angles to your torso the majority of the time.
The lower arm should be perpendicular to the vector angle of the exercise.
Your wrist/elbow/shoulder complex wants to naturally rotate (and you can actually produce more power if you use a rotary component ala medicine ball training) and the fixed barbell position doesn’t allow this to happen.
Do your shoulders a favour and minimize the amount of torque stress they have to deal with during a wide pressing position (which often jams the humeral head up against the supportive structures of the joint).
Same goes for overhead pressing, your lower forearm should be straight (which is probably a lot more narrow than most guys tend to go).
Dudes Especially – Nate Green wrote this great article on proper bench press technique way back in 2009.
5) Shoulders should be packed down and against the ribs when doing most open-chain pressing work, or in something like a Turkish Get-Up or Windmill (more advanced exercises I do not recommend if you don’t have a lot of experience with strength training).
This doesn’t mean that the shoulder shouldn’t move, because it always will a little, you’ll just get better stability, which will lead to fewer problems down the road.
To get the shoulder moving, provided you don’t have hypertonic upper traps (and most average people do have over active upper traps), resort more to closed chain pressing like push-up variations.
Many people make the mistake of shrugging the shoulders upward when pressing anything overhead, this destabilizes the shoulder and can lead to trouble down the road because the shoulder doesn’t properly upwardly rotate.
Now there will be a little (the upper trap upwardly rotates the shoulder blade when going overhead along with serratus and low trap) big of shrugging when you press overhead, but don’t try to hit your ears, allow the joint to move freely but with stability too.
Note: There is a time and place for exercises like the overhead shrug or the scaption shrug, perhaps even a regular shrug, but only to practice elevation of the shoulder and strengthen certain muscles that are almost always already overactive and problematic in most people anyway. This issue is slightly more complicated, but this is a general rule of thumb.
6) The Cervical spine should get used to being a ‘packed‘ position as well.
A lot of people look up for instance when deadlifting or squatting, arching through their cervical spine excessively, which takes the rest of the spine out of the optimal neutral spine positioning we talked about in #2.
Think about extending the top portion of the head upward, tucking the chin slightly — just a little, like a double chin, it should be against your neck — and getting a little bit tight through the neck when doing deadlifts, squats, etc…
The important thing is to keep this position, then try to roll your eyes up without changing the head position (sight towards where you want to go increases force production) and drive your tongue up into the roof of your mouth (again the tongue can increase force production, believe it or not).
7) Any Spinal Rotation movements should emphasis rotation in the Thoracic Region of the spine and not the less flexible lumbar spine.
We know that spinal flexion — and even excessive hyper-extension of the cervical and lumbar spine — with rotation, particularly in the lumbar region, is one of the most damaging overuse movements that can be done to the spine.
Sadly I see a lot of flexion and rotation going on at the gym, I also see it a lot in Yoga, which I believe is perhaps the biggest short-comings in the practice of yoga — there are otherwise a lot of great exercises in Yoga.
If you practice yoga or go to the gym and do rotation exercises, work on just rotation from as neutral a spinal position as you can, or stick to exercises that emphasize rotation with flexion or extension only in the thoracic region (like sledgehammer work or some chopping movements).
Remember ‘Neutral’ spine is position specific, so in the case of neutral spine for rotation you’re dealing with rotational torque forces (instead of or sometimes in combination with the shear/compression forces I mention above), there is a unique position too.
Making your hips and shoulders move as one through as much of the rotational movement as possible is a key factor in good rotation training but any follow through on either side of that equation should happen mostly at the thoracic spine and to some degree the head.
That all comes down to developing good motor control too for rotational sports like golf, tennis, and soccer.
Read #2 again, it’s that important.
8) Any tracking of the arms or legs (hinge joints specifically of the knee/elbow) should be in the most straight line possible, most of the time.
When the knees for instance — or elbows even, see #4 — collapse inward on something like a squat or lunge, this will damage the knee joint if repeated enough over time as high amounts of force are placed on a very focal point of the joint, rather than getting more evenly distributed through the entire joint.
Instead we want to see the ankle in line with the knee and hip, or the wrist in line with the elbow and shoulder as frequently as possible.
I see this the most at the majority of commercial gyms, other than a loss of neutral spine.
9) The lower leg and lower arm should probably be as close to a neutral or perpendicular position as possible during compound movements like squats, deadlifts, lunges, presses, etc…
I don’t make this as ‘hard’ a rule as some give will be necessary in certain individuals, more than others, but aim to get people to 90 degrees most of the time.
It’s really freakin’ hard to do though in most lifts.
Also, plenty of healthy people walk up and down stairs placing stress on the knee with the lower leg outside of a vertical position.
Charlie Weingroff has written quite a bit about it, I don’t take as hard a stance, but if you have anterior knee pain his recommendations are solid.
I think his recommendations are a lot easier to execute in lunges and deadlifts personally; The squat is more difficult especially if you have long limbs.
11) Emphasis should always be on the quality of the movement and not necessarily the load.
Sometimes you’re not going to see it perfect every time and that’s a risk some athletes take in their sports because it leads to improved performance.
Often powerlifters and olympic lifters will argue with me on the concept above, but they are not written in stone.
For instance, you’d be far pressed to find a powerlifter who can maintain a perfectly neutral spine during a 1 rep max deadlift of 600+ lbs, it’s just not going to happen, but they also couldn’t win in their sport if it doesn’t, so it’s a trade-off.
Unlike people in these highly specialized sports, who fully understand the consequences of their sport, and cater their techniques to maximum weight (even if it means increased risk of injury), my recommendations are for the other 90-95% of the population.
The general population doesn’t really care about getting a 600 lbs deadlift, they just want to go to the gym, maintain a healthy lifestyle, maintain their weight/physique and not be injured while doing it.
The best way to do that is focus on quality over quantity.
12) Use 3-D Compound Movements whenever possible in training, more specifically for injury prevention in sport, but you need to learn good technique in a wide variety of lifts (this takes time) and generally this means I keep all of my own clientele off any fixed motion machines with the exception of 3-D cables or bands or something like a Glute Ham Device.
The reality of life unlike powerlifting or olympic weight lifting (which only really exist in one or two planes of movement – 2D) is that we constantly do things in the context of 3 dimensions.
Once you get out of learning the basics of training, its time to get out of the saggital (forward and back) plane and start incorporating more complete movements that include side to side movement, front to back and rotational components in conjunction with one another.
This is just for general health and well-being and an observation of natural life circumstances.
13) Warm-Up appropriately.
GET OFF THE “CARDIO” MACHINES!!!
Seriously, huge waste of time and leads to no additional injury prevention or performance in any workout.
A warm-up is really movement preparation, and I’m been meaning to publish something on this for ages — but want to get some video for all you fine people — but in a nutshell, learn to foam roll, then mobilize and activate muscles that will be most applicable to the workout you plan on doing in the next hour.
There is a definite art to movement, there is really no right or wrong way, just optimal to the individual.
We do not all have the same proportions or body structures, some of us have longer legs or shorter arms, most of us have one arm or leg that is longer than the other even.
Additional Resources If You Want to Start Weight Training:
Actually there are a ton of good books and excellent resources on the science of training effectively and safely (safety co-relating to injury prevention), many blog posts too from reputable sources.
Above all else, HIRE A GOOD COACH to learn how to do all this stuff well is my biggest recommendation because of that variance.