Personal Trainer Advice
You know how some exercises seem almost too intimidating to perform? Chances are, you’re right.
Many exercise programs place you — and your body — in positions that leave you vulnerable.
That’s not to say you should never squat with a barbell on your back, perform deadlifts, or do a variety of other exercises.
But, it does mean that recognizing when you are at risk — and how to avoid putting yourself in a position to get hurt — are the first steps of assessing whether a program is right for you. After all, if you can stay healthy and exercise consistently, you will see results.
Before you start another workout, let these tips be your guide to staying healthy, picking the right moves for you, and progressing to the more intimidating when they no longer feel like a challenge.
The Revolving Door of Pain
There are really only two ways you could hurt yourself in the gym. Call them “Whoops!” and “Wearing Down.”
“Whoops!” refers to times when you do something like drop a dumbbell on your foot and break your toes (not that it would ever happen to you). If you dive into the data, you’ll see these events are breathtakingly rare.
Research published in The American Journal of Sports Medicine found that just of 0.2 percent of lifters were admitted to emergency departments—over the span of 18 years. Four times more people wind up in emergency rooms due to bathroom-related injuriesevery year. Seriously.
YOU’RE FAR MORE LIKELY TO WIND UP IN AN EMERGENCY ROOM DUE TO A “BATHROOM-RELATED INJURY” THAN YOU ARE FROM LIFTING. WEIGHTLIFTING IS A TREMENDOUSLY SAFE ACTIVITY.
Bottom line: Weightlifting is surprisingly safe, so you don’t need to spend much time worrying about “whoops!” events.
The real danger — the revolving door of injury — is by “wearing down” — and it can oftentimes be prevented.
Wearing Down refers to those times when a move just feels…not quite right. Like when you perform an overhead press and your shoulder says, “stop!” Or when your elbows hurt when you bench. Or when you finish a set of squats or deadlifts and it feels like your lower back got more of a workout than your legs.
These pains can start out subtle and may seem like no big deal, but they can grow into something serious (think: strains, sprains or tendinitis) over time. So it’s important to tune in to these cues. Then you can address them before they become full-blown issues.
The vast majority of strength-training related injuries are due to overuse or poor technique, and can build up over time into more serious problems.
The good news? “Wearing Down” injuries are entirely preventable. Rather than muscling through those times when your body sends you a warning shot, you can identify what they are trying to tell you. Then you can correct the problem.
Or, in some cases, knowing that there are different variations of an exercise can help you avoid pain in the first place. You wouldn’t do algebra before you could add, so why are you doing complex lifts before you master the basics?
Here are the most common causes of weight-room pain for each of the four major movement patterns—squats (or “knee-dominant” moves), hinges (“hip dominant” moves like deadlifts), push exercises, and pull exercises—and explain what’s happening. Follow this advice and you’ll ensure that the lifts you perform do what they’re meant to do: Build you up and make you stronger.
Squats, Step-ups and Lunges
What you feel: Knee pain (especially around the kneecap), low back pain
What’s causing the problem: Most knee injuries for knee-dominant moves stem from improper tracking of the knee joint, Basically, your knee should go in one direction, but winds up going in another instead.
In the case of the squat, your knees collapse inward, a position called valgus. Valgus knees place damaging side-to-side stress on your joint, particularly on your patellar tendon.
Worst of all? “Going valgus” isn’t your knees’ fault. The real culprit is a set of weak glutes.
When your glutes aren’t as strong as they need to be to handle the load on your back, your knees automatically fall inward in order to help you lift the weight. This is okay if it were to happen only occasionally, like on the last rep of your last set while setting a new max. (You’ll see some powerlifters’ knees go inward onsets when they’re really going for broke.) But other than that, you don’t want this to happen.
Making matters worse, having weak glutes can cause you to lean too far forward when you squat. While a little bit of a forward lean is OK, having too much of one can put excess pressure on your lower back.
There’s one more thing that can cause you to lean forward excessively when you squat: poor ankle mobility. You’ll know this is your problem if you feel that it’s difficult to keep your heels on the floor as you lower your butt to the floor.
WANT TO AVOID KNEE PAIN? DEVELOP A STRONGER BUTT.
What you can do: Your first goal is simple: Develop a stronger butt to save your knees. Building up your glutes will help your knees track correctly (think of them angling toward the pinky toes when you squat or lunge). To strengthen them, try adding frog pumps, glute bridges and hip thrusts to your workouts.
If you have a bar on your back, focus on pulling it down into your traps. That will help stabilize the upper part of your torso and prevent it from tipping forward.
If you’re having a hard time keeping your heels on the floor, McCall recommends foam rolling, stretching, and doing mobility drills for your calves prior to squats. Try taking them through their full range of motion with toes-elevated bodyweight calf raises.
Lastly, you don’t need to squat with a barbell on your back. Goblet squats — which are typically done with a dumbbell or kettlebell — are variation that is knee and back friendly, and it makes it easier to squat without your knees collapsing or body leaning forward.
Personal Trainer Advice