Getting back to the gym this winter? As physical therapists who focus a lot on posture, alignment, proper body mechanics, and form during functional tasks, there are some tips we have to avoid common gym injuries when returning to a gym program.
The best way to avoid injury to the body is to properly warm up. A warm up should promote blood flow to the muscles and joints and allow for the muscles to get to an optimal length. A typical warm up should involve 5-10 minutes of cardio followed by some form of stretching.
Dynamic stretching can be very effective in lubricating the joints and stretching the muscles. Static stretching after a 5-10 minute cardio warm up can be very effective at stretching very specific structures but you have to do the warm up prior for them to be effective.
Also, don’t forget to warm up your arms, especially if you are doing any arm workouts. If you are going to just be doing cardio, such as running on a treadmill or elliptical, you should still walk/run for 5-10 minutes, get off the machine, stretch, and then get back on the machine for your actual run. Take the time to warm up – it’s worth every minute!!
Some machines at the gym can cause more harm than good. The following are machines to avoid and some good alternatives to the machines.
Adduction means moving your legs together. The muscles that do this action (your adductors) are your inner thigh muscles and attach to your pubic bone. It is very easy to strain or even tear your adductor tendon at the pubic bone if you overload the tendon or muscle. This machine puts way too much stress on the adductors when you squeeze the legs together. Also, when you are pushing the legs apart in abduction using your glutes and hip rotators, you often aren’t using your core appropriately and can put increased stress on your low back.
We recommend avoiding this machine all together – whether pushing the legs together or apart. What you can do instead is leg lifts laying on your side and stomach to improve glute strength. You can also lay on your side and lift the bottom leg to work the adductors. Another good exercise to work both the abductors and adductors is side stepping with a band around your knees or ankles in a partial squat position. You really focus on using your glutes to step to the side and squeezing your inner thighs when you step together.
This machine puts a lot of stress on your rotator cuff muscles and overly strengthens the pecs. People often put too much weight on this machine causing increased stress and strain at the shoulders. Instead, try doing chest flys laying on your back in a supported position with light free weights. You can also do modified push-ups to strengthen your pecs without overly stressing the rotator cuffs.
This machine does what’s called “open chain” knee extension, which can be very stressful on the knees, especially if you put too much weight on the machine. “Closed chain” knee exercises are much more supportive and both will improve strength in the quadriceps. Closed chain knee exercises include squats and the leg press machine.
You don’t have to avoid this machine, but you want to be careful to use it with the best possible posture. Do NOT pull the bar BEHIND your neck. This make you jut your neck forward, putting increased stress and strain on your cervical spine, compressing the nerves in the upper spine. This machine is a great machine to use, as long as you pull down the bar to the front of your chest and back up in a controlled manor. Make sure you use good posture and don’t extend or arch your back. Tighten your lower abdominals while doing the exercise.
First off, these machines often only work the outer abdominal muscles, not the deep inner transverse muscles that support your low back and pelvis. By adding weight and flexing forward, you can increase pressure in your lumbar spine and can lead to injuries like disc herniations.
Instead, try doing exercises on your back where you tighten your lower abdominals and then move your legs while maintaining control of your spine and pelvis. You can also do planks with a focus on breathing and proper alignment. Talk to your physical therapist for the proper progressions to avoid injury and strengthen all of your core.
People often go to the gym and unbalanced workouts – like “chest and legs”. You want to make sure you are balancing the body, so if you do chest, you need to also do the upper back that day to balance out the body. What happens if you just do chest work is the pecs get overly tight, pull the shoulders and they round forward, pushing the scapula or shoulder blades forward, which can pinch the rotator cuff and cause injury. If you also train the upper back muscles, you prevent the pecs from pulling everything forward and avoid the injury to the rotator cuff.
This balance applies to all areas of the body – don’t over train your calves without strengthening the front of your lower leg or stretching the calves to avoid over tightening, etc.
When you are doing any weight lifting exercises, be conscious of what you are doing with your body. Are you standing or sitting with good posture? Is the exercise so hard that you lose this good posture? Are you able to support your low back and pelvis by tightening your lower abdominals? If the answer is no to any of these questions, then you need to stop the exercise.
First try lowering the weight and then if needed, lower the amount of repetitions. If you don’t know how to do a proper transverse (lower) abdominal contraction, ask your physical therapist for guidance. You should be tightening your lower abdominals during all repetitions of the exercise, no matter if you are doing arm, leg, or core exercises.
You want to keep track of what muscles you have worked and when in order to keep balance in the body. If you always go to the gym and do chest exercises, you will start to notice an imbalance and may have pain and fatigue in the upper back.
We hope these tips are helpful in getting you back on track at the gym! If you’re having pains or an injury as a result of your gym injury, physical therapy can help you identify the problem and get back on track. To schedule an appointment, contact is at 267-282-1301.
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