The one time my mum watched a video of me deadlifting, she cringed with fear that I was going to hurt myself. In reality, though, you're just as likely (if not more so) to get injured doing other physical activities. That doesn't mean you should throw weights around willy-nilly. You still need to prioritise safety to avoid getting seriously hurt. Here's how.
Illustration by Tina Mailhot-Roberge.
Despite being smart or safe about exerting yourself in any activity — be it basketball, tennis, football, and yes, even weight training — injuries are bound to happen. The issue here is that certain activities seem to carry a greater reputation for posing particularly high injury risks. Some are well-deserved (football), others are underrated (running), and still others are merely misunderstood (weight training).
Weight Training and Injury Risk
My mum's concerns over my intense interest in lifting weights are duly noted. But is weight training any more dangerous than, say, playing soccer?
It turns out that weight training is actually safer than most sports. A study in the Journal of Strength & Conditioning Research analysed the statistics of injury rates — expressed in terms of injuries per 100 hours of participation — across multiple sports, including weight training, soccer, Olympic weightlifting, and more. He found that:
The overwhelming impression from the surveys and literature is that both [weight training and the weightlifting sport] are markedly safer than many other sports, certainly when supervised by qualified people.
In other words, my mum should be more worried about me getting injured from playing soccer, according to the data, since it's statistically more likely for an injury to occur per 100 hours of soccer played.
Perhaps more interestingly: weight training is regularly used to supplement an athlete's sport-specific regimen to help reduce their risk of sports-related injuries. Running and strength coach Jon-Erik Kawamoto frequently incorporates strength training into his running clients' programs, noting:
The goal behind strength training for running is to improve the strength and resiliency of your muscles, ligaments, and bone so that your body can handle the running training. A weak body will be prone to injury. A stronger body can handle the pounding, probably run with better biomechanics and likely run a personal best that season.
So, weight training is not as dangerous as some people make it out to be and athletes properly mix a strength program to improve performance in their own sport, so how the hell do people mess themselves up so badly?
How Most Weight Training Injuries Happen
While weight training is generally safe, injuries can and do happen. Here are some factors that can vastly increase your risk of injury.
- Poor technique and form: Weight training is based more on technique rather than pure athleticism, which is why people stress form so heavily. For every movement, there is a generally considered safe and proper way to move the weight. In most cases, it's the combination of poor form and weights that can potentially send people clutching their hurt body and weeping on the floor.
- Inadequate recovery and/or rest: Rest and recovery here can refer to the number of days between same muscle group workouts, or the time between sets of an exercise. People get sloppy when they're tired. A study in Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research suggests that the more fatigued you are as the workout continues, the more your form degrades and exposes you to greater risk of injury. This is why most strength coaches recommend you do your heaviest and most technical movements at the beginning of the session when you're feeling fresh.
- Prior injuries: Unbeknownst to many aspiring lifters, certain exercises can aggravate pre-existing injuries. According to Andrew Vigotsky, a biomechanics researcher at the Hospital for Special Surgery, prior injuries are actually the number one risk factor for future injury. "There are a number of reasons why this may be the case, including the formation of scar tissue, which is often weaker than connective or muscle tissue; incomplete healing; or ongoing underlying mechanisms that are not corrected with the healing of the injury itself," Andrew explains.
- Compromised range of motion: Many exercises can be ill-suited for your current movement patterns. For example, even a bodyweight squat can be problematic for people with really tight upper backs, or with bad ankle and hip flexibility. These can be improved, of course, but forcing your body beyond its movement capabilities can increase injury risk as well.
- Big egos: C'mon, you know you've been that person who wants to impress someone next to you (whether he or she was even looking or not) and try to lift beyond your capabilities. Big-arse weights are simply unsafe if your form breaks down. Check the ego at the door, bud.
- There's no one cause: Sometimes you can't blame an injury on one bad deadlift. "The way injuries present is complicated, due to the complex nature of pain," says Andrew. He further notes that inactivity and muscular weakness likely make people more susceptible to injury (but it's still not so clear-cut!). Even the strongest folks in the gym, who can squat over 500 pounds in the gym, could suddenly keel over from bending over to pick up a kitten.
While the list above is not exhaustive by any means, understand that the exercises themselves do not pose the greatest threat of injury. Injuries generally happen because of a crappy lifting form and simply trying to do more than what you're safely capable of doing.
How to Weight Train Safely
Safety should always be your number one priority. Your amazing number is a lot less impressive if you've got a bum shoulder and hobble around the gym. Plus, if you are keen on long-term health and fitness goals, it's even more important to minimise injuries. Here are key tips that keep longevity in mind:
Learn Proper Form
Most people already know that form is numero uno, but most also couldn't tell proper form even if it hit them in the face. Many may think their form is tight, but it's still recommended to be examined and supervised by a professional because myriad exercises, such as a bench press and squat, can be deceptively technical.
A good trainer should know how to break down the movements into progression-based segments (regressions), rather than having a complete beginner jump straight into the full movement. "Form exists on a continuum, wherein different forms may be better or worse for different people (depending on structure, strength curves, etc.)," says Andrew. To Andrew's point, it's important to get your movements assessed by a trained professional and then have him or her teach you the proper movements for various exercises based on your body type and current abilities.
Exercise databases found online can give a proper starting point of how exercises should be performed, but again, it's best to have a trainer tailor the movement to you as an individual. Keep in mind that there is no singular safe form for every single person, but there are definitely universal principles that can help keep all lifters safe.
Prioritise Form Over Weight
In general, you should pick an appropriate weight that both feels challenging enough but allows you to move the weight with unwavering lifting form. If form rapidly begins to unravel, just stop — the risk is very often not worth it.
The obvious benefit to maintaining good form is that you perform the movement safely, but also you ensure that you are working the right muscle group that the exercise is intended for (a.k.a. strong muscle activation). For instance, I've seen people perform bicep curls by thrusting their pelvis forward and arching their back just to get the weights up. Not only are they barely getting a proper biceps workout (and looking kind of silly), they may be putting themselves at unnecessary risk of injury.
Follow a Proper Training Program
Injuries can happen more frequently when a training program includes inappropriate exercises or overuses certain movements and/or muscles.
A proper training program (such as this one or this one) is more balanced with progression and your long-term health in mind. This is not to say that a well-structured program is like Kevlar armour against injuries, just that proper training can help minimise injury incidences and lessen the severity.
Know the Difference Between Heavy and Too Heavy
Heavy is relative, but this is why we have rep ranges for certain movements (and goals). As a rule of thumb, if you cannot reach the prescribed number of reps in your program with decent form, then it's too heavy; drop the weight. For example, if your program calls for 8 to 12 reps of shoulder presses, but you can only get to 5 or you struggle mightily to reach 7, it may be too heavy.
If your form begins to collapse, it's probably too heavy or you're fatigued (which is normal near the end of the workout). Still, both reasons can compromise your safety.
Pay Attention to Your Body
While muscle soreness is par for the course, you should take proper notice of your body's signals. For example, a persistent pinch or ache can be indicative of something else entirely. In weightlifting, the most common areas of injury occur in the lower back, knees, and shoulders. Take care of your body by warming up properly, keeping joints mobile to their full potential, and resting as appropriate.
Get a Spotter
Sometimes you want to test your newfound strength and try to go for the maximal amount of weight you can lift. In general, however, chasing that glory craps on everything we've talked about so far, but hey, you might want to "test something out" or something. If you're going to do this, at least make sure you have a spotter, or someone who will help bail you out of a lift if your attempt fails.
Bottom line: Be smart, hang up your ego, and above all, learn your technique with light weights way before you think about going heavy. Your muscles and body will benefit.
Lifehacker's Vitals column offers health and fitness advice based on solid research and real-world experience.