You want to be stronger – and heard about weight training’s many benefits. But if you’re also worried that lifting weights will lead to injury, you’re not alone. Fortunately, there are many ways to avoid getting hurt while taking advantage of this timeless fitness trend, according to sports medicine specialist Kevin D. Plancher, MD, founder of Plancher Orthopaedics & Sports Medicine.
“It’s now conventional wisdom that weight training isn’t only for those seeking eye-popping arm muscles or rip-roaring abs. Indeed, lifting weights has become a popular part of fitness regimens for adults of all ages, helping to burn calories and improve heart health and balance on top of toning muscles and strengthening bones,” says Dr. Plancher, who lectures globally on issues related to orthopaedic procedures and sports injury management.
There’s no question that lifting weights can be risky, causing more than 49,000 injuries each year among Americans, according to the National Electronic Injury Surveillance System, which collects data on injuries requiring hospital emergency room visits.
“Unfortunately, many people try weight training without understanding how to avoid hurting themselves,” Dr. Plancher explains. “These risks go way down when we educate ourselves about these factors and preventive techniques. There are many benefits of weight lifting, the downsides are few, and it just takes a little forethought to make the most of this fitness option.”
Potential weight-lifting risks
Sometimes a weight-lifting injury announces itself loudly, with a popping sound, sensation, or a rush of pain. Other weight training injuries seem to come on slowly. Dr. Plancher says there are two main types of common strength-training injuries:
- Traumatic: “These injuries happen suddenly and you know it immediately,” he says. “The popping or pain sensation is searing, unmistakable, and you can’t ignore it.” Traumatic injuries from weight lifting may require a trip to the emergency room and other acute measures to treat.
- Overuse: Also attributable to aging, overuse injuries related to weight lifting occur slowly, with cartilage, muscles, tendons and ligaments wearing down and becoming less flexible. Overtraining and other mistakes, such as not staying hydrated, can also contribute to these weight-training injuries, Dr. Plancher says.
Certain body areas – including the back, knees, shoulders, elbows and wrists – are particularly vulnerable in the weight room, he notes.
“These areas are repetitively stressed by motions used in weight lifting, so when combined with mistakes such as poor technique or lifting too much, they typically suffer the worst harm,” adds Dr. Plancher, also a Clinical Professor in Orthopaedics at Albert Einstein College of Medicine in New York.
Injury prevention tips
If you want to stay in the weight room but stay out of the doctor’s office, Dr. Plancher offers these tried-and-true methods for preventing weight lifting-related injuries:
- Use proper form: You may not even know you’re lifting wrong, but this can make all the difference in how your body responds. “There are several ways to make sure you’re practicing proper form. You can ask an orthopedic sports medicine physician to teach you correct lifting techniques,” he says. “Or with a professional guiding you, use the mirrors on the gym walls to check your form, paying close attention to the placement of your knees, ankles and hands during reps such as squats or bench presses.”
- Warm up right: Ideally, your fitness routine will incorporate light cardio, stretching and low resistance exercises before you even pick up a dumbbell. “Your core temperature and muscle flexibility will increase just enough to help your weight lifting be safer – and more effective,” he says.
- Get a spotter: When lifting free weights, it’s always safest to have a spotter to avoid injury.
- Skip the danger: Avoid “tough-guy” moves that you and your high school friends may have done in the weight room when you were much younger, such as Olympic bench presses or deadlifts. These don’t make sense for most amateur athletes and pose the most risks, Dr. Plancher says.
“A weight-lifting injury is much more likely to occur when you have poor form, execute dangerous moves or don’t take the time to warm up properly,” he says. “Use your common sense and ask for help when in doubt. This will help keep your strength-training regimen robust.”
Kevin D. Plancher, MD, is a board-certified orthopaedic surgeon and the founder of Plancher Orthopaedics & Sports Medicine.
Plancher Orthopaedics & Sports Medicine is a comprehensive orthopaedics and sports medicine practice with offices in New York City and Greenwich, CT. www.plancherortho.com