Weightlifting Safety Tips for Injury Prevention

How to Train With Weights Safely

working with trainer
Proper form is key to safety. Pixabay/Skeeze

Like most physical activity in which repetitive or vigorous movement is involved, weight training can cause injuries. Yet, compared to other athletic activities and sports like football, injury rates are relatively low.

A study published in the Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research found that football, soccer and winter sports cause 10 to 20 times more injuries per 100 hours of participation than weight training and weightlifting.

Knowledge Prevents Injury

You can avoid injury by using a cautious and knowledgeable approach to weight training exercise. Your technique—your form and how you perform the exercise—is crucial to minimizing injury. So are judgments about the type of exercise and the load you attempt to lift, push or press, especially in relation to your existing fitness, strength, bone and muscle health, and injury status.

Let’s go through the most important performance safety issues in weight training, bearing in mind that "safety" can be a relative term; what's dangerous for you may not be dangerous for someone with more experience, training or different body structure.

Beginners Versus Experienced Weight Trainers

When you exercise over time, the body builds strength, endurance, bulk and even flexibility and durability in tendons, ligaments and muscles. This progressive adaptation is called a “training effect,” and it’s one reason why you are encouraged to train regularly, consistently and with only gradual increases in intensity, load or time.

If you have been weight training for a long time, you are likely to be able to do exercises of greater complexity, and perhaps greater risk, than a beginner.

Much of the information below is for beginners.

Your Flexibility and Anatomy

Whether you can perform a particular exercise safely may depend on your existing bone and muscle structure, either inherent or as a consequence of past injury or accident.

For example, I don’t barbell squat with the weight on the shoulders or do pulldowns with the bar behind the head. Even a slight rotation of the shoulder in this direction is uncomfortable and probably dangerous for me, as I have had rotator cuff injuries to both shoulders.

Be aware of positions, exercise types and loads that make you feel you are extending joints, ligaments, muscles and tendons too far beyond your natural range. Alternative exercises that work the same muscles often exist. Challenge yourself, but use common sense.

Perform the Exercise Correctly

Each exercise has guidelines for correct form and technical execution. Make sure you comply with the general guidelines for maintaining proper form. You can see how to do many basic exercises in the exercise gallery.

Overuse Versus Structural Injuries in Weight Training

If you exercise frequently and intensely enough, chances are you will get what’s called an “overuse” injury at some stage of your training. This often results from an overworked tendon, which can cause tendonitis.

Tendons join muscle to bone. The injury may be trivial and respond to rest, or it may become a chronic problem. Overuse injuries are common in sportspeople and heavy exercisers, even though a brief curtailment of the exercise often improves the injury.

More serious injuries occur when a structure breaks or is worn away over time. Torn or strained muscles and ligaments, tendons pulled from bones, and worn out and broken cartilage that fails to protect bones from rubbing together generally present more serious problems for which medical treatment is usually required.

The Big Three Injury Sites

In weightlifting, the most injured areas are the lower back, shoulders and knees. Most related injuries are overuse injuries, and a smaller percentage are more serious. The lower back tops the list, however, and this is consistent across many sports. It no doubt signifies a human anatomical weakness.

In one study of professional weightlifters, the investigators said, "injuries typical of elite weightlifters are primarily overuse injuries, not traumatic injuries compromising joint integrity."

However, it would be a mistake to think that training with weights at a recreational and fitness level puts you at greater risk for these injuries than being sedentary.

Gradual application of weight to the muscles and joints using good technique in an appropriate training program is likely to make you stronger and more resistant to injury than if you did no strength training. Even people with arthritis are finding that weight training improves rather than degrades their condition.

Although exercises like the squat do put pressure on knees, half squats rather than full squats all the way down, are relatively safe when done properly. Most knee injuries in sports derive from sudden twisting, hyperextension and side impact forces such as occur in football, basketball and winter sports, rather than the knee flexing and extending under load in weight lifting.

Here is a list of weight training exercises often noted as potentially dangerous. However, you need to consider this list in the context of your experience level and known capabilities or inadequacies, as discussed earlier in this article.

While most exercises can be dangerous—weights are heavy—this list includes exercises that have been suggested as more likely to cause injury even if appropriate technique for this exercise is followed (the site affected is also listed).

The reason is usually that the exercise movement places some part of your joint in a compromised position in which injury is more likely to occur.

  1. Full squat (knee)
  2. Leg extension machine (knee)
  3. Upright row, narrow grip (shoulder)
  4. Lat Pulldown behind the head (shoulder)
  5. Military, overhead, press behind the head (shoulder)
  6. Cable row, rounded back (back)
  7. Barbell good mornings, rounded back (back)
  8. Stiff-legged deadlift with rounded back (back)
  9. Seated leg press with excessive weight (lower back)
  10. Sit-up with straight legs rather than knees bent (lower back)
  11. Decline situp [lower back]
  12. Touch toes, straight legs (lower back)

General Points on Good Form

  • Keep the back straight when bending at the hips for exercises such as squats, deadlifts, good mornings, bent rows and cable rows. The main point is that even if your back is at an angle to the ground and leaning forward, it is straight and not curved at the spine.
  • Don’t explosively lock the joints. This recommendation is often overdone. Powerlifting bench pressers are required to lock out the elbows in competition. No harm will be done by straightening the elbow or knee joints as long as you don’t smash them hard under load.
  • Don’t allow the knees to bow excessively inward or outward, or the elbows to fall to the rear or front when executing a lift or push. You want maximum support and to prevent the joint from being compromised under pressure.
  • Keep the head still as much as possible and the neck under control when weight training. Be very sure you know what you’re doing if you lower a weight behind the head onto the cervical spine area.
  • Be careful with exercises that place the shoulder joint beyond a range of motion or under a load that you do not feel comfortable with. The shoulder has the most complex range of motion of any joint. You don’t want to feel pain in the shoulder joint on extension, flexion, abduction or rotation. In push exercises, such as bench presses and shoulder presses, keep the elbows and upper arms from moving much lower than parallel to the floor as you lower the weight. This is good security for beginners. (In bench press competition, the bar must be lowered to the chest.)
  • Use a buddy or "spotter" assistant when lifting heavy free weights. When in doubt, lift light weights.

Sources

Calhoon G, Fry AC. Injury Rates and Profiles of Elite Competitive Weightlifters. J Athl Train. Jul;34(3):232-238, 1999.

Hamill BP.

Relative safety of weightlifting and weight training. J Strength and Conditioning Research, 8,1: 53-57, 1994.

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