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Body Builder Posing
Common sense cures for weight lifting injury
by: Chris Kelly
Chris Kelly is an NSCA Core Strength and Conditioning coach, nutritionist, and experienced fitness writer. Chris works with athletes, bodybuilders and trainees of all kinds to develop custom fitness solutions to fit any goal. To learn more about his online training program, contact him at [email protected]

Understanding time under tension

After watching thousands of gym-goers push, pull, raise (and in most cases, jerk) free weights that are obviously too heavy, I must confess a respect for machines. Sure, critics charge that machines restrict range of motion, but perhaps there is good reason.

As a personal trainer, I often remind my clients that hypertrophy (muscular growth) is not about pushing maximum weight, but rather directing maximum force to your muscles. But when form suffers in the pursuit of going heavy, injury is often the result.

Research has also shown that prolonged training with heavier loads can lead to neurological fatigue, as well as tissue and joint damage. And chances are, if you feel pain, tightness, or numbness during or after your workout, the damage has already been done.

Now the question becomes: Where? Read on to learn the causes of and solution to pain in the gym, and maximizing your gains without injuring your body.

Locating your pain

Weight training dysfunction is often the result of old injuries which were never allowed to heal properly.

Generally these injuries begin with small tears (microtraumas) in major muscles such as the chest, shoulders, and hamstrings , which grow due to over training.

Over time, weakness in the injured muscle causes the surrounding smaller muscles to compensate for its decrease in strength. By the time the injured muscle has healed, the smaller muscles have taken over many of the natural functions of the larger muscle —resulting in muscle tightness, decreased strength, and repeated injury.

So how do you know where your injury has occurred? Try pointing one finger to the area where you regularly experience pain. Weight lifting injuries affect the muscle joints and nerves, and each condition displays a unique range of dysfunctions. If isolated to a specific point or small area, your pain is likely originating in the joint itself, while pain over a wider area is more likely to be caused by a muscle.

Another distinguishing factor is when the pain occurs. Pain that only occurs with motion or lifting involves the muscles, while pain both at rest and in motion is the result of an inflamed joint. Numbness, tingling, or complete loss of sensation is also an indicator of nerve compression or tension resulting from your injury.

Getting the blood flowing

In order to break this cycle of injury, the affected area must be reintroduced to a proper range of motion. This process begins by restoring a balance between overactive muscles (which have taken over the function of the injured muscle) and under-active muscles which may have been injured.

While this can be accomplished in part through static stretching, one mistake many gym goers make is stretching out during their workout. Not only does this further decrease the muscle’s ability to produce force, but in the case of overstretched muscles, can also lead to further injury.

By contrast, research has shown that a range of motion warm-up activity such as walking on the treadmill or riding a stationary bike followed by static stretching increases blood flow and flexibility to the affected area without causing decreases in strength.

For areas suffering from limited range of motion, one do-it-yourself warm-up method that can be performed prior to stretching is known as Self Mysofascial Release, and utilizes a foam roller to massage away inflamed areas of tissue (sometimes known as “trigger points”).

This is done by using your own body weight to roll over the affected area until you feel a sore or tender spot. Once you locate the trigger point, press down for 30 to 90 seconds until there has been a decrease in tenderness.

Done in conjunction with static stretching (which should be performed for the same area after a massage or SMFR), this technique helps to eliminate muscle imbalances and restore flexibility to the affected area in a similar manner to a more active warm-up.

Restoring function

The next step is to target the weakened muscle with isolation exercises (such as a dumbbell preacher curls or leg extensions) to restore strength and range of motion. This is an important step to perform before returning to exercises which involve multiple muscles (such as a bench press or squat) in order to avoid overcompensation by surrounding smaller muscles.

An example of this would be performing one to two sets of a seated leg extensions (which isolates the quadriceps) before progressing to a full free weighted squat (which involves the hamstrings, quadriceps and hip flexors).

Isolated strengthening can be performed three to five days per week depending on the intensity and volume used. Each repetition consists of a two-second isometric hold at the end range of motion and a four-second eccentric movement (think lowering the bar towards your chest during a bench press).

For subjects unable to perform an exercise due to a joint or muscle injury, this same strengthening can be accomplished through the use of an isometric contraction (holding a barbell in place, or exercising in a fixed range of motion) which shifts a greater amount of force to the muscles while sparing the bones and joints.

Done correctly, isometric contractions produce similar results to traditional strength training with far less time and energy. Further, many isometric contraction exercises can be performed with common household items such as chairs, balls, and belts.

Such exercises make it possible to isolate certain muscles without use of gym equipment. An example of this would be squeezing a medicine ball and holding your arms in a dumbbell fly position while contracting the pecs.

For more advanced trainees, isometric contraction training can also be used as a pre-exaust exercise to enhance bodyweight exercises such as push-ups, pull-ups, and squatting.

Building maximum strength

While isometric training is often associated with rehabilitation, many are surprised to learn its potential for strength development. In a six week study conducted with long-time golfers to determine if static strength training would help a full range-of-motion sport like golf, subjects experienced an 84% average gain in overall strength.

By performing static holds in the strongest range of an exercise, trainees reported being able to hold more weight while generally experiencing fewer injuries than traditional training—due to less stress placed on bones and joints. And due to greater stress placed on the muscles, isometric training entails far less time than traditional workouts (study participants spent an average of just 2.2 minutes of actual exercise per workout. That’s 14.5 minutes of exercise time in six weeks!).

Great for both strength and rehabilitation, isometric training can be enjoyed in virtually any environment by adhering to the following guidelines:

In the gym:

  • When choosing your exercise, it is important to note that levels of resistance vary at different points during free weight exercises.
  • When choosing a free weight exercise, have your training partner assist in positioning the weight to the point where you experience most resistance in the lift.
  • Now, hold the resistance motionless until fatigue sets in (the point at which you can no longer support the resistance).
  • Once you can no longer support the resistance, lower as slowly as possible.
  • For strengthening, the weight should be between 85-95% of your 1 rep maximum lift.
  • For optimum results, this exercise lasts around one minute followed by an additional one minute rest period.
  • Perform two-three sets per body part.

Out of the gym:

  • During a timed static contraction you push, pull, or grip against an immobile source (such as a chair, wall, or bar) forcing your muscles to contract.
  • Starting with minimal effort, contract your muscles about half as hard as you can for around 60 seconds.
  • Now, contract against the resistance as hard as you can for around 30 seconds.
  • Gradually decrease your resistance in the last five to ten seconds of your effort
  • In total, this exercise should last around one minute and 45 seconds, followed by a rest period of one minute.
  • Perform two to three sets per body part.

Work cited

Baechle, Thomas and Earle Roger W. “Essentials of Strength and Conditioning 2nd edition” Human Kinetics 2003. 306, 407-413.

Clark, Mike. “Optimum Performance Training for the Fitness Professional” National Academy of Sports Medicine. 2004. Disk Six

Corn, Rodney. Phone Interview. 09 July 2006.

Clark, Mike. “Optimum Performance Training for the Fitness Professional” National Academy of Sports Medicine. 2004. Disk Six

McGill, Stuart. “Ultimate Back and Performance 2nd edition” Wabuno publishers. 2004. 354-355.

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