Weight training offers important physiological and psychological benefits. It can improve strength, increase muscle tone and mass, help reduce fat, and improve bone density. It can also improve a sense of well being. Recent research has shown that strength training may even improve memory and brain function in seniors. And we're catching on. Some estimates have as many as 35 million people exercising with weights for fitness and sport. But, according to Dr. Yariv Maghen of Somers Orthopaedic Surgery & Sports Medicine Group, while weight training is safer than many other forms of exercise, it isn't without risk. “Injuries are all too common for those who don't use proper technique, don't take into account an accurate assessment of their own levels of fitness and strength, and don't take common-sense precautions,” he says. “It's not surprising that as weight training gains popularity, injuries are increasing as well.”
A study published in the American Journal of Sports Medicine in 2010 found that more than 970,000 weight training-related injuries were treated in U.S. hospital emergency departments between 1990 and 2007, increasing nearly 50 percent during that period. “There is useful data in this particular study,” says Dr. Maghen, “data that helps us understand who is most at risk for injury and which activities are most dangerous for various people.” While the majority of injuries studied occurred while using free weights (90%), people 55 and older were more likely to be injured while using weight-training machines. The most frequent diagnoses were strains and sprains (46%) and the most common cause of injury was people dropping weights on themselves (65%). Overexertion, muscle pulls and loss of balance accounted for about 14% of emergency room visits.
Dr, Maghen recommends that the first stop when contemplating a weight training program should be a doctor's office. “Make sure you have your physician's approval before starting any new exercise regimen,” he says. “The next stop should be to consult with a fitness professional who can create a safe program based on your age and capabilities. Then follow these tips to avoid injury.”
Use proper form: Before doing an exercise, watch a video or ask a qualified instructor how to do it. “Injuries often result from not knowing the proper way to perform the movement and just moving the weight any way possible,” says Dr. Maghen. “You must understand the movement and focus on the muscles each exercise is targeting.” Lift with a slow, controlled motion, using muscle power, not momentum, to lift the weight. Don't jerk the weight up; don't swing, heave or bounce it.
Start small and work your way up: Lifting weight that is too heavy is one of the quickest ways to suffer an injury. If it's your first time in the gym, or it has been awhile since you last lifted, start off with smaller weights and slowly work your way up to heavier ones. Overexerting yourself by lifting weights that you aren't ready for can lead to severe aches, pains and strains and can even result in complete tendon rupture.
Warm up: A good warm-up will stimulate blood flow to the muscles and increase joint flexibility and range of motion. Do a few minutes of light aerobic exercise and one or two light sets of each weight lifting exercise before using heavier weights.
Stretch after lifting: The importance of stretching prior to exercise is well known, but stretching afterwards is equally as important. Stretch the muscles you just worked. Begin stretches slowly and carefully until reaching a point of muscle tension; hold each stretch for 10 to 20 seconds, then slowly and carefully release it. Do each stretch only once. Never stretch to the point of pain and never bounce on a muscle that is fully stretched.
Breathe: Don't hold your breath when lifting! Inexperienced lifters are tempted to hold their breath at the worst possible time, just when exerting the maximum effort to complete a rep. Exhale during the lift and breathe freely during your weight training exercise. Improved oxygenation leads to improved muscle contraction.
Listen to your body: Don't lift too much; weight that causes fatigue at 12 repetitions is effective for muscle strength and toning. Don't do too many sets; completing one set of exercises to the point of fatigue is all you need to obtain benefits. If you're tired, don't push yourself; cut back on your workout on that day.
“Whether your goal is to build muscle mass, tone your body or boost your metabolism, weight training gives you a good workout that keeps your body and mind challenged,” Dr. Maghen concludes. “But to avoid injury, you must stay focused – concentrate on what you're doing at all times. Never let your form get sloppy and never lift, pull or press more weight or do more reps than appropriate for your capabilities. Follow these guidelines and strength training can help you live a longer and healthier life.”
Yariv Maghen, M.D., is a general orthopedic surgeon with Somers Orthopaedic Surgery & Sports Medicine. www.somersortho.com