Oh the weather outside is frightful,
But the gym is so delightful,
Since we’ve got no place to go,
Let it snow let it snow let it snow!
‘Tis that time of year to debate bundling up and braving the chill or heading to the warmth (and potential monotony) of the gym. One can complain how they must alter their routine because the weather is not favorable or they can embrace the challenge to vary their routine and work on different aspects of their fitness. Since our clinic resides within a large gym, we can see first-hand that most people in this community choose to head to the warm gym as the machines are consistently full and parking spaces are sparse during the winter months. Likely due to the changing seasons and thus changing workout routines, many people have been asking me what they can do in the gym for their strength-training routine. More specifically, what can they do to safely improve strength through a weight lifting routine and not get injured?
Why do we engage in a strength training routine? There are many benefits to lifting and moving heavy objects occasionally. Some people do it to look and feel better, others as part of a comprehensive cardiovascular and bone density program. Many do it for competition and some do it to complement their primary sport (running, cycling, dancing, basketball, etc.) as a means of performance enhancement and injury prevention. Regardless of the reason, there are common suggestions we give to people so that strength training is safe and effective. Below are my top 5 suggestions for a strength training routine whether you utilize it for recreation, cardiovascular and bone health, or performance enhancement and injury prevention for your primary activity or sport. Or if you are just working on that beach bod for spring break! Keep in mind this is very general, but can serve as a guide as you choose different weight lifting options.
Emphasize unilateral movements
- I am not a big fan of “bilateral” exercises. That is, exercises in which both limbs do the same thing at the same time. Think bench press, pull ups, traditional squats and deadlifts, wall sits, etc. This may be a surprise to many in the lifting community, however, there seems to be a strong movement towards unilateral activities by the experts in the field. And it makes sense. There are not many sports or other functional activities that we do equally with both limbs at the same time. Lifting unilaterally can be a much more functional way to train the body for a primary sport.
- The human body is not symmetrical. Our neurological, cardiovascular, respiratory, skeletal, and muscular systems are different when comparing left versus right. We often address injuries differently depending if they are on the left or right side of the body. Our world is very asymmetric: we drive on one side of the road, use the computer mouse on the same side, put on our clothes the same way every day, brush our teeth with the same hand, etc. Our sports are even more asymmetric: golfers swing one direction, we tend to kick the ball more with one foot, we throw with one hand, basketball players tend to shoot with a dominant hand, volleyball players tend to hit the same way with their dominant side, etc. Doing a bilateral symmetric exercise on an asymmetrical body will result in abnormal stress somewhere on the body to compensate for the asymmetries. Utilizing unilateral exercise techniques will reduce this stress.
- Nearly every gym exercise can be modified to make it unilateral. Instead of bilateral squats, consider doing it on one leg with your back leg up on a bench for balance (a single leg squat with support, often called a Bulgarian squat). This will challenge your balance while still applying an adequate amount of resistance for the strength training benefit.When doing arm activities like bicep curls or tricep curls, consider doing them on one side at a time.
Do not over-extend your back
- There is a nasty epidemic that spreads in most gyms. It could be something in the air or the water. It tends to hit people when the walk in the door and it can’t be stopped. Is it the flu? A cold? The giggles? Nope. It is back muscles that over power the body and want to do everything. It’s like they latch on to gym patrons as soon as they enter the building and cinch down like steel cables anchoring a bridge. They are silent killers that are misunderstood and under-appreciated in the involvement of injuries and movement dysfunction.
- What can you do to avoid this dilemma? Don’t work your (low) back muscles! The low back muscles are deeply engrained in your sub-cortical neurological reflexive tone. They are tonic muscles that are not meant to be worked out like other muscle groups like your biceps, triceps, quads, etc. They are susceptible to over working and dominating your movement and postural control which can lead to injuries. The fibers of the low back muscles are meant to be on at a low level for a long time for vertebral body support and antagonistic muscle opposition. They are wired with our sympathetic nervous system (“our fight or flight system”). Overworking your low back muscles will increase your sympathetic tone resulting in elevated stress hormones which will in turn increase your back muscle activation and create a viscous cycle that will slowly wear down your body.
- Avoid specific exercises that target your low back muscles such as prone exercises where you arch your back up. Additionally, you should not feel your back muscles engage when you do an abdominal exercise such as sit ups or planks. If you do, work with your physical therapist or personal trainer as that exercise needs to be modified for you so that you feel what should be working. Most humans do not need to worry about strengthening their low back muscles, they will be plenty strong from other activities you do during the day and at the gym.
Common mistakes in the weight room
- One of the biggest mistakes we see people make in the gym is over-arching their back during a lift (refer to previous suggestion). This may be to try and get more force to push the weight or it may be an unconscious perceived movement pattern. Many people that have us review their lifting technique we cue to arch their back less.
- As you arch your back to do a movement, you put major muscle groups at a disadvantage as you over emphasize muscles that already tend to be over worked. Arching your back for a lower extremity exercise, such as squat or lunge, puts your abs, glutes, and hamstrings at a disadvantage as you over-engage your back, hip flexors, and quads. Over-arching your back with upper extremity exercises will put your abs, serratus, low trap, and triceps at a disadvantage as you over-facilitate your back, pecs, and neck muscles.
- Some cues to think about to avoid overarching are to “tuck your tail” and “keep ribs down” during the lift. Other cues include “keep your bra line to belt line” or “push your upper back, back.” This may seem excessive at first as you re-calibrate your internal perception of where you are at in space. Work with your personal trainer and physical therapist to help with the re-calibration.
Muscle groups to target
- As bipedal animals who are constantly challenged by staying upright against gravity as we place various demands on our body, there are certain muscles that are challenged and certain muscles that tend to over work.
- In general, especially if you are utilizing a weight routine for injury prevention and performance enhancement for a primary sport, there are common muscle groups we have people emphasize more than others. These muscle groups would include your hamstring, glutes, abdominals (obliques specifically), triceps, mid and low trapezius, and your serratus anterior (your “reaching” muscles). There are many ways to modify your current gym activities to target these muscles.
- Muscle groups to avoid are muscles that tend to overwork and when overworked, may lead to abnormal biomechanics and thus injury. This would include your calves, quads, hip flexors, back muscles, upper trapezius, and neck muscles. Don’t get me wrong, we are designed in such a way that everything has a purpose and is important in some way. However, these muscles are often over-worked with our daily activities and sports and often do not need to be emphasized with a regular weight lifting routine.
I want to start by emphasizing that I am not criticizing any weight lifting technique or school of thought. For educational benefit I am simply listing common lifting activities we have people avoid to reduce injury risk. There is a right place and a right time for most lifts. Hopefully this gets you to think critically about why you are doing what you are doing in the gym.
- Back extension machine – see above
- Excessive lateral bends for ab workout – think of the activity where you have a dumbbell in one hand and move excessively side to side in an effort to work your lateral abdominals. This is often done standing or on a “Roman Chair.” While you may feel your abs, many people are forcing their spine to move laterally more than it should, potentially creating an instability issue.
- Upright Row – a lift that puts excessive stress on the shoulder and creates an impingement position
- Flys that go beyond the plane of your body – this puts a tremendous amount of stress on the shoulders.
- Leg extension machine – this is the machine you sit in and straighten your knees against resistance. While you will feel a burn in your quads, it puts abnormal and excessive stress on your kneecap
Well, there you have it. Those are my top 5 suggestions for the weight room. Following these general guidelines will help you develop a safe weight lifting program for recreation, cardiovascular and bone health, or performance enhancement and injury prevention for your primary activity or sport. And it will be a great part of your program to get your body ready for the beach during Spring Break! So don’t give up on changing your routine, adapt to the adverse weather and keep on keeping on! If you have questions feel free to email me or talk with your physical therapist.