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Work Out with Weights Safely

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If you work out with weights, it is important to do it safely. You do not want to injure yourself. Here are six strategies to defend against injury and work out correctly so you have confidence in achieving your fitness goals. 

1. Pay attention to your current condition

Make sure that you pay attention to any aches or pains before starting a new workout programme.

You need to be careful not to turn a small problem into a big one. For example, if your right knee hurts a little when you walk, see a physio or osteopath before you start lifting heavy weights. You wouldn’t go off on a long car journey knowing a tyre was flat – respect your body the same way.

Also, by addressing any issues before you start, you’ll be in the best position to get the most out of your workouts.

2. Always warm up

Have you ever gone to work out and been in a hurry? And on the back of being short on time, did you decide to skip the warmup and jump right in? 

If this applies to you, then you have either been injured or are about to be. So going forward, please, I beg, always budget time for a proper warm up.

A good warm-up will:

  • Warm up your whole body with movements that use all your limbs, not just holding a pose in one position (i.e. static stretching)
  • Raise your heart rate to the point of feeling slightly breathless
  • Make you feel a bit sweaty as your body temperature rises

There are lots of ways to warm up, but our recommendation is to start from the top down. For example:

  • Start by rotating your neck 10 times in each direction
  • Make big circles with your arms straight, rotating 10 times forward and then 10 times backward
  • Complete 20 bodyweight squats, keeping your chest up and your back straight, with your heels on the floor

Once you’ve completed this series of dynamic movements, choose a piece of cardio equipment (a rowing machine, a bike or a treadmill). Hop on for 5 minutes, keeping your pace steady but not too challenging. If you don’t have access to equipment, then do 30 seconds of jumping jacks, followed by 30 seconds jogging on the spot and repeat this five times. 

At the end of this you should be nice and warm and ready to train safely.

3. Choose suitable weights

When you lift weights, choose weights that suit the goal you want to achieve and then alter the number of sets and repetitions accordingly. A repetition (sometimes called rep) is a single execution of an exercise. So one lift of the weight is one repetition, and 10 lifts are 10 repetitions. A set is a collection of repetitions. So, if your goal is to complete 20 lifts, you might break your workout up into two sets of 10 reps or four sets of five.

The rules are as follows:

  • If you want to get stronger. Lift heavier weights for low repetitions (3 sets of up to 5 repetitions, with 45–60 seconds recovery between sets).
  • If you want to grow muscle. Lift slightly lighter weights for more repetitions (3–4 sets of 8–12 repetitions, with a maximum of 30 seconds rest between each set).
  • If you want to improve endurance. If you want to be able to perform an exercise for longer periods, go for even lighter weights with more repetitions (i.e. 3 sets of 12–15 repetitions, with 30–45 seconds of rest between each set). Be aware that if you choose weights that are too heavy for your goal and try to “soldier” through, your form will be compromised, and you’ll run the risk of injuring yourself.

How to choose your weights

So how do you choose the correct weights for your current level of fitness? Well, you start slowly and increase in small amounts until you find the challenging weight for you.

By increasing in small increments to a more challenging level, you’ll be able to self-assess what your current capabilities are. At the same time, you’ll avoid injury in the process. 

What is a challenging weight?

A challenging weight is a weight where you can complete the exercise correctly for the prescribed number of repetitions, but you couldn’t manage many more reps. 

For example, if your goal is to improve strength, you want to find a weight where you can complete five perfect repetitions and have two repetitions that you could have done if pressed. This is called ‘Reps in Reserve’ or ‘RIR’, and if you choose your weights based on this target you will always lift safely and achieve your goal, be it strength, muscle growth or endurance.

4. Quality not quantity

The purpose of exercise in the gym is to help improve movements that are replicated in daily life. 

When you add weights to these exercises, you’re adding more challenge to the exercise so your body becomes stronger and more stable when you do the same movement in daily life. 

If you choose weights that are so heavy that you can’t complete that exercise correctly, your body will need to compensate by using other muscles and joints that aren’t meant to be used to complete that movement. Over time, this compensation will result in unnecessary wear-and tear on those muscles and joints, leading to injury. 

The reason for insisting on correct form is because you perform exercises to target specific movement patterns. If you don’t lift correctly, you’ll use non-targeted muscle groups to lift the load, which also opens you up to an injury.

Please note that above I wrote “specific movement patterns”,  not “specific muscles”. When we move it requires multiple muscles to accomplish the task not a specific muscle alone. 

So by concentrating on completing an exercise to target a specific muscle group, you’ll choose weights that are appropriate for your current level of fitness. You’ll also get more out of the exercise, which is why you’re working out in the first place.

How do you do this?

You’ll know when you’re doing an exercise correctly when you ‘feel it’ in specific muscle groups.

This is a short list of movement patterns and where you should feel the exercise when you complete it correctly.

Movement pattern and targeted muscle groups

  • Vertical push (overhead press) – shoulders, back of arms, abdominals
  • Vertical pull (chin up) – back, front of arms, upper shoulders
  • Horizontal push (press up) – chest, back of arms
  • Horizontal pull (bent-over row) – back, front of arms, abdominals
  • Squat (barbell squat) – bum, back of legs and front of legs
  • Hinge (deadlift) – bum, back of legs

All these movement patterns require using multiple joints to complete the exercise. In a well-balanced programme, where you complete a varied array of these different patterns, you’ll achieve your goals safely and injury-free.

5. Use the mirror

Mirrors enable you to see what you’re doing while you’re doing it. Without this option you run the risk of exercising incorrectly and injuring yourself. 

What to look for in the mirror when you’re exercising

The key thing to watch out for in the mirror is alignment. What I mean by this is making sure your limbs follow straight lines when you perform an exercise.

An example of this is pressing two dumbbells over your head. As you look in the mirror you want to make sure your arms are in line with your shoulders throughout the motion (i.e. there should be a straight line from your wrist through your elbow to your shoulder).

It is when your joints and limbs are misaligned under resistance that you risk injury. Uneven pressure on the joint leads to strain, which can lead to injury. So, by using the mirror and making sure your arms and legs are lined up (depending on the movement), you can feel confident that you’re exercising safely.

6. Drink lots of water before, during and after your work outs

A big part of avoiding injury is to maintain your body between workouts. An effective way to do this is through consistent hydration.

We’re able to move and go about our daily activities because of joints. Joints are composed of bone, ligaments and cushioning tissue called cartilage. By keeping yourself regularly hydrated, you’ll keep your cartilage in good condition by keeping it soft and supple.  By being kind to your cartilage through consistent hydration, you’re enabling exercise over the long term.

Takeaway

To work out safely and remain injury free, the key is to progress at a steady pace and watch what you’re doing. Listen to your body, pay attention to the form of your exercise, and choose weights that challenge you in a reasonable way.


James Staring is the founder and lead fitness coach at Fit to Last Personal Trainers, which offers a high-end, all-inclusive fitness solution.

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