Tips on Avoiding Common Exercise Injuries
In my last column, I talked about accidents at the gym. This week, we take a look at the three body parts most commonly injured during a workout.
Often, such injuries stem from poor posture, faulty technique, improper footwear, anatomical causes, and trying to do too much too soon.
To prevent an injury, it is important to develop and maintain muscle strength and joint mobility.
Correct muscle balance is as crucial as muscle strength, i.e. between one side of the body and the other, between one limb and the opposite limb, and between the various muscle groups that control a joint.
If the muscles controlling a joint are weak, then the joint will become unstable.
More than half the population suffers from lower back issues – most likely a result of bad posture.
If you sit slouched or round the upper back during the day, the upper back and shoulder muscles contract and become tight.
Since most people don’t stretch dynamically before a workout, when they attempt to do overhead shoulder presses standing up, the load goes onto the lower back.
A tight upper back restricts the arms from being able to extend properly, and the body compensates by arching the lower back to lift the weights.
Likewise, a full sit-up puts tremendous strain on the lower back. Many gym bunnies are misled into thinking that more sit-ups lead to stronger abdominal muscles.
According to Harvard Health Publishing, sit-ups push your curved spine against the floor and work your hip flexors, the muscles that run from the thighs to the lumbar vertebrae in the lower back.
When the hip flexors are too strong or too tight, they tug on the lower spine, which can create lower back discomfort.
Switch to doing planks instead and you’ll recruit more muscles in the process.
To prevent such injuries, stretch your upper back before commencing your workout.
An easy way to do this is by rounding the upper back with your hands clasped forward. Aim to move the shoulder blades apart.
To strengthen the upper back, lie face-up on the floor with your knees bent, tilt your pelvis and flatten your lower back on the floor. Try to lift your arms above your head, without letting a gap form between the floor and your lower back.
Or lie face-down, arms above the head. Leave the forehead and the rest of the body on the floor while trying to lift the arms off the floor.
Foot and ankle
The majority of us, especially the ones without fitness trackers, hardly take more than 1,000 steps during work hours.
The feet and toes are seldom worked, and suddenly switching from high heels to sports shoes can lead to all kinds of strains.
It’s not surprising that foot injuries can occur suddenly or over time if you wear the wrong footwear or have an underlying biomechanical problem.
Some of us over-pronate (your foot rolls inwards too much) or over-supinate (your foot rolls outwards too much), or have flat feet or certain foot conditions that put us at a higher risk of injury.
Working out on hard concrete or asphalt also worsens the problem.
Common problems include ankle sprains, which occur when the fibrous tissue of the ligament is stretched, and is accompanied by micro-tears within the ligament. In these micro-tears, a varying number of fibres are actually torn.
Other injuries are plantar fasciitis, Achilles tendinitis, anterior compartment syndrome (compression in the front of the ankle), lateral compression syndrome (compression at the side of the ankle) and bunions.
To prevent foot and ankle injuries, invest in proper shoes, and warm up the ankle, tarsus (group of small bones in the feet) and toes sufficiently before starting a workout.
Rotate the ankles, point and flex the feet, and do calf raises.
You can also sit on your heels with the toes extended, then curled – this gives the toe muscles a workout.
Knee pain affects people of all ages and abilities.
Squats are a favourite exercise to strengthen the knee joint, but it is important to observe form while doing them.
There is no ideal depth of how low you should go, but do squat until the thighs are parallel to the knee. If this feels comfortable, you can go even lower. Just make sure the knee doesn’t buckle inwards or jut out past the toes.
Bending your knees repeatedly or high impact exercises can irritate tissues in and around your kneecap.
Landing from a jump squat with straight knees, along with misalignment of the knees (i.e. bow legs or knock knees), are other contributing factors to knee pain.
Also, when the quadriceps (thigh muscles) and hamstrings are imbalanced, it leads to an unstable knee joint.
To prevent problems, instead of doing squats, perform lunges backward and forward. With lunges, your hip and ankle are bending together, stabilising and strengthening the knee.
Or begin with wall sits, an exercise that involves leaning against a wall with your knees at a 90 degree angle, upper body and lower back flat against the wall, and feet planted on the floor, toes relaxed.
You can hold it for a minute, two minutes, or however long you’re able to.
This isometric exercise strengthens the quadricep, hamstring and gluteal muscles.
A tight hamstring can also cause stress on the knees. Always stretch after a workout to reduce tightness and restore mobility.