I injured my back while starting a new weight-lifting, and it was easily one of the most frustrating experiences I've been through. Not only is back pain tricky when it comes to figuring out the cause and fix, but it can also be really debilitating. And while I was lucky enough to mostly recover after a month or two of rest, those weeks where I couldn't do much (aside from walking and ) were hard as someone who relies on their daily workouts to feel mentally and physically at their best.
Now that I'm back to my regular workouts, I feel like my entire perspective on movement has changed. While it may be in part due to fear -- fear of triggering the pain again or injuring something else -- I have a newfound appreciation for moving in a way that is smart, effective and safe. On this journey, I've asked myself a lot of questions, like: How do you really prevent injury and stay safe? Is the answer to everything stretching? Is the key recovery? To find the answers, I tapped two experts who know a thing or two about staying safe and preventing injury when you work out. Keep reading to find out the most common workout injuries, and how to prevent them.
The most common workout injuries
While everyone's specific injuries are individual, in general, there are a few places that people injure most often when working out. "Back, knee and shoulder injuries are the most common I deal with in the fitness population," says Liz Letchford, a certified personal trainer and injury rehabilitation specialist. The most common cause of injury, according to Letchford, is increasing the intensity of the exercise too quickly.
, Master Trainer at P.volve in NYC, Integrative Health Coach and NASM Certified Trainer echoes this. "In general doing too much too soon and not having proper mobility and strength can be culprits of workout injuries," Atalie says. "For example, adding too much mileage too soon during a run can lead to stress fractures in the lower leg or taking a group fitness class with heavy weights can cause injury by overtaxing the musculoskeletal structures."
Besides making sure to take it slow and take your time when starting any exercise, Letchford says the best way to avoid injuries in any joint is to learn how to use good form. This is something you can do best by working with a certified personal trainer, since they are trained to help you learn proper form and can correct you if they notice you do something off.
How to prevent injury during workouts
Listen to your body
"Make a practice out of listening to the body," says Letchford. "Check in with fatigue levels, intensity of workouts and any beginnings of pain or discomfort in the body." Lots of people live by the "go hard, or go home" mentality when it comes to working out. But that type of attitude may not be doing you any favors, and could even be dangerous if you're consistently pushing yourself to the max.
Warm up properly
"Warm-ups elevate the body temperature and prep the muscles and joints for movement," says Atalie. "Taking time to warm up allows the muscles used during activity to have a better range of motion and contractile ability."
"Start with no equipment and learn correct movement patterns before adding load/resistance (weights/bands)," suggests Atalie. "Doing too much too soon can lead to injury because the muscles, bones, tendons are not ready to handle the load/force/speed," Atalie adds.
Cool down properly
Make time for a proper cool down after every workout, especially intense ones.
"Taking time to stretch after the workout will allow the nervous system to downregulate, preventing tightness and tension. It also returns the muscles to their resting length," says Atalie.
Consistency and proper recovery
Training consistently over time is better for the body than training sporadically. "Training 4-5 times a week for 15-30 minutes will lead to better strength and flexibility adaptations than doing nothing for days and training hard for 2-3 hours randomly," says Atalie. Making time for proper rest and recovery is also key since "over training will not allow the body to have time to fully recover. Exercise creates microscopic tears in the muscles and adequate rest allows them to repair and build," she says.
What to know about back, shoulder and knee injury prevention
"For spine health, proper bracing of the core and activation at the hips can make a huge difference in performance," says Letchford. Having good core strength is key to preventing back pain, because "the core's purpose is to support the spine," adds Atalie. "Generally, the abdominals become weak and disengaged because of inactivity, so the back musculature… tighten up and over work to support the spine."
According to Letchford and Atalie, when it comes to knee pain oftentimes you need to address the feet or hips to figure out the root cause. "The knees are generally impacted by what happens at the foot and hip. If the feet are too pronated/flat arched or supinated/high arched, it can change the impact at the knee," says Atalie.
If you suspect your feet could be the cause of knee pain, be sure to speak to a podiatrist for expert help. "Sometimes foot exercises may be prescribed to strengthen the arches and ankles, other times proper footwear that's either more or less supportive may be required as well as orthotics," says Atalie.
If you need another reason to stop slouching and fix your posture -- here's one. According to Atalie, poor posture is a common contributor to shoulder pain and injury. "Slouching (rounding of the upper body) creates muscle imbalances by causing the chest muscles to shorten and become tight and the back muscles to lengthen and become weak. It also changes the position of the shoulder blade which can cause deviation from its proper movement pattern and lead to shoulder impingements," says Atalie.
You may also need a professional to help you figure out how to work on your range of motion since "learning how to stabilize throughout the entire shoulder range of motion is the key to avoiding impingement or overuse," according to Letchford.
The bottom line
"Stretching alone isn't quite enough to reduce risk for injury. Intentional focus on improving strength within the entire range of motion is the way to achieve strong and healthy joints," says Letchford. In addition to stretching, remember to practice good form, and to warm up and cool down properly with any exercise to avoid injury. Always listen to your body and understand that mobility and injury prevention is complicated." Mobility doesn't just mean the ability to achieve a larger joint range of motion -- it is the ability to be strong and functional within that new range of motion," says Letchford.
The information contained in this article is for educational and informational purposes only and is not intended as health or medical advice. Always consult a physician or other qualified health provider regarding any questions you may have about a medical condition or health objectives.