There’s always a surge in the number of people racing to the gym to get a spot at the squat rack or training bench to fulfill New Year’s resolutions.
With Quitter’s Day – the second Friday in January marked as the day for people to give up on their goals – long behind us, the gyms have returned to normal capacity except for the most bound and determined individuals.
While lifting weights is a great way to build muscle strength and endurance, if done improperly, it can lead to serious injury.
James Perry, DO, an orthopedic spine and trauma surgeon with Jacksonville Orthopaedic Institute (JOI), regularly exercises with cardiovascular and resistance training and said the first step to preventing injury is to educate people before it happens.
“There’s a series of things to consider when wanting to lift properly,” said Dr. Perry. “If you know you’re about to lift, take a moment to plan ahead on what you’re about to do.”
Don’t skip warmup
Even if you’re short on time, take a moment to warm up. It’s the most important part of your exercise routine because it allows you to ease into a light movement, gradually raising your heart rate, oxygen to the body and blood flow to the muscles.
Additionally, adding in a good stretch afterward will help increase flexibility and blood flow. It’s important to remember not to stretch a cold muscle.
According to Dr. Perry, being in better physical shape relies heavily on maintaining core strength and stability. When working out, keep your abdominal muscles engaged to support your spine.
“People need to understand that it’s not just the six-pack muscles that define this strength. The core is a three-dimensional area with a front, back, top and bottom,” said Dr. Perry.
The major muscles of the core include internal and external obliques, erector spinae, diaphragm, pelvic floor muscles, transverse abdominis and rectus abdominus (or six-pack abs). Engaging your core prior to lifting ensures all the support and stability muscles are active before you take on the extra weight.
Mist'aches' in the gym
If you're new to lifting weights, don’t rely on learning by watching other people work out at the gym; they may not be using proper form. If you’re unsure about technique, consult a trainer to make sure you're doing the exercises correctly and using your recommended weight range. Additionally, you can go online to find many different resources, including videos, apps and classes to teach you proper techniques.
“Having a good stable base with feet shoulder-width apart and firmly planted, bending with your knees, and keeping your back straight are all ways to prevent injury,” said Dr. Perry.
According to Dr. Perry, most back injuries from lifting are caused by improper technique or form, which can add unnecessary stress to the lower back, leading to pain or injury.
Some examples of things to avoid when lifting include:
- Carrying the weight far away from your body
- Rounding your back
- Making jerking movements
If you are unsure about your form or technique, don't hesitate to ask staff or a trainer for assistance.
Another mistake people make when they start weightlifting is going too big. Trying to lift a weight that's too heavy can result in poor form, strained or torn muscles, lack of control or dropping the weight, and injury.
“When you’re a beginner or have been out of practice for a while, start lighter and work your way up,” advised Dr. Perry. “Going to the gym and gradually increasing your weight and reps over time will allow you to not overdo it.”
Don’t forget to listen to your body. It’s important to know the difference between “feeling the burn” and having pain shoot up your back.
“The workout pain that is OK to feel is a burn in the muscle that is present during physical activity and builds up over time,” said Dr. Perry. “Pain associated with injury, like throwing your back out, is going to be sharper, searing aches that are present with normal activities outside of exercising.”
Dr. Perry recommends the “McKenzie Method®” to his patients for alleviating back pain. This is a type of physical therapy and exercise that centralizes pain and then focuses on self-healing techniques, including exercise.
When to seek professional help
Minor sprains and strains typically heal between three and four weeks. People can heal these injuries with rest, ice and anti-inflammatory medications.
For symptoms that get progressively worse over time, or when the pain is associated with numbness or shoots down into the extremities, individuals should seek professional help.
“Think of it like the common cold and seeking advice from your primary care doctor. If your back pain persists or worsens, reach out to a musculoskeletal orthopedic care provider for further investigation,” explained Dr. Perry.
To learn more about common back injuries and treatment options, listen to this podcast interview with Dr. James Perry, DO, an orthopedic spine and trauma surgeon with Jacksonville Orthopaedic Institute.