| By Alex Cromartie |
How do you work your body hard enough to make a physiological adaptation without hurting yourself?
If you want a healthy body in your future, then it is important that health and fitness become a lifestyle, not just an occasional quick fix.
To make fitness a lifestyle, you have to be in it for the long haul, and it is a lot harder to accomplish this when you have muscle or joint injuries. But how do you work your body hard enough to make a physiological adaptation without hurting yourself in the process?
Here are some of my favorite tips to prevent injury during your workout:
Warm up before exercise with five or 10 minutes of light calisthenics, bodyweight exercises, lighter versions of the exercises to be performed, or even a few minutes of cardio on machines such as an elliptical or a recumbent bike. Doing so will prevent injury by warming up the muscles and preparing them for movement. Warming up also makes for a much more effective workout. Don’t make the mistake of skipping this step!
Engage your transverse abdominals (TVA).
The TVA is a muscle that acts as your body’s natural weight belt (or your body’s natural pair of Spanx, if you prefer). It is the core of the core, and is functionally one of the most important muscles in the body. The problem is, most people don’t use it when exercising! To find and strengthen yours, begin by preforming a Kegel contraction and holding it. This is the same muscle that you use to stop the flow of urine. Next, draw the bellybutton in toward the spine and hold for two seconds. Preform 10 times to get your TVA functioning. Be aware that the TVA isn’t the same as your abdominal muscles. The TVA reinforces the abdomen and the rest of the core, which we will learn to engage next.
Engage and stabilize your core.
In addition to learning to engage the TVA, it is critical to use proper form that stabilizes the spine, the shoulder girdle, and the hips. We do this in a few simple steps.
- Begin by making your spine as tall and straight as possible. Hold the chest up high, pinch the shoulder blades back together, and hold the shoulders down away from the ears.
- If standing, point the feet straight ahead and evenly distribute your weight between them, making sure not to lock the legs. Tighten your glutes by “screwing your feet into the ground in an outward motion.” Although it is important that the feet remain parallel, this outward rotation creates torque and engages the glutes. If seated, simply tighten the glutes, evenly distributing your weight between them.
- Engage your abdomen by rocking the hips forward as if trying to tuck your tailbone between your legs. Finally, brace the abs as if someone was going to punch you in the stomach. Remember not to hold your breath though, as this is a telltale sign that you aren’t engaging the core properly.
This basic exercise form is applicable to EVERY exercise done in the gym, with the exception of crunch type exercises. Constantly re-check yourself throughout each set to make sure you are maintaining this form. When you can no longer hold your core tight and in position, you are finished with that set!
Foam roll and stretch your muscles.
It is imperative to properly condition tight, or facilitated muscles. Doing so will give you more effective workouts, relieve pain, and prevent injury. We do this by foam rolling and by stretching the muscles.
I call the foam roller “the poor man’s deep tissue masseuse” because it accomplishes the same thing when used properly by breaking up lactic acid deposits that form in the muscle and keep it from functioning properly. Foam rolling is best performed BEFORE your workouts, and is done so by putting the foam roller between the body and the floor. Bodyweight is then used to apply pressure to the sore muscles. Foam rolling is incredible for seeing immediate relief from some types of chronic knee and hip pain! Two great places to start are the IT bands (the lateral side of the femur), and the thoracic spine (middle to upper back). YouTube is full of great videos demonstrating this process.
As for stretching, contrary to what many of us were told in school, static stretching should be done after your workout, not before. Spend five or 10 minutes cooling down with stretches. Always keep the spine straight and the core tight when stretching. Hold stretches for 20 to 30 seconds, or until you feel the stretched muscle “release.”
Work your back.
People only see the front of their body in the mirror, and the backside often becomes neglected in the gym. Ironically though, it is the back that (when properly strengthened) holds the body upright, pulls the shoulders back, and projects an air of confidence and health out to the rest of the world. As a general rule, I tell my clients to work their back at least as much as their front, and more if they suffer from kyphosis (a hunched back), or if they have certain types of shoulder pain. This means focus on “pulling” exercises such as the lat pull-down and the seated row machines.
Don’t only use machines.
We all love machines. They are comfortable, fun, and are great for developing raw strength and muscle mass. The problem is that because they don’t work the stabilizer muscle fibers, they don’t really help much with functional strength and stability. Stabilizer muscles are also responsible for balance and become particularly important over age 65. Make sure to also include some dumbbell lifting and calisthenics in your workout to keep theses fibers active. Include balance-specific exercises if you are over age 65.
Address muscle imbalances.
To understand why people injure themselves when exercising, it is important to understand how we develop movement patterns. We are all born with postural deviations (think “knock-knees,” “pigeon-toes” hunched shoulders, or an excessive arch in the lower back) that unless addressed through corrective exercise, will gradually get worse and worse over time due to the relentless effects of gravity. This eventually leads to chronic pain of the joints, and/or tight, overworked muscle groups that wind up sprained or torn when stressed during activity. They are overworking because of the fact that when your body doesn’t have enough strength (or hasn’t learned how) to properly perform a movement, it recruits other muscle groups that it is more familiar with to “pick up the slack.”
An example here would be getting on all fours and kicking one leg out behind you. Your body should primarily be using the glutes to perform the action, but because they are not functioning properly in the majority of the population, there is a good chance that your body may be relying heavily on the hamstrings to lift the leg in the air. If your hamstrings are facilitated (or “tight”), it’s because they are overworked from doing the glute’s job! Unfortunately, if you keep making your hamstrings tighter (either knowingly or unknowingly), you are much more likely to pull or tear them during physical activity.
As I mentioned earlier, in addition to muscle injury, unchecked postural deviations can also create joint pain. The deviations I see most often in my clients are knee pain from knee valgus (knock-knees), shoulder pain from kyphosis (hump-back), and lower back pain from lordosis (excessive arch in the lower back with the appearance of a prominent rear end). All of these conditions usually can and should be corrected before heavy strength training.
The most important step to take when beginning a health and fitness program is simply to get started. If you are already doing that, then you are already half way there. Don’t underestimate the value though of some expert knowledge when you are just getting started (either through your own research or from a qualified fitness professional). It will save you a lot of time and frustration, and help you get your health and fitness journey moving in the right direction.