How to prevent knee, back, and shoulder injuries at the gym

Training in the gym is one of the safest way to build muscles and getting fit. But bad posture and movement patterns can make some exercises prone to injuries. This guide will help you identify those issues before they become injuries.

Many exercises place you and your body in positions that leave you vulnerable, especially when you are using weights in training. The ultimate goal is to be aware that you are indeed at risk, and how to avoid putting yourself in a position of receiving injuries. For instance, if you are training with heavy weights during squats, wearing knee sleeves and braces will prevent too much pressure from being placed on the knees. Hence, protecting the joint from excessive compression.

The revolving door of injury is by “wearing down”. This means that when the movement doesn’t feel quite right. For example, elbows may experience pain when you bench, or when you finish a set of squats or deadlifts and it feels like your lower back got more of a workout than your legs. These pains can be subtle in the beginning and may seem harmless, but they can grow into serious injuries (strains, sprains, or tendinitis) over a period of time. If protective measure are not taken at the right time, these small pain and sensations will grow into larger scale and become serious issues.

Besides wearing protective gear, knowing different variations of an exercise can also help you alleviate the pain and avoid injuries. The most common causes of weight-room pain consists of four major movement patterns:

  1. Knee dominant moves
  2. Hip dominant moves
  3. Push exercises
  4. Pull exercises

Before you start another workout, let the following tips be your guide to prevent injuries. By understanding the correct form and wearing the right gear, you will embrace your challenge with a more confident mentality.

Knee-Dominant Exercises; Squats, Step-ups, and Lunges

What you feel: Knee pain (especially around the kneecap), lower back pain

Why?: Improper tracking of the knee joint - your knee should go in one direction.

How to prevent knee pain: Strengthen your glute muscles. When you are in a squat position, your knees collapse inward. This position is called Valgus. Valgus knees place damaging side to side stress on your joint, particularly on your patellar tendon. The reason why your knees get into Valgus is actually isn’t the knee’s fault at all, the real culprit is a set of weak glutes. When your glutes do not have the strength they need to handle the load on your back, your knees automatically cave inwards in order to help you lift the weight. Weak glutes can also cause you to lean too forward when you squat, which can put excess pressure on your lower back.

To strengthen your glute muscles, try adding glute bridges and hip thrusts to your workouts. If you have a bar on your back, focus on pulling it down into your traps. This will help stabilize the upper part of your torso and prevent it from tipping forward. If you have difficulty keeping your heels on the floor, try adding mobility drills, stretching, and foam rolling for your calves prior to squats.

Hip-Dominant Exercises: Deadlifts, Hip Thrusts, and Glute Bridges

What you feel: Pain in your lower back (the lumbar spine) or neck (cervical spine)

Why?: Incorrect position of the hips - moving hips too low and end up squatting the deadlift, or setting hips too high, resulting rounding the back to lift the bar from the floor. Having a rounded back or overly arched back stresses your spine in its most vulnerable position.

How to prevent pain to occur: The goal is to maintain a neutral spine curve. The spine should curve inwards at the lower back, slightly outward between the shoulder blades, and back inward at the neck. If the deadlift is challenging, you can try placing a barbell or dumbbells on a box or platform. This will bring the weights closer to you and as a result, limits the range of motion to help you be in more control of your posture.

“Push” Exercises: Bench Press Variations, Push-ups, Shoulder Presses, Triceps Extensions

What you feel: Shoulder pain, elbow strain, wrist discomfort.

Why?: Misalignment in wrist, elbow, and shoulder (not keeping them stacked) while doing bench and shoulder presses. Bending your wrists can also cause pain.

How to prevent pain to occur: Maintain a tight and firm position from your wrists to your core. Ensure you are gripping the bar correctly by placing your palms on the bar first, rather than wrapping with your fingers first. Properly placing the bar across your palms will stack the weight on the bones of your forearm, resulting in a more powerful and far less injury-prone press. Keep your core engaged, oblique’s braced, and rib cage down. This will help prevent the spine from hyperextending. If you are working with heavy weights, it’s also a good idea to have a spotter (your workout partner) to assist the push up motion.

“Pull” Exercises: Rows, Pull-ups, Face-pulls, Biceps curls

What you feel: Shoulder pain, wrist discomfort, tennis elbow

Why?: Not controlling the lowering phase of the pull-up. Allowing your body to free-fall from the top position exerts additional force on the joints from your shoulder blades, shoulder, elbows, and wrists. The same effect applies when you’re doing biceps curls, rows, and any other pulling exercise.

How to prevent shoulder pain: Start by using lighter weights. In general, if you can’t control the weight for 2-3 seconds on the descent, the weight may just be too heavy for you. Focus on timing while lowering the weight. Count 3-5 seconds while lowering your body from the pull-up bar or while lowering the weight. With each rep, try to pretend you are pinching and releasing an orange between your shoulder blades. Keep your entire body tight and braced to keep yourself in a stable position and prevent swinging. Always keep your core tight and engaged. If you are experiencing elbow pain, try pulling exercises with a palms-up grip or with palms facing each other. The rotation of your palm eases the stress you put on your shoulders, therefore making the movement more elbow-bend friendly.