An athletic body is truly a work of art, a wonder to behold. Male or female, every serious athlete, from swimmers to sprinters to gymnasts to bodybuilders, dedicates a tremendous amount of time to their chosen endeavor, spending hours each day striving for excellence. The result is a physique that is strong, healthy, and in good working order.
While genetics may play a role in muscular development, the bulk of the responsibility for achieving an optimally functioning body lies in prudent and careful training.
The law of averages suggests that if we engage in any activity for a long enough period of time, the chances of an injury increase. While some exercise-related injuries may be out of our control, such as a baseball being thrown by the pitcher at such an angle as to hit the batter in the chest, most common injuries that sideline athletes are quite easily preventable.
A few simple steps can be taken each time one engages in strenuous activity in help ensure a safe training session. Understanding the function of each of these steps helps to illustrate their importance in maintaining an injury-free physique. One of the most commonly overlooked parts of any workout is the warm-up. Designed to increase the body’s core temperature and prepare the muscles for the more intense exercises to follow, a proper warm-up should last anywhere from 5 to 10 minutes. Gone are the days of static stretching; research has indicated that a safer warm-up should include joint preparatory movements, mimicking the dynamics and range of motion through which the body will be moving once the workout commences. Once the muscles are sufficiently warmed up, gentle stretching can be done in an attempt to lengthen the muscles and tendons, a key element in staving off an injury.
As one might surmise, maintaining correct form while training is another important aspect that is inherently accepted, but often neglected. This seems to be particularly applicable to bodybuilders, who often sacrifice good form for heavier weights. Not only will improper form lead to injuries that may necessitate time away from the gym, but the muscles themselves will fail to achieve the intended and desirable growth and strength. Poor form coupled with using weights that are too heavy will place undue stress on the joints, weakening them and making them more prone to injury. Before attempting a new lift in the gym, thoroughly familiarize yourself with its function and execution; then begin with a manageable amount of weight as you engage in the exercise.
Below are some of the most common examples of poor form, and how they can be adjusted to promote injury-free strength gains:
- Using momentum when lifting weights: If it is necessary to throw the entire body into an exercise in order to lift the weight, it is most likely being executed improperly and may result in joint damage. Slow, controlled movements within the full range of motion dictated by the exercise, will offer the safest and most expedient route to successful muscular development.
- Arching the back while bench pressing: A sure indication that the chosen weight is too much for the lifter to handle is when the pectoral muscles have ceased working and the back is forced to take over. Bench-pressing a weight that is manageable will allow maximal contraction of the pectoral muscles, invoking the help of the triceps and deltoids when necessary. Keeping the back glued to the bench has the added benefit of recruiting some abdominals as well!
- Holding one’s breath: This can have serious consequences if done for prolonged periods of time, especially when the body is under tension. Exhaling with the effort of the lift, and breathing in during the “negative” part will ensure even and consistent delivery of oxygen to the muscles, when they need it the most.
- Slumped shoulders/rounded upper back: This is of particular concern while training the erector spinae, and could lead to serious lower back injuries. Invoking the power of the core stabilizers is vital during such movements. If this is a weak area, performing abdominal exercises with added resistance will help to strengthen internal stabilizers.
- Solo heavy lifting: While progressive overload is definitely important when trying to encourage muscular size and strength, attempting a 1-rep max unassisted is quite unsafe and can easily lead to dangerous injuries. If such a lift is your goal for a particular training session, plan to bring a friend or training buddy with you. A good spotter can be one of the most effective allies in the gym.
As much as we would like to believe that the gym is where all muscular changes take place, one cannot progress to the next level of growth and development without spending a dedicated amount of time in the kitchen. The food that is consumed is the fuel that drives the metabolism; our goal is to nurture that developing physique with the appropriate amounts of such fuel, and at specific times throughout the day. Training hard without properly feeding one’s body may leave it in a weakened state, vulnerable to breakdown and injury. Muscles that are being challenged on a consistent basis require adequate amounts of protein, hydration, complex carbohydrates and healthy fats. In the absence of any of these, progress will be stalled. Often when athletes observe this dynamic, their first reaction to such frustration is to train harder, further placing the already compromised body at risk for injury. Part of the adage “Don’t train harder, train smarter” includes knowing how much of each macronutrient is necessary to create the physique for which you are striving.
When close attention is paid to all four of these important components, an athlete can maximize his chances of remaining injury-free while still training hard for results. Add an adequate amount of rest to this formula, and you can look forward to a stable and strong physique for many years to come!
About the Author
Cathleen Kronemer is an AFAA-Certified Group Exercise Instructor, NSCA-Certified Personal Trainer, competitive bodybuilder and freelance writer. She is employed at the Jewish Community Center in St. Louis, MO. Cathleen has been involved in the fitness industry for 22 years. Look for her on www.WorldPhysique.com. She welcomes your feedback and your comments!