Preventing Weightlifting Injuries
How many of you have had to modify or completely miss training days due to an injury because of weightlifting? Have activities in your daily life been affected, for example, opening a door, going up and down stairs, or putting your hair up in a ponytail? Well, that’s not cool. Since most of us are not making the Olympics, weightlifting should be a SUPPLEMENT to making our lives more awesome. It should not dig us in to a hole that we’re constantly trying to climb out of. I am an athletic trainer, who is also a weightlifter, so I would like to take some time to discuss how to prevent injuries from happening and what to do if you sustain one.
Common Weightlifting Injuries
Most weightlifting injuries are not that serious and never even get to a doctor’s office. It’s generally a nagging low back pain here, some knee pain here, or a shoulder that doesn’t always feel completely stable overhead, etc.
Due to the repetitive overloading of certain muscle groups, many times, injuries are soft tissue in nature (muscle strain, tendinopathy). Sometimes those muscles can get so overworked that it causes nerve dysfunction as seen in injuries such as wrist carpal tunnel syndrome, pinched nerve in the neck or low back (spinal disc injury), and sciatica. There are also instances where the muscular attachment at the bone is affected, or overloading of the bone occurs, leading to a stress fracture, such as a spondylolysis in the lumbar spine.
Then there are the injuries that occur in the blink of an eye, or an “acute” injury (not that there’s anything “cute” about it!). These are usually more serious, such as a dislocated elbow, Achilles tendon rupture, shoulder labrum/rotator cuff tear, or ACL tear (just to name a few). Unfortunately, injuries like this usually occur without warning… or do they? You may not be able to feel a dislocated elbow coming on (for example), but maybe you’ve had shoulder mobility issues in the past, and your elbow has been compensating this whole time. In our sport, there is no external contact, like a linebacker in football coming in hot for a quarterback sack. Yes, of course, there’s the external weight of the barbell, but it’s just our body solely responsible for what happens to it. It’s not to say every severe injury can be prevented or predicted, but there’s a lot we can do to lower our risk.
Differentiating between INJURED and HURTING
Your coach programs sets of 10 back squats (WITH pauses! Leo…). That HURTS- your quads are burning, your lungs are on fire, and your core feels all floozy. What about on that 10th rep, you’re grinding it out and you feel a pop in your knee, your quadriceps tendon has ruptured. That’s an INJURY. Hurting during and after workouts is normal, and can be minimized with proper recovery methods, which I’ll get to in a bit. An injury requires evaluation, diagnosis, and a proper rehabilitation plan from a qualified healthcare professional.
How to Prevent Weightlifting Injuries
First and foremost, if you haven’t already, make sure you have a quality coach. Managing training volume and intensity and integrating that with the demands and stressors of your regular life are things only an educated coach can help you with.
Second, make sure you’re getting enough quality sleep. Your body recovers most during sleep, and if you’re not getting it, you’re just setting yourself up for future troubles. Sometimes you may need to squeeze in an early morning workout, but if you didn’t go to bed until late the night before, you may be better off taking that extra hour or two to sleep and recover, than trying to grind through a training session. Of course, this specific instance is something you’d want to discuss with your coach.
Third, properly fuel your body. When it comes to eating, food is an essential component to recovery. Certain vitamins and minerals act to help your muscles repair and regrow, help keep your tendons and ligaments strong, and keep your bones dense (which is another post for another day). The food you put into your body powers your training and ultimately affects your performance. Being part of a sport with weight requirements is not necessarily easy, but it can be. You should have a plan mapped out for the months, weeks, and days leading up to your competition so you don’t have to cut x amount of kilos the day before a meet. That’s not healthy, and will definitely not leave you feeling your best to perform on that stage. Your coach may be very well educated in nutrition, or will be able to refer you to a specialist if you feel like you need extra assistance.
Fourth, do the extra stuff to help your muscles recover. Things like stretching, compression boots, yoga, sitting in a sauna, taking a walk on your rest day (and YES you need rest days!), are all important to staying healthy. Stay in balance by adding in accessory work to counterbalance the repetitive biomechanics of weightlifting. Find yourself a good massage therapist, athletic trainer, physical therapist, chiropractor, etc. to help you stay sharp so you can fire on all cylinders.
Finally, stay as stress-free as you can. Research has shown that you are more at risk for injury when there are stressors in your life. Do your best to help mitigate any stresses you may have by doing things you enjoy and spending time with people who make you feel good. Try meditating and yin yoga (youtube it and light a candle in your living room!) to help you calm down. And remember, weightlifting is supposed to be fun!
What to do if you Sustain a Weightlifting Injury
Most people just take a few days off, or spend some extra time “mobilizing”. While these could potentially be helpful tools, there’s usually much more than can be done.
If you sustain a more serious acute injury, or you have an injury that’s been going on for more than a week or two, be sure to see a health care provider to set you on the right path to recovery.
If it’s a muscle “tweak”, or a low back flare up, usually movement is actually better than complete rest. Going for an easy walk or stationary bike ride, implementing some breathing and core exercises, and doing some other specific and full body rehab exercises will help to expedite your return to full training. Do unilateral movements with the unaffected limb, and find other ways to integrate explosiveness (i.e. lower body injury, do seated medicine ball slams or upper body injury, do vertical jumps or sprints on assault bike). There’s A LOT you can continue to do while injured!
Being injured is straight up NOT FUN. You invest so much of your energy into this sport, but it can be taken away so fast. So most importantly, find ways to stay healthy mentally, to stay engaged, whether it’s by getting excited about rehab and conditioning, visualizing, or studying videos. Always keep sights on your goals!
In all, there are many ways to prevent injuries in the sport of weightlifting from ever occurring, like a well-designed program from an educated coach, sleeping well, eating correctly, recovering your muscles, and remaining stress-free. This may be cliché, but control what you can control! And for what you can’t control, don’t be afraid to ask for help of a health care provider, as they will be able to get you back to training healthily. Weightlifting is an awesome sport, and you want to make sure to keep yourself on the path to success!
Written by Jillian Seamon, an Athletic Trainer at St. Lukes Fitness & Performance Center in Pennsylvania. Jillian also competes as a member of East Coast Gold Weightlifting Team, under our very own Leo Totten, for Team USA. Recently Seamon, competed internationally for team USA, winning three gold medals.