Any exercise - any movement for that matter - presents a risk of injury. Whether a dynamic change in direction that puts stress on your knee ligaments, landing a jump and challenging your ankle, or a heavy overhead press that puts strain on your spine and shoulders, we must always exercise caution (quite literally). The simplest way to avoid injury and reduce this risk is learning how to maximise your body’s mechanics through the right movements.
A personal trainer will coach you to minimise risk (injury) while maximising return (#gains) from your exercise, whether it is a particularly risky movement or not. Once you have mastered that movement, you can take further steps to prevent injury. There are two types of injury: damage to either the ligament, or the muscle/tendon. Ligaments connect bones at a joint, and joints can only tolerate a certain amount of force in particular directions. The damage is done when a joint is taken past this tolerance range, especially in a direction it’s not designed for.
The correct and ideal movement of any muscle or joint does not and should not take it to this point. However, with any type of activity, an error or overexertion can cause this to happen. Likewise, overexertion can cause muscular damage too. Putting excess strain on a muscle - lifting weights beyond your current capacity, for example - will “tear” the muscle fibres and cause injury. “Current capacity” does depend on situation and context. You may be capable of a 100kg squat, but if you roll out of bed and try and rep one out straight away, you are quite likely to hurt yourself. Injuries occur in muscles because they are being asked to perform beyond that capability. Compensating muscles that assist in bearing the load of the movement can also be affected.
A joint that is not in its strongest position - outside its mechanical range - is also at risk of injury. This is why we warm up! Not in the literal sense of course - we’re not increasing body temperature. We’re increasing blood flow to muscles and ligaments - “fuelling” them. Muscles and joints tend to tighten up if they are not being used to at least 50% of their potential for a long period of time. We’re all familiar with that ‘rusty’ feeling. After not moving for an extended period, we feel stiff, and any kind of movement will be difficult. Heading straight to the squat rack after sitting down in the office all day is a good example. Genetics also play a factor in injury risk. Some people are naturally more coordinated than others, some have more resilient frames and musculature. Some people can bounce out of bed, lace their trainers, and explode into full exercise mode without worrying about warming up. Some people, of course, are the complete opposite, and require a slow, steady, careful and controlled build-up to 100% exertion level.
Being aware of your body and its warm-up requirements are critical to reducing your risk of injury. There are three stages to a good warm-up. First, a steady build in exertion levels to get the heart rate going, pumping blood to the muscles and joints. Second, work through the right range of motion for the appropriate muscles and ligaments based on the intended exercise. This is not to be confused with stretching! Many people try to push to their very maximum muscle limit while “cold” (without sufficient blood flow). This puts undue stress on the muscle, potentially causing injury. ‘Dynamic stretching’ - careful, controlled movements - is generally a better way to work towards the full exertion.
Third - practicing the movement itself. It is critical to refine the technique of any particular movement before attempting it at maximum effort. This ensures you are recruiting the right muscles, focusing on the right joints, and reducing the risk of performing the movement incorrectly. Be aware of your exertion levels during the warm up, too - don’t overdo it. If you are fatigued before you begin the exercise proper, a decrease in strength and focus increases injury risk.
It’s a fine line between warming up and burning out - and a good coach will help you walk it.