How to avoid injuries while lifting weights

Carol Sponagle

When we think about sports injuries, it's usually the smash-ups that come to mind: football, rugby, soccer and other activities where bodies collide.

But avoiding contact sports won't necessarily eliminate the risk of injury when you're trying to get fit.

Each day, about 150 injuries related to weight training are treated in emergency rooms across the country. In a study by the Center for Injury Research and Policy of the Research Institute at Nationwide Children's Hospital, more than 970,000 weight training-related injuries were reported between 1990 and 2007.

Young males ages 13 to 24 suffered the greatest number of weight-training injuries - most often when they dropped weights.

However, the greatest rise in weightlifting injuries occurred among people ages 45 and older who overexerted while using weight-training machines. It's not surprising, considering the current enthusiasm over the benefits of exercise for older adults.

Even though weight training can be risky, the benefits of using weights far outweigh the risks of leading a sedentary lifestyle, experts say.

When done with safety in mind, including weight training as part of your workout can help build muscle tone, burn fat and increase bone density.

But begin with caution - incorrect technique can cause sprains, strains, fractures and other injuries.

Avoiding injuries

Katie Fowler, a certified strength conditioning specialist and a personal trainer at Body Symmetry in Springfield, Ill., says that when it comes to safety, individuals at any age should seek adoctor's advice before beginning a weight-training program.

After seeing your doctor, she suggests taking a weight-training program slowly and one step at a time.

"Educate yourself on what's right for you ... pick a program that best suits your needs, (and) go in progressions. Some (people) skip steps. You need to have a foundation."

Fowler recommends beginning with exercises that use your own body weight, like wall push-ups. 

"It's very important to handle your own load before you can handle extra weight," she warns, adding that balance is especially important for older adults.

Ask if you don't know

If you belong to a fitness club, ask for help from staff members.

For those who work out at home, there are a number of sources online that can offer assistance. Just be sure to use a reputable, authoritative source.

Many of the following do's and don'ts come from, and

What you need

  • Wear shoes. Fitness shoes with good traction can help you avoid injuries by keeping you from slipping.
  • Use weightlifting gloves to improve your grip and prevent calluses.
  • Make sure your equipment is in good condition.
  • For the average person, weightlifting belts aren't necessary unless you plan to do power lifts or dead lifts. Wear the belt as a reminder to keep your spine in correct form.

Before you begin

  • Find a workout buddy. Don't lift heavy weights without a spotter.
  • Warm up. Ten minutes of aerobic activity before lifting will help you avoid muscle injury.

As you lift

  • Maintain good form. Keep your spine in a stable, neutral position.
  • Learn how to pick up weights safely, lifting with your legs instead of your back. Do not lock joints (knees, elbows, etc.).
  • Perform each movement slowly to promote safety and to isolate target muscle groups for a better workout.
  •  Focus on the specific muscles for each exercise. Avoid using the rest of your body to lift the weight.
  • If you are using machine weights, make sure each machine is adjusted to fit your body dimensions to allow a full range of joint motion.
  • Don't hold your breath - it can lead to dangerous blood pressure levels. Breathe out as you lift weight and breathe in as you lower the weight.
  • Don't overdo it. You want your muscles to be fatigued, not injured. Stop if you feel any pain and try again in a few days, using lighter weights.

As you progress

  • Start small. Don't grab the heaviest weights on the rack to impress someone at the gym. Begin with a weight that's comfortable for 12 to 15 repetitions. If you can't complete that many repetitions with a full range of motion, reduce the amount of weight you're lifting.
  • As you get stronger, a good rule of thumb for increasing weight is to go heavier by no more than 10 percent of what your body is used to lifting. For example, when you can easily lift 40 pounds, add no more than 4 pounds to the barbell when you work to increase your strength.

After you're done

  • Return weights to the proper rack or to a safe spot to avoid accidents.
  • Get plenty of rest and avoid doing the same exercises two days in a row. Planning can help: work specific muscle groups on specific days. For example, Mondays - arms and shoulders. Tuesdays - legs, etc.
  • Eat a balanced diet and drink plenty of water.

Benefits of strength training

Muscle mass diminishes naturally with age. Strength training - using weights - can help you maintain your lean muscle mass and keep your percentage of body fat down.

Weight training can also help a person:

  • Reduce the risk of osteoporosis by increasing bone density
  • Control weight by helping your body burn calories more efficiently
  • Reduce injuries through improved flexibility and balance
  • Increase stamina
  • Boost self-confidence
  • Promote a positive body image
  • Reduce insomnia
  • Manage chronic conditions by reducing symptoms of obesity, diabetes, depression, back pain, arthritis and osteoporosis