Building muscle and getting strong are crucial to maximizing your athleticism, but if what you do in the weight room leaves you injured, all of your hard work won't be of much benefit.
The goal of every athlete should be to train as hard as possible without getting injured. That might sound obvious, but doing it requires many athletes to go against their instincts and oppose the commonly sought after markers of progress in the gym.
Below are two workout mistakes that increase the likelihood of injury during strength training, and the changes you need to make to avoid them and stay healthy.
Workout Mistake 1: Sacrificing Mechanics for Weight
I often see athletes slinging weight around from point A to point B with little regard for mastering proper mechanics and performing the movement correctly through a full range of motion.
Young athletes (especially young men) often measure themselves as competitors by the amount of weight they can lift, particularly in common exercises like the Bench Press, Squat and Deadlift. This often leads them to disregard mechanics. We've all seen athletes who, in order to lift more weight, contort their bodies to perform what, at best, loosely resembles the intended movement.
In so doing, they may be able to claim they lifted 10 more pounds; but they failed to perform the movement correctly, sacrificing progress in building muscle and gaining strength, generating a negative effect on their overall effectiveness as athletes, and placing them at a greater risk for injury.
Do this instead: Maximize Muscular Tension
The amount of tension you can create in a muscle influences the amount of force the muscle can generate and is a determining factor in your ability to build muscle.
Maximizing muscular tension largely relies on your mind-muscle connection, a concept often confined to the bodybuilding community, but one that is very important for improving strength while minimizing the chance of injury.
If you feel stress or discomfort in your joints when performing an exercise, your mind-muscle connection is lacking. Seeking improvement in that area would enhance your ability to gain muscle and improve the health of your joints.
During any lift, you should feel stress and fatigue in the target muscles, not the surrounding joints.
By developing a strong mind-muscle connection and focusing more on working your target muscles during a lift, you will keep the stress on the muscles—where it should be—and off your joints, minimizing the risk of injury.
Workout Mistake 2: Adding Weight to the Bar at All Costs
The Overload Principle states that muscles experience overload when exposed to a stimulus greater than they are normally accustomed to, and that such overload is necessary for new muscle growth—or any desired adaptation. Progressive Overload is an essential part of getting strong and building muscle.
Increasing the amount of weight lifted is typically the simplest and most measurable way to apply overload, so many athletes and coaches determine to lift more weight each time they step into the gym, which is often a mistake.
Lifting more weight is a good thing, but not if it comes at the expense of proper mechanics and working the target muscles. After a year or two of consistent training, most athletes start to see a significant reduction in their ability to add weight to their lifts on a linear basis.
Continuing to demand that more weight be lifted each week (or on any kind of regular basis) vastly increases the likelihood of injury.
Do this instead: Embrace Other Forms of Progressive Overload
It's true that you will get stronger and build muscle only if you consistently progress in some way; and although increasing the amount of weight lifted is one way to apply new stimulus to your muscles, it's not the only way.
Doing "better work" is another way to overload your muscles and make gains in size and strength.
Increasing your ability to target your working muscles and maximize tension (as discussed above) is how you can do better work. Your body doesn't know how much weight you're lifting. All it knows is the amount of tension it feels in your working muscles.
Another way to apply progressive overload and improve your performance without increasing the amount of weight you're lifting is to lift a weight more explosively. Even when you are unable to add weight to your lifts, you may be able to perform the movement with more velocity than you did the previous week.
The best thing about focusing on doing better work and lifting weights more explosively is that athletes are usually able to use these techniques on a more consistent basis, even as they become more advanced in their training.
Bridge The Gap
Training intensely is important if you want to make progress, but it's important to find a balance between working hard and overdoing it. As athletes, we're hardwired to bring our best every time we train. While you need to keep doing that, you also need to remind yourself that the purpose of what you do in the weight room is to improve your performance on the court or field.
To stay healthy while building muscle and getting stronger, athletes need to avoid these common workout mistakes.
Baechle, Thomas R. Essentials of Strength Training and Conditioning. 3rd ed. Champaign, IL: Human Kinetics, 2008.
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