Whether your workout routine of choice involves the trail or treadmill, weight room or water, there is always some risk of injury. As it goes, an estimated 8.6 million Americans get injured while doing physical activity each year. However, that potential risk should not keep you from moving your body in the ways you want or from exercising altogether.
“Exercise, as a whole, is one of the best things you can do for your overall health and longevity,” says exercise physiologist and certified strength and conditioning coach Sharon Gam, Ph.D., C.S.C.S. One study published in the journal Sports Medicine and Health Sciences found that regular exercise reduces the risk of life-threatening chronic diseases such as heart disease, type 2 diabetes, some types of cancers, chronic kidney disease, COPD, and more. Meanwhile, a second published in the Journal of Aging Research linked regular activity with an increased life expectancy (by up to 7 years!).
Frankly, the risks associated with skimping on exercise are far more dire than any injury risk your movement routine poses. That said, you can take a few simple precautions to significantly reduce your risk of getting hurt while getting after it, Gam says. Here’s what to know about the most common reasons people get injured while working out.
1. Poor Mobility
“Mobility is your ability to actively move and control your muscles through a range of motion,” explains physical therapist Grayson Wickham, D.P.T., C.S.C.S., founder of digital movement platform Movement Vault. In other words, it’s strength within your flexibility. As a general rule, someone with sound mobility can safely move their joints through their full range of motion, while someone with imperfect mobility won’t be able to do so without forcing other parts of their body into suboptimal positions, he explains.
“The body is great at compensating, so if one joint isn’t mobile enough to complete the movement you’re attempting, surrounding joints take over to help you get the job done,” Wickham explains. The problem? Those joints are then taking on jobs they were not designed to complete, which can put a lot of wear and tear on them and lead to pain and injury over time.
If, for instance, you don’t have the prerequisite hamstring mobility to pull from the floor during a deadlift, your lower back may round down to bring you closer to the floor. “Over time, this can lead to back pain, or, in extreme cases, a bulging disc,” says Wickham. Similarly, if you are doing a shoulder-to-overhead movement and don’t have the necessary shoulder flexion, your back will arch, which can lead to lower back pain, he notes.
Start by adding mobility-improving exercises like shoulder rotations and hip 90-90s into your routine. Better yet, subscribe to an app or web-based mobility program like Movement Vault, Pliability, or The Ready State. “Just 10 minutes of mobility work a day can help you gain access to new ranges of motion, and therefore reduce risk of injury at the gym rather quickly,” says Wickham.
In the meantime, “you can reduce your risk of injury by moving within your current mobility limits,” he says. If, for example, you have tight hips but have squats on the docket, rather than squatting ass-to-grass, lower only as far as you can without your chest dropping, your spine rounding, or your pelvis tucking under your body. Similarly, if you have tight hamstrings, raise the start position of the bar for deadlifts by pulling it off of the J-hooks on a power rack or positioning it atop weight plates.
2. Improper Form
Each exercise modality—be it strength- or cardio-based—requires its own particular skill set.
Whether you’re an Olympic lifter, powerlifter, CrossFitter, or weight room regular, you need to know how to properly squat, hinge, press, and pull with sound form. Otherwise, you risk acquiring any number of injuries, such as muscle strains, ligament sprains, tendon ruptures, or chronic pain, research suggests.
Similarly, if you run or ride for exercise, you need to make sure you stride or pedal with sound mechanics to avoid hip, ankle, and knee issues. If you place your feet on the pavement with an inward or outward turn, for instance, you can place undue stress on your ankles or knees that can lead to overuse injuries down the road, according to research published in the Orthopaedic Journal of Sports Medicine.
Based on your exercise modality of choice, Gam recommends investing in at least a session or two with a personal trainer—particularly one who specializes in whatever you’re into. “A professional can teach good form, help identify any mobility limitations you’re navigating, give you appropriate exercise variations depending on your current strength, and troubleshoot any other issues,” she says.
Watching videos that demonstrate proper form can also be helpful, as can watching yourself in the mirror while you move, Gam adds. “Even better: Record yourself, watch your form in between sets, and make adjustments as needed,” she recommends.
3. Skimping On Your Warm-Ups
Especially if you’re short on time, you may be inclined to go straight for the tread sprints or go right for the heaviest weights on the dumbbell rack. But failing to warm up before going hard and/or heavy greatly increases your chances of getting injured, according to Gam.
“A proper warm-up promotes blood flow to your muscles and joints, and prepares your heart, blood vessels, muscles, and connective tissues for the increased stress they’re going to experience,” she explains. Jumping straight into hard exercise before your cardiovascular system and muscles are ready can increase your risk of muscular, as well as cardiovascular, injuries, she says.
Notably, warming up can also improve performance. One review published in the British Journal of Sports Medicine found that dynamic warm-up ahead of exercise can enhance power and strength, while another found it can improve overall performance.
No matter how you’ll be training, certified strength and conditioning coach Jake Harcoff, C.S.C.S., owner of AIM Athletic, recommends implementing the RAMP warm-up method, which stands for Raise, Activate, Mobilize, and Potentiate (or Prime).
“The first step is to gradually raise your heart rate and body temperature, which will get your blood pumping throughout your muscles, and can be achieved through some low-intensity cardio like jogging, jumping jacks, or cycling,” he says.
The next steps are to activate and mobilize the muscles that will be used in the workout or activity in order to improve range of motion, coordination, and stability, which are all important factors in preventing injury. “This can be done through exercises such as squats, lunges, or push-ups, as well as movements like arm circles, leg swings, and neck rotations,” he notes.
The last part of your warm-up is to prime your muscles and nervous system for the specific workout you have on tap. “This can be done through exercises that mimic the movements to be performed during your activity, such as sprinting, jumping, or throwing,” explains Harcoff.
Exercise may be one of the best things you can do to ward off sickness and disease, but dosage matters. While what qualifies as the ideal amount of exercise varies from person to person, if that amount of exercise exceeds your recovery and nutrition protocols, you risk coming down with overtraining syndrome, Harcoff says.
“Overtraining syndrome is a condition that can occur when an athlete or individual experiences an imbalance between their training load and recovery,” says Harcoff. Typically, the condition reveals itself through a combination of physical and mental symptoms such as difficulty sleeping, muscle pain and stiffness, mood disturbances, fatigue, depression and anxiety, or trouble concentrating, he explains.
Your risk of musculoskeletal injuries becomes much higher when you’re overtrained, adds Wickham. You see, when you exercise, your sheer tiny microscopic tears into your muscles. Provided you recover adequately, these ultimately make your muscle fibers more resilient than before, Harcoff explains. However, “if your muscle fibers aren’t repairing, you just continue breaking them down, which makes them less resilient,” he says. Sooner or later, you wind up injured.
To avoid overtraining, you need to properly fuel for and recover from your exercise routine. “Eating enough calories and getting adequate protein, carbohydrates, and healthy fats can help athletes avoid overtraining syndrome as well as support optimal performance,” says Harcoff. A sports nutritionist can give you personalized calorie and macronutrient recommendations based on your lifestyle and exercise routine.
In addition to prioritizing sleep, athletes should also consider implementing recovery-boosting techniques such as massage, stretching, and meditation, he adds.
You also need to monitor—and do what you can to manage—your overall stress levels, says Gam. “Stress has strong physiological effects and periods of stress can often change the amount or intensity of exercise your body can handle,” she explains. When your stress levels rise, it’s generally wise to dial back your workout intensity.
If you’re already plagued by overtraining syndrome, the best thing you can do is to rest, rest, and rest some more, according to Gam. “Decreasing training loads, prioritizing sleep, hydrating properly, consuming quality, nutritious foods, and monitoring stress levels will give your body what it needs to recover from overtraining syndrome,” she says. From there, you can gradually start to build your routine back up.