How to Train Harder and Stay Injury-Free
By ERIC VELAZQUEZ
Training is good. Training hard is better. But training consistently is the key to drastic, lasting change to your health, performance and body composition. Unfortunately, there are a lot of things that can (potentially) disrupt that consistency. Work, family, commutes and social gatherings can all upend your schedule -- often suddenly -- leaving you a day late and a workout short in the gym. But the most sinister impediment to an undisturbed workout schedule is injury.
When we say "injury," we're not referring to the joint aches and muscle soreness that are part and parcel of an intense love affair with the iron. We are referring to soft-tissue injuries to muscles, tendons and ligaments -- both acute and chronic -- that require ample rest to heal. But while those tissues convalesce, the rest of your physique suffers: Muscle is lost, fat is stored and lungs return to stasis. And the worse the injury is, the longer the recovery time (read: the doughier you stand to become).
The good news is that you can fortify your muscles and joints against these types of injuries by simply taking a few pre-habilitative steps before and after workouts. Some of these tactics can even drastically (and immediately) improve performance and enhance recovery. Put another way, you'll be able to train harder more often with less chance of injury.
1. Stop stretching before workouts
Stretching is still cool. Just not in the way that it's been taught by generations of short-sighted PE teachers. In fact, the long-held practice of static stretching has been found to decrease performance while offering no greater protection against injury.
Studies have shown that static stretching before training can negatively impact strength. A better bet is dynamic stretching, which calls for you to perform several range-of-motion exercises that increase your body's core temperature, excite your nervous system and generally prepare your joints and muscles for the work ahead.
Dynamic stretching routines vary greatly, but the goal should be to spend three to five minutes working your way up through a series of activities of increasing intensity. Before squats, for example, you may follow a progression like this, doing each activity for 15 to 20 seconds: jogging in place, jumping jacks, high-knee running in place, partial body-weight squats, full body-weight squats and squat jumps.
If you've done it right, your heart rate should be elevated and you should have a light sweat going. Researchers have found that this type of warm-up improves strength and flexibility -- virtues that help reduce injury risk.
2. Do a specific warm-up
When you're done with your dynamic warm-up, it's time to get specific. Using the squat example again, this means getting under the bar and performing a few light sets, generally in a higher-rep range. This helps to increase blood flow to the muscles and joints that you'll be working, but, more importantly, it helps to engrain proper movement patterns ahead of your heavier work.
This brain training ahead of your working sets helps you work out more efficiently, limiting the small deviations in form that can send you to the trainer's table. Take advantage of these sets by focusing on every part of the movement, and do as many sets as you think are necessary before piling on the plates.
3. Stretch it out
Like we said, stretching is still cool, but timing is everything. After your workout is the time to sit and hold some static stretches with the muscle groups you've trained. Warm muscles are more limber than cold ones, meaning that you'll get a truer stretch with less risk of injury at this time.
You should hold each stretch for at least 30 seconds and up to 90, the top end of which has been shown to improve flexibility. Breathe slowly and deeply on each stretch, getting a little "deeper" into each stretch upon exhaling. Static stretching post-workout also can help speed recovery and has been shown to reduce (not eliminate) next-day muscle soreness.
4. Roll it out
Almost universally, professional athletes say that getting frequent massages is key to their success. Much to the dismay of our checkbook, they're not wrong.
Massage is a restorative process that promotes blood flow (and thus recovery) while also keeping muscles, connective tissues and fascia supple and healthy.
One cheap alternative? A high-density foam roller can help rub out pesky knots and release tension in aching muscle bellies -- a process known as myofascial release -- all without the costly enlistment of Helga's man-hands. Though painful at first, the use of foam rollers can help rejuvenate muscles and tendons between workouts.
Have you ever started a new workout routine only to be sidelined in the first week with a screaming shoulder, sore knee or achy back? "Yes," said every person reading this. In our enthusiasm, we sometimes trick ourselves into believing that we should be consistent at all costs -- even when our body is telling us otherwise. A better approach would be to temper your initial efforts and instead insist on a gradual progression from week to week. You don't have to lift all the weight on the first day.
Once you have that urge in check, it's important to let muscles recover between workouts -- 48 to 72 hours is a good general guideline. Eight-time Mr. Olympia Lee Haney said it best: "Stimulate, don't annihilate." And sleep. If you're not getting seven to nine hours a night, you can compromise the ability of the central nervous system to properly recruit muscles during intense training, which makes injury a near certainty.
Readers -- Do you have any additional tips and tricks on how to avoid workout injuries? Do you perform any of the tips mentioned above? Have you ever suffered a serious injury from a workout? Leave a comment below and let us know.
Eric Velazquez, CSCS, is a veteran health and fitness writer based in Southern California. A current contributor for MuscleMagandMuscle & Performancemagazines,Velazquez started with Muscle & Fitness in 2005 where he earned a reputation as the staff guinea pig, writing first-person features on CrossFit, boxing, baseball, Nike Sparq training and mixed martial arts. He is a self-proclaimed exercise enthusiast and prides himself on finding new ways to keep in shape. A father of two, he no longer subscribes to the "90-minute body" protocols of his youth, and he has long since swapped out droning and duration for intensity and innovation in his home-based workouts.