If you're often black and blue after lifting weights, the problem could be your technique. But that's not the only cause of bruising. Supplements, medications or a health condition may be to blame.
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Compared with contact sports, weight lifting actually causes relatively few bruises, says Lee A. Mancini, MD, a sports medicine physician at the University of Massachusetts Memorial Medical Center in Worcester and an assistant professor at UMass Medical School. "If you're bruising every time you go to the gym, it's not the exercise that's the cause," says Dr. Mancini, who's also certified as both a nutritionist and a strength and conditioning specialist.
However, some types of exercise can increase the risk, he points out. These include power lifting, CrossFit training and exercises that incorporate explosive or ballistic movement.
According to Dr. Mancini, bruises differ from muscle strains (tears) and sprains (when a ligament is damaged), though each can lead to swelling and pooling of blood. Most bruises during weight lifting happen from either a blow, such as banging a barbell against your leg by mistake, or from repeated lighter strikes to the same spot, such as when the bar keeps hitting your chest during bench presses.
"Make sure your technique is good and wear appropriate attire," Dr. Mancini says. Workout clothes with more coverage can help protect your skin.
Bruising from Supplements, Foods and Drugs
Bruises occur when tiny blood vessels get injured and leak, so anything that reduces blood clotting or affects the cardiovascular system may make you more prone to bruising, says Mayo Clinic. Some foods and supplements raise the likelihood of bruising, including foods high in vitamin E (sunflower seeds, almonds, avocados and olive oil are examples), garlic, ginger, fish oil, flaxseed oil, turmeric and gingko biloba, Dr. Mancini says.
Many prescription and over-the-counter drugs also can contribute to bruising, if taken on a regular basis. Dr. Mancini cites the following:
- Over-the-counter painkillers such as NSAIDs (aspirin, ibuprofen, naproxen)
- Anticoagulants (warfarin)
- Some antibiotics (penicillin and cephalosporins such as Keflex)
- Some antidepressants, (including fluoxetine/Prozac, sertraline/Zoloft and other SSRIs)
- Corticosteroids (prednisone and others)
Bruising from Medical and Other Causes
People with blood disorders bruise more easily, according to a February 2016 report in American Family Physician. Other illnesses associated with bruising include autoimmune diseases, some cancers, vitamin deficiencies and liver disease, often from alcohol-related liver damage, says Dr. Mancini.
Your risk of bruising goes up as you get older, especially for women. According to Mayo Clinic, older adults have thinner skin, and in people who have less fat, blood vessels are more vulnerable.
How to Treat a Bruise
To soothe a superficial bruise, Dr. Mancini suggests a topical ointment made with the herb arnica, which helps reduce swelling. Eating a healthy diet is important, too. He recommends getting lots of dark leafy vegetables high in vitamin K, which helps skin heal and aids clotting. He adds that pineapple, which contains the enzyme bromelain that reduces swelling, and pumpkin seeds, cashews, red meat and other foods rich in zinc help healing.
Less common and more painful than visible bruises are muscle bruises. "If you have a muscle bruise, you want to ice the area," Dr. Mancini says. Gently work on maintaining your range of motion. "If you don't move, you start getting calcium deposits — bone formation in the muscle," he warns, adding that it might help to wear a compression wrap or sleeve on the affected limb and you might need to take anti-inflammatory medication.
The American Academy of Orthopaedic Surgeons also recommends elevating the bruised area above the heart and seeing a doctor immediately to check for further injury.
When to Consult Your Doctor
Taking medication, having a medical condition or being older doesn't mean you should skip working out. "I want people to be exercising," Dr. Mancini says. "I wouldn't let a little bruising stop you from going to the gym."
However, if it happens more than occasionally, check in with your doctor to rule out a more serious cause.
Is This an Emergency?
- Lee A. Mancini, MD, sports medicine physician, University of Massachusetts Memorial Medical Center, Worcester, and assistant professor, UMass Medical School
- American Family Physician: “Clinical Evaluation of Bleeding and Bruising in Primary Care”
- Mayo Clinic: “Easy Bruising: Why Does It Happen?”
- American Academy of Orthopaedic Surgeons: “Muscle Contusion (Bruise)”