Growing up, I didn’t care about sports unless they were played on my Sega Genesis. When I was 11, I decided to try baseball and amassed a grand total of two hits over a two-year career. It wasn’t until high school, when I discovered boxing after getting into a fist fight and realizing I didn’t know how to punch properly, that I found any semblance of an athletic niche.
When I started boxing, I had to spend lots of time studying the technical aspects of how to get better, both with coaches and on my own with books. This, along with a high-school weightlifting class lead by a pair of old-school, whistle-wearing phys ed teachers, was my introduction to strength training. Without the internet in the early 1990s, I had to learn by seeking out coaches. I credit these formative years for the fact that I’ve never injured myself training.
Not everyone is so fortunate.
Walk into any gym and you’ll see people like me – regular folks with unspectacular abilities and very average genetics – training like high-level athletes, despite having neither the gifts nor the proper coaching to employ these protocols. Box jumps, Olympic lifts and sprinting are fun and effective, no doubt, but they’re also risky, if not downright dangerous, unless you know how to program and perform them properly.
This explosion of weekend warriors adopting hardcore training styles came to mind when I read about the increase in hip and knee surgeries being performed in Canada. According to a report published by the Canadian Institute for Health Information (CIHI), not only are the wait times for joint replacement surgeries increasing across the country, more of these procedures are being performed than ever before.
One of the reasons for this is a shift in demographics. In an article discussing the CIHI report, the CBC points out that more young people are having joint replacement surgeries owing in large part to their “repetitive athletic pursuits.” In other, less measured words: too many young people are training like dummies.
In most cases, overuse injuries are a result of poor program design, improper exercise selection or bad technique. All three of these factors tend to arise when overly excited rookie lifters go it alone. A smart strength coach or personal trainer will know how to help their clients avoid grinding their joints into dust by choosing the right exercises, in the right order, done the right way.
Unfortunately, not everyone can afford to hire their own trainers and coaches, which is why so many turn to YouTube for advice, despite the fact that 99 per cent of the exercise tutorials offered on the site are straight-up garbage. In an effort to spare you the indignity of trawling through that trash, here are three training tips that will keep your joints healthy and strong.
Lighten the load
Let’s start with the most obvious culprit. The majority of training injuries can be avoided by simply stripping some weight off the bar. Unless you’re a competitive powerlifter, there’s really no reason to max out on your lifts. Sure, every now and then it’s helpful (and fun) to take on a weight that scares you a little, but you’ve got to be able to control said weight with near-perfect form. The best approach is to bring yourself close to failure, but still leave one or two reps in the tank on each set. Bodybuilding legend Lee Haney said it best: “Stimulate, don’t annihilate.”
Fix your form
The importance of pursuing technical mastery cannot be overstated. If your knees buckle when you squat or if your spine resembles something like a question mark when you deadlift, you’re setting yourself up for some serious injuries. Not only that, you’re short-changing your progress by failing to activate the proper muscles. I don’t expect everyone who lifts to have a degree in biomechanics and anatomy, but spending some time studying the basics of how the body works will pay off handsomely down the road. Frédéric Delavier’s Strength Training Anatomy is a good place to start.
Ditch the weights
I don’t know of anyone who’s injured themselves performing push-ups. On the flip side, a whole lot of lifters – veterans and novices alike – have ruined their shoulders on the bench press. For some reason bodyweight exercises are viewed as inferior to their weighted cousins, despite the fact that some of the most impressively jacked physiques have been built using nothing but calisthenics. There are bodyweight alternatives for just about every exercise you can name. Single-leg deadlifts, handstands and pull-ups are my favourite options. (Of course there’s no accounting for freak accidents. I once witnessed the bloody aftermath of an individual’s failed handstand attempt; he toppled sideways into the Smith machine, tearing his thigh open on the hooked safety latches that support the barbell. Not a pretty sight.)
Paul Landini is a personal trainer and health educator at the Toronto West End College Street YMCA. Follow him on Twitter @mrpaullandini.
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