Appropriate Weight Lifting For Health Not Injury
July 19, 2018 7:38 pm
This time of year many of us are getting more active. Some of us are hitting the gym a little harder now that the summer months are upon us. While lifting weights is an excellent mode of exercise for building and maintaining muscle strength and bone health, it’s important to consider the potential for injury if one is not weight training properly or adequately. In this article, we will talk about some common “risky” exercises and some safer alternatives.
Deadlifts can be a great exercise for building strength in our large powerful muscles; however if not done correctly they can wreak havoc on the spine. They are an exercise that recruits powerful muscles such as the gluteus maximus, latissimus dorsi and the hamstrings. Some people may not realise that they do also require exceptional hip and nervous system mobility (that’s right, your nerves need to move too), in addition to adequate pre-existing spinal strength. These are not an ideal exercise for beginner weight lifters. For those more experienced, keep in mind that as you add weight you increase your risk of sacrificing your form, and therefore your back.
A common misconception about squats is that they are a good exercise for strengthening the gluteals. Although they do recruit the derriere, studies show that the gluteus maximus is only active late in the squat exercise and that squats require only little relative use of the smaller gluteus medius muscle. And much like deadlifts, squats require excellent hip mobility and control.
Weighted squatting exercises can also create a significant amount of shearing forces through the lumbar spine, depending on where the weight is positioned. If your smaller spinal muscles (the erector spinae and multifidus) are not strong enough to resist these loads at your individual spinal joints, you may sustain an injury. These individual spinal joints (aka the facet and intervertebral joints) are small and susceptible to high loads and therefore injury.
Furthermore, the more weight we lift, the more forcefully our back muscles contract. The more forcefully our back muscles contract, the more compression our spine undergoes. Our muscles themselves create compressive forces to the spinal joints, ligaments and intervertebral discs. Though these things are rarely discussed, it’s important to consider the health of our ligaments, joints and discs before attempting these kinds of exercises. Fun fact: did you know that competitive weight lifters have stronger spinal ligaments and intervertebral discs than average non weight lifters!
Rarely in life do we need to push our entire body weight with only our arms. With dips you are doing this, plus adding undue strain to your shoulder joints. In a dip, we over-stretch the most commonly sprained ligaments in the front of the shoulder; over stretch the small delicate tendon of the biceps and compress the acromioclavicular joint, a joint that already tends to age quickly. Furthermore, the biceps need to contract from a stretched position when pushing up from a dip which is a common way to strain a muscle. To add insult to injury, the dip exercise causes the other delicate rotator cuff tendons to become compressed between the arm and shoulder bones. This is not a good exercise to improve functional strength in the shoulders, nor the latissimus dorsi or pectorals.
Physiotherapists use the upright row movement to test for rotator cuff tears! That’s right – if someone has pain and or weakness in this position, we use it to diagnose a shoulder injury. Conversely, overloading or improper technique with this position can cause injury. The reason this position is provocative for shoulder pain is that it causes compression to the rotator cuff tendons between the arm and shoulder bones while they are active. Think of your shoulder as a mortar and the arm bone as a pestle, with your rotator cuff tendons in between – ouch!
Weighted Side Bending
You know that exercise where you are crouched sideways holding a dumbbell and then straighten up? Stop doing it! This exercise puts more unnecessary compressive load throughout the facet joints and discs. It also puts undue strain on the spinal ligaments.
Anything with too much weight
It’s well understood that too much weight relative to someone’s level of training can cause improper technique. Many people also know that it’s a good idea to have a trainer give them pointers on technique when starting out exercises with lower weights. Consider also having someone reassess your technique again when you increase your weight to ensure proper technique is not compromised as you progress through your training. Also consider seeing a Physiotherapist if you are not sure about any exercises, or if you experience pain while working out.
Consider single leg deadlifts instead of two leg deadlifts, and try single leg squats with no weight instead of two leg squats. These exercises require far less weight to get the same benefits as the two legged exercises, reducing your chance of injury. It also frees up pelvic mobility in order to protect your back.
Alternatives for dips include lat pulldowns and bench press as these also recruit the large latissimus dorsi and pectorals, respectively. Tricep kickbacks with dumbbells or tricep press down with cables are good alternatives for working the posterior arm.
Try side and front planks instead of weighted side bending. These exercises strengthen large groups of muscles (anterior abdominals and lumbopelvic stabilizers) without the risky repetitive flexion and extension movements of side bends. A good goal for a front plank is one minute and thirty seconds for women and two minutes for men, providing one is executing these exercises with good technique! Good technique for a front plank requires maintaining a flat back and squeezed buttocks.
If you are experiencing pain as a result of working out or would like more information, consider seeing one of the skilled Therapists at Fifth Avenue Physiotherapy.
Loring (Rochacewich) Derry
MScPT, BA, Dry Needling Certified
McGill, S. (2004) Ultimate back fitness and performance, Waterloo: Wabuno.
Waterbury, C. (2012, March, 8). An interview with Dr. Stuart McGill – Part 1. (Web blog post). Retrieved May 30, 2017 from https://www.t-nation.com/training/interview-with-dr-stuart-mcgill-part-1