Predicting & Preventing Pain


Work your abs if you have back problems

Work your abs if you have back problems

Active people will always have some injuries that they must deal with. Hopefully the injuries will be of a minor type that do not sideline you from training. Many fitness writers point to poor form, lack of warm-up and stretching as the causes of injury. While this may be true for the immediate cause there are larger factors at work that you must know about to prevent injury.

Major factors contributing to injury (presented in order of importance)

#1 Genetics: Mom and dad, as well as Uncle Harry, will provide the most accurate prediction of what injuries you will sustain in your lifetime. There are inherited weaknesses that you are susceptible to, regardless of your activity level. For myself, Dad's poor lower back and shoulder bursitis have showed up in me at about the same time in our lives. In his late twenties my father had major back problems that hospitalized him, so did I. My father's bursitis became a real problem in his thirties, so did mine. Ask your parents about their injuries (they will love you for it) so that you can be forewarned of your potential genetic weakness.

#2 Your Job: Most people spend at least 8 hours a day at work. Work activities, your workstation, ergonomics and type of work-load will have an impact on what areas of your body will be adversely stressed. Older workers who have performed your job for an extended number of years will provide a window of what might be in store for your body. It is amazing to see the commonality of injuries that workers in the same job will receive. For 31 years I worked in a shop environment that consisted of 2 separate trades. The biomechanical complaints of workers can be classified by trade (function) not the environment (the shop). Trade #1 had an 80% chronic back pain complain versus 10% for trade #2. Both trades worked with tools and used overhead cranes to lift heavy parts.

Good posture not only for pictures.  Sit and stand straight

Good posture not only for pictures. Sit and stand straight

#3 Your Posture: More damage is done to your body during prolonged periods of inactivity such as sleeping, watching TV or commuting to work than during exercise. The Workmen's Compensation Board statistics indicate that a high percentage of strains are reported within the first hour of a shift. Common wisdom would indicate that the culprit is a cold stiff body from bed and a long commute was the main contributing cause. Sounds logical, doesn't it? All you need to do is warm-up and stretch a bit before starting work, right? Wrong! My contention is that poor posture is causing bodily harm that only shows up during an activity such as work or exercise. Sleeping on your stomach is hard on your lower back. Sleeping with your arms over your head is hard on your shoulders. Sleeping with inappropriate head support (too high or too low) is hard on your neck.

If poor posture for 8 hours is not bad enough strain on different parts of the body, add another 2 hours slouching during commuting or watching TV. Knowing the above, what's a body to do?

Know your weaknesses

Adjust for your weaknesses

Strengthen your weaknesses

Stretch for your weaknesses

Just by reading the above article you will have a good idea of what your weaknesses are and what postural changes you need to make. Start with simple steps like frequent breaks at your work station to change position and stretch (not stop working). Lots of water to hydrate those muscles. Standing and sitting erect and a proper ergonomic pillow are just a few of the adjustments that will pay dividends in injury prevention.

The above are easy to do when you consider their importance. Strengthening your weak areas will take a bit more research and some effort. Do not make the mistake of avoiding your weak areas in an effort to protect them. This would be very counterproductive and cause a chronic problem rather than an occasional one. Once you have found your weak area you will need to exercise it as well as muscles that are tied into that area as well as stretching antagonist (opposite) muscles.

Very light weights, or soup cans, are good for rehab exercises

Very light weights, or soup cans, are good for rehab exercises

Rotator Cuff Muscles

Supra spinatus

Infra spinatus

Teres minor


Let's take shoulder problems in general terms as an example. A complex joint with various muscles tied to it. Exercising all the muscles associated with the shoulder like posterior, middle, anterior deltoid as well as rotor cuff muscles. This can, and should, be done with light dumbbells. In addition to this stretching your neck, biceps, lats and pecs would be in order. Typically an injury occurs when the body compensates for strain put on it by shifting the load to other muscles that are inevitably the ones that are strained. In addition to this, other muscles start to tense up and shorter in response to the trauma in the area. Note: Muscles in the back side of our bodies are weaker in most people because of the work we do.

Let's recap the Rehab Plan

#1 Work the area thoroughly (all moves) with extremely light dumbbells (cans of soup if dumbbells aren't available)

#2 Stretch muscles tied to the area. Do not over stretch. (Note: Mild pulling when stretching is preferred rather than sharp pain)

Work consistently all year round for an improved body

Work consistently all year round for an improved body

#3 Ice, Ice, Ice the area after exercising & stretching, 3 times daily

Major training factors contributing to injury

#1 Training to failure. This is the number one training method of many bodybuilders and power lifters. It is also the number one cause of injury to recreational trainers (that's regular people with day jobs). Training to total muscle failure is an unnecessary trauma for anyone except the most advanced athlete.

#2 Increasing workload dramatically. What this means is a week to week increase of 10 or more percent. My workouts are chins, dips and pushups of various varieties, some with extra weight. Four 30 minute workouts equal about 840 reps or 120 sets per week. If I added 1 rep to each set my weekly workload would increase by 120 reps or 15%. This is far too much. I shoot for 2-3% at most per week increase. People look at what happened at the time of the injury for a reason not realizing the cumulative effect on the body over several weeks of workload increase.

#3 A dramatic change in exercises or format. Many people look for that new workout that will shock their body into muscle growth. New exercises, super heavy, super slow, negatives, forced reps, etc are all catch phrases of this no pain, no gain cult. What happens is that you make some initial progress at the expense of awful sore muscles and if you continue, inevitable injury. Stick with the basics that your body is accustomed to then challenge it by slight variations like different grips, reps, # of sets, etc. A simple change like adding a set or two of pull ups that are about 7" wider than your previous grip pull-ups for some added challenge. Or another example would be to narrow your pushup grip to a diamond pushup with thumbs and fingers touching or elevating your feet 14" or so on to some stairs for added resistance.

So for those of you that have made it to the end of this article, I will reward you with the following summary:

Lesson #1 Work your weak muscles, stretch your strong muscles, ice them both after.

Lesson #2 Challenge your body but be kind to it!

Here's to injury free workouts.