There are plenty of things that might prevent you from keeping up with your weightlifting routine. Don't let an injury be one of them.
"A big part of avoiding weightlifting injuries is about letting go of the ego," says Dr. David Braunreiter, a sports medicine specialist at Houston Methodist. "It's also important to know what proper form looks like and that the goal should always be to perform to a level of fatigue — never pain."
Here's why weightlifting injuries occur and how to avoid making the common mistakes that lead to them.
What are the most common weightlifting injuries?
Maybe you've heard a tale or two of a gruesome weightlifting injury involving broken bones — or worse.
While these can be disastrous — even life-threatening — and precautions should be taken to avoid them, they aren't the injuries that plague weightlifters the most.
"The injuries we see most often in people who lift weights are muscle strains from overuse or acute injury — the back, shoulder and knee being the most frequent sites," says Dr. Braunreiter.
The most common weightlifting injuries include:
- Back strain
- Rotator cuff strain
- Biceps strain
- Patellar tendonitis
"There's also the potential for a serious injury — a meniscus tear, patellar tendon tear and even Achilles tendon rupture, for example," adds Dr. Braunreiter.
The most common reasons for weightlifting injuries are:
- Doing too much over time (overuse injury)
- Doing too much at one time (acute injury)
- Using improper form while lifting (overuse and acute injuries)
"When you're applying too much tension across a specific muscle or tendon, whether at once or repetitively over time, the stress can lead to injury," explains Dr. Braunreiter.
An injury can also occur if you're not applying tension correctly.
This can happen during any weightlifting exercise, but Dr. Braunreiter says that some are more likely to lead to injury than others — particularly the big power lifts, such as squats, deadlifts and power cleans.
"With all-out strength, it's critical to have the right form, load and ego — otherwise you're really putting yourself at risk," warns Dr. Braunreiter. "For instance, squat lifting is a good compound movement, but it's the perfect recipe for overloading your lower back if you're taking on more weight than you can handle or using improper form."
What can you do to prevent weightlifting injuries?
Whether you're new to weightlifting or you're a seasoned weightlifter, Dr. Braunreiter has five tips for avoiding injuries:
1. Check your ego at the door
Dr. Braunreiter warns that the most common weightlifting pitfall involves peer pressure pushing people to take on more than their body can handle.
"If you're trying to outdo the person next to you or show off to people around you, you're at risk for overloading and experiencing an acute or overuse injury," says Dr. Braunreiter.
Rather than trying to break someone else's record, aim to break your own. Try to do a little better each time you lift.
"Compete with yourself, not other people," Dr. Braunreiter adds.
2. Master your form first
Before trying a new weightlifting exercise, it's crucial to understand what proper form looks and feels like — especially for a compound movement.
"For instance, a squat requires firing many different muscles at once," explains Dr. Braunreiter. "If incorrect form is causing one or two muscles to do the work of many, you're putting those muscles at a disadvantage and, ultimately, risk."
Working with a personal trainer is a great way to learn how to lift weights safely and correctly. If this isn't an option for you, watching videos from a trustworthy source can be a helpful substitute.
The key to mastering safe, proper form is to first practice a weightlifting exercise with very little weight — such as starting with an empty bar or simply squatting your body weight.
"The lift may feel too easy during this process, but it's important to get your form correct before adding significant weight," says Dr. Braunreiter.
3. Increase load slowly
Even with the correct form, doing too much at once or over time, especially without adequate rest, puts you at risk for injury, too.
When it comes to increasing your load, Dr. Braunreiter recommends the following tip: Only increase the weight if you feel like you could do one more repetition without cheating.
"If you usually do 15 repetitions and you get to 15 and feel confident you could do one more rep correctly, you're likely ready for more load," says Dr. Braunreiter. "If that last rep is a still a struggle, you're not ready."
He adds that keeping a journal or note on your phone where you track your current load and effort level can help you identify when you're truly ready for more.
"It's also important to give your muscles time to rest and recover between loads, too," says Dr. Braunreiter. "If you work a muscle again too soon — before it's fully recovered and ready to handle tension again — you put it at risk for overuse injury."
4. Add in some variety
Even if your primary goal is to lift weights, having variety in your exercise routine can make you a better weightlifter.
"A strong core is a really important for avoiding injury, and flexibility and aerobic fitness matter, too," says Dr. Braunreiter.
Another benefit of variety is that it helps you challenge your muscles in a different way.
"If you're training too much in the same way, you might run into overuse issues or hit a lifting plateau sooner than you'd like," adds Dr. Braunreiter.
Lastly, variety keeps your workouts fresh — and helps you stay engaged.
"If you do the same thing over and over, you're likely to go into autopilot and lose sight of your mechanics," explains Dr. Braunreiter. "This can lead to bad form and potentially even injury."
5. Keep these safety precautions top of mind
A smart weightlifter is a safe weightlifter.
"The weightlifting safety basics are critical for avoiding disastrous injuries, especially while using free weights," says Dr. Braunreiter. "You should always have a spotter."
Be smart about using resistance bands, too.
"If a band is fraying or if you're not anchoring it correctly, it can snap back at you and cause serious injury," Dr. Braunreiter adds.