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How to Avoid Injuries While Exercising

A man stretching his hamstrings in the gym

You decided to start exercising. Give yourself a pat on the back. A first order of business is knowing how to exercise without hurting yourself.

Whether you’re a beginner or a long-time fitness enthusiast, the key to avoiding exercise-induced injuries is being mindful of injury-prevention basics.

Warm Up First

Failing to warm up before jumping into a workout may increase risk of injury such as muscle strains, says physical therapist Bradley Brigagliano, PT, at University Hospitals Rehabilitation and Sports Medicine Services.

“You should be doing muscle activation exercises to get the body going,” Brigagliano says. “You want to warm up enough to break a mild sweat.”

Five to 10 minutes will do it. There are many ways to warm up: a gentle jog, a fast-paced walk, arm circles, hip rotations, lunges or jumping jacks.

Brigagliano favors range-of-motion exercises such as dynamic stretching – slow-paced, gentle movements that stretch muscles and tendons to the full range of motion.

“People who can bench press the house will still take the bar and do some warm up reps to make sure everything is feeling okay before they get going.”

Take it Slowly

“Increasing your activity level or intensity too quickly are some of the most common causes of overuse injuries,” Brigagliano says. The key is to start slow to build up tolerance, he says.

“If you haven’t been physically active for a long time but you were previously, it’s not a great idea to say, ‘I used to be able to do this and I’m going to do it now.’” Gradually building exercise endurance will yield a better result and reduce the chance of injury.

How slow to start depends on individual circumstances – your fitness level, prior injuries and overall health status. In addition to injury risk, pushing too hard, too soon can result in extreme soreness -- perhaps lasting four or five days – which may discourage continued participation in an exercise program.

“You need to meet yourself where you are in the present state,” Brigagliano says.

“People go too hard, too quick. They don’t build up a base tolerance. They don’t give themselves enough rest time. They have a goal they want to achieve and they go 120 percent.”

Use Proper Technique

Proper form while exercising will help prevent injuries. Whether you’re lifting weights or practicing yoga, you can find guidance on YouTube or seek in-person instruction. Weight machines are a good option for beginners, Brigagliano says.

People new to free weights will benefit from a personal trainer or a knowledgeable workout partner. “Especially if you’re a novice, it’s worth the money to work with a trainer to get started,” Brigagliano says. “Fitness clubs often have somebody who can instruct beginners. A good one would be able to meet you where you are to ensure you don’t overdo it.”

Starting out with light resistance and gradually increasing repetitions will build muscle and reduce the risk of injury.

Listen to Your Body

It’s normal to feel a little muscle burn when you’re working out. And beginners are bound to feel some muscle soreness afterward. But know the difference between soreness and pain, Brigagliano says.

Pay attention to pain in joints and tendons, he says. “If you’re doing an exercise for a specific purpose like trying to work the deltoid, but you’re feeling pain in upper neck, that’s not the goal. The workout could be creating an issue.”

Listen to Your Body…and Your Mind

If you’re mentally exhausted, not eating right or sleeping well, it could affect your workout and make you prone to mistakes that increase injury risk.

“If you get to the gym and you feel gassed, it’s okay to say it’s not the best day for an intense workout,” Brigagliano says.

“Higher-level athletes will track these things. If they’re having a day where their sleep quality wasn’t good and they feel off, they’re not going to risk getting injured that day. It’s just better to go a little lighter, do easy things, maybe take a recovery day and live to fight another day.”

Don’t be afraid to take an unscheduled rest day. “Sometimes your body says, ‘Hey I just need another day.’ Especially at beginning phases, it’s better to err on the side of caution.”

Make sure to schedule rest days too. The body needs time to recover. How much time depends on the intensity and your fitness level. A novice may need more time between sessions or between sets, Brigagliano says.

Lastly, he says choosing an exercise routine you enjoy will go a long way to ensure success. “If you enjoy doing it, you’re probably going to take it more seriously, take the time and have the focus to do it right.”

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At University Hospitals, our fellowship-trained sports medicine specialists, primary care doctors, nutritionists, sleep experts and other healthcare professionals ensure the very best in health and medical care for active people. Learn more about sports medicine services at University Hospitals.