Everybody seems to get hurt these days. Whether it’s your buddy who crushed his shoulder doing CrossFit or your brother who blew out his back shooting for a deadlift PR, the pursuit of high performance, greater strength, and bigger muscles has a long list of casualties. As a result, there’s a significant corner of the fitness industry dedicated to so-called “corrective exercise,” teaching you to use foam rollers, mobility warmups, core training, and a bunch of other approaches to rebuild your body—which are all good ideas. But we believe prevention is the best medicine, and you can avoid damage before it’s done by following these principles for safe, long-term training.
1. Keep your lower back flat
Your lumbar spine isn’t designed to bend. You must learn to keep your lower back neutral (so it looks flat, not rounded over or excessively arched) on any deadlift, press, or squat movement, or you can end up with terrible and persistent lower-back pain.
The biggest challenge in maintaining a neutral spine comes from the fact that you can’t see it when you’re lifting, so you aren’t able to correct yourself on the spot. Get a coach or training partner to give you the necessary feedback. If those aren’t options, videotape yourself. At least you can check the footage afterward to see what your spine did during the set, and you can make notes to correct your form the next time.
2. Understand soreness vs. pain
Delayed-onset muscle soreness (aka DOMS) is a good indicator that you’ve challenged your muscles sufficiently, but recognize that it’s a very different feeling from the pain you experience as the result of an injury. Pain that resides deep in the lower back and is accompanied by any numbness or tingling that may extend down your legs is not normal. A dull, pinching sensation in your shoulder when you bench-press is usually a sign of a rotator cuff problem. Any irritation you feel inside of a joint, as opposed to the muscles that surround it, should also be taken seriously.
Unfortunately, the fear of losing momentum in workouts makes most guys try to work through the pain, when the smart solution is to work around it. Have alternatives to your favorite exercises on hand. If back squats bother your back, switch to front squats for a while or even the legs press. If bench-pressing with a bar hurts, try pressing with dumbbells (and turn your palms in to face each other). There are many ways to keep training hard that also allow injured areas to recover.
3. Don’t go too hard too quickly
Distance runners have something called the “10% rule”. It cautions that you should never increase your weekly mileage by more than 10% over what you did the previous week. The same holds true for the volume in your lifting workouts.
Make any increases in the amount of weight you lift week-to-week very gradual—add perhaps 3-5% more poundage. It may seem insignificant but consider that if you added only 5lbs to your squat every week you’d see a 260-lb increase in one year.
4. Whatever you press, you must also pull
You love to bench-press, and we won’t try to stop you, but to keep your shoulders healthy you must allow the muscles of your upper back and rear delts to keep pace, strength-wise. In any given training week, you should row or chinup as much weight as you bench press.
This means that if you can bench 205lbs for three sets of 10 and you weigh 180lbs, you need to do three sets of 10 reps on chinups with 25 additional pounds around your waist. This is just an example—set up the weight, sets, and reps however you need to make it practical, but aim for balance. The same principle applies to biceps and triceps exercises, and quad and hamstring lifts.
5. Stay sway from failure
It’s important to work hard in the gym, but there’s a point of diminishing returns in everything you do. Pushing your sets to the point where you can no longer complete a rep with good form is begging for some kind of injury, and while it may provide a little extra stimulation for muscle growth, it’s not worth the price.
Stop one to two reps shy of the most you can complete on a set. Apart from it being a safer way to train, it encourages better recovery, so you can train the muscles again sooner. You can make up for slightly less intensity with more frequency.