Safe Weight Training Tips

safe weight training

Contrary to the beliefs of some, weight training is not just an activity appropriate for serious athletes, bodybuilders and people who want an impressive physique for the beach. In addition to these things, weight training is an activity that improves overall health in many different ways, and is appropriate to people of virtually all ages, body types and fitness goals.

Although gains in muscle mass, density, strength and definition are the most obvious benefits of strength training, there are several additional benefits as well, including increased energy and endurance, improved bone density, accelerated weight loss, a higher basal metabolic rate, reduced junk food cravings, reduced blood pressure, a stronger immune system and improved self-confidence.

However, if you suffer a severe weight training injury, you will fail to realize the physical and performance benefits associated with strength training. The primary goal of strength training isn't just to create an attractive physique now, but to enjoy all of these benefits over the entire course of your life.

As such, it's of crucial importance that you learn to strength train safely. This means equipping yourself with the appropriate knowledge and skill sets before you enter the weight room and begin to perform the exercises.

Weight Training with the Proper Form

There is a proper form (and many types of improper form) for literally every weight training exercise known to man. When a strength training exercise is invented, its creator decides upon a way to perform it that will maximize the effectiveness of the exercise while minimizing the chance of injury. In virtually all cases, this means maximizing the amount of work performed by specific muscle groups while minimizing the strain placed on your joints and bones.

If you fail to perform a given exercise with the proper form, you'll be transferring some of the work away from your muscles and toward your joints and bones. This has a two-fold effect: not only will you reduce the muscle-building potential of the exercise, but you'll also greatly increase the chance of suffering a bone or joint injury, such as a ligament sprain. Even if you manage to perform the exercise with improper form and place no additional strain on your bones and joints, some of the work will be transferred to muscle groups you don't intend to target, which could throw off your entire strength training routine by fatiguing muscles you're not intending to fatigue with this specific exercise.

If you're performing a new exercise for the first time, it's important to read and thoroughly understand the description of how to perform it with the proper form. Watching a video can further improve your understanding. If you still suspect that you're employing the improper form, such as if you're feeling acute pain in one or more of your joints as you perform the exercise, ask a personal trainer at your gym for assistance.

Listening to Your Body and Discerning "Good" Pain from "Bad" Pain

One indication of whether you're performing a given exercise with the proper form is whether that exercise causes you to experience "good" pain or "bad" pain. Good pain indicates progress in muscle mass, density, strength and definition, while bad pain indicates undue stress on the joints, bones, ligaments, tendons and sometimes the muscles themselves. If you're feeling bad pain rather than good pain as you're strength training, chances are good that you're using improper form. Detecting the difference is as simple as listening to your body and understanding what it's telling you.

"Good" pain usually presents itself as generalized soreness in the targeted muscles. It can sometimes be felt during the workout (particularly towards the end of the session), but more often crops up after the strength training session concludes. "Good" pain is easily felt the day after a weight training workout, when your muscles are actively working to repair the tiny rips and tears in muscle fiber in order to make gains in mass, strength and density.

"Bad" pain, on the other hand, typically presents itself as acute pain felt in the joints and bones. It usually occurs while you're performing the strength training exercises themselves, especially at certain points in the overall range of motion. Of course, it can also crop up and be felt intensely the day after a strength training session. In some cases, this is because you've experienced an injury from which it could take weeks or even months to recover. For this reason, it's important to discontinue the given exercise and confirm its proper form as soon as you detect bad pain. Only return to the exercise once you're confident that you understand how to perform it correctly.

Using Appropriate Equipment to Reduce the Chance of Injury

One way to improve the overall safety of your strength training program is by using various pieces of equipment and gear designed specifically for weight training. Some of these items are described below:

  • Weight training gloves - Prevent blisters and calluses while improving your grip on the exercise bar.

  • Weight training belt - Supports your lower abdominals and lower back while you perform lower back exercises.

  • Knee wraps - Support and stabilize the knees while performing any exercises that require the knees to bend. Usually only recommended for those with existing knee injuries or problems.

  • Wrist wraps - Support and stabilize the wrists during dumbbell exercises and any moves that involve bending the wrists. Usually only recommended for those with existing wrist injuries or problems.

  • Chalk - Improves your grip on the bar, particularly useful with heavier weights. Chalk tends to be messy, so some gyms have banned its use.

  • Shoes - Specially-designed weight lifting shoes allow for maximum range of motion in the ankles, and help advanced weight lifters with moves such as the overhead barbell lift and squats.

  • Apparel - Wear whatever is comfortable, so long as it's tight enough to not become caught in the equipment and loose enough to not restrict your range of motion. Spandex is an ideal material for strength training, though it's only optional.

Using Collars on Bars to Prevent Weight Slippage

safe weight training

One of the basic safety items for all strength trainers to consider are the collars that slide onto the exercise bars (including both dumbbells and barbells) to prevent the weight plates from sliding off the bars and possibly causing yourself, or someone else, to be injured.

In order to install a collar onto a bar, you must first arrange the weight plates on the bar in the way you intend to have them for the exercise. Next, you'll need to install the collar by squeezing its tabs and sliding it over the end of the bar, with the tabs facing out.

Make sure that the collars are pressed firmly against the weight plates to prevent their position from changing during the exercise. Some collars have different designs, so be sure to closely follow the instructions included with them.

The reason for using collars is obvious. If you're performing an exercise such as the flat barbell bench press without collars and you tilt the barbell to one side as you're lifting it, the weight plates will slide off, potentially injuring you or someone in your immediate vicinity. Even if you manage to avoid injury, the weight plates could damage the floor or another piece of equipment.

Lifting a Reasonable, Controllable Amount of Weight

Weight training exercises are typically divided into two categories: explosive and rhythmic. Explosive exercises call for a smaller number of reps and a larger amount of weight, while rhythmic exercises rely on a smaller amount of weight and a higher number of reps, typically with additional attention paid to maintaining precise form.

As a strength trainer, you should strive to lift an amount of weight that will thoroughly fatigue your muscles by the time you're done targeting that particular muscle group in a given session. As such, you'll need to load more weight onto the bar in order to perform an explosive exercise (think 5 to 10 reps per set) than you will when performing a rhythmic exercise (think 10 to 15 reps or even more per set).

For the purposes of safety, you should never attempt to lift an amount of weight approaching or matching your maximum for that exercise the first time you perform it. Instead, it's better to lift a more moderate amount of weight that you can reasonably lift for the desired number of repetitions within a set.

If you have an easy time lifting the final rep of the set, chances are good that you need to load more weight onto the bar for this exercise. If you find yourself failing well before the desired completion of your set, you'll know that you're being too ambitious and overloading the bar for your current levels of muscular strength, mass and density. Remember that strength training is all about measured, gradual progress. Trying to force major gains upon your body too quickly will greatly increase your risk of injury.

Using a Spotter to Enhance Weight Training Safety

Advanced strength trainers often think of using a spotter as a way to push their muscles beyond the point of failure and further stimulate them to grow in size, density and strength. While this is certainly true, the primary role of a spotter is to ensure your safety as you perform a weight training exercise.

A spotter is an individual who will stand, sit, lean or otherwise position him or herself adjacent to you while you're performing a weight lifting exercise. The spotter will be ready to assist in lifting or lowering the weight should you reach the point of failure before you're expecting, or in case of an unforeseen mishap such as losing your balance. The spotter should pay careful attention as you're doing the exercise since fast action is often required in the case of an accident.

If you use the same spotter regularly, it may be wise to develop a clear system of communication that will allow you to quickly indicate to your spotter whether you need assistance. If the spotter provides too much help, it will minimize the effectiveness of your workout. If the spotter provides too little help, you might injure yourself.

Spotters are especially helpful when performing explosive exercises, since only a few reps can make the difference between relative comfort and total muscular fatigue.

Warming Up and Stretching Before Strength Training

safe weight training

Before engaging in any strength training session, it's a good idea to begin by warming up and stretching. Contrary to popular belief, however, warming up and stretching are actually two different things.

Your warm-up routine should come before your stretching routine, and involves increasing oxygen and blood circulation through your body and literally raising your body temperature, if only by a small amount. This will drive blood and oxygen to the soft tissues of your joints, reducing your chance of incurring a weight training injury.

Other benefits of warming up include:

  • Increased mental focus
  • Increased range of motion
  • Increased secretion of hormones that drive energy to the muscles
  • Shorter cool-down period following your workout
  • Increased elasticity of the muscles

In order to perform a proper warm-up, you'll need to engage in a light cardiovascular activity, such as jumping rope, jogging or cycling, for a period of roughly 5 to 10 minutes.

After completing your warm-up routine, you'll need to move on to a stretching routine. This will further increase the circulation of oxygen and blood to the soft tissues of your body. Other benefits of stretching include:

  • Increased flexibility
  • Increased energy levels
  • Improved muscle coordination
  • Increased range of motion
  • Reduced tension in the muscles

Spend roughly 10 to 15 minutes stretching, and prioritize stretching the muscle groups you intend to target in your current strength training session. Stretch your muscles evenly and slowly while avoiding jerking and bouncing motions, and avoid stretching to the point of pain. Relax and try to breathe deeply as you're stretching.

Following your warm-up and stretching routine, your body will be primed to handle the rigors of your strength training routine while avoiding injury.

Appropriate Rest in Between Strength Training Workouts

In order to minimize your chance of injury and maximize the effectiveness of your workouts, it's important to allow each of your individual muscle groups ample rest before working them again. For most strength trainers, this means waiting approximately 24 to 48 hours in between strength training sessions that target the same muscle group. Advanced strength trainers need less recovery time, while beginning strength trainers need more. If you're brand new to weight training, you may need to wait longer than 48 hours before working the same muscle group again.

For example, if you're a beginning to intermediate strength trainer and you target your pectoral muscles on Monday, you'd probably need to wait until at least Wednesday before working them again. Of course, you'd have the option of working other muscle groups - particularly with exercises that don't involve the pectorals at all - on Tuesday.

As a rule of thumb, you shouldn't exercise a muscle group again if it's still sore from a previous workout. This soreness indicates that your muscles are still actively working to utilize proteins in order to rebuild the tiny tears and rips that occur in muscle fiber as a result of weight lifting.

The Importance of Sleep to Strength Training

Studies show that up to 95% of muscle growth occurs while you're sleeping. For this reason, it's important for all strength trainers to strive to receive approximately 8 hours of sleep per night, particularly on nights that immediately follow a strength training session. This will ensure that your body has the rest it requires to make the largest possible gains in muscular strength, size and definition.

Another important reason for getting ample sleep is that it will ensure that you're refreshed and mentally prepared for your next weight training session. If you enter into a strength training session feeling drained and exhausted, it will be very difficult to derive the full benefit from the exercises. In addition, you'll be more likely to make a mistake and drop the weight or perform an exercise with the improper form, potentially injuring yourself in the process. Mental clarity is required for strength training, and mental clarity can only be achieved when you're well-rested.

Focus, Concentration and Strength Training

Even if you get plenty of sleep, it's easy to become distracted in the weight room. This is particularly true for individuals who strength train in home gyms, where your exercise schedule can often be interrupted by phone calls, knocks at the door and other household responsibilities. For this reason, it's important to set aside a block of time for weight training that you know will be free from interruptions and distractions.

Even in the absence of outside distractions, your weight training session could suffer if you're feeling mentally distracted. Worrying about relationships, money, your job or your grades while you're strength training will reduce the efficiency of the exercises, and make you more likely to make a potentially injurious mistake.

Without sufficient levels of concentration and focus, you'll be more likely to perform the exercises with the incorrect form, potentially placing undue strain on your bones and joints. You may also forget to secure the weight plates to the bar with a collar, or mishandle a dumbbell and drop it onto your body as you're lifting. For all of these reasons, strength training is like driving - you should only do it with a clear, undistracted mind.

safe weight training

As mentioned earlier, strength training is much more than a route to developing an attractive and powerful physique. In addition, it's something that you can practice over the course of your entire life in order to improve overall health and well-being. However, your strength training career will be cut painfully short if you fail to take the proper precautions.

In order to be a true strength trainer, you must strength train safely. Knowing when to push yourself and when you've had enough for this particular session will help you to maximize your gains in muscular mass, definition, density and strength while minimizing your chance of incurring an injury.

It is important to realize that injuring yourself when weight training could spell a temporary or permanent end to your weight lifting career. By following the tips presented in this article, you'll maximize your probability of having a safe, healthy and effective strength training career for years to come.