To get the best results from an exercise regime, consistency is the key to success. This is best achieved through eating well, adopting a routine programme and avoiding injury.
In this article, I want to focus on the latter.
Being at your best
Firstly, perhaps the most obvious advice never taken, is to make sure when you enter the gym you are in the right frame of mind and body. Simply put, don’t exercise when you are feeling ill, tired or hung-over. At best you will be ‘going through the motions, yet likely to get injured; which will serve to take you out of the gym for a while.
Keep warm through wearing layers, such that clothing can be removed once you have warmed up the muscles.
Men in particularly seem guilty of under-dressing, often choosing to wear only a muscle vest to cover the upper body even from the outset of a workout (perhaps for vanity reasons). These same people then seem surprised when they pull a muscle even though they have been exercising directly beneath an air-conditioning unit for the past 20 minutes!
Your goal is to warm up enough to be able to remove layers, thus avoiding restricted movement during a workout, itself a potential cause of injury (see below).
The correct footwear can make a surprising difference to your overall strength and helps to avoid injury. Generally, the best weight-training pumps are flat soled with a good ankle support, as they aid stability during lifting. Running shoes are not recommended as they tend to promote movement in the ankles and hips – the last thing you want is one side of the body to drop during a heavy squat set, as this will end up cause back problems.
Another thing to be mindful of, is whether the hips are level during lifting weights; something a training partner can assist with. This may seem an odd comment, but it is common for people to have one leg slightly longer than the other, which can be a potential cause of back or hip pains during exercise. Personally, I suffer from this and was relieved to discover (thanks to the advice of my osteopath) that simply putting a small insole in one shoe not only corrected the problem, but also had a significant affect on my overall strength.
Belt it out
Personally, I am not a fan of using a weight-training belt; unless you require one to support an ongoing weakness due to injury. Even during my weightlifting days, I chose not to use a belt (outside of competition) as I preferred to rely on my core support rather than an external means; which is a practice I strongly encourage (see article on benefits of core workouts).
If, however, you do feel it necessary to use a belt, try to make sure it has the support at the front primarily, since this is where the body tends to pivot during exercises such as squat or shoulder press. For some strange reason, most people seem to favour belts which are wider at the back – which seems counter-intuitive to me.
Do it right or go home
The single largest cause of injury from exercise is by not adopting the right posture or performing a movement in the correct manner.
As a rule of thumb, the most effective approach to a resistance-type exercise is to start the movement slowly, then speed up towards the point of maximum muscle contraction; where resistance is continually applied during the reverse motion (‘negative’) towards the minimum contraction point. To optimise its affect, try to make sure to focus the mind on the muscle you wish to fatigue. Never lock-out during a movement, particularly on heavier lifts such as Leg Press, Deadlift or Bench Press, since this will put a lot of strain on the joints.
Weighing up the benefits
Warming up is a given, especially for those less used to physical activity outside of the gym. There are plenty of sources of information regarding warm-up exercises, so I will not cover them here. Regardless, a sensible approach is run-through a given movement with little or no weight prior to loading the heavier weights.
Finally, try not to get coerced whether directly or otherwise into using heavy weights during exercise. The fact is, unless you are strength training, using weights you cannot control (especially during the negative movement) are not going to benefit you and will most likely cause injury (see One-Rep-Maxes).