Five Simple Strategies for Preventing Injuries

jeff ford working with client on rowing machine

The perfect way to stall your weight loss efforts and decrease your motivation for fitness is to get injured. It never feels good to sit on the sidelines when you’re ready to hit the field, and it seems like injuries always happen at the worst times. They pop up when you’re right at the beginning of a new fitness program or just as you’re picking up steam.

Here are five simple strategies you can implement to get in front of injuries, and perhaps even prevent injuries for good.

Strategy 1: Prioritize Form with Every Movement

There are two types of indicators in fitness-related injuries: lagging indicators and leading indicators. Lagging indicators show up when you least expect them. Your back starts hurting out of nowhere or you notice a slight pain in your knee. The injuries behind these lagging indicators are often mislabeled as “over-use injuries.” But the truth is, these types of injuries usually happen because you missed something—you failed to recognize, ignored, or didn’t take the leading indicator seriously.

Simply put, a leading indicator is what you did or how you moved your body to create the injury. It’s the root cause. The majority of injuries can be sourced back to a leading indicator. How you took out the garbage, picked up your toddler, or the position you sit at your desk every day can all be leading indicators. Over time, your body adapts to the habitual positions you adopt and the unconscious demands they place on it. These unnecessary stresses can cause damage to muscle tissue and joints and may ultimately lead to injury.

That’s where a fitness professional comes in. The gym is like a laboratory for the best and most observant trainers and coaches. The good ones are trained to pick up on leading indicators and know how to correct them. They recognize and implement strategies to remediate unconscious patterns and address imbalances. They teach you to prioritize form, which means they show you how to do the right exercises the right way. They teach exercises to develop the proper movements and motor skills which, in turn, lay the neuromuscular groundwork for the practical, functional movement patterns required for healthy everyday living.

Prioritizing form also means you understand very clearly how sound exercise technique translates into sound usage outside of the gym or fitness class. A trained fitness professional will assess and monitor your movement, then assign you fitness activities that mimic life. They’ll teach you how to transfer knowledge from exercise into knowledge you can use every day, and they’ll make sure you understand the whys and wherefores. They connect the dots for you.

If you exercise without a coach or trainer, it’s crucial to pay attention to each movement and in particular how you perform strength training exercises. Every movement counts. From using good form when you’re lifting weights to walking with your feet neutral to standing with good posture, prioritizing form goes a long way to preventing injury.

Strategy 2: Have a Corrective Strategy

We’re all jacked up, plain and simple. He is, she is, you are—we all are.

Our bodies are amazing machines, but they’re imperfect. There’s no use ignoring it. To prevent injury, your body needs your attention. Your close attention—because it’s all in the details. A good corrective strategy includes screening yourself on a regular basis or being screened by a professional so any imbalances can be recognized, understood, and tended to quickly. The key to preventing injuries is focusing on range of motion restrictions, asymmetries, and stability issues, then identifying any slight deviations as they arise. When you or your trainer see something off-kilter, it’s important to take immediate action and remedy it with corrective exercises before pain sets in.

Gray Cook created a technique called the Functional Movement Screen (FMS), which aims to get in front of injuries before they occur. FMS assesses movement patterns, mobility, and stability so a corrective strategy can be appropriately prescribed. Depending on the results, some exercises are off-limits for some people until they fix their issues. Otherwise, they’re putting themselves at risk for injury.

Since you don’t know what’s in a book until you read it, you need to start with a screening administered by a fitness professional familiar with or trained in corrective exercise. They’ll assign a corrective strategy that emphasizes one or two exercises specific to your restrictions. It’s important to do these every day until your issue is resolved. The very best fitness professionals will work them into the rest periods between strength or interval sets when they’re training a client. If you’re doing them on your own, an easy way to implement your strategy is to perform the corrective exercises first thing in the morning when you wake up or last thing in the evening before you go to bed.

Strategy 3: Always Warm Up and Cool Down

We’re all stretched for time, but getting your mind and body right before and after a workout is one of the easiest and most efficient ways to prevent injury. By having a deliberate warm up, you prepare your muscles, joints and connective tissues for the work that’s about to take place. Every warm up should focus on dynamic mobility exercises of the major muscle groups involved in the workout for the day such as leg swings, arm circles, or inch-worms. The goal is to gradually raise your heart rate and increase blood flow in order to loosen and wake up your muscles and joints.

After the workout it’s critical you don’t just jump right into your car or go sit down in front of a computer or television for hours. Focus on gradually transitioning from a highly active state to a resting state by cooling down with dynamic stretches or light aerobic work such as walking, rowing, or cycling. This is one of the best times to use a foam roller because it switches on your parasympathetic nervous system and allows your body to quickly relax and unwind.

Strategy 4: Remain Intuitive with Your Program

When your fitness program is more of a general outline than a fixed, set-in-stone regimen your body will thank you for it—and so will your mind. Remaining intuitive with your program means you don’t exercise on days you feel terrible or your workload is overwhelming. When you exercise exhausted and burnt out from daily living it can backfire. Understand that certain types of exercise trigger a flight-or-fight response, which causes a big time cortisol release. Too much cortisol at the wrong times can delay your efforts and even set you back a step or two. All too often people develop an all-or-nothing mindset that leads to working out even when their body says to slow down.

Listen to your body and remain flexible with your schedule. As long as you accumulate movement throughout your day and limit sedentary time you’re well on your way to your fitness and/or weight loss goals. It won’t kill you to skip a planned workout—just make sure to call your workout partner so they won’t be left hanging at the gym wondering what’s up. Adjusting your plan to something less stressful such as restorative yoga or meditation can also go a long way. A solid fitness program is more than simply exercising your brains out and jacking up your heart rate every chance you get.

Strategy 5: Hone in Your Hydration

Think of your muscles like prime steak: without water, they’ll turn into beef jerky. We all know we should drink plenty of water to stay healthy, but many of us don’t know being dehydrated can lead to injury. The majority of your body—including your brain and muscular tissue—is made up of water. When muscles are dehydrated, protein synthesis slows down, which means your muscles neither grow nor recover efficiently from workout stress. When you don’t drink enough water your body also loses the ability to transport essential nutrients from your bloodstream to your cells for repair. Optimal prevention through adequate hydration is crucial. It allows your body’s complex systems to function properly at all times, which prevents illness and injury.

Staying well-hydrated is a simple lifestyle correction that has far-reaching positive effects. It’s really one of the most important injury-prevention tactics you can employ. A well-hydrated body moves better for longer periods of time, while a dehydrated body breaks down quickly. Since muscle tissue is primarily made up of water, it’s easy to understand that when you’re not fully hydrated things will start to go wrong. Inadequate hydration and electrolyte deficiency negatively impacts muscle contraction, especially during endurance activities. It also compromises synovial fluid, which surrounds and lubricates joints. When you have dehydrated muscles and joints, a downward spiral begins. You start to feel stiff and tight. Things hurt. You instinctively limit your range of movement and over-compensate with restricted, inefficient movement patterns. Anything that impedes movement can and will cause injury quickly. All it takes to avoid the downward spiral caused by dehydration is preventive hydration—it’s that easy. To keep your body running smoothly and efficiently, aim for consuming half your weight in ounces per day, and add an extra 8-12 ounces of water for every 20 minutes of physical activity.