I’ve been working out at the gym for over 20 years now, and I’ve seen a lot of gym injuries in that time. None inflicted by me of course! As a personal trainer in London for over 10 years, new clients invariably come to me with a history of training injuries. Here’s a list of the top six:
1. Shin splints
The technical term is medial tibial stress syndrome (MTSS), a painful condition of the front of the lower leg suffered by runners. Shin splints are caused when the muscles and fascia around the tibia (the shin bones of the lower leg) become micro-torn and inflamed.
Shin splints are caused by muscle imbalances, tightness and inflexibility of the calf muscles (gastrocnemius and soleus, which both need to be stretched after any exercise session), flat feet, worn-out footwear, poor running form including landing too heavily, and over-training on the treadmill.
Be sure to stretch your calves regularly, perform a range of all-round leg strengthening exercises in the gym, and allow sufficient recovery time between runs. Then the muscles and tendons of the lower leg will be strong and flexible enough to absorb the impact of the foot striking the ground when you run.
2. Knee injuries
Your tendons and ligaments at the knee joint are susceptible to injury if you perform weight-training at the gym with bad form or excessive weight. There are some machines in the gym which make you particularly vulnerable to injury if you over-use them, or use them with poor technique excessive weight. These include the Smith Machine (which puts your anterior cruciate ligaments under excessive stress when you squat), and the seated leg raise (which many people perform way too fast and with too much weight).
Avoid the Smith Machine, as it locks you into a very unnatural position. Barbell squats at a squat rack are much better for your body, and keep you in more natural postural alignment throughout the movement. And seated leg raises for your quads are a good exercise, so long as you increase the weight incrementally over time and make each rep slow and smooth.
3. Pulled hamstrings
Your hamstrings are the muscles at the rear of your upper leg. They are prone to tightness, particularly if you sit at a desk most of the day. The two biggest causes of pulled hamstrings are excessive weight in the gym, or sharp bursts of speed when running.
A good long term safeguard against pulled hamstrings is to stretch thoroughly at the end of every exercise session. And maintain each stretch for one minute (which I bet is a lot longer than you’re currently holding each stretch).
Build up the strength of your hamstrings in incremental progressions. Don’t suddenly perform an exercise with a weight far heavier than you’re used to. This often occurs when you’re trying to show off to someone. Same goes for speed running: build up incrementally, and never sprint if you have tight hamstrings: make sure you resolve the tightness first.
Similar to hamstring pulls are groin strains, where the muscles of the inner thigh are pulled. Lunges are often the culprit. Don’t lunge with weights until you can do 20 lunges with good form over a few weeks without any weights, then build up gradually. And if you’re completely out of condition, don’t attempt lunges until you’ve mastered squats without any weight, with a period of careful stretching of all the leg muscles after each workout.
4. Tennis elbow (elbow tendonitis)
When the tendons of your forearm extensor muscles come under excessive load at the elbow joint (or you subject them to sudden movement such as throwing or a serve in tennis), they’re liable to tear, causing inflammation and pain which can last for weeks.
In the gym, the three exercises that put your elbow tendons at greatest potential risk are the tricep close grip bench press, the tricep barbell skull crusher, and dips. These are all great exercises when performed with good technique, but you risk tennis elbow if you go too heavy or use poor form.
5. Rotator cuff injuries (shoulder joint)
Your four rotator cuff muscles are deep in your shoulder complex, and act as stabilisers. Together they enable safe internal and external rotation of the arm, and prevent the larger muscles surrounding the shoulder joint from dislocating the shoulder. They also prevent the bones around the shoulder joint (the humerus, the clavicles, and the scapulae) from grinding together.
Same story as with many gym injuries: if you lift heavy weights without building up to these weights incrementally over time, you risk a rotator cuff tear, which can take a long time to heal. So perform all your upper body exercises with progressive overload over time (and of course with good form), while at the same time include a programme of specific rotator cuff exercises (with light dumbbells and resistance bands) to strengthen the rotator cuff muscles themselves.
And don’t forget to stretch the muscles of the shoulder, to avoid these muscles becoming inflexible, as muscle tightness can lead to rotator cuff tears as well.
6. Crushed fingers
Whenever you replace a barbell on the bar after squats, bench press or deadlifts, make sure your fingers are not in the way. Crushed fingers are a common and easily avoided injury, and it’s worth having a spotter to help you with any barbell exercise. Another danger zone is the dumbbell rack, where you can crush your fingers when replacing heavy dumbbells in their allotted rack-space.
Next time you’re in the gym, be aware of these six common injuries, and make sure you avoid them. Get a personal trainer to check your technique if ever you’re unsure.
Dominic Londesborough is a personal trainer in London with over 12 years experience.