Injuries suck. And that's pretty much it, so avoiding exactly that should be one of the top priorities for every bodybuilder. There are a few time-proven tricks to drastically decrease the risk of injury, and with a little dash of common sense into the mix you'll probably be doing fine.
Before you do anything else, five minutes on a stationary bike is a good start. Then you have time to raise your body temperature, getting the blood flowing and generally preparing the body for activity. This will also make your blood pressure more even when you start throwing the weights around - instead of having this huge leap from rest to max effort in seconds, you let yourself adjust gradually.
Besides, it's good for a mental preparation as you can use those five minutes on the bike to rehearse the program ahead of you, visualizing how you go from one exercise to the next, what poundage's you'll use, etc. After the biking, do some light stretching.
Then you're ready to hit the weights. But even though you've had a general body warm-up on the bike, you should do an additional warm-up-set for the muscle which you're about grind the last ounce of power out of. Now, here's a dilemma - you're supposed to warm up the muscle to prepare it for the training, but at the same time you must avoid exhausting it! Personally, I've found the best way to save the power is to go about 50% of max weight and do 8-10 nice and slow reps, focusing on strict form.
All Fours Quad Stretch
During the training you should do some stretching between each set, but as opposed to the warm-up stretch after the stationary bike, this stretch is specifically aimed at the muscle you're currently working. Most importantly, by stretching you get fresh blood into the muscle, giving you more power for the next set. The reason for this is because the muscle works by contraction, and while lifting heavy weights and pushing it to the limit, it contracts so forcefully it STAYS somewhat contracted after you've put the weights down. Then the fresh blood can't readily access the muscle, flush away the lactic acid buildup (that comes with anaerobic work), or bring new nutriments as "fuel." Think of the stretching between sets as a pit-stop for refueling between each race / set.
After you've done your sets for the muscle, it's time for the last, more thorough stretch. Take your time, stretch for at least 45 seconds at the time and consciously relax the muscle you're stretching. After about 15-20 seconds you'll experience a second relaxation within the muscles, and then you stretch a little bit further. Do so, but pay attention! There's a slight pain involved in a good stretch, but the second you feel discomfort in a joint or a ligament, STOP! You're supposed to stretch the muscle bellies, not tear off a joint! Normally, it shouldn't be a problem but pay attention if you feel pain near the elbow insertion, kneecap, or whatever you're stretching.
The post-stretching has several advantages, all beneficial to you: less soreness, better flexibility and improved mind-body connection. It also strengthens your joints, and, let's face it... Just the joy of waking up the next day and NOT feeling like you have a body part made out of wood is enough motivation!
Weird as it may sound, what you eat may help in your quest to remain injury-free. Personally, I find products like Twinlab's "Joint Fuel" to be somewhat over the edge, but I'm a strong believer in vitamin C. I've been taking about 4-5 grams a day for the past two years, and I think it has helped me. Supplementation with vitamin C is definitely recommended, but apart from that you should get by with an otherwise sound, all-around diet.
The Mental Part
In spite of all that's written above, the MOST IMPORTANT determining factor remains... Your mind. It's YOU who controls the muscles, determines how much weight to be used and judges when to push it and when to back off. If you feel tired and unmotivated, going heavy is just asking for trouble. If you cheat badly, no warm-up can help you when your shoulder or elbow snaps.
Like I've said before in this column, ego can be a good thing but in these regards it's better to leave it at the door. Strict form is priority #1, not impressing that babe in a sexy thong over by the leg curl machine! For one thing, she probably don't care that much anyway, and secondly, how impressed will she be by a guy cheating with a weight he obviously can't handle, with the sole purpose of impressing her?
OK, so much for avoiding injuries. But what happens if you still get one? Perhaps you cheated during the warm-up, perhaps the weights were just a teeny bit too heavy or perhaps you had a previous, minor injury which you didn't know about and simply made worse. Who knows? The bottom line is that it hurts, and you want it to go away as quickly as possible so you can resume training again. First thing when you get injured:
STOP TRAINING IMMEDIATELY
Do NOT try to keep training - you might regret it later. Hit the showers instead, as you'll most likely not do anything productive anyway. When you've cooled down, you have to make an evaluation - how serious is it? This can be partly judged by the injured body part. A slightly aching bicep-joint usually doesn't require medical attention, while a spine that feels like it was filled with throbbing, white-hot lava would take an idiot not to realize that it's time for a doctor to have a look at it. Basically, the spine, knees, shoulders and elbows are the "Danger"-areas, and if you feel strong and/or stubborn pain you should not hesitate to seek medical attention.
OK, so you've either concluded that you're not seriously injured or you've been cleared by the doc. Now what? Of course, the natural reaction for a bodybuilder is to start worrying about how long it will take to heal, when one can resume training and whether or not he or she will lose muscle from the inactivity. These are natural thoughts indeed, but this is where you'll have to rely on your common sense instead of the ego.
It hurts. That's the body saying: "Stop doing that!" Conclusion: Don't! Now don't get me the wrong way here, as pain is a natural part of hardcore training, but there's a difference between the "good" kind of pain where you're pushing the body out of it's convenience-zone, and to tearing up an injury.
The old truth of "better safe than sorry" applies. What do you think is most counterproductive - resting a few days extra and ensuring a complete healing, or tearing the whole thing up again, keeping you out of the gym for weeks? Keep in mind that joints and ligaments heal slowly, usually much slower than muscle tissue, so whatever time off you're estimating, pad it with an extra 20%. This might feel frustrating, but it's NOTHING compared to how frustrated you'll be when forced to start all over again when you're so close to being fully healed.
So far we've dealt with fairly simple injuries, taking perhaps two to three weeks before fully healed. But what about, say, a shoulder-injury that needs two months of healing? Are you supposed to drop ALL training because of this? Of course not. The important thing is to keep the spirit up - keep going to the gym regularly, stay active and stick to your diet. If you cease all kind of activity with the injury as an excuse you're on a dangerous track.
Many have made a "temporary stop" in training because of an injury, and don't wake up until they've lost perhaps 10 lbs of muscle six months later. By nature, we're lazy so don't give yourself an opportunity to stray from the path of good habits which you've fought so hard to establish!
Make the best of the situation - see it as a golden opportunity to let those legs catch up, aim at improving the abs beyond your wildest imagination or use the Stairmaster to lose the love handles once and for all. Set up goals for yourself! Sometimes, depending on the injury, you can train "around" the injured muscle. However, I must point out that this is fairly advanced and should not be done by the beginner, and that you should always check your ideas with a physician before implementing them in your routine.
The bottom line is that injuries suck, but almost everybody gets them at some point in their training career so you might as well learn to deal with it. You're a mainly self-healing being, so in 90% of the cases you'll be fine again if you just give yourself the time to heal properly. And in many cases there's medical aid to speed up recovery. If in doubt, always check in with the good doc.
Don't panic. You won't shrink into nothingness, and might even benefit from stepping back for a while. And above all, don't allow yourself to get sloppy. Maintain focus on your long-term goals. To recap, I'm going to include an article I wrote specifically on how to act when an injury occurs in the gym. Hopefully, it will at least help you limit the damage.
Ok, so you overdid it. Those last 5 pounds were just enough to make something in your shoulder give in, and now you're not feeling too cool with a throbbing pain that gets worse every time you try to raise your arm. Welcome to injury-land, the place most bodybuilders come for an unwanted visit sooner or later. Desire and ambition are good qualities to have for a true gym rat, but you have to exercise good judgment when determining how much is TOO much. Now, you have three objectives:
- Limit the damage.
- Prevent future injuries.
Needless to say, this goes for all kinds of injuries - knees, elbows, back, or whatever.
Limit the damage
Stop training immediately. If you think that you can "tough it out" for the sake of not missing a workout, you're setting yourself up for trouble. By continuing to train through the pain, you're only making the injury worse, possibly prolonging the recovery time by weeks. Calculate just how many workouts you'd miss from, say 3 extra weeks of recovery, then rack those weights pronto. The next step is to assess the damage. This is tricky, so my advice is to have a medical professional have a look your injury unless you're SURE about how bad it is and what should be done. In the case of more complicated areas, such as back, I'd recommend a check-up regardless.
In many cases, you can improve the situation with ice and/or taping. To keep the swelling down you have to keep excess blood from gathering, and the way to accomplish this is to simply make sure there's not enough room for it. This means taping hard, uncomfortably hard. Don't shut off the blood flow completely, but keep it so tight there's simply no chance for the swelling to take place. The second part of the strategy is to keep the injured body part high for at least an hour after the injury, possibly more.
If you must drive home, just tape it as tight as you can and do your best. But keep in mind that you might be setting your recovery time back, so try to avoid driving or moving about if you can.
Like mentioned above, it's always better to keep the swelling down than let it balloon freely. You're likely to recover much quicker if you kept the swelling at bay, so if you're interested in learning more about this, I suggest getting a book on injury taping. There are many factors you need to consider, but at least you'll be prepared if you or your training partner runs out of luck. This knowledge will help you limit the damage next time something happens.
Another thing that is easily confused is the rest period. You should ALWAYS let your injured muscle or joint recover before picking up light to moderate training. If you're a week away from full healing - sure, go ahead and do a couple of light sets. As long as you feel no discomfort and use only very light weights it will probably do more good than bad, as it gets the blood flowing and may actually promote assist the last bit of healing. This is very different from hitting the weights again three days after the injury, when you're still swollen and aching all over. There's a time and a place to push the limits, and this ain't it.
That is not to say that you have to stay out of the gym altogether. With an elbow-injury, you can still do legs, abs, and lower back, even delts if you use a suitable machine. Use the time to work on your weaknesses. Give those calves an extra beating, now that you have all the time in the world to spare.
Prevent Future Injuries
Allow full and complete healing before loading on the heavy weights again. We often tend to overestimate ourselves, so you could be only days away from being home free when you accidentally pull the same muscle again, sending you back to square one. As a rule of thumb, stick with light training until you feel that you're ready to go heavy again - and then wait another week or two. Use that time to carefully work the weights up step by step, not increasing the weight more than 20% per workout until you're back to your old levels.
Next, you have to figure out what went wrong. Take a look at your training routine. What caused this injury? Did your ego just override your common sense this time? Or did you use sloppy form? Perhaps you routinely train your body unevenly, and your injury was caused by unbalanced strength? There can be a nasty truth hiding somewhere here, but it's essential that you nip it in the bud before it causes a second injury, or perhaps tears the same muscle again.
If you have a problem finding the cause, talk to a local Personal Trainer. In some cases it can be something as simple as bad shoes (makes you unstable when squatting) or ill-fitting clothes (tempts you to cheat on the movement to avoid discomfort). The reasons can be many, but you have to pinpoint what it is and figure out a way to fix the problem. Or you'll probably be a frequent visitor to Injury-land.