I was in my back yard a few weeks ago running through the routine spring clean of collecting deadwood and leaves to be burnt off in a rather impressive bonfire. There was a substantial 2m log that I had to move which I have done on previous occasions with no ill effects. I ensured I had a straight (neutral) spine, activated the pelvic floor and inner abdominals and then lifted the log on its end in a manner similar to how one would perform a deadlift. And to my dismay I felt a slight twinge in my back, which I reasoned to be a slight twinge of a lumbar spine disc.
In the end I was not overly surprised as I have noticed in the past if I spend an lengthy period of time away from the gym I tend to be more ‘injury prone’ especially when it comes to my 40 year old lumbar spine. And in the 5 weeks prior to this incident I had done next to nothing in terms of gym loading.
So this brings me to my point of this article. Is lifting in the conventional gym sense of the word actually protecting us from injury? In my case it is a resounding yes.
“In my case, 5 weeks away from deadlifts had weakened my lumbar spine discs and made them more susceptible to a ‘twinge.’
Applying load to the body in the gym, in the form of conventional squats, deadlifts, bench presses etc. does create an adaptive process in the body. Muscles change their morphological structure to not only become stronger but also they are able to generate more stiffness that protects our joints from unwanted stress. Bones become more dense and thus stronger – hence the reason why doctors advocate resistance training for osteoporotic women. Nerves become more efficient at firing the muscles and also recruiting muscles in the right sequence. And finally joint structures become stronger by hardening the articular cartilage that covers the end of bones.
But these adaptive effects can also be lost when one stops applying the load – the detraining principle. In my case, 5 weeks away from deadlifts had weakened my lumbar spine discs and made them more susceptible to a ‘twinge’. The lack of load on the muscle had created a detraining effect where I could not generate the necessary stiffness to support the spine, and the lack of formal lifting had deconditioned the nerves so I probably was not actually using the right muscles to lift.
So therefore what are the correct exercises to be doing in the gym to avoid unwanted injuries? Below are listed a few points that one should consider when training themselves or planning a training regime for someone else. In must be pointed out that gyms and training have come a long way since the bodybuilding fuelled days on the 70’s and 80’s. Gyms now house unconventional pieces of equipment such as multidirectional cables, Kettle bells, Viper’s, TrX etc, which did not exist 20 years ago. So the gyms are now a much better place to be in terms of developing an injury free and resilient body.
Everyone should learn how to deadlift. Both the conventional kind that we see powerlifters do as well as Romanian Deadlifts (if you don’t know what these are then Google them). Slight rule on the deadlifts – do them from just below the knees on a rack. Most of us don’t have the flexibility in our hips to maintain a neutral spine when lifting from the floor. Another rule, if you like to lift heavy, do so only once every 2 weeks. Lifting heavy on deadlifts every week seems to drain the nervous system and make you feel flat (unless of course you are chemically enhanced).
For every push exercise, perform 2 pull exercises. Neck and shoulder injuries are much more common in push based exercises and also much more common in trainers who emphasise too many push exercises (bench press, dips, shoulder press etc..). The pull based exercises (rows, pulldowns, reverse flyes etc..) tend to use the scapular and shoulder stabilisers better, and thus give us some protection from shoulder injuries.
Develop a squat and maintain it. Getting very strong at squats is not only unnecessary but also potentially injury producing. The knees and lower back are more susceptible to injury in heavy squatting. So unless you are a footballer, powerlifter or weightlifter, heavy squats serve no real purpose. Squat for the movement and the benefits that you reap from the moderate loads but avoid the heavy stuff.
Incorporate a ‘functional’ session each week. If the bodybuilders who died in the 80’s could step into a gym now and look at the new age gyms, they would wonder in amazement at what these things do and the benefit they have. Equipment such as the multidirectional cables, TrX, Vipers and Kettle bells challenge the body in ways that conventional lifting cannot. The key point of difference is that most of these require that the body either has to move or stabilise in a rotational direction. This brings into play a new area of body function that transfers to everyday life much better.
The final point is that the sessions to need to be regular to generate the stress to create and adaptive process. Going once every 2 weeks will not do this. Furthermore, avoid lengthy periods of time away from the gym. Even on holidays, some load can be applied to the body in the form of bodyweight exercises that will at least maintain these adaptive processes.
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