How to Exercise Safely, Make Progress and Avoid Injury

7 Important things to be aware of when you are exercising.

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Exercising can make people feel unsure of how to start or progress. 

Many people quit exercising because they got hurt…exercising. 

But these rules will help you get results and avoid pain and injury.

Here we go....

1. Exercise with self awareness

The feeling of an exercise is the most critical factor, and you’re the only one who knows that.

But paying attention isn’t easy.

So many times when working out, I set up my weight, check my form and start.

1…2…3...and then my mind wanders… Who sings this?  Did I send that email?  What are we doing later?

Three repetitions and 6 seconds later my attention is off like a ferret. After noticing, I bring my attention back and run a quick body scan and see how I’m doing.

Paying attention is the key to avoiding pain and getting results.

2. Exercise without pain or popping

“No pain, no gain” is the most misunderstood truth in exercise.

The “pain” of exercise resulting in “gain” of strength depends on where the pain is and when it happens.

Some minor soreness in the muscles the day after exercise is desirable.

Pain during exercise is the sign of a problem.

The brain changes movement to avoid pain.  This compensation causes strain to the muscles and joints.

Snapping and popping is friction from stiffness, weakness or joint damage, and exercising with pain and popping leads to more pain and injury.

More than anything or anyone, even your therapist or trainer, listen to your body.

3. Exercise with proper form and control

“Just Do It” is great for many things in life…except exercising.   

Proper movement occurs when all the joints and muscles work together. Movement involves adequate range of motion, stability and strength. 

Exercising into your stiffness, instability or weakness causes abnormal form, and this is when you are the most vulnerable for injury.

Repeating a movement incorrectly ingrains it as a habit.

“Do It Right”.

4. Go off of how you feel in the moment

Exercise ability varies and some days you’re stiffer, weaker, tired, or less interested.

You don’t have to do 3 sets of 10, hold a plank for a minute, run 5K, or keep up with anyone else.

Exercising is like driving. Sometimes you have to change the speed or the route based on conditions.

Are you going to still drive the speed limit in a traffic jam or in pouring rain? NO!

Modifying exercises is vital to avoiding injury, missing workouts and losing progress. Exercise based on what’s happening today…in this moment. “Working through it” or “running through it” leads to injury.

Tapping the brakes and slowing down sometimes won’t stop you from reaching your destination.

5. Modify for better results

There are five quick ways to immediately modify exercises.

The modification is based on the exercise, the most recent change you’ve made, or your first instinct.

If you’ve added reps, motion, weight, time or speed to the exercise recently, start modifying there.

  1. Decreasing the reps or time will limit the effects of fatigue.
  2. Limiting the range of motion or distance will limit improper form due to stiffness or weakness.
  3. Lessening the weight or resistance will lessen strain from weakness or instability.
  4. Going slower will allow better control and assessment of form.
  5. Be willing to change your plans and modify your exercises to stay on track.

6. Make your exercise progressions incremental

Conditioning is the process where the body adapts over time to better tolerate a specific exercise.

Bones, muscles and tendons get thicker from adapting to the challenges of exercising, but If there isn’t enough challenge, the body won’t adapt, or it will plateau.

If the challenge is too much or too quick, it will causes stress fractures, muscle strains or tendonitis.

Trying to get in shape fast, making steep progressions or adding new things rapidly leads to problems.  

Lifting weights, jogging, cycling, yoga and hiking all have different demands on the body.

Add time, reps, weights, distance or new exercises in small increments, gradually to get results.

7. Exercise based on the balance between your sides

We usually have a dominant arm and leg that leads to some natural imbalance.

Problems come when one arm or leg is much stiffer or weaker than the other side.

The stronger or more flexible side carries more of the workload, increasing the strain, while the weaker or stiffer side fatigues faster and causes compensated movement.

Test your two sides with individual motion and strength movements.

Do the movements slowly to expose stability problems that aren’t felt moving faster, and work the stiffer, weaker side with more individual reps to minimize the differences.

Listen to your body. Enjoy the process of exercising.  Be able to do the things you love. 

Let me know in the comments if you exercise like this!

Dr. Brian Cox Physical Therapy

Hi, I'm Brian

I am a physical therapist and chiropractor of 25+ years. I help patients at my office in Orchard Park NY, and am working to bring customized therapy to people online.

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