With a new year comes fitness-related New Year’s resolutions and a spike in gym attendance. As a proud gym bunny myself, I can tell you there is nothing wrong with this, but it’s also a common time of year for physios to be seeing a sudden influx in gym-related injuries.

So what are we doing wrong and how can we prevent it?

The most common problems we see are related to form and load. If you are not set up adequately for an exercise, you can predispose yourself to injury. Some common problems are posture and alignment. With very few exceptions, most exercises require you to have your neck and back in good alignment. The desire for people to crane their neck and heads forward is not exclusive to the gym (just check out most people sitting on a computer) but when you then chuck some weights in there, it’s a great way to strain your muscles and joints.

  • Think about widening your shoulders to have a broad chest and back which should set your shoulder-blades back in a good position
  • Try to lengthen the back of your neck to pull your ears in line with your shoulders. Your chin will dip / tuck slightly but not much. You should feel slightly taller / longer than usual.
  • The tips of your shoulders and hips (when looking at you from side-on) should be relatively aligned. Most people like to sag their hips forward which gives you a strong curve in your lower back to look like a question mark. Do this in a plank and you can look forward to a sore back after a while. Think about lifting your front hip bones ever so slightly which can improve this alignment and switch on your abs.
  • From front on, you should have your hips, knees and feet in line with each other. When you bend your knees, it should be in line with your second toe, not coming inside or outside of your feet.
  • Keeping your knees behind the line of your toes when you squat or lunge. This will help engage your gluteal muscles and can reduce the pressure on your knees – but it is a bit of a myth that it is the only safe way to squat. Some people will naturally come past the line of their toes and in doing so, will be protecting their hips and back. So be conscious of what you do and perhaps, depending on where previous injuries have occurred, allow one or the other to occur. If you are unsure, definitely consult a physio.

In terms of load, this is about having a bit of an honest conversation with yourself. If you haven’t been to the gym in a while but want to pick up where you left off, you might find that you have deconditioned enough to risk an injury at your previously tolerated loads. In regards to weights, a pretty standard number of sets and reps is around 10-15 x 3. An appropriate load will mean that by the last 2-3 repetitions in a set, you are struggling to finish but you can complete the full set. Any less and you won’t be getting enough overload to effect change. Any more load and you risk injury. Much like anything in life, progress is gained when the perfect balance between stress and recovery is achieved – a little too much one way and you won’t get what you want! It’s better to start light and increase your weights until you feel a decent resistance and challenge. It’s worth noting that sometimes the damage you do isn’t obvious for a day or two, so don’t be too over-zealous in progressing yourself within one session. Give it 24-48 hours to see how you have responded and progress your next session accordingly.

Load can also be a contributing factor to injury in terms of sheer volume. Going from couch potato status to five times a week in the gym might seem awesome, but your body may not agree. Try to give your body 48 hours between exercising the same muscles (this is particularly true in regards to resistance training) and mix it up – bike one day, treadmill the next, upper body strengthening, then core / lower body. Not only does variety make it less likely to sustain an injury, but you are more likely to stick with your new programme if you don’t get bored.

If you are unsure about your gym programme or you are experiencing a few niggles and want to nip it in the bud, come and see one of the team at Healthzone Physio to review your programme and technique. We love to get in the gym with you and see what and how you are exercising, and a little caution early can save you a lot of time and hassle down the track!

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Rebecca graduated from AUT in 2008 with her Bachelor of Health Science in Physiotherapy and started working in a West Auckland private practice. She quickly gained an interest in sports physiotherapy including injury prevention and management. Rebecca worked for four years with premier and reserve club rugby teams including Waitemata and Kumeu / Helensville. She was the physio for the Western Pioneers team in 2012 when they won the North Harbour competition. Rebecca also practiced as a community physiotherapist administering the Otago Exercise Programme which focused on falls prevention for the independent elderly. Through these clients, she developed a curiosity in chronic pain conditions. While she has had plenty of experience in standard post surgical rehabilitation, she took a particular interest in Functional Reactivation Programmes, which work with people suffering persistent pain and complex recoveries post surgery or injury. Rebecca takes an interest in working with clients who have exhausted their channels within the health profession for the management of their pain and enjoys the challenge of helping these patients manage their conditions and return to activities of daily living. To aid in this work, she went on to get her Postgraduate Certificate in Rehabilitation from AUT. Rebecca’s passions include travel, yoga, food, comedy and film – don’t get her started on the topic of movies if you don’t have the time and energy to discuss them with her. She lives in central Auckland and is fiercely local – preferring to commute every day across the bridge than to live any distance away from friends and family!