Injury prevention starts and ends with form. You must learn the proper form for exercises. Most exercises are not inherently dangerous but the way that people perform them leads to abnormal stresses on joints that are not meant to handle such stress. A good example of this is allowing the heels to rise during a squat. The squat itself is not dangerous but lifting heels places an abnormal stress on the patellofemoral joint. First and foremost learn the proper form. I suggest you find a qualified trainer or coach.
Remember that running/swimming/cycling/rowing are all skills. It is a common misconception that because we are designed to run that you can go from a sedentary lifestyle to running marathons without consequence. Our ancestors had to be able to run. If they couldn’t they would get eaten by a saber tooth tiger. We do not have to run, we barley have to walk. So what we do on a treadmill or around the neighborhood requires thought. Running is not inherently dangerous but there are many deviations that can lead to serious injury. This is true for all of the above activities. Learn how to run efficiently and reduce stress on your knees/back etc. prior to increasing duration and intensity. I highly recommend Chi Running and/or Pose Running, Total Immersion Swimming and coaches to work on cycling and row form.
Ever notice that people you see in the gym always do the same thing? People who can spend hours on an elliptical or bench pressing or sculpting their biceps. This is a recipe for an overuse injury. Develop a balanced musculoskeletal system by mixing it up. Perform a variety of activities. Learn new skills and then perform them mixed with a variety of other skills. This way you are spreading out the stress on joints, reducing the chance of muscle imbalance and it will actually keep you interested in what you are doing.
4. Ignore Them
Never take advice form the gym know it all. He/she is easy to recognize. The know it all spends hours and hours in a gym and performs a few reps of exercise in between annoying everyone else. When spotted you must at all cost avoid eye contact or you will be sucked in to the gravitational pull of gaining unsolicited advice that is more often than not complete garbage. Also, by doing varied movements and challenging new systems at the gym you will more than likely gain some scornful glances. Ignore them. You are at the gym to improve your fitness not to fit in with the masses.
5. Avoid complicated equipment
You can get a “training effect” in many ways. Lots of machines do have the ability to increase muscle size but they are often convoluted and not designed by people who understand biomechanics. I personally would not advise the “Pec Deck” to anyone who wants to preserve the integrity of his or her rotator cuff. Instead choose free weights, medicine balls and body weight activities. They are more functional, use greater range of motion and if performed correctly should not cause injury. Remember above all learn the form/skill before you push speed or resistance.
Andrew Eisen DPT
Andrew is a cooperative partner at Union Physical Therapy in Wallingford, Seattle.