The worst workout is the one that gets you injured.
Down-time from injuries can completely kill your momentum, leave you in pain, and have you backtracking when you get back to exercise. Preventing injuries is an underrated way of saving yourself these hassles and it’s not as difficult as you might think.
Today, we’re taking you through the basic principles of how to prevent yourself from getting injured, prepare your body for future loading, and keep those results rolling in month on month.
Disclaimer: Injury resilience not proofing
You can’t become injury-proof: you can prevent some injuries, but not all of them.
We are always dealing with the potential for injuring ourselves. Workouts, sports, and everyday life carry a small risk of injury – and we can’t always prevent it.
Injury prevention really means ‘increasing your resilience to injury’ – and that’s good enough. When you reduce injury risk, you keep exercising sustainably and you never notice the benefits because they’re those times you don’t get injured and take time off.
Injury risks, causes, and prevalence
To start with, let’s look at which injuries we’re talking about. We’re not discussing catastrophic injuries from accidents. You can’t train yourself out of getting hit by a car or falling down the stairs.
Rather, injury risk comes to most of us in a few common, obvious forms that we can protect ourselves from:
- Overuse injuries
- Strains, sprains, and ‘tweaks’
- Pulled muscles
- Repetitive strain or impact-related joint injury
And these are the main types of injuries we’re looking at today. One of the crucial factors in all of these injuries is that you have some level of control over the mechanisms.
You can adjust your training to prevent overuse injuries or pulled muscles. That means you’ve got the power to change your risk and build resilience, no matter your level of experience.
These also account for the majority of injuries and pain-complaints that come from both athletes and the general population. They’re common, often preventable, and they add up over the months and years.
How – and when – do injuries occur?
Here’s what you need to understand about injuries: they represent a mismatch between the capacity of a tissue and the demand you’re putting on it.
For example, pulling a muscle is the result of loading it too heavily at a length and position that it can’t bear, producing damage. Equally, overuse injuries tend to occur because you’ve put too much cumulative loading (repetitive over time) on a tissue that isn’t ready for it.
The problem here is often weakness in either general or specific terms. That is, either the muscle is too weak for the loading, or the tissue is not prepared for the angle, loading, or forces you’re putting on it.
This also includes when a load is more severe than it seems or when a tissue is weaker than you would expect. For example, loading adds up over time and your muscle and tendons’ capacity for handling a load (healthily) is reduced during over-use and under-recovery.
The kicker is that, because most injuries come from a mismatch of demand and preparation, the solution to injuries is to rebalance these demands…
How we prevent injury
Preventing injury is quite simple, on the surface: prepare tissues for the loading and demands you’re going to put on them. Rebalancing the demand and the capacity.
You need to reduce any existing over-use or under-recovery from your training (often through rest and better nutrition and sleep) then you can focus on the 2 things that make injuries less likely in future:
- A responsible and sustainable set of demands for your body
- Dedicated time and training to prepare for future loading and demands
It shouldn’t be surprising that the best solution is to do both. Elite athletes are the best example of how this works because they put incredible demands on the body.
Degradation: When strong tissues get weak (and injured)
Injuries show up the least prepared tissues.
Most injuries happen at thresholds when the demand builds up and the tissues are under-recovered. For example, tendons are strong but become injured when you constantly tax them without proper recovery.
This is the degradation influence that can reduce the strength of an otherwise-strong and sturdy tissue into an at-risk one, and it lowers the amount of loading that it can take.
Usually, this represents negative turnover: breaking down the materials of a tissue over time instead of building them up. It’s the result of repeated demand but poor nutrition, sleep, or stress-management for the muscle or tendon.
For example, many tendon injuries come off the back of maintaining a chronic negative collagen turnover – where you’re breaking down tendon tissue faster than building it. There are similar processes for muscle and bones.
This is what we usually see causing injuries in athletes: strong tissues being whittled down through a consistent negative turnover. Of course, this is unavoidable sometimes: even the strongest, best-recovering athletes have a limit to what demands they can put on their bodies before getting hurt. You can’t always out-recover excessive training stress!
Responsible and healthy loading
We are starting with loading because it’s the easiest place to start. If I ask you to perform a weighted sprint down a hill as a total novice, you’re going to get hurt.
There are things that are appropriate for our experience and things that are dangerous. Step one to preventing injury is just not doing things that are beyond your experience. It’s why we have on-ramp courses for exercise programs and why you don’t just squat 200kg on your first day in the gym (because it’ll blow out your knees).
It takes some humility to pick appropriate exercises and loading patterns as a beginner. I know plenty of people, personally, who have gotten hurt because they trained 4 or 5 days a week instead of 3 during their first year.
Backing Off: Deloading, rest, and perspective
Maturity in exercise is knowing when to back off. Remember that what matters is putting together a good week of training, not a good day or a single good set.
Loading slowly and patiently is the key to not putting wacky demands on your muscles and joints to begin with. Respecting the patience of your body – and the fact that connective tissues adapt slower than muscles – helps you pick the right weight and exercise and frequency for your needs and strength.
This doesn’t need to dishearten you about what you can achieve, however. Remember that patient doesn’t mean slow. The fastest route from weak to strong is consistent progress without injury: your trajectory is at its best when you progress patiently, because you progress for longer.
How to control load in 6 easy steps
Controlling load is both obvious and quite complicated. The obvious side is that doing too much gets you hurt, the complex side is figuring out just how much demand you’re placing on yourself, how much you can take, and the best ways to manage it.
Not all loading is equal. 100kg might be a fine squat, but it’s a lot of loading on the same person in a lunge. Equally, the way you control your joints, your recovery ability, and your athletic background all contribute to how much training volume is too much.
As a beginner, you’re not going to need much volume to progress, initially. This means you get to turn up the heat slowly and let yourself progress at a natural rate. As you develop, keep monitoring your recovery and pay close attention to how you feel, as well as disruptions to normal processes like sleep fragmentation or regular illness – common signs you’re overdoing it.
Here is a simple list of things to be careful about – and consider – when you start exercise in earnest:
- Don’t train too often: every workout day is not a rest day, and this trade-off is huge. 3 times a week (at roughly an hour a day) is plenty to get the ball moving and see big changes.
- Don’t rush the weight: it’s the most obvious form of loading and the most ‘sexy’. Take your time to progress through movement quality and ensure you’re not over-loading too soon.
- Keep it controlled: proper movement control is one way of reducing errant loading patterns and keeping it predictable. It’s also a way of building 3-dimensional control.
- Slow it down: dynamic movements introduce momentum and other new forces in a way you need to control. Don’t get into jumping before you learn to run – or Olympic lifting before you can effectively squat, front squat, overhead squat, and absorb force.
- Take a pause: work on the most important postural and technical positions with pauses and build familiarity early on. It makes things more difficult and improves your control over key positions. Strength is specific to the angle of joints and length of muscle, so build it properly.
- Be keen for recovery: prioritise recovery when you want to give more time to training. More training is not the same as better training – prioritise preparation and recovery before more sessions.
Preparing tissues for further demands
The preparation of tissues for future loading overlaps with appropriate loading. The first place to start is to understand that appropriate is always appropriate to your preparation. The most well-prepared athletes can do just about any exercise they want, because their body has years or decades of preparation time.
This kind of prep specifically means training to reduce injury-risk. It involves focusing on some of the areas that we know to cause injury, recovering effectively, and organising your lifestyle so that you’re less injury-prone in the long run.
The benefits to this only multiply session by session, as you either spiral upwards (towards preparation) or downwards (towards injury) when it comes to lifestyle habits.
Mobility isn’t just about flexibility: it’s not just what range of motion you’ve got on a joint or a sweet split position.
Mobility is about the range of motion that you can actively control – and how well you can do that. We want to build mobility because it reduces the ranges we can’t control and allows for more movement within healthy range.
It allows you a healthier surplus of range that you’re comfortable with. This is a huge factor in catastrophic injuries that rely on tension, like pulls and strains, as well as risk of dislocation. Your joints and muscles are safer in positions they’re familiar with and strong in…
This is the simplest place to start: being stronger reduces your risk of injury across all kinds of experiences, activities, and exercises. The more force you can produce, the more effectively you can withstand that kind of force, because you’ve trained for, and adapted to, those demands.
As mentioned above, strength is specific to the angle of the joint and the length of the muscle when a force is applied. This means that you need to be strong in the complete range of motion – and even specialise strengthening your joints in positions that are at-risk for your sport.
Strengthening exercises aren’t just about the muscles – they also improve the strength of tendons, ligaments, bones, and other tissues. Therefore, use strength training at healthy loading levels to promote injury-resilience, as long as it follows the principles of full-range, controlled, deliberate movement.
Remember that this strengthening process should be patient and sustainable – you don’t want to prepare so hard you degrade the tissues. Look for the sweet spot where you’re able to recover well from session to session and prevent long-term tissue damage.
If you’re ever unsure, err towards caution: put that enthusiasm from more training volume into more out-of-training recovery like nutrition and sleep!
It’s not often discussed, but increased variety in the ways you train and a focus on moving in different planes is a good way to prep the body for real life (not to mention a wide variety of sports and activities).
Integrating exercises that train all parts of the body, forwards and backwards, sideways, and rotationally, conditions the joints for all kinds of movement. These should all be present in your training somewhere, and the stronger you are at controlling yourself in these movements, the safer.
You don’t need to vary everything all the time, but making sure you’re training both sides of every joint and using twisting, single-legged, and side-stepping movements helps build 3-dimensional stability. Stable is the foundation for strong, powerful, and safe.
This also means varied in the types of exercise you use and how you perform it. For example, getting better with
Learn to move quickly (safely)
Dynamic movements are where most injuries happen. Changes of direction, high-speed sprinting, or the repetitive strain of high-duration running.
Moving through cycles of stretching and shortening – often at speed – can be a key player in injury risk. This doesn’t mean you should avoid all dynamic movements, however. Just like strength, it’s about exposing yourself to healthy levels of the demand that you’re preparing for.
Get some practice absorbing force safely. Strength exercises help with this, but a little jump training preparation can be an amazing investment of your training time – even a few minutes at the end of a session.
Things like box jumps and landing drills with a softened surface can help prepare tissues for the stretch-shortening that is involved in dynamic movements and often under-trained and risky. You can begin to build on this with regular jump training that involves sub-maximal heights and lengths.
Try small plyo-hurdle jumps, ankle bounces, and reverse hops. These are all great, lower-demand choices for preparing the muscles, tendons, and bones for dynamism. As ever, the key is to make it appropriate for your experience level.
While we can’t completely prevent injuries, taking steps to prevent them will pay off enormously over time.
The effort you put into injury-prevention might never be obvious to you, as you don’t get injured, and you never understand the importance. What matters is keeping yourself healthy and progressing sustainably over time. Avoiding pain is its own reward.
The principles we’ve outlined here will get you started with injury-resilience and building a healthier, robust approach to training. They’re not going to revolutionise anything, but they will give you the right priorities and principles to get better, consistently, with less risk of over-working your tissues.
Injury resilience is simple but leans on your patience, attention to detail, and consistency. If you can provide those elements, you’re going to be safer, stronger, fitter, and healthier – without the pain!