Stay Injury Free While Training for Size

Smart programming, exercise selection, and execution can go a long way to reducing the risk of injury.

Photo by Bev Childress

Staying injury free while training for size is a multi-factorial, multi-layered process. Lifting weights is actually very safe and the injury rates are far lower than many sports.

Photo by Bev Childress

Staying injury free while training for size is a multi-factorial, multi-layered process. Lifting weights is actually very safe and the injury rates are far lower than many sports.

Adding muscle to your frame can help to reduce injuries. In that respect, it is like armor for your body. There are, however, hundreds of gym rats out there dealing with nagging injuries which are completely avoidable.

These injuries are roadblocks to muscle gain. Many of the aches and pains lifters are dealing with are due to poor programming choices. By addressing all the elements listed below you will give yourself the best chance of avoiding these mistakes, staying injury free, and building the most muscle possible.

This article will start with an overview and then gradually drill down, step by step, to the finer details. Think of it a bit like an onion. With each layer you peel back there is another with which you can minimize your injury risk and maximize your growth potential.

Start with the outer layer and then work inwards to continually refine the process. This article won’t be full of corrective exercise strategies, rehab advice, mobility drills, and soft tissue protocols. It is about training smart so you can train hard and stay injury free. After all, you cannot grow if you cannot train.

“Training is rehab. Rehab is training.” – Charlie Weingraff

Have a Plan

To begin with, you must analyze the overarching training principles and ensure they are laid out in a fashion that will minimize injury risk. The first port of call is to have a plan that has some level of periodization.

By periodizing your training, you not only enable your training to continually progress but also avoid overuse injuries and the risk of picking up an injury through constantly exposing the body to the same stimulus.

Periodization means the logical organization and sequencing of training with the purpose of causing maximal adaptation.

For those of us purely interested in getting jacked it means planning some sort of methodical adjustments to our training to maximize muscle mass.

The exact periodization approach you take isn’t that important. The key factor is that over the course of months and years you manipulate intensity, volume, and frequency to some extent.

Spend periods of time training for strength or structural balance in between your normal high-volume hypertrophy-style training. Doing so will keep you motivated, mentally fresh, and more importantly, injury free.

The body only has so much ability to recover from hard training. If you push too hard for too long, you will exceed your capacity to recover and progress will stop dead in its tracks. The chance of picking up an injury will also skyrocket in this situation.

The fact that hypertrophy has been shown to have a close response relationship with training volume has led many to the assumption that more volume is better. They believe that they must constantly do more training to build muscle.

This concept is largely true and aligns with the principle of progressive overload, however, it is hypothesized that this relationship follows an inverted-U pattern. More is better, up to a point. After that peak, doing more actually results in worse results and increased injury risk.

Rather than just endlessly trying to do more work you need a smart training plan—one you enjoy, one that fits your schedule, and one that you can adhere to.

I suggest you focus on pushing two of the variables (intensity, volume, frequency) at a time while keeping the third at a lower level. For example, if you have a hectic work and family life that means you can only make it to the gym three times per week, and you like going full beast mode then, a lower frequency, high intensity (HIT) approach makes sense.

On the other hand, if you can’t bear the thought of not being in the gym every day then go with a high frequency approach and choose to lower either volume or intensity.

Use these as your default settings, but know that you need variety and you should adjust your training program occasionally. If you always push one of the variables hard you will hit a plateau and/or get hurt.

If you are a volume junkie every 12 weeks or so switch to a lower volume, upper/lower or whole-body strength program. This will unlock other mechanisms of hypertrophy and allow for recovery from the high-volume approach.

If you are not tied to just one style of training and want to max out your muscle building results then you can play with all three of these variables over the course of a series of mesocycles. Below I have outlined one way to do just that.

  • Mesocycle 1: Moderate Volume Traditional Hypertrophy (focus 6 to 10 rep range)
  • Mesocycle 2: Higher Volume Traditional Hypertrophy (focus 8 to 12 rep range)
  • Mesocycle 3: High Volume Hypertrophy techniques like occlusion training, Myo-reps, tri-sets, giant sets, etc.
  • Mesocycle 4: Strength Phase (focus on the 4 to 6 rep range)
  • Mesocycle 5: Repeat the process if you want to further mass gain, begin a cut if you want to drop body fat, or undergo a structural balance phase to minimize injury risk.

Using Deloads

Planning your training with a long-term view is crucial to making maximal progress. You need to plan when to push your training hard and when to back off. That is where deloads come in.

If you want to get bigger, then you need to gradually do more and more work to force your body to adapt. This adaptation will manifest as bigger muscles. The thing is, more isn’t better—better is better.

Rather than training balls to the wall 24/7, 365 days of the year, you would be better served taking some planned downtime. During this time your efforts in the gym are reduced or, perish the thought, you take an entire week off.

These lighter weeks are known as deloads or unloading weeks. Planned properly, they are a case of temporarily standing still to take two, or three, leaps forwards. In the textbook the Essentials of Strength Training and Conditioning the authors state that:

“The purpose of this unloading week is to prepare the body for the increased demand of the next phase or period, and to mitigate the risk of overtraining.”

As such, a proper deload is critically important to any serious trainee’s progress and longevity. Deloads allow for full recovery—with full recovery comes supercompensation. Supercompensation is that cool thing where you slingshot past your previous best to reach new heights.

So, with supercompensation comes greater gains. It is for this exact reason that elite athletes the world over use deloads year-round. They also taper before major competitions to peak when it matters. Speak to any top-level powerlifter and I guarantee you they will tell you how they hit personal bests right after a deload or taper.

Deloads are also an important factor when avoiding injury. Just at the point when you have pushed your body to its limit you back off. At this point overtraining becomes a concern and your body is the most fragile so taking a deload allows all the bodily systems that you’ve been stressing a chance to recover.

Failure to use delaods means you are likely to cross your body’s threshold of recoverability. If you do, performance will tank and you will most likely get hurt.

Beating a Dead Deload

Just in case you still aren’t convinced of the merits of deloads, here is a summary of the findings from a review published in the NSCA’s Strength and Conditioning Journal compiled by Bryan Krahn in a recent article:

• Up to 20% increases in strength and power
• Increases in muscle (cross-sectional area of 10 to 25 percent)
• Lower levels of stress hormones
• Higher levels of testosterone
• Better moods during the day and better sleep at night

So, while it is essential to sequence phases of training for size, strength, and structural balance to avoid injury, it is also vital that you take some time off to allow for full recovery.

Taking a handful of deloads across the year won’t negatively affect your gains. In fact, it will enhance them by keeping you healthy and able to attack the next phase of training.

Respect Your Structure

Once you have established your overall training structure you then need to begin building your training program based on the most effective exercises for you.

What is best for you might not be the best for your training partner. You need to consider your individual leverages when selecting the exercises that will form the cornerstone of your training.

We all know the big three of squat, bench press, and deadlift. These are great exercises which can pack slabs of muscle onto your frame. Many people claim these lifts are all you need to develop an impressive physique.

Unfortunately, these guys are often short, with barrel chests and t-rex arms. However, many people (especially taller lifters) find bench pressing bothers their shoulders and that they aren’t built to back squat or perform conventional deadlifts.

The rise in popularity of raw powerlifting means the internet is awash with compelling arguments stating that all you have to do to build size and strength is the big three.

The guys promoting this concept are often big and strong, so the argument is quite persuasive. Unfortunately, this dogmatic approach has led many a well-intentioned trainee to become beat up, burnt out, injured, and de-motivated.

To avoid this happening to you I suggest you pick the variants of these lifts that best suit you and make them the foundation of your training. Doing so will allow you to progressively overload your body with big weights while placing tension across many muscles. That’s a win-win for hypertrophy.

You will have noticed I said to pick your big four despite so far only talking about the big three. The reason for that is while the big three do a good job of training most of the body, they neglect the upper back and biceps.

If you want to fully develop your physique, then these muscles will need more stimulation than the big three can give. Furthermore, if you want to stay healthy, then you want to maintain a balance of strength and muscle mass across your body.

The big three neglect upper body pulling, and this can cause imbalances which lead to injury. Consequently, I suggest you pick a chin up/pull up variation or rowing exercise to plug into the core of your programming.

If you do a good job picking your big four then you can retain them as mainstays of your program and use them to measure progress.

It is for exactly this reason I often refer to them with clients as indicator lifts. If the numbers on these lifts are steadily increasing over time in the 5-8 rep range, then we can be very confident in the efficacy of the training program.

If performance in these stagnates for any serious length of time, or even reduces then, it is an indication you should re-assess your program.

How to Choose Your Big Four

When it comes to choosing your big four, with the goal of building as much muscle as possible, you should ask yourself the following question:

Based on my structure, training, and injury history, if I could only do four exercises, what would I pick to develop the most muscular version of me?

To help you answer the above question, use this tip I picked up from my buddy Andrew Heming. Exercises which meet the following criteria will provide you with the most training bang for your buck and keep risk of injury to a minimum:

  • They train a large area of muscle mass
  • They do not increase injury risk or irritate your joints
  • They are exercises you feel comfortable and confident performing with good form
  • They stimulate the muscle you are aiming to target
  • They have scope for you to continually progress the amount of weight and/or reps you can do in the long-term

By picking exercises which meet the above criteria, you will maximize training efficiency. This allows you to provide your body with an effective training stimulus while using fewer total exercises. As a result, you maximize your results and minimize the demand on your recovery capacity.

To give you an idea of how this looks for me, my go to picks would be:

  • Bench variants – bench press or incline bench press
  • Squat variants – front squat or trap bar deadlift (yes, deadlift is in the name, but the movement pattern is more akin to a squat while holding the weight in your hands)
  • Deadlift variants – conventional deadlift or RDLs
  • Upper back pull variants – pull ups or DB rows

You’ll notice I have picked two for each category. The reason for this is that after several months of striving for progress on these, your performance will eventually stall and your progress will grind to a halt.

This is due to the law of diminishing returns. As a result, by having an alternate choice for my big four I can rotate on to that one for the next few months.

I can make progress on the variant which has been substituted in and re-sensitize myself to the effects of the original variant.

Thus, when it is re-introduced into my program, I can make progress again. This is the concept of directed variation and leads me onto my next point about keeping yourself injury free.

Directed Variation

Once your core exercises are chosen, you then need to have a logical structure in place which guides how you vary the exercises over time.

You have probably heard the term “muscle confusion” or that you need to keep your muscle guessing in order to build muscle. This is nonsense. Muscles don’t get confused. You do, however, need to strategically vary your exercises to maximize your growth.

“Training the same muscle with multiple exercises is more effective than training the same muscle with a single exercise, even when the overall volume is the same. This is probably because the different exercises target different regions of the same muscle to different extents, causing regional hypertrophy.” – Chris Beardsley, Strength and Conditioning Research

Your exercise variation shouldn’t be haphazard or based on the latest fad exercise some guru is promoting. Instead, it should fit into your overall plan, compliment what has gone before, potentiate what follows, and have a specific purpose. It should be taking you in the direction of further growth and, when done properly, is known as directed variation.

Sensible exercise variation can help you to avoid overuse injuries. How many guys do you know who complain of cranky shoulders and beat up elbows, yet they continue to hammer away on bench presses and skull crushers week after week, month after month, year after year?

Likewise, I bet you know guys who find that squatting hurts their back or knees, yet they feel obliged to keep the squat in their program.

Instead, they’d be better served rotating through other exercises like front squats, box squats, hack squats, or even leg presses. These exercises will target the quads while allowing some relief from persistent pain caused by back squatting.

Even subtle changes in exercise selection can sufficiently change the movement pattern, loading sequence and muscle recruitment to spare you an injury. Even just switching from high bar to low bar squats, or wide grip to mid-grip bench presses, will reduce the chance of an overuse injury.

Another point to consider is that by constantly doing the same exercises over and over you consistently fatigue the same structures. This means you are more likely to break down at the weakest link in the chain before you manage to fully fatigue the system.

Your body might have weeks more overload it can tolerate, but you keep being let down by a nagging injury which keeps you out of the gym. Directed variation will help you avoid that. Not only will it keep you injury free, it also allows you to push your body as a whole to force the gains in muscle you desire.

Directed variation is a great idea in order to avoid injury, and it is just as effective at stimulating hypertrophy. By rotating exercises for a specific movement pattern or muscle group you minimize the ‘staleness’ that occurs from always hitting the exact same exercises over and over.

In compound lifts, it also allows for specific fibers to be better targeted, for other positions in the strength curve to be overloaded and certain muscle groups to benefit from more direct focus.

For example, switching from a flat to incline bench press will target the fibers of the upper chest (clavicular portion of the pecs) more, while bench presses with chains would overload the top portion of the lift and target your triceps to a greater degree. You can make directed adjustments to your exercise selection to get you to your goal.

While varying exercises is important for muscle growth, doing it too frequently can be counterproductive. You need to allow enough time for you to master the movement pattern of a specific exercise to be able to sufficiently overload it and provide a growth stimulus.

Switching exercises every week doesn’t allow you to do this effectively. It takes time for your body to adapt to a stimulus. This isn’t on the scale of days, or even weeks, but rather several months.

Thus, rotating exercises every 4-12 weeks or so is a good idea. My personal preference is to retain your big four selections for the duration of a mass gaining block of training (12-16 weeks on average).

To provide a novel stimulus to the muscle, and keep your training interesting, I would rotate accessory exercises every 4-6 weeks. In practice, this would look something like this for back training:

Weeks 1-4

  • Pull Ups
  • Bent Over Rows
  • Seated Face Pulls

Weeks 5-8

  • Pull Ups
  • DB Single Arm Rows
  • Straight Arm Pulldowns

Weeks 9-12

  • Pull Ups
  • Cable Low Rows
  • Supinated Lat Pulldowns

Another reason to use directed variation from phase to phase is to allow you to continually present a new stimulus to the body. If you use every possible variation you can think of in the first phase it leaves you nowhere to go in subsequent blocks.

I attended a seminar by Dr. Mike Israetel where he touched on this subject. His point was that, if every hamstring session you do deadlifts, RDLs, leg curls, GHRs, 45-degree back extensions, and lunges then what do you have for variation down the road?

Taking this scattergun approach to exercise selection means you have hit the muscle from every possible angle (positive), but you have adapted to all these variations and the next phase of training will provide little, to no stimulus. If you are not providing an overload stimulus to the body, then you are not growing.

So rather than emptying your exercise toolbox all at once, use some restraint and position yourself for months of progress rather than a short-term blitz followed by stagnation.

If you have hit a muscle from every conceivable angle during a phase of training, there is only one place to go in the next phase to provide an overload. More training volume at every single angle. Doing this massively increases the chance of exceeding your ability to recover and you break down with an injury as a result.

When planning your training I suggest you pick 2-3 exercise per body part. Smash these with sufficient volume and then rotate them when you transition into your next training block.

If you are someone who needs high volumes per session to grow, simply do more sets of an exercise, or use intensity methods such as, rest pause, back off sets, or drop sets.

This will not only spark new growth but give you some psychological freshness and prevent overuse injuries. Frequency of variation on your accessory lifts can take care of hitting all fibers from different angles.

Remember, muscle growth doesn’t happen overnight. So, instead of thinking you have to hit every fiber from every angle right now, realize that hitting them all over the course of several months will be far superior for your results and keep you injury free.

To review this topic let’s use the key points Paul Carter identified in his and Christian Thibaudeau’s book, the Maximum Muscle Bible. Here is a summary of the stages of directed variance in exercise selection:

  1. A new movement is added or changed in execution.
  2. This then creates a new stimulus.
  3. Over the next few weeks, you gain strength and neural efficiency in that movement.
  4. As you adapt, efficiency becomes maximized and strength gains slow down.
  5. Once efficiency is maximized and the stimulus decreases, fatigue increases in relation to those factors.

Consequently, once stage five is reached and continued for a few weeks, the return on investment of that exercise is constantly diminishing while the toll it is taking on your body is constantly increasing. At this point, you should change the exercise to avoid injury and to continue effective muscle building training.

You’ve established an overall training structure, considered manipulating volume, frequency, and intensity, planned periods of lower volumes and deloads, picked your big four lifts, and have established a pattern of directed variation for them. Now what?

Ensure you hit all the fundamental movement patterns.

It takes time to master movement patterns, but once they are learned they become ingrained. Don’t cheat yourself by learning poor technique. It takes much longer to un-learn poor technique and transfer it to perfect motor patterns than it does to get it right straight off the bat.

Invest some time up front to learn how to correctly execute a squat, hip hinge, vertical and horizontal push and pull, and a split squat/lunge pattern. Doing so will transfer over to all other lifts and set you up with an excellent awareness and the ability to move your body through space.

Including the above movement patterns in your programming will go a long way to building a strong, robust, and balanced physique. You can then use accessory exercises to fill in any gaps in your frame.

Once exercises that train those movement patterns are all established as staples in your program you can consider the ratios of them. Often, we fall into the trap of training what we can see.

The so-called mirror muscles. This means that a priority is placed on pushing movements. Guys all over the world spend more time pressing and squatting weights up than they do pulling them.

As a result, it is wise to have at least a 1:1 ratio of push to pull and squat to hip hinge in your program. If you have been following an unbalanced ratio thus far then switch the ratio to 2:1 in favor of pulls and hip hinges. This will help to balance out your physique and strength levels. This will help you look and feel better.

Your weakest link might break down and cause injury and disruption to your training. If this happens you will stop progress dead in its tracks and, most likely, regress somewhat. This is unnecessary. To prevent this, you should consider both the concepts of structural balance and weakest link theory.

Louie Simmons of Westside Barbell has popularized the concept of strengthening your weakest link to increase your total in the competitive lifts. As the saying goes, “a chain is only as strong as its weakest link.”

To target these weak links through your training, you use accessory and/or isolation lifts to strengthen them. This will carry over to your performance in your compound lifts and reduce injury risk.

Much like the weakest link theory, leakage points relate to areas that are weak and affect overall performance.

Think of it like this, during the big lifts your body is like a pipeline. If this pipeline has leakage points, then force is lost or ‘leaked’ out. This will limit your ability to display strength, overload the muscles, and increases injury risk.

Every muscle involved in a lift (prime movers, synergists, and stabilizers), can be a potential force leak. The more leakage points you have the greater the reduction in performance and the risk of injury.

Often these leakage points are muscles that are smaller than the prime movers. Generally, they are muscles you have little or no mind muscle connection with.

As a result, you cannot optimally activate them during isolation work, let alone during a multi-joint lift. By using lighter loads on isolation exercises in the higher end of the hypertrophy rep range (10-15 reps), you can focus on developing your connection with that muscle.

Over time, you will improve the activation of this muscle, add some size and strength to it, and it will be easier to incorporate it in bigger lifts. This will improve your performance, usually through greater stability.

You need a stable base from which to apply force (you can’t fire cannons from a canoe) and as a result, performance will greatly improve and injury risk will reduce.

Using structural balance as popularized by Charles Poliquin’s 1997 book, can help to identify what your weak links are. He provides the following ratios for the upper body lifts:

Optimal strength ratios in the male elite athletes involved in upper body dominated sports as they related to a 1RM, 160 kg performance in the shoulder width close-grip bench press.

Close Grip Bench Press

  • Absolute score: 160 kg (352 pounds)
  • Relative score: 100%

Incline Barbell Press

  • Absolute score: 133 kg (293 pounds)
  • Relative score: 83%

Supinated Chin Ups

  • Absolute score: 130 kg (286 pounds)
  • Relative score: 81%

Behind-the-Neck Presses

  • Absolute score: 102 kg (224 pounds)
  • Relative score: 64%

Scott Barbell Curls

  • Absolute score: 74 kg (163 pounds)
  • Relative score: 46%

Standing Reverse Curls

  • Absolute score: 48 kg (107 pounds)
  • Relative score: 30%

External Rotation SA (8 reps)

  • Absolute score: 15 kg (33 pounds)
  • Relative score: 9%

Poliquin is on record saying that, “The athletes who achieved those ratios tended to perform better on the international scene and had the lowest incidence of injuries.”

While focusing on the exercises that have been identified as weak is an obvious choice, another way to minimize the risk of developing structural imbalances is to incorporate single limb exercises (split squats, lunges, single arm rows, etc.) into your program. This will help reduce injury risk and build bigger numbers in the big lifts (e.g., squats, bench, and deadlift).

Doing this will even out any strength imbalances you have. Being structurally balanced will help bulletproof you against injury and, eliminate weak links. Removing weak links, reduces strength leaks.

These leaks mean that you cannot apply maximum force when lifting as you leak strength from your weaker points. So, by fixing these you can start pushing weights to your full capacity. More weight for more reps adds up to a bigger and stronger you.

When aiming to achieve structural balance trainers and trainees often focus on opposing muscle functions (push versus pull) or agonist/antagonist muscle groups. For example, biceps and triceps or quadriceps and hamstrings.

This is good but doesn’t reveal the whole picture. The major mistake most make is neglecting single limb work. By adding in strength work for each limb you will become strong both front to back and left to right.

You don’t want one arm or leg stronger than the other. A good example of this is someone with an uneven lockout on a bench press. This is a tell-tale sign that an injury is on the horizon. It becomes a real issue if it happens frequently or when handing near maximal loads.

Don’t ignore this kind of thing. Be grateful you spotted it in time to avoid injury and see it as an opportunity, an opportunity to fix an imbalance and position yourself for new growth.

As I mentioned earlier, unilateral work is a great way to keep your body in balance. If your technique is on point, and you have great muscular balance, it will significantly reduce your chance of injury.

Here are some examples to get you started:

  • Lower body – split squats, single leg presses, lunges, single leg glute bridges, single leg hip thrusts, and single leg RDLs.
  • Upper body – The liberal use of DBs will help you to identify any asymmetries. You can also do single arm rows, overhead presses, bench presses, and lat pulldowns to hammer any imbalances.

I suggest you spend at least one phase (3-6 weeks) of training per year aimed to address any imbalances you have. A fundamental element of which would be single limb lifts.

As for potential weak links, the following are exercises I often program for clients to ensure they don’t have strength leaks:

  • Glutes – glute bridges and hip thrusts
  • Upper back – face pulls and pull-aparts
  • Spinal erectors – back extensions and good mornings (the safety bar is an excellent choice if you have one)
  • Core – anti-rotation movements such as the Pallof press, plank, side plank
  • External Rotators – cable external rotations, and retract, rotate, and press cable combo
  • Quadriceps – hack squats (deficit deadlifts and paused front squats are great if deadlift is weak off the floor)
  • Triceps – floor presses or pin presses
  • Everything – farmer’s walks (these are a fantastic and time efficient way fix strength leaks)

It is important to remember to only address weak links when it’s appropriate. You are best served to focus on the big lifts for most of your training time.

If you do not have an obvious weak link, don’t waste time doing external rotations when you could be pulling and pressing heavy sets of 6-12. In most cases, training to target weak links is most applicable to advanced lifters.

Advanced lifters have trained long enough to get very strong and have often followed lopsided programming which contributes to having weak links. In this case, addressing them will help bust through a plateau and reduce injury risk.

For novices, however, it isn’t necessary. If you’re a newbie, just focus on getting bigger and stronger. The time will come when weak links are an issue, but for now, everything is weak, so fix that first.

Full ROM and Positions of Flexion

Obviously, you should work the muscle through its entire ROM and aim to get strong throughout this range. Doing so will protect you against injury. As for your muscular gains, remember the following: partial range equals partial development, full range equals full development.

This doesn’t just mean working through a full ROM on compound lifts, but specifically targeting the extreme ranges of a muscle. Most people’s muscles are only strong in the mid-range.

Being weak at the extremes is a red flag for risk of injury. It also means you have untapped potential for growth. Learn from bodybuilding author Steve Holman’s positions of flexion principle and include exercises which challenge a muscle in the shortened, lengthened, and mid-range.

To make this simpler, think of it this way. Certain exercises place greater emphasis on the starting position or lengthened range, others better hit the mid-range.

While others overload the end-range or completion of the rep. Being strong at all three points maximizes your opportunity for hypertrophy and minimises the risk of injury. The compound lifts effectively target the mid-range.

If you only ever do the big basics, however, you will leave yourself open to injury whenever you enter the end ranges. If you get strong at the extremes, then the muscle can produce force through its entire contractile range. This is good for joint integrity and building a robust body which can stand up to the demands placed upon it.

To help you incorporate exercises which cover the entire range of a body part remember this:

  • Mid-range – compound movements, e.g., bench press, squats, etc.
  • Lengthened – Movements where the muscle is stretched, e.g., incline DB curls, DB flyes, RDLs, sissy squats, etc.
  • End-range – Movements which overload the contracted position, e.g., leg curls, leg extension, DB lateral raise, cable flyes, concentration curls, etc.

Ok, so we’ve covered a lot of ground on the general principles of training to keep you healthy. You should be able to build a sound training program and know how to adjust it over time. Now it’s time to delve into some details which apply once you are inside the gym. First up is how to warm up for a training session.

The Keys to Effectively Warm Up

Effective, injury-proof training starts with a good warm up. Unfortunately, warm ups aren’t sexy and most gym rats skip them in favor of the fun stuff. I have been guilty of this in the past and it is a mistake.

“The warm up isn’t an excuse to BS your way through arbitrary foam rolling and corrective movements. Instead, it’s an opportunity to enhance your training performance with effective programming.” – Dr. John Rusin

So, it is obvious that a well-executed warm up is a smart move. Let’s analyze the elements that go into an optimal warm up. A useful warm up follows the RAMP principle of:

  • Raising heart rate and body temperature
  • Activate muscles
  • Mobilize joints
  • Potentiate training performance

Within this framework I like to incorporate the National Academy of Sports Medicine’s (NASM) guidelines for corrective exercises:

  • Inhibit
  • Lengthen
  • Activate
  • Integrate

Modern living dictates that most of us have some postural imbalances and certain muscles which tend to dominate our movement.

As such, spending a few minutes each time you train doing some corrective work can help to reduce the risk of injury presented by muscle imbalances and faulty movement patterns.

If you do this you can help to improve your posture, flexibility, activate key muscle groups, and potentiate your future performance all while getting a light sweat on and raising your heart rate. That is training economy at its best.

The inhibit stage is self-myofascial release (SMR)—most commonly this is done through foam rolling. Foam roll areas that have been identified as being overactive or shortened.

Having inhibited these muscles, they are then primed for lengthening through static or neuromuscular stretching. The third stage is to activate muscles that are weak or underactive. To do this, isolation exercises work well to let you really focus in on the muscle you are targeting.

The use of isometrics also helps to create a mind-muscle connection. The final step is to integrate dynamic movement. Multi-joint movements achieve this best. Having restored optimal muscle length and activated weak muscles the use of textbook form on these compound movements will help to reinforce intermuscular coordination. The result is the correction of movement patterns.

Please note that static stretching pre-training has been shown to decrease power output. So, only stretch muscles which have been identified as shortened and limiting optimal movement pattern execution.

The typical clients I see spend too much time stuck in traffic, in front of a computer, and slouched over their smartphone (sound familiar?). To help minimize their risk of injury I focus on the following areas:

  • Inhibit – pecs and hip flexors
  • Lengthen – pecs and hip flexors
  • Activate – glutes and upper back
  • Integrate – squat, hip hinge, lunge, face pulls, and push up patterns

 In practice this concept could look something like this:

  • Foam roll quads and hip flexors
  • Stretch quads and hip flexors
  • A couple of sets of glute bridges with an emphasis on a slow controlled tempo and peak contraction for a 5-count
  • A tri-set of band around knee goblet squats, reverse lunges, and single leg RDLs

The above protocol will address all elements of both the RAMP and NASM’s recommendations while efficiently setting you up for a lower body workout. It should be wrapped up in 8-10 mins max. Not only will your movement quality be improved and injury risk reduced, but so too will your subsequent training performance.

Once you’ve done your general warm up you shouldn’t walk straight over to the squat rack, throw your working weight on the bar and have at it. That is a recipe for disaster.

Instead, the intelligent use of warm up sets can build upon your overall warm up and provide you with the opportunity to practice the skill element of the lift. Doing so means you are laying the foundations for the best possible training performance and ingraining perfect movement patterns. This sets the scene for long-term, injury free training and a lifetime of PRs.

For primary lifts such as squat, bench, and deadlift variations in the 3-6 rep range perform the following:

  • 1×5 @ 50% working weight
  • 1×3 @ 70% working weight
  • 1×2 @ 80% working weight
  • 1×1 @ 90% working weight

For other exercises and sets of 7 or more reps in the primary lifts:

  • 1×8 @ 50% working weight
  • 1×6 @ 70% working weight
  • 1×3 @ 90% working weight

It is important to remember that you are looking to enhance work set performance and not accumulate fatigue. Following these numbers will allow you to practice the lift, get your nervous system primed, and potentiate performance while minimizing fatigue.

Following an effective warm up, then it is time for the fun stuff—lifting some heavy ass weights. How you lift those weights matters when it comes to both your growth potential and minimizing injury risk.

Use Timeless Form

We are a good chunk of the way through the article and I’m only talking about form now. This isn’t because it isn’t important. In fact, it could be argued that proper technique is the single most important factor in avoiding injury.

The reason I include it later in the article is not because it is unimportant, it is simply that we are starting out with a wide view of training principles while gradually zooming in.

Once a good overall training structure is in place then it is imperative you execute the plan with good form. Imagine someone is filming each set you lift. You want every set to be textbook, something you’d be happy using as a demonstration for a newbie. This form should be timeless. If a novice lifter stumbled across the footage in one, 5, 10, or even 50 years, the form used should stand the test of time.

Master the basics. Make it your goal to dominate the fundamental movement patterns. Be strong and stable in the squat, hip-hinge, lunge, press, and row. Dialing in your form on these lifts will go a long way to keeping you healthy.

It will also help to create excellent kinesthetic awareness. If you know where your body is in space throughout the entire range of all these exercises, then it will transfer over to all other lifts and help to keep you pain free.

Be sure to work through a full range of motion and execute the lift by placing tension where it should be (the target muscle). Keep momentum to a minimum. Momentum doesn’t build muscle. Overloading the muscle by maximizing tension placed on it does.

A Note on Progressive Overload

Extremity, then execution. It is one of the favorite coaching points from competitive bodybuilder and physique coach Mark Coles. He emphasizes the ability to be strong through the entire range and execute the exercise with the target muscle, not just moving from A to B.

Don’t use momentum, use the mind muscle connection. Ask yourself, “can I initiate the movement from the end range by creating tension in the target muscle?”

Progressive overload is fundamental to gaining size. If you go from doing sets of 10 with 100kg on squats to 150kg for sets of 10 then, you can be sure your legs got bigger along the way. The problem is that gym junkies know progressive overload is fundamental and they fixate on it.

They end up focusing on just moving weight from A to B. If you’re a powerlifter that’s cool, it’s the name of the game. For a bodybuilder trying to gain muscle it is not.

The aim is to add muscle not just weight on the bar. You should focus on getting muscle strong not just movement strong. A powerlifter looks to become supremely efficient at a lift to maximize the weight handled. A bodybuilder should do the opposite. Ask yourself, “how can I make the lift harder to maximize the tension on the target muscle?”

Simply adding weight to the bar becomes unfeasible eventually anyway. If it didn’t then we would all just add 2.5kg to our lifts each week and be squatting 500kg within a couple of years.

Establishing an excellent mind-muscle connection will help you create and keep tension where it should be. Rather than just trying lift a weight any way possible, focus on contracting the muscle against the load to create as much tension as humanly possible.

Squeeze the weight like it owes you money to maximize activation. Once you have this technique nailed down, you can then progressively overload by adding weight, reps, or sets. Don’t skip this fundamental step, though.

A good example of the importance of mind-muscle connection is to compare your strongest and weakest body parts. I bet you can flex your strongest body part as you sit there reading this. You don’t need an external load to do it.

Your control over that muscle is good enough to allow you to contract it hard on cue. Meanwhile, I bet you have a much harder time doing that with a lagging body part. I guarantee all of you reading this can flex your biceps immediately.

Can you do the same for your lats, rhomboids, or hamstrings? If not, aim to create that connection and strive to initiate lifts with the target muscle. This might require you to lighten the load somewhat. Don’t worry, it’ll be worth it. You will get better results and place less stress on your joints.

In my experience guys that do a lot of heavy, cheating reps suffer the consequences. They end up with joint issues and find certain exercises impossible to do without severe pain. That pain is not worth suffering even if it did allow you to lift a bit more weight. Your body doesn’t know how much weight is on the bar. It just knows tension.

Create that tension by initiating the movement with the target muscle and continue to keep the tension there for the duration the set. Keep your form strict and gradually add weight, but not at the expense of form. This won’t be good for your ego, but it will be great for your joints and muscles.

Don’t get me wrong, progressive overload is essential. Just don’t risk injury chasing PRs. The goal is size. You aren’t a powerlifter. Keep the goal the goal.

While we are on the subject of progressive overload, I feel it is important to point out some alternative methods to overload your body other than throwing more weight on the bar.

Using these methods of overload will help you to stay healthy rather than get injured chasing PRs. You can achieve overload in various forms. You can add sets, increase the frequency with which a muscle and/or exercise is performed, adjust the tempo to increase time under tension, increase the number of exercises done per body part, reduce rest intervals to increase training density, and modify the exercise to make it harder (e.g., deficit deadlifts or pause squats).

Using all of these, as well as adding weight to the bar will help to keep you growing. Providing a wide range of overload over the course of a training block will also help to keep you injury free. They provide different stimuli, which forces adaptation via different pathways and don’t wreck your joints like only chasing weight can.

I’ve made you wait long enough, but here is some juicy exercise specific training tips to help you maximize your training efficiency and minimize your injury risk. Where better to start than bench pressing?

Keep Shoulders Health During the Bench Press

Everyone loves to bench press but, for many of us, this exercise simply leaves us with cranky shoulders and achy elbows. This is especially true for tall guys who have to take the bar through a larger range of motion.

Using DBs or a multi-grip bar for your pressing work is a great way to keep your elbows and shoulders healthy. Pressing with a neutral grip on low incline is an excellent option to maintain shoulder health.

A neutral grip forces you to externally rotate the shoulders throughout the movement. Using a neutral grip allows for greater shoulder centration and leads to less elbow flare away from the body.

“The more centrally positioned we can place the shoulder, elbow, and wrist, the better those joints are going to naturally function.” – Dr. John Rusin

What else can you do to keep hitting the chest, shoulders, and triceps heavy and often while staying injury free?

Flat or decline benching tends to close the space at the front of the shoulder. Given many structures need to fit through this space (e.g., rotator cuff muscles, biceps tendon, and nerves) this can lead to impingement issues.

Because pressing at these angles creates less room for the structures to glide through, you are more likely to aggravate them, cause pain, and get injured. To stay healthy your goal should be to open this space as much as possible. One way to do this is to use an incline when benching.

Use a slight incline. Doing this causes less strain on the joints and surrounding soft tissues because it allows you to position the ball and socket shoulder joint in a more stable position.

Don’t get too aggressive and use really steep inclines, however. I have found the first set up on most adjustable benches works great. This really targets the clavicular head (upper portion) of the pecs and will help you to fill the upper chest out.

To maximize your shoulder health, I would suggest you use DBs, with a neutral grip on a low incline. The use of DBs adds to the above benefits by allowing you more freedom to move in a pattern fitting your structure as opposed to having your hands fixed on a barbell.

Consider neutral grip floor presses (DBs or football bar) because they limit range and stress on the shoulder. You can avoid the impingement issues which affect so many lifters because you are able to control the external rotation which occurs at the bottom of a barbell bench press.

Neutral grip floor presses provide a good base and pin the scapula into position. This is both good and bad. This provides artificial stability, which keeps shoulders safe during the movement but doesn’t address the underlying problem.

As a result, also program in work specifically for scapular stability and control (e.g., face pulls and band pull-aparts). At lockout, the DB automatically helps to pack the shoulder and compress the shoulder back into its socket. This corrects much of the anterior impingement pain lifters get.

Two Key Exercises to Bulletproof Your Upper Back

The face pull and pull-apart are two key tools in your toolbox to thicken your upper back and prevent injury.

The face pull should be a staple exercise in most training programs. Regardless of your specific goal they provide a fantastic training stimulus and contribute greatly to healthy shoulders.

Generally, I suggest programming them in the 10-15 rep range, but they can be loaded heavy and done for sets of 6-8. Most often, the face pull is performed on the cable station from a standing position. This is fine for higher rep sets, but isn’t ideal when working in lower rep ranges.

If you do decide to go heavy, it is best to do them seated. This reduces the risk of you using your lower back, torso and legs to complete the lift.

When loads get heavy on face pulls you commonly see two compensations. Firstly, the torso angle changes. Trainees lean back and change the movement pattern. Secondly, people start using momentum at the hips and lower back to initiate the lift.

Doing so turns this shoulder friendly exercise into a lower back injury hazard. Instead, place a bench or box by the cable station and sit on it. From there you can stabilize yourself while maintaining the desired angle of pull.

Band pull-aparts are another fantastic exercise for adding mass to your upper back and keeping shoulders healthy. Like the face pull, technique is paramount when it comes to the pull-apart. If you want to get the benefits of it, then you need to do it right, and unfortunately, most people don’t. Instead, they put excessive stress on their lower back and feel the exercise in their upper traps. You should feel this in the mid to lower-traps, rear delts, and rhomboids.

Modern living dictates that we are stuck behind the steering wheel on the commute to and from work, slumped over our computer at work, checking our smart phones every two minutes, and then, when we get home, we crash out of the sofa to watch TV.

This reinforces bad posture and makes scapular stabilizers, external rotators, the upper back, and posterior shoulder musculature weak. In time, this Quasimodo posture becomes our new normal.

This new normal reduces stability at the shoulder and limits our ability to transfer force to the bar when training, thus increasing injury risk. To counteract this, the pull-apart is a great supplement to the face pull.

A programming strategy I employ for pull-aparts is to add a set between each set of pressing variations on upper body or push days. I have used this strategy in the past with great success.

The pull-apart used in this fashion will help to promote improved posture, activate the upper back and rear deltoids, and improve subsequent pressing performance. Win-win.

To do them right, stand tall, squeeze your glutes, brace your abs, and maintain tension through the shoulders as you perform each rep. Aim to create a strong mind-muscle connection and focus on actively contracting the muscles throughout the entire range.

Slow, deliberate reps, with a hold at the back, are the way to go, not those 100 miles an hour, twitchy, bouncy reps you see most guys doing.

The Trap Bar to the Rescue of the Lower Back

This tip is useful for everyone, but especially so for tall lifters. Using a trap bar for deadlifts can address many of the potential issues that arise from conventional deadlifts.

While conventional deadlifts are a phenomenal exercise, they are one that many struggle with. If this is you then consider using the trap bar for a safer way to pull from the floor.

Performing deadlifts with a straight bar can get pretty ugly if you have a lack of mobility. For tall folks add in the sheer distance they have to move the bar and there is more chance of something going wrong.

Navigating the bar around the shins is often the problem when it comes to regular deadlifts. This isn’t an issue with the trap bar because it allows you to get the benefits of deadlifting without the injury risk.
The trap bar gives you more room to work with. It doesn’t block your shins like a traditional bar and because you are in the middle of the bar you can keep your center of gravity back a little further.

Thus, the trap bar makes it easier to find balance in the bottom position. This allows you to get a better set up before pulling from the floor. If your set up is good then there is less to go wrong.

Because your arms are down by your sides, and in a neutral hand position, you are less likely to fall forward. This is ideal because all too often people get forced too far forward with conventional bars. This compromises form, limits the weight they can safely use and increases the risk of injury at near maximal loads.

By using the trap bar for deadlifts, you get the benefits of both squatting and deadlifting.

The trap bar deadlift is kind of a hybrid lift. Obviously, you deadlift the bar off the floor with it in your hands. However, the movement pattern is closer to a squat and results in more quad emphasis than a conventional deadlift. This allows you to hit that same deep knee angle as you would in a squat but in a much more comfortable way.

Most trap bars have high and low handles, simply flip it over to use the lower handle. This allows you to progress your range over time. First, get comfortable with the high handle start position—get strong here and then switch to the lower handles.

This forces you to work through a greater range of motion. Your quads and glutes will have to work harder but remember that full range equals full development.

Rise of the Machines

The functional crowd bashed machines for making all bodybuilders weak, non-functional misfits who couldn’t translate their large muscle mass into real world situations.

Firstly, this is a gross over-simplification. Secondly, we are talking about building muscle mass here, not becoming functional, whatever that really means. In terms of hypertrophy, anything that helps you build bigger muscles is functional.

With that said, you should still build the foundation of your training around big compound lifts (remember the big four tip earlier), but you can and should use machines and isolation exercises to maximize your results.

In some situations, machines are superior to free weights. I bet that caught your attention, didn’t it?

High rep sets where you are chasing the pump, for example, tend to lend themselves better to machines than barbell lifts. Take your quads as an example.

From time to time, training them to failure in the 20+ rep range is beneficial for their overall growth. Doing this with exercises such as squats carries a high risk of form breakdown and injury, not to mention that other muscles might fatigue before your quadriceps (e.g., lower back).

If this happens you haven’t got the benefit of the metabolite accumulation in the quadriceps, but you have created huge systemic fatigue and risked injuring your lower back. In this situation, a better choice would be the leg press, hack squat, or even the leg extension.

There is no such thing as a bad exercise, you just need to know when to choose the appropriate one for the training stimulus you are aiming to create.

While deadlifts, squats, pull ups, and bench presses are all awesome exercises, I would prefer to do leg curls, leg presses, lat pulldowns, and machine presses for sets of over 15 reps.

With these exercises you can push to failure in safety, create the desired stimulus, and keep injury risk to a minimum—a widowmaker set of squats got that name for a reason.

It sounds hardcore, but what do you want? A hardcore program that beats you up and prevents you coming back for more, or an intelligently planned one that uses the right tool at the right time to keep you growing and healthy?

Take the Holistic Approach

The main crux of this article is that avoiding injury isn’t done just by picking some special exercises, but by taking a holistic overview of the training process and fine tuning each element to allow you to get the most muscle building bang for your buck at the lowest injury risk.

You might have exercise selection nailed, but avoid deloads. Conversely, you could have a great overall training structure, periodization scheme, and manage training volume, intensity, and frequency effectively. If, however, you insist on utilizing lifts that don’t suit your structure, you will break down.

Smart programming, exercise selection, and execution can go a long way to reducing the risk of injury. Take a forensic look at all the listed elements, establish which you have been missing, and then apply them to your training to stay healthy and extend your lifting career. That is the secret to consistent gains in muscle over the long term.

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