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Most injuries occur because you use poor technique or overuse certain muscles. To experience pain-free exercise, it's important for you to identify why certain movements are more likely to lead to injury. Once you strengthen the weak points in your body that leave you vulnerable, then you can achieve any fitness goal while reducing the risk of pain and injury. Use this guide as a way to protect your body.

If you want to understand why so many people get hurt during exercise, think back to when you learned math. You wouldn’t skip to algebra before you could add, and yet, so many exercise programs require you to do complicated movements before mastering the basics.

Even more frustrating? Many of those complex lifts are unnecessary because the basics are just as effective as delivering results.

Whether you're a beginner or a pro, the same problems lead to injury: you're unaware of a weakness that makes you more vulnerable to injury.

Most injuries seemingly happen out of nowhere because most pains can start out subtle and may seem like no big deal. But, they can grow into something serious (think: strains, sprains or tendinitis) over time. So, it’s important to know the warning signs, so you can address them before they become full-blown issues.

“The vast majority of strength-training related injuries are due to overuse or poor technique, and can build up over time into more serious problems,” explains California-based exercise physiologist Pete McCall, M.S., C.S.C.S., C.P.T.

Once you start performing exercises that eliminate the most common muscle weaknesses, that's when everything changes for the better.

And that doesn't mean doing rehab-like exercises that feel like a waiting game. Developing a pain-free exercise approach doesn't mean you won't see results. In fact, it's the best way to achieve your goals because staying consistent is how you transform your body, and that means avoiding injury.

Instead of blindly following another workout program, you should be able to quickly identify what movements are consistently leading you down a high-risk path for injury. Consider this a new way to approach pain-free exercises: this isn’t about going easy on your body, it’s a smarter approach to pushing your yourself harder without being in a position where you're more likely to get hurt.

Pain-Free Exercise: Your Knees

What you feel: Knee pain (especially around the kneecap), low back pain

When you feel it: Squats, step-ups, lunges.

What’s causing the problem: 

“Most knee injuries for knee-dominant moves stem from improper tracking of the knee joint,” explains Mathew Kite, C.S.C.S., an exercise scientist and general manager of D1 Sports Training in Dallas, Texas. Basically, your knee should go in one direction but winds up going in another instead.

In the case of the squat, your knees collapse inward, a position called valgus. Valgus knees place damaging side-to-side stress on your joint, particularly on your patellar tendon.

Worst of all? “Going valgus” isn’t your knees’ fault. The real culprit is a set of weak glutes.

When your glutes aren’t as strong as they need to be to handle the load on your back, your knees automatically fall inward in order to help you lift the weight. This is okay if it were to happen only occasionally, like on the last rep of your last set while setting a new max. (You’ll see some powerlifters’ knees go inward onsets when they’re really going for broke.) But, other than that, you don’t want this to happen.

Making matters worse, having weak glutes can cause you to lean too far forward when you squat. While a little bit of a forward lean is OK, having too much of one can put excess pressure on your lower back.

There’s one more thing that can cause you to lean forward excessively when you squat: poor ankle mobility. You’ll know this is your problem if you feel that it’s difficult to keep your heels on the floor as you lower your butt to the floor, McCall says.

What you can do: Your first goal is simple: “Develop a stronger butt to save your knees,” says Kite. Building up your glutes will help your knees track correctly (think of them angling toward the pinky toes when you squat or lunge). To strengthen them, try adding frog pumps, glute bridges and hip thrusts to your workouts.

If you have a bar on your back, focus on grabbing the bar tight and pulling your elbows down towards your ribcage.  That will help stabilize the upper part of your torso and prevent you from tipping forward, Callaway says.

If you’re having a hard time keeping your heels on the floor, McCall recommends foam rolling, stretching, and doing mobility drills for your calves prior to squats. Try taking them through their full range of motion with toes-elevated bodyweight calf raises.

Lastly, you don’t need to squat with a barbell on your back. Goblet squats (see a demo here) -- which are typically done with a dumbbell or kettlebell -- are a variation that is knee and back friendly, and it makes it easier to squat without your knees collapsing or body leaning forward. Or, work on bodyweight squats and then add a band for resistance. You'll still have resistance, but you're less likely to add too much weight too soon, which is where injuries can occur if you're still mastering your form. 

Pain-Free Exercise: Your Back 

What you feel: Pain in your lower back or neck 

When you feel it: deadlifts, hip thrusts, and glute bridges

What’s causing the problem: “An incorrect set-up,” says Meghan Callaway, CPT. When you deadlift, oftentimes your hips are too low or too high. Both of these errors leave you vulnerable to injury because a rounded back (high hips) or overly arched back (low hips) stresses your spine in its weakest positions.

What you can do about it: Your goal here is to maintain what’s called a neutral spine, which has a natural (but not excessive) curve inward at the lower back, then slightly outward at the shoulder blades, and back inward at the neck.

“Maintaining a neutral spine is what’s going to keep that back healthy and ready for the next workout,” Kite says.

To achieve this when you perform a hinge-style movement like the deadlift, you want to think about getting as much movement as possible from your hips with as little movement as possible from your knees. To do this, think about pushing your butt as far back as you can. (Imagine you're holding a tray full of glasses, no hands are free, and you need to open a door behind you. What do you do? You push your hips back into the door.)

A good way to learn this pattern is to find a foam roller (or anything that’s straight, like a PVC pipe) and stand tall while holding the straight object against your back so that it has three points of contact: touching the back of your head, your shoulders, and your tailbone. Then, practice the hinge motion of pushing your hips back, while maintaining all three points of contact. If you're struggling to picture what it looks like, here's a simple video demonstration.

Another way to make sure that you are using your hips rather than lower back is to keep the weight as close to your body as possible during deadlifts, Callaway says. When you lower the weight, image the bar almost scratching against your shins, which will help keep the bar closer to your body throughout the movement.

Also, don't be stubborn about your range of motion. Every person's body is different, so, if you feel pain in your lower back when you pull from the floor -- stop pulling from the floor. You can place a barbell or dumbbell on boxes or platforms. This limits the range of motion and helps you be in a comfortable position of power.

That way, you can perfect the movement without getting into a position where you are overly rounded and vulnerable. As you can stronger and better, you can lower the boxes -- or, you might find that you never need to pull the weight from the floor. 

Or, you can do a staggered stance deadlift. This variation provides the benefits of a single-leg deadlift (where less weight is needed), without the advanced difficulty of balance. Your back leg works like a kickstand to make it easier to move in a way that doesn’t make your body susceptible to injury.

Pain-Free Exercise: Your Wrists

What you feel: Shoulder pain, elbow strain, wrist discomfort.

When you feel it: Shoulder press, bench press, pushups, and triceps extensions

What’s causing the problem: Not keeping your wrist, elbow, and shoulder stacked (in line) during chest and shoulder presses can also introduce instability in your shoulder joint, Kite says. Bending your wrists can also introduce pain.

What you can do about it:  Think tight, tight, tight—all of the way from your wrists to your core.

To get your wrists in order, you need to start by gripping the bar correctly. Here’s an instance where what “feels” natural—and what most people do—is actually wrong.

Watch Starting Strength author Mark Rippetoe explain how to properly grip the bar for a press starting at 1:57 in this video. Note that the process depends you placing your palms on the bar first, rather than wrapping with your knuckles first. Properly placing the bar across your palms will stack the weight on the bones of your forearm, making for a more powerful (and far less injury-prone) press.

From there, you’ll want to keep your core muscles engaged, obliques braced, and rib cage down (no flaring!). “This will help prevent the spine from hyperextending,” says Callaway. She adds that if you can’t press a weight while keeping a natural curve in your spine, you need to decrease weight. It also wouldn’t hurt to build your core strength with the help of exercises like the dead bug and Pallof press.

Still concerned about pressing? Using barbells might be the problem, and they are not necessary. You can challenge your muscle just fine with dumbbell variations, kettlebells, bands, or cables. If your shoulders feel vulnerable during a chest press, try a floor press, instead, which will limit the range of motion. Worried about overhead pressing? If you have a landmine (or you can just place a barbell in the corner of a room), try this press variation, which is easier on your shoulders and elbows.

Pain-Free Exercise: Your Shoulders

What you feel: Shoulder pain, wrist discomfort, tennis elbow

When you feel it: Rows, pullups, biceps curls

What’s causing the problem: “Not controlling the lowering (eccentric) part of the lift,” Callaway says.

Many people put their body at risk by not controlling the lowering phase of the pull-up. If you are allowing your body to free-fall from the top position, that could be part of your problem. Doing so exerts additional force on your joints from your shoulder blades, shoulder, elbows, and wrists. The effect can hold true when you're doing biceps curls, rows, and any other “pulling” exercise.

What you can do about it: Start by using lighter weights. If you can’t control a weight both up and down, you’re just asking for injury. In general, if you can’t control the weight for 2-3 seconds on the descent, the weight is probably too heavy.

Next, if you know that lowering the weight can lead to injury, it only makes sense to emphasize that type of training. Turn a weakness into a strength and you won’t get hurt.

Here’s how it works: “Take three to five seconds to lower your body [from the pull-up bar] or the weight,” Callaway says. You can do this with almost any exercise. And the benefit isn’t just injury prevention; research shows that focusing on the eccentric can cause more of the good “microtears” that helps strengthen your muscles.

With each rep, pretend that you are pinching and slowly releasing an orange from between your shoulder blades. Then, keep your entire body tight and braced to keep your body in a more stable position and prevent swinging. Engaging your core properly will be especially helpful on “hanging” moves like pull-ups. Tony Gentilcore, C.S.C.S., explains the proper way to set up for these moves in this short video.

While pullups are an effective exercise, they’re not necessary. For bodyweight pulling, you can do inverted or bodyweight rows. 

Also, if you’ve experienced elbow pain (or something like tennis elbow) in the past, McCall recommends try performing some or all of your pulling exercises with a palms-up (supinated) grip or with your palms facing each other (neutral grip). The rotation of your palm changes the stress you put on your shoulders, which can then lead to pain in your elbows.



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