As fitness professionals, we accept the premise that most serious strength-training athletes and bodybuilders will experience injuries at some point in time. Within a 1-year period of regular strenuous workouts, almost 50% of bodybuilders report suffering from some sort of injury. Understanding the mechanics of such issues can help avoid potential problems as well as teach us the best manner of dealing with injuries, if and when they occur.
Why Do Injuries Occur?
Resistance training, from the point of view of one’s muscle tissue, practically invites injuries. The act of challenging muscles past their comfort zone, which involves placing significant loads upon fairly small areas, creates micro-tears in the muscle fibers. Time, repetition, rest, and proper nutrition then work in consort to repair these tears, culminating in hypertrophy and strength gains.
What exactly contributes to the onset of injury? Most often, injuries happen during weight training, yet typically these do not hamper an athlete’s ability to continue with his workouts. As we would expect, using gym equipment improperly, or for any purpose other than that which the manufacturer intended, leads to the majority of bodybuilding injuries.
Those individuals who train more often will statistically suffer a greater percentage of injuries. Other contributing factors include attempting to top a former personal best in bench pressing or a deadlift; incorrect use of straps; training while under the influence of alcohol; and surprisingly, dietary issues/proper nutrition.
Injury Sites by the Numbers
The United States Olympic Training Center regularly sees injuries resulting from a variety of athletic endeavors. Specific weightlifting-related injuries over a 6-year period yielded very interesting data. Over 64% of reported injuries involved the lower back, knees, and/or shoulders. Most of the back injuries consisted of pulled muscles or strains, similar to shoulder complaints. Tendinitis, however, accounted for 85% of all knee injuries.
Once identified and properly treated, the rate of acute/recurring injuries proved very low, accounting for a mere 3.3 injuries per every 1,000 hours of resistance training.
Many strength training moves require an athlete to place a joint in a challenging position, one that may compromise its very integrity. Improper execution of even the most basic of weightlifting exercises may lead to pinched nerves. Nerve damage, a far more complex and serious condition, may also occur in cases of poor alignment or improper machine utilization.
Nerve damage can arise from compression, or from an individual’s overzealous choice of a weight load unfamiliar to him or outside of his abilities.
Commonly reported lower back pain often stems from a herniated spinal disk, which in turn compresses a nerve root. Nerve pressure generated from years of poor posture/arthritis can eventually lead to irreversible weakness and/or permanent nerve damage.
Overuse and overtraining injuries often fall into this category. Therefore, trainers must remain vigilant in continuously charting a client’s progress, to ensure that the client does not move too rapidly into any high-intensity training without first assessing the readiness of his body. Even for elite athletes/weightlifters, typical injuries arise predominantly from overuse.
Nerve Damage versus Soft Tissue Injuries
When dealing with the aftermath of any sports-related injury, distinguishing one involving potential nerve damage from the much more commonplace soft tissue tears can make a significant difference in how these issues get addressed, treated and resolved. If a physician or coach cannot definitively pinpoint the specific injury site, nerve conduction tests can prove helpful. This knowledge can then illustrate an exact location, should the course of treatment include a nerve block or steroid injection.
The nerve injury known as carpal tunnel syndrome, or median nerve entrapment at the wrist, presents with a tingling sensation/numbness, eventually leading to significant and often debilitating pain. Experts believe this arises over time from chronic, repeated mechanical compression, originating from improper/overused wrist flexion as well as repetitive activity of the hand and wrist.
Improper grip of barbells often leads to this carpal tunnel syndrome. However, ulnar neuropathy occurs most often at the elbow joint. Similar to the problems associated with medial nerve damage, compression of the ulnar nerve from progressive bicep isolation exercises leaves an athlete vulnerable to numbness and tingling in the hand, with potential ensuing cachexia and weakness. Bodybuilders often report that excessive hypertrophy of the muscles located in the triceps’ medial head cause compressive ulnar neuropathy.
Ulnar neuropathy at the wrist can arise from direct compression on Guyon’s canal, also known as the ulnar tunnel. Guyon’s Canal Syndrome refers to the collection of symptoms resulting from compression of the ulnar nerve. Bicyclists often find themselves dealing with this situation, known within elite cycling circles as handlebar palsy.
Can Proper Nutrition Thwart Injuries?
Evidence shows that disordered eating behaviors may increase the risk of musculoskeletal injuries. A common mistake made by many serious strength training athletes involves the drastic altering of caloric intake following a bodybuilding injury. Many bodybuilders believe that working out less while continuing with their normal caloric intake may lead to weight gain.
Contrary to this line of reasoning, research shows that in a state of injury repair, metabolism actually kicks into high gear. Hence, when rehabbing an injury, trainers ought to remind clients to consume sufficient calories, especially lean protein, to fuel the recovery process.
Optimal nutrition can play a key role in controlling inflammation, providing the best fuel for rebuilding injured tissue, minimizing muscle wasting, and maintaining strength gains. Selecting the perfect nutritional foods can actually help accelerate rehabilitation. While striking an appropriate omega-6 to omega-3 balance makes sense for overall health, a short-term excess of omega-3 fatty acids during injury repair lowers inflammation, mitigates pain, and tends to shorten recovery time.
Fish with a higher Omega-3 fat content, such as tuna and salmon, along with nuts and plant-based oils, serve as ideal fuel sources during this time. Trainers might consider suggesting to injured clients that consuming protein every three hours during the day, after rehabilitation sessions, and before bed will go a long way toward facilitating injury repair.
Charting a Course for Injury-Free Workouts
Armed with the aforementioned information, trainers can continue to guide clients toward successfully meeting their goals while also sidestepping potential injury-inciting land mines. When proper form/alignment, appropriate rest intervals, and prudent weight loads converge, clients will find themselves spending more time “in the game”, and less if any time sidelined while rehabbing injuries.