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Head to Foot Gym Injury Prevention Guide

Gyms have three basic types of exercises available - cardio machines, group exercise classes, and strength training. The last couple of columns focused on how to do aerobic classes and cardio machines properly. This column is about avoiding injury while using strength machines or free weights.

You go to the gym to get fit, but if you pump iron incorrectly you may be injured and being injured is no fun. It defeats the very purpose why you exercise. The joints are the most commonly injured parts of your body. A joint is the connection between two bones like the knee or elbow. When a joint is injured, it affects the muscles that are attached to it. For example, you will not be able to do exercises for your triceps if you injure your elbow joint. Preventing joint injuries while lifting weights is a whole lot easier than treating an injury when it happens. Here is a head-to-foot gym injury prevention guide.

Neck
Keep your head and neck in line with your spine at all times. Ask your instructor or a friend to observe your posture as you do your exercises. Avoid looking sideways at the mirror when performing exercises like a one-arm-row. When doing abdominal crunches, the neck is naturally curved but it should not be so curved that your chin is already touching your chest.

Shoulders
The shoulders are particularly prone to injury because so many muscles (chest, shoulder, back, and arm muscles) are connected there. Avoid bringing dumbbells higher than shoulder level when lifting sideways. Avoid doing behind-the-neck shoulder presses and behind-the-neck lat pull-downs. Avoid bringing your elbows very low when doing bench presses. Be careful of how wide you bring your arms during chest flyes. Strengthen and stretch your rotator cuff muscles, which are a group of four small muscles that wrap around the shoulder joint.

Elbows
The so-called ''tennis elbow'' doesn't just happen to tennis players. It can happen to anyone who grips a dumbbell too tightly. Hold dumbbells or barbells tight enough so that you don't drop them but not so tight that you block the flow of blood to your arms.

When doing any exercise that requires you to straighten your arm like a bench press or a push-up, avoid snapping, jerking or locking the elbow joint. Always move in a controlled manner.

Your chest, shoulder, and upper arm muscles may be strong enough to lift that set of heavy dumbbells but if your forearms and wrist muscles are weak, your elbow joint will have to absorb a large portion of the force. Make sure the strength levels of your forearm and wrist muscles keep up with the rest of your upper body.

Wrist
Keep wrists aligned with your forearms when lifting dumbbells and barbells or when pulling on a cable machine.

Lower Back
Explosive and uncontrolled rapid movements are lower back killers. Sudden jerking twisting movements can also bring the lower back into a painful spasm. Protect your lower back by making sure that your spine is straight (meaning with a natural lower back curve) and your abdominal and lower back muscles are held in tight when executing different exercises.

Straight does not mean vertical. You can be leaning forward, kneeling on all fours, squatting or lunging and still have a straight spine. The only exception is when you are doing abdominal or lower back exercises because the spine curls forward or arches backward.

Lift dumbbells, barbells, or other exercise equipment with your legs bent and a straight back. Avoid lifting anything with a rounded back and straight legs. Strengthening and stretching exercises for the abdominal and lower back muscles will help prevent lower back problems.

Knee
When doing squats or lunges, avoid having the knees travel way past the toes. There is too much compression on the kneecap in this position. Do strengthening exercises for the quadriceps and hamstrings (muscles in the front and back of your thighs). If you have flat feet, see a doctor about arch supports. Uncorrected flat feet can cause the knees to fall inward when you do squats and lunges. Be careful when using leg extension machines. Check that your knee joints are properly aligned with the pivot point of the machine.

Ankle
Ankle injuries are not that common while lifting weights unless you trip over a dumbbell that someone has carelessly left lying on the floor so watch our for ''booby-traps'' left on the gym floor.

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