Smart weight training: Maximum benefits, minimum injury

When we strength-train using free weights, machines, or our own body weight, a few tactics are in order -- not to just reap the benefits, but to avoid injury.

These tips apply to all of us, but they are even more important for beginners, weekend warriors, seniors and for any of us who have an existing or previous injury!

Past injuries can make us vulnerable to a future injury, so I like to make the analogy, "It's like getting over a cold; we're vulnerable to a relapse if we're not careful."

Smart weight training means:

Always warm up with cardio first. 5 or 10 minutes of an aerobic exercise will raise our core body temperature and thus raise the temperature of our muscles. This will make our muscles ready for action.

Always warm up the target muscle group first. Always start with a light weight to warm the specific muscle/muscle group we are about to target. Start with a light weight and pump out 12-15 reps just to warm the specific muscles and joints. Even if you do only one set, start with a warm-up set first.

Focus. All exercise requires focus to be effective, which includes using proper form. Focus includes watching ourselves in the mirror.

Don't over-lift. Don't increase weights drastically or too quickly from one workout to the next; monitoring our response from the last workout and our overall ability for each workout is a smart thing. Don't feel so great? Use light weights for that session. Let's alternate the type of training often, which may mean performing exercises with a heavier weight load with less reps one session, and a lighter weight load with higher reps the next.

Breathe! It's common for many of us to hold our breath even for a moment without realizing it when we lift weights. This happens more frequently when we perform certain exercises, and especially when we lift using heavier weights. Holding our breath can cause a high internal pressure in our chest cavity (a very unhealthy thing), so please BREATHE.

Use full range of motion. Each muscle and muscle group attaches to a joint/joints, which has a range of movement. So, for instance, when doing a bicep curl, start with arm fully extended and curl the weight until the elbow is fully bent. Return the weight slowly to a full extension (never snap the elbow). The idea is to not shorten the movement. Usually we need to lower the amount of weight we are lifting when we try to do a full range. Performing a full range enhances our flexibility by allowing our tendons to retain their elasticity by not tightening.

Slow down. The faster we perform each movement, the more we use momentum as an aid. Ever see someone at the gym performing repetitions at the speed of lightening with a bounce at the end of each movement? There's usually a good reason: we can lift more weight. However, not only do we increase our risk for injury, but we make the exercise less effective.

As founder and director of The Nutrition Center, located at Sparta Strength and Conditioning Center in New York City, June M. Lay provides dietary/nutritional counseling in several specialized areas including health risk assessment, weight loss/weight management, and sports nutrition. For more information, visit

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