How To Prevent A Weight-Lifting Injury (And how to recover your pride when you do)

by Charlotte on March 6, 2012 · 28 comments

Um. Ow.

Be afraid, be very afraid: There is a silent killer lurking in your gym. Oh you may think your daily sweat fests are protecting you from injury and disease but in reality those free weights are a ticking time bomb with your number on it. And not just because the last person to use them pooped and didn’t wash their hands before picking up that dumbbell. (Although that does happen too. That’s another downside of having the bathrooms right on the track at my Y. When you’re running by you can totally see if there is no pause between the toilet flushing and the door opening.) Nope, the weight floor is dangerous for an entirely different reason: You are an idiot.


According to an analysis of recent data, weight lifting injuries are on the rise, increasing 50% over the course of the study. In 2007 alone there were over 970,000 hospital visits attributed to pumping the iron. The worst offender? The free weights.

I will ‘fess up: I’ve totally dropped weights on myself. The worst time was when I bounced a thirty-pound dumbbell off my shoulder while trying to bench press two of them. The shoulder hit was actually a good thing because the other ‘bell was heading straight for my lady bits, had I not rolled sideways off the bench. I ended up sideways on the floor with a dumbbell crashing down on top of me and a very concerned fellow weight lifter who refused to let me do anything without a spot for the rest of my foolhardy workout. (Note: That happened about 4 years ago and I just realized that today I only can press 40′s. This does not seem like good progress for 4 years. Although my bar press has gone up significantly from what it was. Hmph.)

In addition to that I’ve stubbed toes tripping over weights left on the floor, popped an olympic bar off my collar bone while doing cleans (nothing says hardcore like an Olympic bar-shaped bruise across your pecs), and strained innumerable muscles and joints because I was too busy telling the Gym Buddies about Natalie Portman’s most gorgeous Oscars dress ever (polka dots! Red! Vintage! To the Academy Awards! Swoon!!) to watch my form. Heck, today I jammed a finger playing basketball.

I have a thing for vintage dresses. I may have mentioned it once or three hundred times? 

My favorite weight-induced injury however was one day Gym Buddy Krista and I were using the cable machine to do assisted pistol squats (if you have never done a pistol squat then you do not know the meaning of Toilet Sore – you will excrete green pain, you will be that sore). On this particular day Krista set the resistance too light and upon trying to stand up out of the squat found herself tipping. So she did what any good weight lifter would do: instead of merely setting her other foot on the ground, she fell over backwards landing flat on her back. The best part was thanks to the cable machine, she did it all slo-mo, Matrix style. It probably took her a whole 20 seconds to complete her protracted fall. And did I run to help her? Sadly I couldn’t thanks to laughing so hard I was crippled by my child-weakened bladder. Nothing says Great Workout like peeing your pants!

According to the study, Krista and I are anomalies as the vast majority of injuries happen to young (ages 13-24) men. And if you can’t immediately understand why this is true then you have never watched The Jersey Shore. I’ve seen this in action: not too long ago I got to help pull a heavily weighted bar off a man who had pinned himself to the chest-press bench. Trying to make him feel better I chirped, “Oh don’t worry! I’ve totally done this to myself too!” After which Gym Buddy Megan swatted me and pointed out that that probably made him feel worse. Oops.

Now, if I were a responsible blogger, I’d give you a whole list of tips on how to lift safely. I’d say stuff like maintain good form, ask for a spot, have a trainer show you how to do new moves, don’t increase your weight too quickly, don’t show off and for the love of little green apples don’t think that just because the gym is piping Eye of the Tiger over the PA that that gives you license to punch random stationary objects. But I’m not and I’m tired. So I’ll leave you with this: Don’t be dumb, dude.

So what’s your story – have you ever hurt yourself weight lifting? What’s your best weight lifting safety tip? What was your fave Oscars night dress?

{ 28 comments… read them below or add one }

Chris Pine March 6, 2012 at 11:49 pm

Probably the best tip for not injuring yourself during strength training is to use bodyweight exercises.

Yeah, you can get pretty strong doing pistol squats and one-arm pullups.

If you’re going to use weights, be smart and don’t let your ego tell you how much to lift.


Charlotte March 6, 2012 at 11:50 pm

Amen to this!!! Great point. I love bodyweight exercises!


radioactivegan March 6, 2012 at 11:54 pm

I think a (perhaps unworkable) solution to the proclivity of young men to hurt themselves at the gym is to require that they only work out with grandmas. If they’re surrounded by women, age 70+, they won’t feel the same need for showboating and might have give a second thought to doing something stupid. Plus, it’ll give the grandmas someone to talk to while they exercise. Of course, I say this in jest – my grandmother works out more in a week than I do in a month (and she’s nearly 83) .. she’d probably show them all up.


Sable March 7, 2012 at 12:57 am

Strength training injuries can usually be attributed to ego, broscience, not listening to your body, or not bothering to research or use proper form. (Plus there is so much crap out there that it can be hard for inexperienced people to even FIND good information.) Are there still risks? Yes, just like with anything else. There were 970,000 hospital visits from strength training, but did you find a statistic for, say, the number of sedentary people who threw out their backs reaching over to pick something up? Or elderly women whose hip simply snapped? Also, I have to respectfully disagree with the bodyweight comment. Bodyweight exercises are fine, but are difficult to incrementally load, thus making them more difficult to use for strength purposes. I used to do a lot of bodyweight exercises, and pistols shredded my knees, along with plyometrics. It wasn’t until I started barbell training that I stopped having knee pain. I’m not trying to rag on bodyweight, because I think combining it with other training is great! I’m just saying that any activity can cause injury: running, lifting, bodyweight exercises, swimming, tennis, kettlebells, driving, tripping over a cat toy… You get the idea.


Alyssa (azusmom) March 7, 2012 at 11:37 am

“Broscience:” LOVE it!
I have tripped over a number of dog and cat toys.
As well as the dogs and cats said toys belong to.


Shayna March 7, 2012 at 1:42 am

Oh my gosh, THANK YOU for posting that link. I laughed until I cried over those stories in the comments.
I was at the gym with my co-worker who doesn’t work out much and she got onto the ab machine backwards, like straddling it(?)…she managed to do one rep in that position and when the weight came down it shot her completely over the back of the nautilus machine, like a human catapult. Wow. Just…wow.


Naomi/Dragonmamma March 7, 2012 at 6:41 am

I’m a big lover of body-weight and free-weight exercises. As a long-time gym rat, I’ve seen just as many injuries in people doing body-weight exercises, but it’s easier to remember the free-weight injuries because they’re usually more spectacular to watch. The bodyweight exercises are more silent; someone will be doing something on the pull-up bar and they’ll suddenly drop off with a look of pain in their eyes and say “uh-oh!” or “AUUURGH!” Turns out they’ve pulled a lat muscle or ripped an elbow tendon. (I’ve done both, and both were body-weight only.)


Dr. J March 7, 2012 at 7:23 am

I did a lift when I was pretty young and pulled something that has NEVER gotten better! I have prospered in spite of my deformity :-) So it goes. Sort of an unseen scar.

I look at exercise and being physical as either being injured or ready for further punishment!


Mary Kate March 7, 2012 at 7:23 am

I haven’t hurt myself doing the exercises…yet….but I have ALMOST impaled my eye (with an olympic bar that was racked) by looking down at my notes while walking through the weight room. Or when I was meandering through a group fitness class and almost got smacked in the face as a man lifting heavy weights was taking his bar off his back. I am an accident waiting to happen.


cbuffy March 7, 2012 at 7:38 am

I’m sorry. I just couldn’t concentrate – because… is he making DUCK LIPS????? (I clearly don’t watch Jersy Shore, cuz I have no idea what his name is – the guy on the left…)

Big fan of bodyweight exercises (yea T-Tapp) but yes, you can totally hurt yourself doing it or anything else. Biggest advise? Listen to your body!


Cort The Sport March 7, 2012 at 8:09 am

My injuries are more cumulative, capped off by a brilliantly idiotic workout to seal the deal. Examples:

My “50′s” workout when I randomly decided to do 50 reps of various lifts at the gym one day. Well, 50 x 100lb bench (over 7 sets) followed by 50 parallel bar dips wrecked my shoulder and it’s still bad, six months later!!

Then a few weeks ago, with an iffy hip I decided it would be a good idea to do my 18 mile long run on the track so I’d be near my car if I had an issue, not realizing all that cornering would just wreck it more. Not smart!!!


geosomin March 7, 2012 at 8:51 am

When I hurt myself I seem to strain muscles by getting stuck in the mindset of “oh this move is hard with bodyweight – I should add MORE!”…and then…ouch…I am learning. I am increasing reps with lighter weights to start off with and miraculously (surprise surprise) not hurting myself as much.

My most recent injury to my forarm muscle was from putting my shirt on after my workout last week (???), so I have nothing to say about this :) I’m not too bad about workout injuries lately…I seem perfectly able to hurt myself anywhere!


Kevin Grant March 7, 2012 at 9:39 am

A week before an important half marathon race I did a workout including deadlifts. I was really careful, because I didn’t want to hurt myself before the race. Having successfully completed the lifts, I was taking the weights off the bar when a 45lb plate slipped out of my hand and hit the floor. It spun around like a coin and I just stood there watching it, mesmerized. Of course, it ended up on my toe.

It didn’t hurt right away, but that night the toe swelled up about double and turned all sorts of colors—it looked like the Northern lights, all purple and green and shimmering.

Thankfully, I was still able to do the race and the toe didn’t bother me too much. But even now, six months later, the toe is still swollen and achy. I figure it’s just a good reminder to stand clear when plates hit the floor.


deb roby March 7, 2012 at 10:39 am

My worst injury is still to my ego -though it could have been much worse. Doing box jumps, I don’t catch the box squarely -instead catch the edge. The box goes in one direction, my body goes in the other and BANG on the ground. I’m not sure that I ever can clear enough floor of random weights to completely prevent falling into one.

Or the time I was doing one arm chest presses, didn’t balance correctly, and fell off the bench…


Abby Anderson March 7, 2012 at 10:46 am

One time at the gym I was using some cable machinew where you sit with your back to it and pull down with both arms, I forget what its called, but anyway.. My family is Italian. We talk with our hands. So chatting with a friend as I pulled down, I took one of my hands off to gesture which of course ripped out every ligament in my opposite shoulder.. Ok, maybe not but it felt like my arm ripped totally off my body. Because I am an idiot. I had to make up a whole story about how I hurt it lifting weights.. it went kinda like this “i don’t know what happened, sometimes you just move wrong..”


Nicky March 7, 2012 at 12:09 pm

I’m so relieved that I’m not the only klutz! I hit my big toe last night with a 30-lb sledgehammer when I mistimed a hand switch while trying to hit a large tire (I was trying to go from a right-hand swing to a left-hand swing). Though the toe is not broken, the toenail is an interesting colour. Ow!


Rach March 7, 2012 at 12:27 pm

I’ve never injured myself but have been injured by other folks when the gym is crowded, flailing their weights around and dropping them on my toes … and then there’s the ‘injury’ of seeing people doing it ALL WRONG, like hunching and rounding all over the lat pulldown b/c the weights are way too heavy or doing crazy-contortion ‘squats’ in the smith machine. ‘Your back, ye gods! ouch!’ it makes me wince to watch. So I make an effort not to. After all, it’s just me here, tra-la-la-la-la!


Sarah March 7, 2012 at 1:29 pm

No weight lifting tips – but gotta be Penelope Cruz for best Oscar dress!


Meghan@themeghamix March 7, 2012 at 2:36 pm

My best ones were at Crossfit. In the same workout I dropped a wallball on my face and then clocked myself in the chin doing thrusters.

Last week I punched myself smack in the kisser during karate.

LOVED Natalie’s dress.


Howtolosebellyfatforwomentips March 7, 2012 at 5:15 pm

I think a lot of injuries occur when you are trying something you shouldn’t be doing. I blame a lot of internet workouts that assume the user can perform a particular movement. Not enough teaching is being done to prevent people from being unsafe…….Then there are the things that happen that make no sense at all and we end up hurt for no reason other than we are dumb. I have taken a cable attachment to the face more than once trying to be “explosive”. Nothing like a fat lip to remind you how dumb you are.


Sara Haley March 7, 2012 at 7:34 pm

Hi Charlotte. What a great article! As a trainer, I would offer the advice to TAKE . . . YOUR . . .TIME. As my fellow Reebok Master Trainer, Jeffrey Scott, says “Momentum is NOT a muscle.” Make sure you are taking your time to actually LIFT the appropriate weight, not swinging to gain momentum in order to get the weight up. Before you pick up the weight, know that you can lift it. It shouldn’t be a guessing game – that’s how you get hurt. On the other end, remember that it should be a weight that can fatigue you. Wasting your time doing thirty plus reps is exactly that – a waste of time. Finding a balance between the two is a workout in itself – leaving your ego at the door and trusting your mind and body to do what’s right. I get it – I am challenged by it myself, and I see people in my classes and on the training floor go through the process constantly. Let me know if I can help with any questions – I’ve seen a lot. Oh, and my favorite dress . . . LOVED Michelle Williams – she looked like a doll that I wanted to take home and put on my shelf :).


Jody - Fit at 54 March 7, 2012 at 8:48 pm

USE PROPER FORM. DON’T SACRIFICE FORM FOR MORE WEIGHT… I have been at this over 30 years & very very few injuries! DON’T talk while lifting – focus on what you are doing & nothing else!


40s mum March 7, 2012 at 9:40 pm

I have an odd story- not exactly an injury, but… probably about 5 years ago, I indulged in a series of sessions with a personal trainer. While she was coaching me on a move in the small, quiet studio where she worked, we both suddenly heard a loud, drawn-out ripping, tearing sound- coming from one of my legs. It wasn’t my clothes tearing, nor was it, uhm, gas or something, but some tissue in my leg. We both kind of freaked out and I stopped what I was doing and tried to figure out what had gone wrong- but the odd thing was, nothing hurt! and there was no later-onset pain either, just something was too tight and needed to, uhm, rip, I guess?


Zinedine March 10, 2012 at 4:47 am

I train from home and apart few your limitations I have also few advantages.


essbee March 10, 2012 at 5:43 pm

So I’m late to the party and probably no one will read this, but…PRACTICE FAILING. I work out at a (mellow, low-cult-factor) Crossfit affiliate, and the coaches always stress teaching how to fail. Drop the weight this way…get out from under the bar like so…ALWAYS have a spotter when you’re performing a lift that you can’t safely fail solo. No exceptions.

Practicing failure, and emphasizing absolutely perfect technique at low weight before going up is the best thing you can do to protect yourself from the dumb kind of injury. Coaches at my box are regularly known to walk up and unceremoniously strip weight off an athlete’s bar if his technique gets sloppy. In the coming up on three years that I’ve worked out there, I can recall exactly two athlete injuries that were caused by activity in the gym (both were body weight exercises!)…although that’s not to say those are the only injuries that the athletes there have suffered.

Full disclosure: I am a total klutz and often end up as the one providing the entertainment every morning. I don’t care to admit how many times I have beaned myself standing up under a bar on a rack (we have stacks of weights at the bottom of the racks). I also am the master of sending the bar one direction and my body violently in the opposite direction, generally landing smack on my ass. Pride is something I gave up a long, long time ago. :)


Awesome Athlete March 15, 2012 at 4:08 pm

I have heard that the number of injuries from weight lifting is actually very low compared to other sports. Most of my injuries have been from rugby and hockey.


Silvia March 17, 2012 at 10:32 am

I’ve just found your blog, and I have been reading it for the better part of a rainy afternoon.
And now I’ve just wanted to say hi!


Tracy96 March 26, 2012 at 10:25 am

I think if you have this kind of injury its really hard and pain..I think you have to take time while doing this kind of exercise to avoid from any injury..


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