Staying Safe at the Gym

For Immediate Release

Staying Safe at the Gym
Top sports orthopaedist explains how to keep shoulder injuries out of your workout

NY, NY and Greenwich, CT, April 2008 “Most people never think about their shoulders” until, of course, they start to hurt. But the shoulder joint is a wonder, allowing you to push, pull, lift and twist your arms in every direction. The shoulder actually comprises three major joints, says Kevin Plancher, MD, a leading sports orthopaedist in the New York metropolitan area. When people talk about the shoulder, they’re usually talking about the glenohumeral joint, which links the upper arm to the body, or the rotator cuff, which is the group of muscles that surrounds the shoulder. All of these components work together to make the shoulder the most flexible joint in the body.

Unfortunately, all that mobility has a price, and shoulder injuries are one of the most common problems among athletes of all levels professionals as well as weekend warriors. The biggest problem for most of us is overuse injuries, the kind that come from a repetitive motion, in fact common for most regulars in the gym. While an elite athlete will recognize an injury and get treatment for it right away, most non professional athletes will happily ignore symptoms. People either don’t know that something is wrong, or they take a lot of Advil and keep doing what they’re doing until the pain becomes unbearable, Dr. Plancher says.

Shoulders are uniquely vulnerable to overuse injuries because of their structure. Because this joint allows the arm to rotate in a circle, the shoulder is inherently unstable, Dr. Plancher explains. If you think of the hip joint as a ball in a socket, you should picture the shoulder as a golf ball (humeral head) sitting on a shallow tee (glenoid on socket). The shoulder relies on the surrounding muscles, connective tissue and ligaments to function to be stable.

Here are 6 ways to keep your shoulders safe and strong at the gym:

Act your age. The majority of shoulder woes are the result of the simple passage of time. You could get away with abusing your shoulders early on in life. People say, I’ve always done things this way, so why does it hurt now? Dr. Plancher says, first exercises should be modified because the shoulder may be affected by early arthritis and muscles and tendons are now relied upon more to perform certain motions. If you repeat a motion that puts too much strain on your shoulder joint or forces the muscles will work in a misaligned way, and it will eventually catch up with you, Dr. Plancher says. Therefore high repetitions with low weights is always advisable, Dr. Plancher adds.

Concentrate on muscle groups, not individual muscles. People hurt themselves when they put too much emphasis on one muscle getting huge biceps or lats, for example, Dr. Plancher says. Instead, target more of your arms or shoulders with moves like the chest press or back row. The best exercises work several muscles at once, Dr. Plancher says. They’re better for your body and actually give you better results, too, because you’re building functional strength.

Hire a pro. If you go to any gym, you’ll see people with poor form, Dr. Plancher says. But they’ll all tell you that they know what they’re doing. Get specific work out regimes from your doctor and take a few lessons with a certified trainer. You want to be sure that everything is in proper alignment, or you could hurt yourself. Remember to never lock out or lock in but rather work in the mid range to create an eccentric contracture. Improper technique is probably the biggest cause of shoulder injuries in gym-goers, he says.

Warm up and build up. Be sure to warm up for a few minutes before you start exercising, Dr. Plancher says. Don’t use weights that are too heavy, even if you’re in good shape. Overdoing it “lifting too much, too often” is the other big culprit in shoulder injuries at the gym. If you’re new to weight training, start with weights that you can lift for 8 to 12 reps and 3 sets. When that gets easy, increase the load by 2 percent (and no more than 10 percent), Dr. Plancher says. Train with weights no more than three days a week at the beginning. Alternate with aerobic exercises.

Think flexibility, not just strength. The shoulders go through the largest range of motion of any joint in the body, so if you are not flexible, you could be in trouble, Dr. Plancher says. Be sure to incorporate stretching and range of motion exercises into your routine, especially before and after you work out.

Keep your hands where you can see them. Skip the behind-your-head moves, such as the lat pull-down, which can put enormous strain on your shoulders. When doing bench presses or flys, don’t let your hands drop below your shoulders (that’s overextension, and it can cause injury). Substitute an incline press for a military press to avoid shoulder impingement. If you’re using cardio machines like the elliptical trainer or stair-stepper, keep your hands resting lightly on the handrails not at your sides, elbows locked, supporting all your weight with a death-grip on the rails. Here’s the rule, says Dr. Plancher. If you need to hang on for dear life, your setting is too high. And you’re probably hurting your shoulders in the process.

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