There’s nothing like a powerful workout to make you feel good about yourself. Weight machines, free weights, treadmill, Cybex, track, recumbent bike—mix it up and work it. For a while, sometimes years, what you do may produce great results, but one day you notice your shoulder throbbing, or your knee feels as though it’s just been KO’d by the ghost of Bruce Lee.
Ice, ice (or heat, heat) baby
For St. Paul, Minnesota school teacher CJ Ramsdell, 38, the “end” came while attending his son’s hockey game.
“I was sitting in the stands, nowhere near the ice as I gave that up years ago, when my hip felt as though it had just about separated from the rest of me,” Ramsdell recalled. After 45 minutes of unrelenting pain, he ended up leaving his wife and son at the game to go home, take some aspirin and lie down.
When it hadn’t improved by the next, day, he tried heat and ice, then more heat and ice, and neither gave him enough relief. With another hockey dad he knew in sports medicine, Ramsdell made an immediate appointment. The results of his X-rays and imaging startled him. Having performed inner and outer thigh exercises for years on his health club’s abductor/adductor (or inner/outer thigh) machine, Ramsdell had strained his lower back and hip muscles adequately enough to cause problems—even a nascent disc problem in his back. Inner and outer thigh muscles are designed to support movement, according to experts, not to do the so-called heavy lifting or all the movement themselves.
As an alternative, following a few weeks of rest and a prescribed heat and ice treatment, his physician recommended using resistance bands, or standing or lying abduction/adduction exercises, rather than an inner and outer thigh machine.
A row by any other name
For Portland, Maine store manager Kendall Lewin-Mays, 40, the upright rows she’d done at the gym for the past dozen or so years ended up causing early onset of arthritis. Following multiple visits to an orthopedic specialist to address increasing shoulder pain, Lewin learned upright rows can cause the humerus—or upper arm bone—to hit the AC (acromion process) joint, compressing shoulder nerves and damaging cartilage. The result was arthritis, which her doctor explained may not have occurred if she’d paid attention to the burgeoning pain she’d first experienced five years earlier.
Prescribing treatment for her arthritis, if she wanted to continue at the gym, Lewin-Mays’ orthopedist recommended she consult with a certified personal trainer who could show her how to achieve the same results but without disturbing her deltoids and upper trapezoids.
One of the trainer’s alternatives included lateral shoulder raises with a modest weight, precluding the action of leaning back or using momentum, which helped cause the damage. She also suggested Lewin-Mays lean over with a straight back and bent knees, use a crossed resistance band anchored under both feet spread wide apart, and pull up doing three sets of 12.
Force of habit
Kim Channing, 28, an insurance agent from upstate New York, had been doing lat pull-downs behind her head and neck since she first set foot in a gym at age 16. “I automatically pulled the bar behind my head,” she said, emulating her older brothers, one of whom was a body builder. Though the school of thought on this methodology had changed years ago, Kim simply liked the way it felt and frankly considered it a habit. “I never thought about it, unless somebody happened to point it out, but then a week later I’d default to my old ways,” she said.
Because the action causes an outward rotation on the humerus, combined with the downward pull, the result un-stabilizes the shoulder joint, according to research. Ligaments and tendons are overstretched on the front of the shoulder which can cause injury.
Fortunately for Kim, an astute trainer at a new gym she joined corrected her each time she saw her from across the room, until Kim got the point. She now admits she gets the same thrill out of pulling the bar down in front, leaning back slightly with a straight spine and taught abs—keeping the bar at collar bone level and above.
Like Kim, Fort Collins, Colorado truck driver Ben Holt, 32, inadvertently overworked his shoulders with simple bench dips. Spending a couple of weeks at a time on the road, Holt tried to be creative in figuring out a workout he could do by improvising things around him.
“Bench dips were the simplest,” he said, noting he could always find a bench in a park or rest area. He later learned the action was instigating injury because of internally rotated shoulders, which are not optimally load-bearing in that position, abrasions to the rotator cuff muscles, deltoid and bursae can ensure—and be extremely painful.
For the safest dips, use parallel bars. Adjusting the position of the hands to be parallel rolls the head of your shoulder behind your collarbone, where it belongs.
What the knees need
For suburban Dallas banker Kyle Anderson, 45, losing 62 pounds had its benefits in terms of lowering his explosive blood pressure and allowing him to jettison the insulin he’d been taking for three years. With both sets of grandparents and his parents overweight, and half of them suffering from diabetes and diabetes-related ailments such as loss of limbs and blindness, Anderson knew the situation was dire for him. Not yet 50, his health was already compromised. So he did something about it.
Working with a dietician to change his eating habits, and working out religiously at his health club, Anderson made all the right moves except when it came to his knees. Already problematical because of the excess weight he’d carried around most of his life, plus the beating they took when he played football, Anderson had already undergone arthroscopic surgery on one of his knees to correct a torn meniscus.
The other continuously popped and buckled. Not realizing the seated knee extensions he’d added to his workout routine were putting the proverbial nail in the coffin for his knees, they seemed to feel worse with each passing week.
According to Anderson’s orthopedic surgeon, the heavy weight put on the knees—with all the resistance concentrated on the ankles—taxes the knee beyond what it was designed to do. What’s more, straightening the knees when they’re under this type of stress can strain the tendons and overly compress cartilage. And starting out with injured and compromised knees the way Anderson’s were, the only way to go is down—maybe literally.
The alternative is a series of squats and lunges, according to fitness professionals. However, squats need to be done in precise form or even more stress is put on the knee joints. A push back of the hip should precede the dip of the knees, putting the weight back onto the heels so you don’t rise up on the toes. This form also works the glutes and hamstrings more. Or, if you insist on using the seated knee extension, lift the legs only about halfway, with a lighter weight, aiming for 18 reps. If you can’t do it, the weight is too heavy.
Let’s (not) twist again
The Russian Twist, where you sit on the ground, legs extended (bent knees), pivoting your upper body from right to left (often holding a ball or weight) puts undue strain on the lower back. If you need to twist, it’s better to find a way to do it standing up.
Nix the sit and kick the crunch
Believe it or not, repetition of the “centuries” old sit-up has been linked to herniated discs, as have crunches. Technically, a crunch trains the rectus abdominus by pulling the rib cage down. When we pull the rib cage down, we increase the thoracic kyphosis. This sets off a cascade of events – we increase the kyphosis, thus losing t-spine extension. This consistently puts our scapulae in a poor position, not to mention putting our gleno-humeral joint at an increased risk for impingement as well.*
When the bow breaks
Though it often elicits a laugh, curtsy lunges—a popular thigh muscle burner—can be detrimental to the hips because the knee joint, hip joint and shoulder joint should be in complete alignment while load bearing. Fitness experts recommend forward and backward lunges—even off a low box or step—to safely and productively maximize this exercise.
Don’t round the bend
Finally, anything done with a rounded lower back is a speed date to injury. This includes squatting, lifting, dead lifting, rowing or triceps kickbacks. To prevent a herniated disc, brace abs and maintain a neutral—even slightly arched— position for the back. Experts say never even to pick up dumbbells with a rounded back. Instead, bend the knees and keep the weights close to the body.