INJURY PREVENTION FOR BODYBUILDERS
As a bodybuilder, you need to be in the gym. We all know that you need to be lifting weights to make the gains to look your best on stage.
We also know that most bodybuilders are competitive beasts, who have extremely high levels of commitment and dedication, and will let nothing get in the way of their training and contest prep.
Except when injury hits…
Injuries can keep you out of the gym, and every session lost to injury is lost gains that others are making and you are not. So it would make sense that we need to know how to prevent them.
Lucky for bodybuilders, injury prevention is actually relatively easy in comparison to most other sports. There are just a few key principles that you should be following and have in the front of your mind at all times!
A warm-up is simply a series of exercises or a routine performed prior to training to best prepare the body for the activity that follows. Warm-ups are often skipped or not taken seriously as they do not (directly) provide any strength or hypertrophy gains, and can often drag out the total time spent in the gym. However it is consistently those who do not perform an adequate warm-up routine who end up getting injured, and this cannot be understated.
Warm-ups do not have to be complicated and lengthy, they simply need to tick off a few key boxes:
*Firstly, we need to increase blood flow to the tissues we will be using in order to decrease the chance of soft tissue injury.
*Secondly, we need to optimise the range of motion available at our joints to ensure we have the adequate mobility required for exercise.
*Thirdly, we need to activate the appropriate muscles we need to recruit for our working sets in order to decrease compensation from other areas.
*Lastly, we need to practice the skill and movement patterns we will be performing to ensure our nervous system is primed for the task.
What exactly is required to tick these boxes will depend on your own individual anatomy and injury history, which is where working with a health practitioner with experience in lifting is extremely beneficial. But if you are serious about staying healthy and keeping yourself in the gym, please do not skip over this part of your training!
Exercise Selection and Programming
Working as a physiotherapist exclusively within gyms, bodybuilders and powerlifters are the most common clientele that I see. Life is a lot tougher when it comes to injury prevention for powerlifters, as no matter what their individual anthropometry or injury history looks like, they must perform the squat, bench press and deadlift, and they must perform them often if they want to be any good.
The beauty of bodybuilding is that there is no exercise that MUST be performed. If you cannot perform a certain exercise effectively due to mobility, pain, or your own individual anatomy and structure (all bodies aren’t all created equal), then we can simply pick a different exercise to stimulate the target muscle group and move on.
If you experience hip pain when you squat, then you can modify the load or the range of motion that you work through. If your shoulder bugs you when you bench press then you can use dumbbells or cables instead to stimulate your pecs without aggravating your shoulder. If you experience lower back pain when deadlifting then you can use a trap bar, or do rack pulls, or just pick a completely different exercise.
There’s more than one way to skin a cat, and there are many ways to stimulate each of our muscle groups. Select exercises that suit your own orthopaedic profile, and that you can perform safely and effectively. This is where intelligent programming comes in to play, and why it is advantageous to be working closely with an experienced coach or health professional (ideally both).
I’m sure you’ve seen about a million health professionals, personal trainers, coaches and insta-famous fitness models blabber on about the importance of lifting with good technique. No it’s not an exciting secret. Yes it’s the same boring message.
But damn it’s important!
The purpose of resistance training for bodybuilders is to stimulate your muscles as much as possible to create adaptation, in any way that you can or you like. We can again compare this to powerlifting, where your success purely depends on the weight you can lift, no matter how you lift it. In bodybuilding, there is no requirement to be chasing numbers or to put more and more weight on the bar, so there is simply no excuse for poorly executing your lifts.
Lifting with poor technique will overload joints and muscles that are not meant to be overloaded, and will create and reinforce muscle imbalances that lead to injury. So do your research. Ask a coach for feedback. Film your lifts and watch them back. Drop your ego. Whatever is necessary to ensure you are moving well at all times!
Some pain and discomfort is normal in the gym. Your quads tend to burn after your 4th set of heavy leg extensions, and your shoulders tend to scream after a few sets of side raises right? Delayed onset muscle soreness (DOMS) is also a normal and common type of pain to experience in the day or so after your training. Some people love this stuff, and are somewhat satisfied by this training related pain. But having the awareness to differentiate this sort of pain with ‘injury pain’ is also very important.
Pain is your body’s protective response, encouraging some sort of behaviour change or action. We know that not all pain is bad, nor is it always an indication of tissue damage. We also know that recklessly pushing through pain will generally lead to tissue damage, sensitisation and injury, and bodybuilders have the luxury of not needing to do this to be great at their sport.
Pain is normal (especially in resistance training), and without it we would not be able to survive as a species. However pain outside of the normal training experience is a warning signal from your body that something needs to change, and should be respected. And this is where having the awareness to differentiate between normal training related pain and something else is vital for bodybuilders.
Listen to your body, and be proactive with any small issues or niggles as they arise, to ensure they don’t progress into debilitating injuries.
If we are completing an adequate warm-up, selecting appropriate exercises, performing those exercises with near perfect form and being aware of our body and how we are feeling, then bodybuilders should almost never suffer from an acute injury (assuming your training partner doesn’t drop a stray dumbbell on your foot).
So what about preventing injuries of insidious onset? Those that gradually develop over time, rather than happen due to an acute incident?
We often blame injuries of this nature on overuse. That is, a gradual breakdown as a result of doing too much over and over. However there is now research that tells us it is in fact not dangerous to train at high volumes. It is how you build up to high training volumes that can be dangerous – which is where intelligent programming and load management comes in to play.
Given the fact that it is not high training loads as such that are dangerous, overuse injuries should be more accurately labelled ‘training load errors’ rather than blamed purely on overload.
There has been a truckload of research and scientific literature published in the last few years (largely thanks to Tim Gabbett and colleagues) on the topic of load management. We used to use common sense analogies such as ‘don’t increase your weights by more than 10% each week’ to manage load, and common sense is still clearly useful. It’s just now we can be slightly more technical and scientific in this area of injury prevention.
Tim Gabbett and colleagues talk about a concept called the Acute:Chronic Workload ratio (ACWR), which is a theory that is very relevant to bodybuilders. The ACWR looks at how your training load this week (acute load) compares to your rolling average over the last 4 weeks (chronic load). An ACWR of between 0.8-1.3 is the sweet spot, and any ratio outside of the zone significantly increases your risk of injury.
Using this type of analysis on your training is normally not an extreme that bodybuilders go to. However if you are thorough enough to do some simple calculations of your ACWR, coupled with excellent body awareness, and a little bit of common sense – you will be well on your way to an injury free preparation.
B. Health Sciences (Physio), APAM