1. Adjust your program daily based on your perceived exertion.
Some days you have it and some you just don’t. Even if you are working at the same speed or resistance you’ve done with ease, variables such as the time of day, your level of fatigue, what you’ve had to eat, when you last ate, whether you are adequately hydrated and your general health can impact your ability to exercise. Fine-tune exercise accordingly so that while your program remains challenging, you avoid overdoing it. Set yourself up for success by establishing a routine that works for you and that includes proper nutrition, adequate rest and sufficient water intake.
2. Quality over quantity: When lifting weights or doing other forms of strength training, execute each exercise with precise form.
This ensures that the targeted muscles actually benefit. Though core muscles and others may assist with balance, providing a stable base from which to work, pristine form helps avoid substituting or compensating with additional muscles. This not only enables safer postures and stresses, it helps you achieve the desired results.
Gains aren’t only about upping the ante, but about how you isolate. For instance, if you must arch your back to do bicep curls or hike your shoulders to do various forms of arm lifts, then you are probably lifting too much weight. If your knees go beyond your toes when doing a squat, scale back to an easier exercise. Repetitive stresses when overdoing it will likely cause your fitness program to veer off into injury and keep you out of action.
3. Establish a foundation before advancing your program.
For instance, muscles that stabilize your scapulae (shoulder blades) must exhibit a baseline level of strength before you include lifting above the horizontal (the level of your shoulders). These muscles include the middle and lower trapezii, the rhomboids and the serratus.
Likewise, another example would be having sufficient quadriceps strength to perform wall squats (with a ball) before attempting standard squats and then step-downs or lunges. Skipping steps in a progression may have unintended consequences.
4. Shoot for slower, safer exercise progressions.
When accelerating your program, increase the difficulty of one variable at a time. Measure your response and then continue to adjust and advance in subsequent workouts.
For instance, with cardio, avoid drastically increasing variables such as pace, distance, incline and resistance in combination. Likewise with weight lifting — avoid increases to your resistance, reps and sets simultaneously. If you take on too much change at once, you may not realize you’ve done so until it is too late and an overuse injury results.
5. Explore reputable resources to guide you as to how to execute exercises properly.
Keep in mind that the guy working out next to you, or even a trainer in your gym, may not be the ideal advisor. Talking a good game and looking the part are no substitute for knowing (and effectively implementing) the science that sets the foundation. Publications and online resources written or compiled by recognized sports and orthopedic physical therapists might be a great place to start.
6. Avoid using momentum when strength training.
Working quickly through an arc of motion when lifting and lowering weights lessens the challenge to your muscles. This diminishes the benefit of the exercises. Though you’ll get through your program faster, it isn’t worth the diluted return on your investment of time.
Particular attention to the slow release or lowering of weights has an added benefit. These are eccentric contractions, when a muscle exerts a force as it lengthens. Muscles have an increased capacity to sustain tension when working eccentrically and this type of strength training has a significant benefit to function and injury prevention.
Faster speeds factor in primarily if training with specificity for a high-speed activity (e.g., using resistive bands to replicate the pitching motion, or a weighted or resisted tethered club or racquet for golf or tennis strokes). Otherwise, keep it slow and steady.
7. Steer clear of high-risk, low-reward exercises that live on and deserve to die.
Take a look here (upper body), here, here and here to see previous columns illustrating some prime offenders.
8. Mix it up!
There’s more than one way to get it done. In fact, surprising your body with different approaches to strengthening will jump start your improvement and prevent plateaus if you are trying to make steady gains.
Likewise, cross-training when doing cardio will lessen the likelihood of overuse injury. The caveat? Point number nine.
9. Listen to your body!
The menu of exercises is vast, and even all the healthy options aren’t universally appropriate. Your particular structure, injury history, age, current level of muscle strength and flexibility and your joint ranges of motion all are factors that determine the ideal exercises for you. If you have musculoskeletal complaints, avoid any exercises that trigger pain, whether it occurs while exercising or in the hours/days following.
See an orthopedist to assess any complaints of pain you may have. Avoid working through your symptoms to prevent conditions from worsening or becoming chronic.
10. Take a break!
Muscles need a day off from strength training to recover from the assault. It is this recovery that allows the healing of the muscle fibers to occur, leading to the benefits and minimizing risk of injury.
For cardio training, at least consider one day of rest each week to allow your body to recoup. If you are shooting for exercise nearly every day, cross-training will enable you to utilize muscles in different ways and minimize impact to your joints, both of which will lessen the likelihood of overuse issues.