Avoiding injury is a top priority for every athlete. Whether you're preparing for the competition of your life, or are on a roll with your training, you need to stay healthy to perform at your best and reach your potential. Adopting a properly designed strength training program is one of the best ways to shore up your body’s defenses and prevent injury.
There are several adaptations to a strength training program that can lower risk of injury and accelerate return to sport after an injury has occurred:
Increased connective tissue: Resistance training promotes growth of the structural integrity of ligaments, tendon, connective tissue, and joint cartilage within muscle. For example, tendons respond to training with increased metabolism, thickness and strength. Additionally, damaged tendons and ligaments regain strength faster if training is performed after the damage and initial recovery period has occurred.
Improved muscle symmetry: All athletes suffer from muscular imbalances that lead to muscle atrophy and loss of functional ability. Structural imbalances end up altering motor patterns and increasing risk of injury.
Stronger bones: Strength training stimulates the growth of new bone. Increased bone mineral content can help prevent skeletal injuries during your competitive career and lower risk of osteoporosis and other bone disorders later in life.
Better muscle coordination: Musculoskeletal injuries (pulls, strains, sprains) often occur during the eccentric, lengthening phase of sudden, forceful muscle actions. Strength training emphasizing the eccentric component can increase muscle size, strength, and neurological function for prevention of such injures.
Prevent re-injury: Following injury, the central nervous system creates an alternate pattern of muscle recruitment to avoid stressing damaged soft tissue. Proper strength training can re-train correct movement patterns.
What Kind of Strength Training Should You Do To Prevent Injury?
The bulk of exercises in your training program should be geared at building baseline strength throughout the body by training multi-joint exercises such as squats, deadlifts, presses, step-ups, rows, and pull-downs or chin-ups. Training compound, big muscle movements will promote functional movement patterns that translate to your sport and everyday life.
Your program should be designed in phases to ensure you are continually overloading the body to stimulate improvements in strength and muscle. Alternating between phases geared at Accumulation (higher reps, moderate weights) and Intensification (higher weights, lower reps) will allow you to avoid stagnation and ensure constant improvement.
By training with a higher volume during Accumulation you will stimulate protein synthesis and the growth of new muscle and connective tissue. Then during Intensification, you will train new tissue and enhance the brain—to-muscle connection so that your body is able to handle heavier loads and forces on the joints and muscles.
A critical step to designing a training program to prevent injury is to identify structural imbalances. This will allow you to hone in on weaknesses or areas where you have developed suboptimal movement patterns that can increase risk of injury by putting excess stress on overused joints. We teach a structural balance assessment in our PICP training courses, and the key is to identify weaknesses in both the upper and lower body.
Here are some additional training tools for preventing injury:
Train heavy. Incorporate supramaximal squat training over a partial range to stimulate bone density. One study found that training partial squats with a load of 120 percent of the maximal amount that could be squatted to parallel led to the greatest osteogenic bone building effect.
Use eccentric training. Injuries often occur during the eccentric motion of an exercise. For example, the hamstrings, which is the most commonly injured muscle in track and field athletes, experiences the greatest biomechanical load during the eccentric motion during a sprint. When sprinting, the eccentric motion occurs during the terminal swing before touchdown when you switch to a shortening phase just prior to foot-strike. Training heavy eccentric hamstring exercises such as Nordic curls, Good mornings, and Romanian deadlifts can shore up the hamstrings against injury.
Train at different speeds. A lot of athletes get in the habit of training a single tempo—often 1 to 2 seconds up and the same down. But during competition and in daily life we need to exert force at many different speeds—often fast. Training both slow tempos (6 to 10 second eccentric motion) and fast tempos (plyometrics, jumps, and Olympics lifts) will enhance the brain-to-muscle connection and train you to handle any challenge that comes at you.
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Goolsby, M., Boniquit, N. Bone health in athletes: The role of exercise, nutrition, and hormones. Sports Health. 2017. 9(2): 108–117.
Shaw, I., Shaw, B., Brown, G., Shariat, A. Review of the role of resistance training in musculoskeletal injury prevention and rehabilitation. Gavin Journal of Orthopedic Research and Therapy. 2016.