Have you ever felt like you’re not quite sure if the way you’re lifting is going to make you more injury resistant or more injury prone?
It’s a pretty common sentiment among lifters, especially those who aren’t certified coaches. That’s why we interviewed the brilliant physical therapist and BSN-sponsored athlete Dr. Teddy Willsey. He’s got well over half a million followers on Instagram and for very good reason the man’s expertise is in evaluating orthopedic musculoskeletal conditions, and one reason he stands out in the fitness space is how much he emphasizes exercise and movement as a primary means of recovery.
Basically, if you like fitness and longevity, Dr. Willsey is a great place to start. We’re asking him five questions that address common longevity issues in the gym.
Editor’s note: The content on BarBend is meant to be informative in nature, but it shouldn’t take the place of advice and/or supervision from a medical professional. The opinions and articles on this site are not intended for use as diagnosis, prevention, and/or treatment of health problems or injuries. Speak with your physician if you have any concerns.
What are some of the best ways to prevent shoulder injuries?
Teddy Willsey: The best way to prevent a shoulder injury in the gym is to optimize your range of motion and to improve the strength and stability of your shoulder. To optimize the range of motion, we’re going to want to do in range lift offs, foam roller wall slides — where you put a roller on the wall and really stretch your arms overhead — something like a down dog in yoga is also a great movement for this.
So there are a lot of different ways you can start to reach overhead and improve your overhead mobility. That’s extremely important, especially if you’re lifting overhead.
Now, in terms of strength and stability of your rotator cuff and the surrounding muscles, remember we have 17 muscles that attach to our scapulas (shoulder blades) so you really have to strengthen and stabilize that whole area.
In order to do that we want to focus first and foremost on single arm exercises, so you should always have some dumbbell benching, some dumbbell rows in your programming, a dumbbell or kettlebell overhead movement is also a great option, and then it never hurts to do direct cuff work.
One of he most popular exercises for direct cuff work is the regular old external rotation, another one that’s really popular is the face pull, so there are a lot of different ways that we can improve the strength and stability of our cuff and our overhead motion without it turning into a 30-minute prehab session before every training session.
BarBend: Other really good moves for improving the stability of your rotator cuff include t-spine extensions, kettlebell windmills, overhead band stretches, and kettlebell bottoms up press, which we ordered as a circuit in the video above.
How do I get my glutes firing when I squat to avoid quad tears?
BarBend: A lot of people don’t know that the gluteus maximus is the largest muscle in the body, and the fact that we sit all day, combined with the fact that many of us neglect to really activate and focus on our glutes during workouts, means that the glutes might not be taking as much stress off the spine, hamstrings, and quads as they should be.
Teddy Willsey: To prevent quadriceps tearing, we want to make sure that we are training our quads through their full range of motion regularly enough that the muscle is long and supple.
If you’re somebody who is just doing mini range of motion squats above parallel, and leg extensions where your hips are flexed, and you’re never really doing rear foot elevated split squats or the couch stretches, then your quads probably haven’t seen full range of motion. So when you start to expose them to that by dropping deep into a squat, you might be in trouble.
The other interesting thing here is we’ve seen through research that the glutes are recruited best in the squat when you go deep, below parallel. You need to regularly squat deep to expose your muscles to this range of motion, because muscle tearing happens because of some contractile unit insufficiency.
BarBend: To recap, get some really full, deep stretching of the quad — couch stretches are not fun, but they really are a great option for this — and squat deep. Working your full range of motion is a big part of minimizing injury risk.
Exercises you might want to consider adding to your warm up to ensure your glutes are active include bird dogs, monster walks, and hip bridges. To learn more, check out these 12 exercises to activate your glutes pre workout.
How do I avoid bicep injuries when I’m doing a lot of chin-ups?
BarBend: If you’ve been out of the gym and doing more bodyweight workouts, you’ve probably been doing more chin-ups than you used to do. After all, chin-ups are one of the best ways to build your biceps and your back without weights — but how do you avoid injuring your bicep when you’re ramping up your chin-up frequency?
Teddy Willsey: You need to be organized. You need to plan things out. We can’t just say, “I’m gonna do the one hundred chin-ups a day challenge because I’m in quarantine.” If you were training for a marathon, you wouldn’t say, “I’m gonna go run a half marathon today when I haven’t run in years.”
The same thing goes for strength training. If you’re doing 3 sets of 10 chin-ups once a week, don’t start doing a hundred chin-ups a day. So be smart, use your head. While can’t prevent all injury, that is the best way to mitigate or reduce the likelihood that we get injured.
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How do I fix posterior pelvic tilt?
BarBend: This question is about your pelvis: sometimes it tilts forward, making your butt stick out, other times it tilts the other way so your back has a more rounded appearance. That’s posterior pelvic tilt, and it’s something you want to fix if you want to lower injury risk and if you want to get stronger.
Teddy Willsey: What you’re gonna wanna do is exercises that work the anterior tilt muscles. So you’ll want to do glute exercises, hamstring exercises, and posterior chain work, because you’re walking around looking like you don’t have a butt because it’s tucked in.
So how do we improve the back side of the body — the posterior chain? By training it. And the other way we can do this is through postural restoration types of exercises. We can work on core training, core strengthening, stability through the core, and that will help everything to be in line and function optimally.
BarBend: More posterior chain exercises can be very useful here, but for many athletes the missing link is core training. When your planks and Pallof presses are programmed at the end of your workouts, it can sometimes be tempting to skip them. If that sounds like you, consider putting core work at the beginning of a workout or at other times of the day, like right after you wake up.
I’m quad dominant. How do I get better at more posterior focused lifts?
BarBend: Quad dominant people find it easier to activate their quads than their posterior chain, so they’re typically better at front squats than back squats and better at sumo deadlifts than conventional deadlifts. If that sounds like you, remember it’s still important to perform back squats and conventional deadlifts to keep your posterior chain active and to reduce injury risk.
Teddy Willsey: If I want to get better at shooting free throws, the best way to do it is shoot free throws. I think sometimes people forget about this with strength training: the best way to get better at a lift is to do it. They’re always looking for drills or other ways to improve. One time I blew somebody’s mind when I told them the best drill to improve your front rack is the front rack itself.
This is the same thing with improving these posterior focused lifts. Put a box behind you. Spread the floor with your feet. Push your knees out as you’re sitting back. Get tight. Learn how to use your posterior chain by sitting back onto that box and bracing your trunk.
It’ll be weird at first. It’ll take practice. If you’ve done thousands of reps of front squats and sumo deadlifts, you’re gonna have to do thousands of reps of the other stuff to get just as good at them. But this is how you start. This is how you practice the form and get better at it.
Hard work, consistency, and above all patience tend to be key when it comes to strength training. If a movement is unfamiliar, you’ve got to stow your ego and not put too much weight on the bar. Stop chasing heavy singles and make absolutely certain your form is perfect on exercises you feel shaky on. Remember, if you want to reduce your injury risk: form is always more important than weight.