Every year there is a massive influx of new gym joiners. If you made it your New Year’s resolution to get fit and healthy this year, chances are you may be looking to join your local gym or a local club to partake in some form of fitness activity.

The principles highlighted below are based on many years’ experience and extensive research into the body’s physiological adaptations to exercise. Follow these principles to help reduce the risk of sustaining an injury over the coming months.

Importantly, if you have any ongoing medical issues or you are over the age of 45, it is recommended that you first speak to your GP before increasing your activity levels or joining a gym. Your GP will check that it is medically safe for you to do so.

Speak to your GP before joining a gym if you have any of the following conditions:

  • type 1 or type 2 diabetes,
  • a heart condition,
  • a vascular condition,
  • are being treated, or have been treated, for cancer,
  • dizziness or shortness of breath when exercising,
  • palpitations or increased heart rate after exercising,
  • migraine, disorientation or chest pain after exercise.

Those joining the gym and exercising for the first time, or returning to exercise and activity after a prolonged layoff, are potentially at higher risk of injury. Many of these injuries are entirely avoidable if you are aware of potential risk factors and some of the fundamental principles for starting exercise safely.

Start low and build slow

Many people, when they join the gym in January, are looking to lose weight and sculpt their dream body as quickly as possible. Unfortunately, due to the way the body’s systems work, different tissues take different lengths of time to adapt, particularly if you are new to exercise. For example, tendons are very slow to adapt to changes in usage and load (the amount of weight going through them).

For this reason, when starting an exercise program, it is important to adhere to relatively short sessions, with relatively low levels of loading.

Even though your muscles, cardiovascular system, and proprioceptive system (balance and coordination) will adapt and improve through training, one of the key risk factors is increasing the length, frequency, and intensity of workouts too soon in an attempt to more rapidly achieve our goals of weight loss and muscle gain. If you then have an injury, the layoff is much more likely to slow you down, and we know that people who get injured in the first few weeks are much more likely to give up the gym and exercise altogether.

Think of the hare and the tortoise and make sure that you set yourself more gentle goals in the first few weeks and months.

Balance your exercise program

You may have a specific goal, such as weight loss or to improve tone or increase muscle bulk, but it is important to consider the many different aspects of fitness. Even elite athletes will balance their training.

If you are looking specifically to improve muscle bulk, your training program may be biased towards resistance exercise and weight training. But it is also important to consider cardiovascular fitness, proprioceptive fitness and flexibility. This will ensure your body receives balance in your overall exercise program, rather than just focusing purely on one facet of exercise.

The same can be said if you are focusing on weight loss and you are intending to run as your main form of exercise. Research shows that doing strength training or resistance training in the gym alongside your running and stretching can reduce your risk of injury by as much as 50%. (And if that’s not a good enough reason in itself, strength training per se will speed up your metabolism and help you burn more calories, even when you are resting or sleeping – win-win!)

Get an ‘MOT’

Many people who have not been exercising for a long time, or are planning to return to exercise, may have a pre-existing injury or a ‘weak spot’. You may feel like your body is not going to cope very well with increasing activity levels. It might be that a muscle group or an ankle feels a bit weak or stiff, and you just don’t think you can trust it when doing outdoor running, for example.

Ideally, this should be looked at by a physiotherapist or personal trainer before starting an exercise programme so that you can include specific remedial exercises to address any issues that are uncovered.

By addressing any deficits in muscle strength, proprioception (balance or coordination) or stiffness, you are far less likely to have a recurrence of an injury or sustain further damage.

Having an ‘MOT’ or resolving any pre-existing injuries is a significant factor for a successful return to exercise.

Building in recovery time

When caught up in the momentum of the New Year, the excitement of joining a new gym and the quest for a new body shape, it is easy to overdo things. The problems of increasing the load, intensity, and frequency of exercise too quickly are often compounded by a failure to incorporate adequate recovery periods. It is important to look at your overall weekly exercise plan. Every dedicated exercise session, as well as the different types and levels of general activity (eg. walking 45minutes to work) need to be considered when planning sufficient recovery. It wouldn’t be sensible to exercise your arms and shoulders to fatigue 2 days in a row. Equally, it might not be sensible to run 15 miles on consecutive days.

For example, if you are exercising a particular muscle group to fatigue, particularly in the gym using weights, it is important to have at least one day of recovery before exercising the same muscles again, ie. allow 48hrs recovery.

People who are returning to exercise after a prolonged layoff will probably need longer recovery time in the first instance. This is particularly the case if they are a bit older or are likely to experience ‘DOMS’ (delayed onset muscle soreness), which can cause post-exercise pain two or three days after exercise.

Consider sitting down with a personal trainer or your physiotherapist to help plan a sensible gym and exercise programme so that all muscles and all physical parameters are being allowed sufficient time to recover. It is important to remember that your body improves between sessions and not within sessions. In other words, the time between sessions is the time in which your body rebuilds and recovers. That’s how you reduce the risk of injury and improve performance.

Form comes first

When people are striving to achieve their fitness goals, it is very easy for ‘form’ (how an exercise should be performed) to become compromised. We see this a lot with people doing weight training in the gym. In an effort to increase the amount of weight that they can lift, they will start to compensate and move in all manner of compromised and contorted ways just to achieve the target number of reps and sets. Once again, this has the potential for injury.

Remember, as mentioned previously, some bodily systems develop and improve quicker than others. When you first start going to the gym, much of the early success and perceived rapid improvement is because you get better at performing the tasks through repetition. The nervous system quickly learns to recruit muscles better and improve the control of movement.

On the other hand, adaptation in muscle structure and physiology is much slower, so these further gains will be more gradual.

It is important to aim for slow, sustained progress when exercising in the gym. You should not expect to increase the weight you lift or the level at which you perform every time you enter the gym. This is often possible in the early stages due to neural adaptations (first 6-8 weeks), but thereafter gains will be much more gradual.

Therefore, if you are entirely new to the gym, it would be advisable to get some guidance and coaching on how to lift weights safely and effectively. Get tips on how to maintain your form (posture and alignment), whether it be lifting weights, the rowing machine, cycle or, indeed, running. Compromising form is much more likely to result in injury.

Conclusion

The above list is by no means exhaustive, but highlights some key principles to beginning a successful training program. Start low, build slow and look for small, sustained gains over time and you will be much more likely to achieve your long-term fitness goals. Once again, think of the hare and the tortoise. This analogy is very apt for a New Year’s gym resolution.