Every January, Kerry Flowers notices the same phenomenon at his gym in Birmingham, Ala.
"The place is packed with New Year's resolutioners," says Flowers, a physical therapist at the University of Alabama's Sports Medicine Clinic. "You can tell who they are by their new workout clothes and their new Walkmans."
You can also tell them, he says, by their tendency to work out too hard. By March or April, many of the newcomers have disappeared from the gym -- only to resurface at sports medicine clinics. "We see a lot of patients in our clinic who started out too gung-ho. They end up with overuse injuries -- anything that ends in 'itis,' like plantar fasciitis, shoulder bursitis, and tendonitis."
How can you avoid the trip from gym to clinic? Follow these 9 sensible tips from Flowers and Nicholas A. DeNubile, MD, a clinical assistant professor in the department of orthopedic surgery at the Hospital of the University of Pennsylvania and an orthopedic consultant to the National Basketball Association's Philadelphia 76ers.
Taking the Sensible Route
- Always warm up. Start your strength and cardiovascular workouts with at least 10 minutes of very easy cardio exercise, such as walking or stationary cycling. "If you're over 40, bump it up to 15 or 20 minutes," Flowers suggests. "Your muscles, tendons, and ligaments can tolerate more stress when they're warm."
- Start by lifting light weights. "Check your ego at the door," says Flowers. If you go too heavy, you'll have trouble walking to the breakfast table the next morning. So choose a weight that fatigues your muscles after 12 to 15 repetitions. After a few weeks, you can graduate to heavier weights and drop down to 8 to 10 reps -- a range that ultimately will give you more strength.
- Start with weight machines rather than free weights. Machines require less coordination than dumbbells and barbells, so they're safer for beginners. There's no chance you'll drop a weight on yourself or anyone else.
- Follow the "10% rule." Don't increase the distance or duration of your workouts, or the amount of weight you lift, by more than 10% each week.
- Mix up your workouts. "People tend to go wild over one activity, like weightlifting or cardio kickboxing," says DeNubile. "But you need to embrace cross-training principles." Repeating the same activity day after day increases your risk for overuse injuries. If you jog one day, on the next day choose an activity that involves your upper body, such as swimming or rowing. Make sure your overall program includes a balance of strength, cardiovascular, and flexibility exercises.
- Avoid speed lifting. "I see way too many people lifting weights too rapidly," says Flowers. "That's not very effective, because you're using momentum, not your own muscle power." Take at least two full seconds to lift a weight and two to return it to the starting position.
- Rest. "People think that more exercise means more results, but when you overtrain, your body breaks down," says DeNubile. Organize your weight-lifting program so that you never work the same muscle group two days in a row. With cardio exercises, alternate hard days with easy days, and take one or two complete days of rest each week.
- Listen to your body. "Know the difference between the slight muscle soreness of a good workout and the soreness that's a warning sign to get checked for injury," says DeNubile. Good pain is achy, dull, and very general. Bad pain tends to be sharp and specific.
- Learn proper technique. A trainer can teach you the subtleties of using exercise equipment, such as how to grip a weight bar, how low to squat, and how to adjust a machine to fit your body. Small adjustments can make a big difference in the success of your workout program. And a couple of sessions with a trainer are a lot cheaper than a visit to an orthopedic surgeon.
Medically updated October 2002.
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