Get Off the Pain Train

Overzealous exercise can yield dumb injuries

More than two-thirds of Americans are obese and exercise has never been more important.

But when exercise is approached with more hubris than humility, the injuries that result can make sloth seem salubrious.

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LifeZette spoke with Heather Milton, senior exercise physiologist for the Sports Performance Center at New York University’s Langone Medical Center, and Nick Clayton, the personal training program manager for the National Strength and Conditioning Association, to learn the best ways to get fit without getting hurt.

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“It really comes down to an individual’s technical skill and ability, goals, and overall training plan.” Milton said.

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A good rule of thumb, she said, is if something hurts, don’t do it.

Simple as it might sound, it makes sense.

“Pain is your body’s way of telling you something is wrong,” Milton said. “Exercise is not meant to hurt.”


Exercising with a trainer can put safety-rails on exercise, but most of us can’t afford pricey professionals to babysit our workouts. Classes can, and should, be an affordable alternative, as instructors can provide guidance on proper form. On the other hand, classes sometimes can pique the ego into showing off — or trying to keep up with more experienced, more fit, or simply younger classmates. It’s a recipe for injuries if there ever was one.

Related: Pump In The P.M.

Certain classes cultivate a “just do it” tough-guy-and-gal principle that doesn’t exactly encourage prudence. CrossFit and Bikram yoga are two prime examples of the moderation-is-for-sissies ethos that can egg students on to exercises that can injure.

Certain classes also cultivate a “just do it” tough-guy-and-gal principle, that doesn’t exactly encourage prudence.

“The theory behind CrossFit is good,” Milton said. “What is bad is the way the volume of exercise is done, and the interpretation of some movements.”

The training method emphasizes certain exercises like Olympic lifting and gymnastics with increased repetitions and decreased recovery times.

“There is a reason Olympic lifts are not done over and over and over,” Milton said. “They will hurt you.”

Instead, she suggested “a metabolic circuit class at your gym, or small group training where you can have more tailored workouts for your fitness level, technique and goals.”

workout4Hot Yoga
Hot yoga, including many of the copycats of the original Bikram yoga, involves difficult poses done in rooms exceeding 100 degrees.

“It is hard to gauge your range of motion in the heat, as muscles are even more pliable than you would ever expect, and you feel like suddenly you’re Gumby,” Milton said. “This can lead to muscle strain and sometimes tears.”

Related: Beware the Gym Jerks

HealthZette Editor Jennifer Grossman injured herself in just such a class.

“I still can do a split … at least on one side,” she said.

The 40-something yogini grew up doing ballet for several hours each day and was pushing her body as if she was still wearing size-2 tutus long after middle age set in.

“I was doing a pose called ‘Bird of Paradise,’ where you stand on one leg and lift the other over your head while binding your arms behind back. I heard something snap in the raised leg, followed by a searing pain,” she said.

After limping out of the studio, she learned she’d torn her hamstring. It took years to heal and actually shortened the muscle on that impaired leg.

“My ‘Bird of Paradise’ ended up a lame turkey,” said Grossman. “This old bird has learned her lesson, but the damage is done.”

If veteran yoga practitioners can get so seriously injured, beginners need to be doubly cautious.

“If you are a novice ,and your body has not learned good temperature regulation, you can get nauseas, overheated and exhausted afterwards, rather than feeling rejuvenated,” Milton said.

Instead, she suggested beginning with easier forms of yoga, such as “hatha yoga or vinyasa class to start and learning your body’s limits in a neutral environment.”


Sit-ups and push-ups sound safe, right? Not necessarily.

Anyone who’s ever been to gym class knows how to do a classic sit-up, but Clayton said they’re “performed too often.” In today’s sedentary American society, “it’s very common … that people have tight hip flexors, resulting in anterior pelvic tilt — hips lower in the front and higher in the back — which increases the risk of lower back injury,” he said.

And sit-ups “place a lot of stress on the lower back, (as) the prime mover are the hip flexors, not the abdominals,” he said.

Instead, Clayton recommended planks, in which one holds his body parallel to the floor, holding himself up on his forearms and toes.

workout2Pec Fly Machine
A pec fly machine is a device on which a lifter sits and extends her arms completely out to either side, where she grasps handles. Then, she pulls the handles together, so they meet in front of the lifter’s chest.

Clayton said while the machine does a “great job isolating the pectorals, a lot of individuals don’t have the mobility in their shoulders required by the machine.”

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If that’s the case, an individual can be forced into a greater range of motion than their body is able.

“It can stress the anterior capsule and increase risk of shoulder injury,” he said.

Instead, he suggested using the cable fly machine, which “provides much more freedom of movement in the range of motion.”


Most of us naturally avoid equipment that looks like medieval torture devices, and avoiding injury is equally simple. Don’t do more than your body can handle.

Milton said one mistake people make when first hitting the gym is pushing themselves far beyond their means.

“You have to build up progressively,” she said, suggesting that beginners add no more than 5 percent of difficulty each week. So if you bench press 100 pounds one week, try 105 the next. If you run for 20 minutes, run for 21 minutes next time.

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