Is Weightlifting Harmful?

The American Heart Association recommends hitting each muscle group twice a week when strength training. Yet, we’ve all seen horrific weightlifting and powerlifting mishaps on YouTube or live in the Olympics. The last thing you want is to injure yourself and hinder your fitness goals.

Weightlifting is not harmful if done carefully. Take 72+ hours of rest between workouts, choose a reasonable weight, perform lifts slowly and with good form, and perform a 5-15 minute dynamic warm-up. These strategies can help prevent strains, sprains, overuse injuries, or even rhabdomyolysis.

In reality, any exercise or physical activity can be dangerous. So, let’s go a little deeper into some of the more common weightlifting injuries and how often weightlifting injuries actually occur. Then, we’ll review the best ways to avoid injuries when weightlifting.

The Prevalence of Weightlifting Injuries

It wouldn’t be accurate to say that there’s no risk of injuries when weightlifting. In fact, it’s not uncommon for professional powerlifters and weightlifters to become injured at the gym.

Let’s review some data from a compilation of recent studies.

Plenty of studies surrounding professional weightlifters focus on one key idea – the average number of injuries per 1,000 hours spent at the gym training

Most studies report that this number is somewhere between 2.4 and 3.3 injuries for every 1,000 hours of training in professional weightlifters.

Keep in mind that it might take years to spend 1,000 hours on training.

Perhaps what’s even more important is how serious these injuries are and which areas of the body are most commonly affected. 

Here’s a look at some statistics based on these studies.

  • Lower back, shoulder, and knee injuries were the most common complaints.
  • Wrist injuries weren’t as common but were reported.
  • Approximately 60% of the injuries were considered “chronic.”
  • About 90% of the injuries only required one day of rest to recover.
  • Nearly 25% of the injuries were overuse injuries (like tendonitis).
  • About 20% of the injuries were considered muscle injuries (like strains).

Looking at this data, it’s surprising, yet expected. After all, professional weightlifters are known to spend significant periods of time in the gym training and lift extremely heavy.

This explains the overuse injuries, persistence (lack of recovery time), and the areas of the body impacted most.

Injury Prevalence in Novices

Since you might be new to weightlifting or resistance training, the weightlifting injury rate we just went over might not apply to you specifically.

The good news is – there are also some studies related to novice injuries as well.

In one particular questionnaire study, researchers focused on novice CrossFit athletes.

Of the 100 or so participants who responded, here’s what was discovered.

  • About 5% of CrossFit injuries reported persisted for 2 years or longer.
  • Around 34% of injuries continued between 2 months and 2 years.
  • Lower back, shoulder, and knee injuries were the most common injuries reported.
  • More than 80% of the more common injuries continued for 4 weeks or more.
  • Approximately 14.9% of participants reported at least one injury.

In total, the average number of injuries per 1,000 hours as a CrossFit novice is a whopping 9.5.

While CrossFit definitely includes a wider range of exercises than regular weightlifting, it puts into perspective the fact that novices are much more likely to become injured when training.

Novice injuries tend to affect the same key areas (lower back, shoulders, and knees). But, they seem to occur more frequently and appear to last a lot longer.

Common Types of Weightlifting Injuries

Most people assume the greatest danger of weightlifting is dropping the weight.

Yet, a majority of the injuries that happen during resistance training are due to poor form, lack of adequate rest for the muscles, and an improper warm-up.

Now, let’s talk about the common injuries seen in weightlifting.

Overuse Injuries

If you’re serious about making gains and building muscle, you might assume that spending hours on end at the gym is the best way to yield these results.

The problem is – too much training puts you at risk for injury.

Tendonitis

One of the most common overuse injuries in weightlifting is tendonitis.

Tendons are found in each and every joint in your body. The role of the tendons is to connect your muscles to your bones.

Tendonitis occurs when the tendons in your joints become inflamed and severely swollen. This usually occurs when you overuse a specific joint in your body.

Such is the case with the elbow (tennis elbow) and the knee (jumper’s knee). Though, it can also occur when weightlifting.

If you’re performing hundreds of repetitions on a certain muscle group each week, don’t be surprised if you eventually develop tendonitis.

Microtrauma

In order for your muscles to grow with weightlifting and resistance training, your muscles have to tear ever-so-slightly. When they repair themselves, the result is a stronger and larger muscle.

Yet, not giving your muscles enough time to rebuild can actually cause severe harm.

This is known as microtrauma – and, it can actually impact the bones and the tendons as well.

Instead of allowing your body to recover post-workout, this extended case of microtrauma puts you at risk for breaking down your body even further. In a way, you might actually be reversing the gains that you’re making.

Strains & Sprains

Even though the terms “strain” and “sprain” are often used interchangeably, they’re actually two entirely different concepts. Let’s review what each of these injuries is and what makes them different from one another.

Strain

This type of injury occurs when you tear or “pull” a muscle. The severity of a strain can range from minor aches and tenderness to complete loss of movement in the muscle.

A strain usually occurs accidentally as a result of a sudden movement or even overuse.

Strains seem to be pretty common in weightlifters that avoid warm-ups. This limits the blood flow and flexibility of the muscles and makes strains much more likely.

Sprain

There’s a pretty good chance that you’ve sprained a joint in the past – your ankle.

A sprain actually impacts your tendons and your ligaments, not your muscles like a strain does. It occurs when you over-stretch or even tear a tendon or ligament, such as when you accidentally roll your ankle.

Yet, a sprain can impact any tendon or ligament in the body – including the knee and elbow. 

Sprains are known to cause swelling, bruising, weakness, and pain. 

What’s even worse is that weak tendons and ligaments are more susceptible to sprains. That means that every time you sprain a tendon or a ligament, it becomes weaker, thus making a future sprain even more likely.

Sprains usually occur with side-to-side movements, weak joints, and weak muscles surrounding the joints in question. Losing your balance or form during a heavy lift might cause an unnatural shift in the joints, leading to a sprain.

If you’re only targeting specific muscles when weightlifting, you’re not doing much to prevent sprains.

Rhabdomyolysis

Rhabdomyolysis isn’t exactly a common injury/illness. Yet, when it does occur, it can be extremely severe and debilitating – perhaps, even fatal.

This condition usually occurs with repeated and intense resistance/strength training.

As muscles break down during weightlifting, they also release myoglobin (a protein) into the bloodstream. In normal instances, your kidneys are able to get rid of this myoglobin.

When your body can’t handle the amount of myoglobin in your kidneys, kidney damage can actually result.

This causes dehydration, swelling of the muscles, fatigue, and dark urine.

This condition can be caused by overuse of the muscles during strength training. It also seems to be more likely to occur if you’re dehydrated and overheating during an intense workout.

How to Avoid Weightlifting Injuries

Unless you’re actively trying to prevent weightlifting injuries, you shouldn’t be too surprised when they actually occur. Let’s go over what you can actually do to make your experience in the gym safer and more enjoyable.

Taking Rest Days

The purpose of rest days in your weightlifting routine is to give your muscles the time to recover while also working to prevent overuse injuries to the body. But, the jury is still out on the exact amount of rest your muscles need between workouts. 

Some organizations push at least 24 hours while others focus on 72 hours or more. So, it can be confusing as a beginner looking to stay safe in the gym.

To play on the safe side, 72 hours between workouts is more than enough.

But, that doesn’t mean 72 hours between every workout. It means the actual amount of time between exercising the same muscle group – that means 72 hours between two chest workouts.

Just keep a close eye on your body.

If you attempt a workout 72 hours later and see that your muscles are still weak or aching, it’s okay to push that workout off another day or two to give your muscles even more time to recover.

Exercising Within Your Physical Limits

It’s not that you shouldn’t be overloading your muscles when you’re weightlifting. In fact, that’s exactly what you need to do in order to build strength, power, and muscle.

The problem is doing way more than your muscles and joints can handle.

Overexerting your muscles can cause muscle strain, especially if you’re not getting a good warm-up or using proper form. This can keep you out of the gym for days or even weeks as you recover.

You might be wondering what your personal physical limits are. To do that, you need to figure out what your 1RM for each exercise really is. 

Your 1RM is how much weight you can lift for an exercise one time.

Instead of attempting to set a new PR to figure out what your 1RM really is, you can use an online calculator like this one.

Here’s a look at how you can use a percentage of this newly-discovered 1RM to target specific fitness goals safely.

GoalPercentage of 1RM
Power80% or more
Strength60-80% 
Endurance50% or less

Not only will working out within these ranges help you to reach your fitness goals, but they’ll also limit your risk of injury.

Maintaining Proper Form

One of the most common reasons people become injured when weightlifting is lack of proper form.

This usually happens when you try to lift a much heavier weight than you’re capable of – so, you depend on momentum to help get the weight up.

Such is the case when you’re doing a bicep curl at a weight well-above your potential. Instead of the elbow being the only part of the body moving, you might end up jerking your back backward in order to build momentum in the elbow.

For this specific exercise, you’re putting unexpected and unnecessary strain on the muscles in your back – this can lead to a weightlifting back injury.

It’s important that you’re using proper form and lowering the weight you’re using if proper form isn’t possible.

It’s better to see slower gains than injure yourself and have to sit out for weeks.

Doing a Warm-Up

There’s nothing more important before a workout than warming up.

Failure to do a proper warm-up can put you at greater risk for pulling a muscle, spraining a joint, or even experiencing a decreased performance.

Warming up between 5 and 15 minutes before a workout is more than enough in most cases.

Yet, you don’t want your warm-up to be static stretching – which is just standing around stretching your muscles stably.

You want to do a dynamic warm-up instead. 

This is a movement-related warm-up that gets the blood flowing and increases the flexibility and mobility in your muscles and joints.

That includes exercises like jumping jacks, neck rolls, arm circles, and even jumping rope.

Final Thoughts

Weightlifting isn’t normally harmful. But, you might be putting yourself at greater risk for injury by weightlifting carelessly and pushing your body too far. 

To avoid weightlifting dangers, you need to exercise intentionally.

That means:

  • Taking rest days as appropriate (ideally 72+ hours) and listening to your body.
  • Warming up your muscles through a 5-15 minute dynamic warm-up.
  • Staying hydrated.
  • Focusing on proper form with exercises rather than setting new PRs.

Understand that you can’t entirely prevent a weightlifting back injury or a weightlifting shoulder injury, but there are plenty of ways that you can help to prevent them.