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Keep Fit Without Getting Injured

With gyms and sports facilities closed over the last few months, our ability to exercise beyond the confines of our own home or local outdoor areas was curtailed.

Since 25th July, many gyms and sports facilities have now begun to reopen, which is welcome news for the many who are eager to jump back into their old gym routines. For others, exercising within the home or outdoors in the fresh air may continue as an enjoyable new way of staying fit. 

Changing how and when we exercise may actually have been good for many of us because it forces us to use different muscle groups and challenges your body in new ways. However doing something new, particularly without supervision from an expert or the ability to go at your own pace (if you’re following an online class for example) can also increase the risk of injury.

We spoke to Jamie Keleher, a London-based personal trainer who specialises in rehabilitation and injury prevention to find out what you can do to protect yourself.

Do it right, or don’t do it at all

“Exercising with poor technique or training beyond your current capabilities greatly increases your risk of injury.” explains Jamie. 

“There’s this pressure that people feel to do every exercise as hard or as fast as they can in the belief this is what is going to get results. In fact doing an exercise correctly by keeping the body well aligned and ensuring tension in the working muscles is the most effective way to improve strength and reduce injury risks. Speed of movement and external loads should only be applied once perfect technique has been achieved in a fully controlled movement pattern.

“For example, squats are often taught to get your hips as low as possible with either a barbell or dumbbells. These are excellent exercises and provide great results when performed correctly. However many of the clients I see lack the flexibility and/or strength to do the exercise with the correct alignment.

“Therefore it is important to find a variation of the exercise to meet your current standards. For example I get my clients to use a Swiss Ball held against a wall and their lower back to keep their upper body erect and encourage use of their core muscles rather than achieving depth by bending at the waist. Alternatively I ask clients to do bodyweight squats off a bench which helps to get them started. 

“The key is to keep your sternum up, your heels on the floor, and your knees out over your toes. If doing this means you can’t move downwards very far then that’s actually a good thing and means you are working your body correctly.  You’ll be challenging your muscle groups and the mechanics of how your body works in ways that you need to, and it is this that will increase strength and mobility.

“Compensating by allowing the mechanics of your body to not work correctly just exacerbates any problems you have and actually prevents improvement.

“Overall the point is to not just jump straight into a new exercise movement without fully understanding how your body is supposed to be aligned. Focus first on establishing good technique through a full range of movement and then you can progress to more advanced versions”. 

“It doesn’t matter how heavy the weight is, how low the push up is, or how many reps you can do.  What matters is how well you can maintain posture and technique – that’s the win.”

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Jamie’s Top Tips

If you’re following a high quality exercise programme whether it’s a book, a DVD or an online live streamed class, the instructor should be providing you with the right information to get your technique correct.

Jamie’s advice is to listen carefully and follow what you are being told. Have the remote control within reaching distance the first few times you try a class, so you can stop, check and adjust without time pressures. If the class is live then go at your own pace, if this means you miss out a few repetitions or even an entire routine, don’t sweat it.

Clearing enough space around you so you can really stretch out and move as required is key. And if you can work out so you can see yourself in a mirror which allows you to check your body alignment, then that will also be extremely helpful.

“Getting clients to look at themselves in the mirror when exercising can be a real eye opener for them. Due to sedentary lifestyles and seated workplaces poor posture and muscle imbalances are prevalent in most people. This makes achieving optimal posture difficult and “unnatural”. By looking at yourself whilst you exercise you can adjust your posture as you go to improve your alignment throughout the exercise and ultimately improve the success of the workout”, explains Jamie.

The Golden Rules

  1. Ensure Correct Spinal Alignment
  • Keep your eyes to the horizon and your chin slightly tucked (avoid jutting your chin out) to achieve optimal head and neck alignment. Ensuring your eyes are straight ahead is a simple way to help keep the head stable during exercise.  If you work at a computer, you will often hyperextend your cervical (neck) vertebra and protrude your jaw (forward head carry). This can be improved by gently tucking your chin and imagining you are holding a golf ball between your chin and the front of your neck.
  • Sternum up – everyone knows their shoulders need to be stable and not ‘rounding’ during exercise. The instruction is often “keep your shoulder’s back” to try and achieve this. In my experience I have found it more beneficial to focus on the sternum position to maintain shoulder stability. If you think about lifting the bottom of the sternum at a 45 degree angle towards the ceiling you’ll find your shoulders naturally shift backwards without straining any upper back muscles, a common problem for desk workers.
  • Knees go over toes - When bending at the knees (in lunges for example) always ensure your knee cap is directly aligned over your second toe throughout the entire range.  Poor knee alignment during exercise is a common problem and will increase the wear and tear in the joint. If you cannot achieve good knee alignment during leg exercises then try doing stability exercises for your hips (eg clams or hip extensions) and ankles (eg single leg balance and calf raises). These joints above and below the knee play a crucial roll in aligning the leg during movement and improving their stability and range often results in better knee alignment.
  • Stable feet –  You can’t build a house on weak foundations. It is vital when doing exercises that your feet are stable. To achieve this take a strong stance and imagine someone is trying to push you over. This should help activate your feet and ankles and provide better support for your exercise. Another excellent tip during lower body exercises such as deadlifts or squats is to imagine pushing the ground away with your feet rather lifting the body away from the ground. This helps to ensure the correct sequence of contraction in the movement and will greatly improve strength and performance.
  1. Concentrate on your technique

Once posture and alignment has been established it needs to be maintained throughout the entire movement. This is much harder than you might think and requires constant attention and adjustment to achieve. Follow these simple tips to improve your technique.

  • Exercise in front of a mirror to give you visual feedback on what your body is doing.
  • Try static (isometric) versions of exercises to provide low intensity/high duration workouts for the target muscles.  Isometrics are an excellent tool to build strength in the early stages of an exercise programme. A good example of this is the push up. Many people struggle to maintain spinal alignment during the push up as they lack the necessary shoulder girdle and core strength.  To build up these areas without compromising technique you could just hold the top position of the push up either on your toes or knees for up to 60 seconds. Once the stability is established you will find the movement much easier to achieve and the exercise far more effective.
  • Keep your mind in the muscle – knowing which muscle you are training and focusing on that muscle maintaining contractile force throughout the movement is an excellent tool to ensure a good workout. Feel the muscle lifting and lowering the weight to improve the time under tension. You can even look at the muscle as it contracts to help improve the mind to muscle link.
  1. Stick To Your Level

Finding the right level of exercise for you is essential to improving your fitness. If you are going to make a mistake when starting a programme it is better to find something a little easy than to find it way too hard. You can always build up and work harder next time but injuries can take a long time to recover from.

  • Start slow. The first couple of times you do an exercise take your time to practise the movement don’t push it until you feel comfortable. This helps your body adjust to what you’re asking it to do and will help ensure you’re doing it correctly. 
  • Use exercise variations – Every exercise has an easier or harder version than the one being offered in the programme so try different versions to find the one that suits you and build the strength from there.
  • Try and progress – Once the correct level of exercise has been established your goal is to improve. An effective exercise program will illicit fitness gains so you need to ensure that you keep challenging the body as the programme progresses. This can achieved in a variety of ways but common examples are to increase to weights or difficulty of the exercise, decrease your rest periods or complete more sets/reps per workout. Never stay with the same program for too long and the more experienced you are in terms of exercise, the more often you need to change the programme.

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August 2020