By LaReine Chabut

Weight training is safe, and you can go a lifetime without a minor injury, but with that said, you may feel occasional muscle soreness — especially if you’re new to the game or haven’t worked out in a while.

A little bit of post-workout soreness is okay; chances are, you’ll feel tightness or achiness 24 to 48 hours after your workout, rather than right away. (This postponed period is called delayed onset muscle soreness.) But there are ways to reduce your amount of discomfort so you can be a normal, functioning human being after your workout. The following guidelines can help you keep this soreness to a minimum.

Properly warming up before you lift

Before you start your training session, warm up your body with at least five minutes of easy cardio exercise. Walking, jogging, stair climbing, and stationary biking are excellent aerobic warm-up activities for the muscles south of your waistline. But to prepare your upper-body muscles, you need to add extra arm movements to these activities:

  • Vigorously swing your arms as you walk, jog, or use the stair climber.

  • When you ride the stationary bike, gently roll your shoulders, circle your arms, and reach across the center of your body.

  • Use a cardio machine that exercises your entire body, such as a rower, a cross-country ski machine, or a stair machine. (Many gyms have the Cybex Upper Body Ergometer [UBE]; ask a trainer where you can find the UBE.)

Your warm-up increases circulation and the temperature of your working muscles, making them more pliable and less susceptible to injury. Your warm-up also lubricates your joints. The pumping action of your blood at the joints stimulates the release of synovial fluid, which bathes your joints and keeps them moving smoothly, as if you’re oiling a mechanical joint. If you have a particularly heavy weight workout planned, warm up for ten minutes.

You can also warm up your muscles by using active isolated (AI) stretching. AI stretching involves tightening the muscle opposite the one that you’re planning to stretch and then stretching the target muscle for two seconds. You repeat this process 8 to 12 times before going on to the next stretch.

Warming up with light weights

If you’re planning to do more than one set of an exercise, start by performing eight to ten repetitions with a light weight. A warm-up set is like a dress rehearsal for the real thing — a way of reminding your muscles to hit their marks when you go live. Even bodybuilders do warm-up sets.

If you get too confident and head straight for the heavy weights, you risk injuring yourself. With weights that are too heavy for you, you’re playing with some risky behaviors:

  • Losing control of the weight

  • Dropping the weight on yourself or on someone else

  • Straining so hard to lift the weight that you tear a muscle

  • Ending up so sore that you can barely lift your feet up high enough to climb stairs

One or a combination of these accidents can cause a lapse in your workout because you may have to take time off to recover. Be smart and start with lighter weights — weights that you can lift for more reps before you reach fatigue. A personal trainer at the gym can help you target a starting weight for your repetitions.

Lifting weights too quickly doesn’t challenge muscles effectively and is a pretty reliable way to injure yourself. When you’re pressing, pushing, lifting, or extending at the speed of a greyhound, you can’t stop mid-rep if weight plates come loose, you’re positioned incorrectly, or something just doesn’t feel right. So, take at least two seconds to lift a weight and two to four seconds to lower it.

Using your breath

Breathing is often the most overlooked and least understood component of weight training. If you’re a competitive lifter, you probably already know that your breathing can either make you or break you come contest time.

Relaxed breathing while exercising is the best technique. Don’t hold your breath either.

Lifting weights temporarily causes your blood pressure to shoot up, which normally isn’t a problem. But when you hold your breath, your blood pressure rises even higher — and then suddenly comes crashing down. Holding your breath creates intra-thoracic pressure (pressure in the chest cavity) that stops the circulation of blood from your muscles but can increase blood pressure.

When you relax, the muscle relaxes, the blood begins to flow again, and your blood pressure drops. This drastic drop may cause you to pass out and drop your weight. And if you have a heart condition, you could be in serious jeopardy. So, remember: Breathe!

Using proper form

Even subtle form mistakes, such as overarching your back or cocking your wrist the wrong way, can lead to injury.

The main goal is to adjust your body so that when you move you don’t place any undue strain on any of your joints or muscles. It’s important that you understand that form is everything in weight lifting. Poor form ultimately leads to injuries.

Before you start building muscle, you need to establish correct form and balance — and especially before you add more weight. When you start using heavy poundage, bad form ultimately leads to injuries to muscles and joints.

Don’t get discouraged because form adjustment is something all weight lifters must do. If you start with bad form, you carry that form forward, until you find out the hard way that you’ve been moving incorrectly. Old habits are hard to break!

  • Don’t jerk or bounce any weight around.

  • Don’t be afraid to ask for help while you’re in the gym.

  • Ask gym employees for help if you’re having trouble with certain exercises. They’re usually helpful and will answer any questions you have — if they’re not, you may want to look for a different gym.

  • Follow a beginner’s weight-lifting routine consistently for two to three months before moving on to more challenging exercises. Be patient, you’ll eventually start to pile on weight plates; but for now, think form and balance.

You have to train your neuromuscular system before you start increasing muscle tone and size. In other words, you need to improve the connection between your brain and your body so that more muscle fibers will fire with each contraction. This process of developing muscular control simply takes time.

Cooling down

If you’ve done a fairly fast-paced weight workout, complete the workout with five minutes of slow cardio exercise. The cardio cool-down gives your pulse, blood pressure, and breathing a chance to slow down before you hit the showers.

If you’ve been lifting weights at more of a plodding pace, with plenty of rest between sets, a few minutes of stretching suffices as a cool-down. Ending your workout with an easy set also helps you cool down.

Resting your muscles

You can lift weights on consecutive days — just don’t exercise the same muscle two days in a row. Forty-eight hours is usually the ideal waiting period before exercising the same muscle group again. Lifting weights places stress on the muscle, making the body adapt to the new stress, which in turn makes your muscles stronger.

If you ignore the 48-hour rule, weight lifting may make you weaker rather than stronger. At the very least, your muscles may feel too tired to perform at peak operating levels.