You can feel it.  Boy, can you feel it.  It burns and it’s tight and it feels like your biceps are going to explode.  You put the barbell down and immediately run over to the skull-crusher machine, ready to capitalize on your pump and hit your arm from the opposite angle.  You set the weight, you push the lever with your foot, up goes the bar behind your head, and then on the way down, you feel it again.  Except this time, it hurts, and not in the good way.

This moment right here, is every lifters dilemma.  You’re pumped.  You feel great.  You feel strong and you hit all your meals perfectly and now all you want to do is get these eight reps because your growth depends on it.  But every time you lift the weight up, it stings, right inside your elbow, right where you shouldn’t be feeling it; and every time you lower the weight down, there’s a voice inside your head saying, “Stop.  Stop now.  Move on to something else.  It’s not a heavy day.  Just take it easy.”

Take it easy.  How are you supposed to take it easy?  Is lifting easy?  Is any of this supposed to be easy?  You’re sitting there on the skullcrusher machine, caught between a rock and a hard place.  If you keep going, you risk injury.  But if you stop, then you’re weak, you’re giving up, you’re going against everything the sport of weightlifting stands for.

This is the battle of the ego.  If you want any sort of longevity when it comes to lifting weights, you need to learn when to get hyped and let your ego carry you to new personal records; and you need to know when to tell your ego to stop, to do something else instead.  You need to know when to lift smart.

Most of the time, you’re feeling pain because of the angle, not necessarily the weight itself.  Some people can handle overhead lifts, some can’t.  Some can curl with a straight bar, some need an EZ curl bar to take pressure of their wrists.  There are three body parts that are typically the most prone to injury:

  1. Knees
  2. Shoulders
  3. Wrists

These areas are sensitive because the joints often lag significantly behind the strength of the major body parts they control.  Think about it.  Your biceps can handle a ton of weight, but your wrists are nimble and fragile.  Your legs love the feeling of eight hundred pounds on a leg press, but your knees certainly do not.  The stronger you get, the more you’ll want to move heavier weight, and the more stress you’ll be putting on these major joints.

If you find yourself hurting, you need to pay close attention to your form.  Is it an angle problem, or a weight problem?  If it’s an angle problem, then the fix is easy: switch the angle.  If your elbows can’t handle doing skullcrushers, try doing close grip bench press—a press movement instead of an overhead movement.  If you’re knees hurt, try a press instead of a squat.  For shoulders, the pain almost always comes from a pressing movement.  Try lateral raises instead.

If none of this helps, then it’s not an angle problem.  It’s a weight problem.  The pain is there because instead of the weight being supported and lifted 100% by the muscle, it’s sharing the burden with the joint.  This happens for two reasons: either poor form, or exhaustion.  You might have had perfect form in the beginning of your workout, but now you’re ten sets deep and you’re tired, so you’re lifting more with your knees than your legs, your wrists than your triceps.

If it’s not exhaustion, here’s the bitter truth: you have poor form.  Somewhere along the line, you never learned how to push or pull or squeeze from the muscle, and instead you’ve been hoisting the weight up or down with the help of your joints, or secondary muscles that were never meant to carry the majority of the weight.  Examples being: bench pressing with your shoulders instead of your chest; squatting from your toes instead of your heels; curling so much weight that you have to arch your back and heave it just to get it up.  This is what we call Ego-Lifting, and if it brings you to injury, then there’s only one thing you can do.

You have to start over.

Go back to the bar.  Just the bar.  Practice perfect form.  Then stack a pair of 10’s on.  Practice perfect form.  Go up a little bit more.  Practice perfect form.  Everyone is going to wonder why you’re squatting with not even 50 lbs on your back, why you’re curling 10 lb dumbbells, why you’re bench pressing a naked bar, and that’s okay.  If they want to know the reason, they can come talk to you.  They can ask you, to which you’ll say, “I hurt my shoulder, and I think it’s because my form is off.  I’m trying to get back to the basics.”

And you know what?  They’ll high-five you.  They’ll commend you.  They’ll say, “Man, I got injured last year, and it sucked,” and then they’ll offer to give you a spot whenever you want to try going heavy again.  They’ll support you because perfect form in the gym is worth a whole lot more than a bar being bounced off your chest and a taped-up shoulder to show for it.

So you want to avoid injuries?  Lift smart.  Leave your ego at the door and listen to your body.  Perfect form and not being afraid to stop mid-lift and try something else is what’s going to save you in the long run.

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