The science of ergonomics helps office workers avoid repetitive-strain injuries and prevents lost-time accidents among factory workers. But what can it do for fitness professionals? A lot more than you might think. The same principles that assist in the design of office chairs and production lines can help you prevent injuries and protect your ability to earn a living.
I’ve often asked fitness pros if they have a plan for preventing their own injuries. They usually talk about things like balanced weight training, caution on heavy lifts, hot yoga or supplements. It’s a good start, but you should dig deeper and take an ergonomic approach to the risks of work-related injuries.
Why Ergonomics Matters
The core of ergonomics is designing workplaces that reduce the risk of injury while enabling work to be done more efficiently. Well-designed ergonomic programs pay off in greater wage earnings (less time lost), higher job satisfaction and lower healthcare costs. This is as true for fitness professionals as it is for anyone else who works for a living.
Ergonomics also provides a backdrop for government safety regulations requiring companies to follow specific guidelines to prevent worker injuries. In the United States, for example, there are rules for
- how much a person is allowed to lift without mechanical assistance;
- lifting and working in awkward positions;
- high-frequency and long-duration lifting; and
- lifting objects with inadequate handholds.
With the repeated lifting in fitness instruction, you’d think exercise pros would be zealous about following these kinds of rules. However, the fitness industry is more like the Wild West when it comes to reducing and preventing work-related injuries. Though U.S. fitness facilities are subject to OSHA rules, the industry is largely unregulated, with no unified governing body to maintain injury-prevention standards (Melton, Katula & Mustian 2008). It’s up to individual fitness pros and gym/studio owners and managers to develop injury prevention and safety programs.
Developing a Simple Plan
An injury-prevention program can be relatively simple:
- Start with a job-task analysis documenting what the job requires.
- Identify and write down the safety risks of the job.
- Write procedures to prevent accidents.
Think about a trainer spotting a client who is performing a squat. What motions are required? Where does the trainer stand, and where do the hands go? How is it done safely? What are the risks of injury to the trainer? How can these risks be eliminated or minmized?
It’s important to document the risks and create safety procedures—whether it’s to protect a solo trainer or so that managers can approve the procedures and make sure all staff understand how to prevent spotting injuries.
Most Common Risks for Fitness Pros
Risk factors for fitness professionals include repeated lifting/trunk flexion; improper lifting technique; voice fatigue; slips, trips and falls; high stress from teaching too much; possible stress of working with certain clients; personality conflicts with co-workers and supervisors; and repeated microtraumas to the joints, muscles, tendons and intervertebral disks, which can lead to macrotrauma, increasing the threat of disability and lost income.
Let’s walk through safety prevention for some of the most common risks you face as a fitness pro.
Avoiding Repetitive-Strain Injuries
Doing the same motion over and over creates one of the most common injury risks for fitness professionals. It’s essential to use proper lifting ergonomics no matter how much an object weighs, because you lift and move so much weight so many times a day. Make sure you have a healthy work-to-rest ratio and keep these guidelines in mind:
Take your time; do it right. Moving or racking weight plates or dumbbells too quickly can cause repeated-strain injuries. To minimize the risk inherent in moving weights, do not rush; squarely face the weight as you remove and replace it; turn the entire body; keep the load close to the body; use both hands; and avoid trying to move plates with the fingers alone (Merrick & Bracko 2005).
Practice what you preach. Always use the techniques you teach clients. It’s easy when teaching boot camp or group exercise to get caught up in the energy of the session and pick up a kettlebell or medicine ball with straight legs and a flexed back instead of the best way—either lifting with the legs and maintaining a neutral spine or bending/hinging from the pelvis with a neutral spine.
Lighten up. Use light weights when demonstrating exercises. If you’re teaching the same classes and using the same motions over the course of days, weeks and months, think about lightening your teaching load or varying class formats.
Share the load. Ease your burden by teaching clients how to load and move weights. “My clients know how to load weights; they don't expect ‘full service’ when getting or putting away weights,” says Charlotte Barker, personal trainer with Fitness NATION in Oakville, Ontario.
Protecting Your Voice
Group instructors in particular should be mindful of voice ergonomics. It’s important to understand that the throat does not project the voice; rather, the throat is a sound channel. The power of voice comes from the lungs, diaphragm and intercostal muscles; this puts a premium on proper posture and abdominal contraction so the voice can project from the diaphragm, not the throat (AAO—HNS 2017).
Other factors that increase the risk of voice strain include talking without rest, teaching over high background noise, poor room acoustics, poor indoor air quality, poor posture and working without a microphone.
For more vocal tips and information on back injuries, please see “How Fitness Professionals Can Avoid On-the-Job Injuries” in the online IDEA Library or in the July–August 2017 print edition of IDEA Fitness Journal. If you cannot access the full article and would like to, please contact the IDEA Inspired Service Team at 800-999-4332, ext. 7.