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How Fitness Professionals Can Avoid On-the-Job Injuries

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 (see the sidebar "What Exactly Is Ergonomics?"). 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, 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.

    (OSHA 2017)

With all the lifting involved 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 Occupational Safety and Health Administration (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.

An Intro to Injury-Prevention Programs

In many industries, companies create detailed injury-reporting and post-injury procedures to get workers back on the job quickly and safely. This cuts the direct costs of lost-time accidents and the indirect costs of higher workers' compensation premiums. It's also in the best interests of workers, helping them return to their full-wage jobs instead of getting by on lower workers' compensation or disability benefits.

All fitness pros need to be safety-conscious. For the many who work solo or for small businesses that lack the resources to develop an injury-prevention program, it is especially prudent to contemplate on-the-job risks and develop a plan to prevent injuries. After all, getting hurt can make it hard to earn a living.

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 reduced?

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 the burden on you 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.

Preventing Back Injuries

Back injuries are another result of repeated strain. Constantly flexing the spine when lifting can weaken the posterior side of the intervertebral disks, increasing the risk of herniation. It is important to bend/hinge from the pelvis while maintaining the spine's natural curves.

Mind the spine. For fitness pros, repeated trunk flexion can be as simple as picking up a water bottle from the floor at intervals when teaching a class. The best ergonomic solution is to avoid putting the bottle on the floor to begin with: Place it on a chair or higher. If that's not possible, make sure you lift properly every time.

Use the golfer's lift. With light objects, another technique you can use is the golfer's lift: Like a golfer retrieving a ball from a hole, balance on one leg and pick up the object while maintaining a neutral spine. (If you lift that water bottle 30–50 times a day, it adds up, so try this technique.)

Avoid awkward or static postures. Doing manual resistance or assisted stretching with a client can cause excessive force or static muscle load. To avoid injury, use towels or other assistive devices to improve leverage, or ask another trainer for assistance, particularly with clients who are stronger and larger. Apply resistance from a biomechanically correct leverage position. Bend the knees, not the trunk, and get down to the same level as your client (Merrick & Bracko 2005).

Reduce contact stress. Fitness professionals can be prone to fatigue from standing—especially on hard surfaces like concrete. Minimize stress with anti-fatigue matting or properly designed floor systems; they are a huge help during continuous standing or exercise instruction.

Cleaning Up to Avert Falls

A tidy workspace is inherently ergonomic because it reduces slipping, tripping and falling hazards. Poor environments can include a training facility that is too hot, too humid or too cold or that has poor air quality, ineffective ventilation or a pervasive sweat odor. Fitness professionals must do all they can to make the training environment as comfortable as possible.

Remove obvious risks. Return weights to the racks. Check the floor for tripping hazards, water bottles and spills before, during and after sessions.

Put everything in its place. Make sure your gym has a designated area for clients' personal belongings. Keep the workout area free of coats, street shoes, boots and workout bags. They do not belong on the gym floor.

"Cleaning up my studio and picking up the equipment allows me some 'me time.' I find that working in a clean and neat environment helps my sanity," says Camilla Cantelli, personal trainer and strength coach in Eliot, Maine.

Protecting Your Voice

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, which 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.

Keep it wet. You need hydration to keep your voice healthy. Studies suggest that increasing systemic and superficial hydration can improve voice production (Sivasankar & Leydon 2010).

Mind the volume. Try not to speak to clients over loud music. Avoid talking close to speakers or near the noise from motorized equipment like treadmills. If you use loud music to motivate participants during boot camps, circuit training or indoor cycling, be your own DJ: Use an iPod connector cord extension (or go wireless) to keep the music volume control close (Halvorson 2009), and decrease the volume when giving teaching cues so you don't have to shout. Talk to facility managers about sound levels if needed.

Talk strategically. Save talking for the quieter areas of the gym. Face clients and avoid turning your head, which can put extra tension on vocal cords. Try to talk less, and ask open-ended questions to encourage clients to talk more. If you're teaching a class, keep words to a minimum and "edit" your teaching cues before speaking. This enhances learning and prevents voice strain.

Get visual. Reduce voice fatigue by using strong visual cues or "sign language" with just one or two words (Halvorson 2009).

Go wireless. When teaching group exercise classes, always use a wireless microphone/headset. Wireless systems are compact and reasonably priced, and you can connect them to almost any stereo (Halvorson 2009).

Dealing With Interpersonal Risks

Behavioral or psychological factors that make you more vulnerable to injuries include having too many (or too few) clients, getting into conflicts with other trainers and maintaining poor relationships with supervisors.

All these issues can lead to aches, pains and injuries. Why? Because they trigger a surge in the "stress hormone" cortisol, and if chronically elevated, cortisol levels can affect muscle tension, pain perception and inflammation levels (among other things) (Hannibal & Bishop 2014). Psychological factors can also be predictive of back pain (Bigos et al. 1992).

Additionally, clients can cause stress by making demands or "unloading" their problems on you, especially in a one-on-one training situation. For emotional safety, it is important to maintain boundaries, though this can be hard with longtime clients. "The fatigue is usually more mental," says Cantelli.

Don't Get Hurt

It's vital for fitness professionals to consider the link between their livelihood and injury prevention, especially if they are self-employed. Ergonomic principles can help to illuminate the connection between working as a fitness pro, with the high-risk movements that may entail, and staying healthy and injury-free.

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