As strength training grows in popularity, the risk of injury increases. Here's how to make your members strong while keeping them safe.

The word is out: Weight training can increase metabolism, boost self-confidence, and help reverse the loss of muscle and bone density as we age. That's why more and more Americans have been heading for the weight room. In fact, the Sporting Goods Manufacturers Association reported an 89 percent increase in the number of people lifting free weights and a 50 percent increase in those using weight machines from 1987 to 1999.

Unfortunately, this increasing popularity in weight lifting also means an increase in the risk of injury. For example, weight-related injuries in men over 50 soared 331 percent from 1978 to 1998, while injuries among females over 50 jumped 212 percent, according to a study from the University of Arkansas. And that's counting only those problems that sent the exerciser to the emergency room; less serious sprains and strains would bump those numbers up even higher.

(Strength) Training
One thing that this study demonstrates is that strength training can be harmful - if done improperly. Your members require a thorough understanding of strength training before they even pick up a dumbbell.

When a member signs up at your facility, her orientation should be more than a stroll through the weight room on the way to the lockers. "I think orientations are the biggest smoke screen I've ever seen," says Rocco Castellano, owner of Rocco's Complete Fitness Systems in Covington, Ky. "The first time someone goes to a club, they're anxious. They're coming for help, but they're so nervous that they don't remember things. Psychologists say that you have to do something 25 times before you remember it - so [one orientation] isn't enough."

Wayne Westcott, Ph.D., research director of the South Shore YMCA in Quincy, Mass., agrees that a single orientation is insufficient. At the South Shore YMCA, new members must sign up for a half-hour slide-show orientation, which is offered twice a day. In addition, the members must continue to schedule appointments with a trainer until both the members and the instructor feel that they're ready to use the equipment on their own.

One-on-one meetings aren't the only way to teach members about safe strength training. Printed materials can supplement a strength-training orientation - and keep members from relying on the muscle mags lying around in the weight room for proper lifting technique.

For example, the South Shore YMCA offers an orientation booklet plus a booklet on the club's training philosophy. Rocco's Complete Fitness Systems gives new members a 25-page manual that includes club policy and procedures, a map of the facility, an anatomy lesson on the different muscles and what they do, and common exercises to strengthen them.

Personal Attention
In addition to one-on-one meetings and booklets, a comprehensive orientation will include a session that addresses a club member's individual requirements. After all, an orientation that works for one member may not cover all the necessary ground for another member. Therefore, orientations personalized to the individual can go a long way toward reducing weight-training injuries.

"I've found that I can guesstimate how much strength a member is going to bring to the table," says Julia Wheatley, owner of the Women's Fitness Center in Harrisonburg, Va. Her instructors start out with a trial-and-error approach in the orientation, trying different ways of doing things until they hit on one that's right for the individual.

Speaking of training, members aren't the only ones who need education to avoid weight-lifting injuries. All of your trainers must receive consistent instruction so that when a member asks, say, how to train after a shoulder injury, she gets the same information from all of your staff.

"If a club has five or 10 employees saying five or 10 different things, people pick up on that," says Sal Arria, Ph.D., CEO and co-founder of the International Sports Sciences Association. "You should teach employees together and give them access to scientific, credible information."


Too Much of a Good Thing
According to Dr. Arria, most weight-training injuries result from members doing "too much, too soon, too fast, and with poor technique." (Indeed, many of the injuries reported in the University of Arkansas study were attributed to weekend warriors who pushed themselves too hard.) Too much strength training too soon can lead to painful mistakes, while poor lifting technique, such as using momentum to move the weights, can put stress on the musculoskeletal system.

Unfortunately, it's tough for members to recognize when they're falling into the trap of training beyond their ability. Many of us were indoctrinated into the "no pain, no gain" camp when that mantra was popular, so we ignore pain when perhaps we shouldn't. That's why members must be able to answer the following: How much pain is acceptable? What kind of pain is acceptable? And how long is the pain acceptable? After all, there's a big difference between a brief soreness and a sharp joint pain during lifting.

"Ask the member where they feel the pain," suggests Dr. Westcott. "Quads is good; the knee is bad."

"We tell members how they should feel," adds Wheatley. "There should be tightness, but not too much. We also tell them that they need to stretch to reduce the amount of soreness they'll feel."

With more people weight training, why aren't more trainers on the floor giving advice to exercisers? After all, advice can mean the difference between proper training and injury.

"I've been to a lot of meetings at larger clubs," says Wheatley. "The biggest source of stress for me is seeing people doing things wrong and no one coming to correct them."

Talk Isn't Cheap
According to Dr. Arria, there are two reasons why trainers don't always correct improper form. First, like lawyers, trainers are paid for their advice. Going around giving out advice gratis could mean a loss of income for them (see sidebar, Free Advice vs. Personal Training). Second, there's the issue of liability.

"If you give free information without a good case history on a client, there can be problems," Dr. Arria says. "You may not know about underlying medical conditions."

According to Dr. Westcott, there's also an intimidation factor. "Most instructors are good at instruction, but are not confrontational," he says. "They're afraid that the person won't take [advice] constructively."

If trainers are reluctant to make suggestions to members, then clubs should encourage members to go to staff with questions. "We can't answer questions unless they ask," Castellano says.

On the other hand, members won't always ask, either. "I can observe someone and give advice," Castellano continues, "but consumers don't want to ask questions because they don't want to look stupid."

Comfortable Questions
Since members may be hesitant to ask questions, Dr. Arria suggests that clubs offer one free training session or offer discounts on multiple sessions for new members. This puts members in a position where they can make inquiries without being self-conscious.

Another idea is to give members tips that they can bring home with them, such as handouts describing a strength-training exercise of the week. This would decrease the number of weight-related injuries in the facility, and, as a bonus, result in referrals from satisfied members.

While new exercisers will generally welcome strength-training advice from your instructors, the power lifters grunting away in the weight room probably won't want unsolicited suggestions. However, just because they are experienced doesn't mean that they know what they are doing. Not only could their extreme training be putting themselves at risk, they could put others at risk if they decide to share their ill-conceived workout philosophies with your club's less experienced members.

Fortunately, serious lifters tend to take care of themselves and each other. It's rare that you'll see one without a spotter. But then there are the lifters who are all show. They're easy to pick out. They yell as they lift ("to look cool," according to Castellano), and they show up at the club decked out in "gym commando" gear (see sidebar, Spotting a Gym Commando). These lifters are poor role models for your members.

Member orientations and training can go a long way toward taking the power to influence away from these power lifters. Once new members understand the right way to do things, they'll know when they are getting wrong advice. Meanwhile, keeping an eye on the weight room can minimize the bad moves among power poseurs.

"If it's someone who is working really hard - if he's got a spotter and seems to have the right form and the proper speed - that's fine," says Castellano. "If they're throwing weights or bouncing stuff, they're not doing it right. People who are throwing weights around should be thrown out of the gym."

However, before you toss anyone, try a little education. Teach your members with strength-training sessions, handouts, posters, and even computer kiosks - and they'll get the gain without the pain.


That's Gotta Hurt

We asked club owners and trainers to share some low points that they witnessed in strength training. Some of the stories are humorous. Others, which involved serious injury, aren't. However, funny or not, these anecdotes all share something in common: They show the importance of teaching members how to strength train safely.

- All clubs ask that members put their weights away when finished. Unfortunately, some members ignore the policy. This isn't just inconsiderate to the next member; it's dangerous. Sal Arria, Ph.D., of the International Sports Sciences Association, can attest to that.

"I watched a gal unloading a machine some guy had left loaded," he says. "She dropped a 45-pound weight on her toe and powdered it."

- Poor form may not always hurt you, but it will always make you look stupid. "We used to have a couple of guys who would curl really fast with light weights," shares Rocco Castellano of Rocco's Complete Fitness Systems. "Then they'd go and flex in front of the mirror for 10 minutes."

When Castellano asked the light lifters what they were doing, they each replied, "I got to see how pumped I got."

"I tried to explain that you don't get big when you're pumping - you get big when you're resting," Castellano says.

Oh.

- Creativity is nice, but not when members are using strength machines in ways in which they weren't intended. Wayne Westcott, Ph.D., of the South Shore YMCA, has seen his share of members abusing machines in the hopes of working different muscle groups.

"People use the foot lever on the pullover machine as a triceps exerciser," he explains. "And they sit sideways on the...abdominal machine to hit the obliques."

Dr. Westcott has even seen members turn around and squirm behind the pads of a pec dec, then push with the back of the elbows in an attempt to train the deltoids.

Here's a safer tip: Try some dumbbells, dumbbell.

- For some reason, the bench press seems to be a magnet for poor form. Dr. Arria has witnessed plenty of lifters bounce the bar on their chest during the press, drop plates on their toes, and miss the pins after a bench press. And don't forget about all the guys who insist on arching their backs, turning their spines into chiropractic gold.

One of the most foolish things Castellano ever saw was "a kid who weighed 150 pounds soaking wet bench-pressing 225 pounds." The kid did eight repetitions that consisted mainly of a friend lifting the weight off the rack and letting it fall onto his chest.

When asked what he was doing, the member said, "You've got to concentrate on the negative."

Not surprisingly, all of that concentration on the negatives had a negative effect. "The next day, the member came to the gym with bruises all over his chest," Castellano recalls.


Spotting a Gym Commando

Afraid that your club has been invaded by a gym commando, the kind of weight lifter who exercises dangerously and spreads poor techniques to other members? Club Industry is here to help. Use this handy checklist (created with the assistance of Rocco Castellano of Rocco's Complete Fitness Systems) to determine if there is a commando in your midst.

First, print out this section and carry it around the workout floor. When a statement applies to the member, check the box. Then tally your results.

- The member is wearing a bandana on his head with the word "Huge" written on it.

- The member is sporting the thickest weight belt possible - and the belt also has the word "Huge" written on it.

- The member managed to squeeze himself into a pair of skintight bike shorts, so nothing is left to the imagination (and we mean nothing).

- The member looks like he got into a fight with a box of chalk - and lost. (Says Castellano: "The `gym commandos' put [chalk] on their shoulders for squats, their thighs for deadlifts, and I think their face to dry up some pimples. I may be wrong in stating the latter.")

If you checked one box, then chances are the member isn't a gym commando. But he does have poor taste.

Two checks indicate a potential commando. Keep an eye on him. If he begins yelling while lifting, it's time to remind him of proper club etiquette.

Three checks: You have a commando wanna-be on your hands. However, it's not too late. Encourage him to work with a personal trainer, and make sure he isn't corrupting other members with his "expert" advice.

If you checked all four boxes, then, sadly, your facility has been invaded. You should probably encourage the member to join a competing club.


Free Advice vs. Personal Training

It's a paradox all clubs face: You want to give members advice so that they train safely, but you don't want to give away personal training for free. So how much help should you provide before you start charging?

Rocco Castellano of Rocco's Complete Fitness Systems usually lets members ask one or two questions before he suggests that they set up an appointment for personal training.

"If you're any kind of professional, you will encourage people to always ask questions," he says. "The more you educate someone, the more likely they will come to you when they need to be personally trained.

"If a question takes between five and 10 minutes to answer, and you have the time, answer it," he adds. "If it is more complicated or takes longer then 10 minutes and involves actual demonstration, you should advise the member that he/she should set up an appointment for a consultation to discuss their question further."

Sal Arria, Ph.D., of the International Sports Sciences Association notes that it's a "fine line between giving away info and providing a great service to all members."

"An easy way of stopping the `free advice' conversation is for the trainer to say, `There are many variables involved in answering that. Why don't you schedule a consultation with me tomorrow and let's make sure your program is up to date?'" Dr. Arria explains. "Or, `That will take some time to answer correctly, so set up an appointment tomorrow and I'll book an hour with you personally, and between now and then, make a list of the questions you'd like me to go over with you.'

"That type of service is what people expect," Dr. Arria continues, "and in most instances, they'll respect the fact that a complete, qualified answer will take time and will be more than happy to pay for professional advice."