Heavy Weightlifting Safety Tips For Clients

Dec 09, 2021 | by AIF

Safe and responsible weight lifting involves precise, controlled movements that specifically target one or more muscle groups. In addition to increased strength, it has a multitude of health and fitness benefits.

But what happens when the weights start getting heavy? Is heavy weight lifting safe? The answer depends on a range of factors, which we’ll identify below. Before we go any further, however, let’s just clarify that in this article we’re talking about ‘light’ versus ‘heavy’ weights, not free weights versus resistance machines. We’re also talking about weight lifting (two words), as practiced by everyday personal training clients and gym members, not weightlifting (one word), which is a competitive Olympic sport. Clear? Great, let’s load up the bar.

Too much to handle?

So, what is considered ‘heavy’? It depends on the client’s ability, and on who is defining it. For the sake of setting a benchmark for this article, let’s define it as a load that you can only lift between 1 and 6 times (or maybe slightly more). For some people, this can be too much to handle, at least initially.

Training with heavy weights will make it harder for your client to maintain good exercise technique. There is an increased likelihood that they will inadvertently ‘cheat’ in order to complete the exercise, e.g. swinging their body and arms during a bicep curl to lift the load into a flexed position. In this example, the client is using momentum to assist with lifting the load. This has a couple of negative consequences. Firstly, it defies the object of the exercise by reducing the effective work being done by the desired muscle. Secondly, the muscles, joints and supporting structures that are recruited to assist in the ‘cheating’ may not be prepared for the movement, so the risk of injury increases.

Don’t break your – or your client’s – back!

Weight lifting can be fantastic for strengthening the back, which helps support the spine, but heavier loads place greater strain on posture and affect technique.

If you program heavy lifting for a personal training client, you must ensure they are adequately prepared. This requires you, their Personal Trainer, to have a solid understanding of biomechanics and anatomical demands placed on the body during heavy lifts. Without this knowledge, it is very easy to dangerously overload the client, resulting in their inability to maintain proper technique. This can lead to weaker muscles, tendons and ligaments failing and tearing. 

It can be the case that one muscle group is strong, but smaller or stabilising muscles may not be. In the case of a barbell squat, for example, a client may have very strong legs but a relatively weak back. It’s more likely, therefore, that they will strain their back than their legs, despite the exercise primarily targeting the legs and glutes. As a Personal Trainer, it is your responsibility to ensure clients progress at the appropriate rate, continually maintaining optimum technique.

How much should you lift?

The amount that your client should lift depends on the individual and what their goals are. As a general rule:

  • if looking to build strength, aim for weights that allow them to train in a rep range of 1-6
  • if looking to build muscle, aim for weights that allow them to train in a rep range of 8-12
  • if focusing on muscle endurance, aim for weights that allow them to train for at least 15 reps.

As the workout progresses, your client will naturally start to feel tired and experience a decrease in energy levels. For this reason, don’t build the client up to the heaviest lifts at the end of the session. Instead, after getting them warmed up, program the heaviest, most difficult exercises early on in the session.

Carefully recording your client’s results and weights with each workout (either in an app or manually) is essential. As the Personal Trainer, it’s your role to monitor progress and use the data and observations regarding their technique to inform future training sessions.

Tips to minimise injury risk

  1. Know your anatomy, physiology and biomechanics REALLY well. Make sure you understand how all the muscles (not just the primary ones) are required to work during a lift, so that you can prescribe loads safely.
  2. Always start client programs on lighter weights with higher repetitions. As your client becomes more confident and able to work with heavier loads, ensure the workout includes low reps with a high resistance load.
  3. Program rest and recovery into every weight training program. Allow at least 48 hours recovery for training of a body part. Many people continue to push through minor pains and injuries, which will only work to exacerbate the problem. Allow time to heal from any pains or injuries.
  4. Ensure the equipment to be used is fit for purpose. Checking the equipment before each use can help reduce the risk of injury. A platform with cracks or uneven surfaces can lead to ankle joint injuries. Bars should also be examined regularly.
  5. Don’t neglect the warm up! Warming up ensures that the muscles, tendons and ligaments are appropriately stretched and that blood-flow will have increased. As a PT, you know this – but it can’t hurt to be reminded!
  6. Educate your client about the need to use the right amount of weights for their goals and current abilities. Help them understand that it’s not about throwing a heap of weights on the bar to impress others in the gym, which can lead to injury (and a bruised ego).

If injury does occur, the reduction of swelling can be assisted through anti-inflammatory medication and eating foods high in omega-3 fatty acids. Ice packs can also assist. If pain persists or the injury feels like it is worsening, it is important to seek medical attention to avoid worsening symptoms.

Lifting heavy weights can be great for increasing not only a client’s strength and fitness, but also their confidence. By taking things slowly, and undertaking all necessary precautions, you can cement your role as their trusted partner in fitness.

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