Safety First: Be Safe In Your Weight Room (Part I)by: AFM Editorial Staff
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Safety is a critical element at every high school and college weight room. AFM spoke with three strength and conditioning coaches about weight room safety procedures including Jim Kielbaso, the Director of Total Performance Training Centers (MI), Jim McGuire, the Assistant Director of Strength and Conditioning at Merrimack College, and Dan Leary, assistant coach and strength and conditioning coach at Seaside High School (OR).
How do you instruct your athletes on safe lifting procedures and practices?
Kielbaso: Safety begins on day one when we teach technique, proper weight selection and weight room safety. It goes without saying that proper lifting technique is an important step toward keeping your athletes safe, but it’s easy to let things slide when the intensity picks up. We are constantly coaching technique on every exercise, and I believe that every coach should do the same.
Teaching athletes how to select proper weights is another critical component to safety that is often overlooked. Kids don’t inherently know what weight is appropriate, and they don’t always understand how much their technique suffers when they use a weight that is too heavy. Many competitive athletes will try to “keep up” with the guy next to them and use whatever weight is on the bar simply because a teammate was able to use it. I’ve even seen this come up in weight room injury lawsuits several times to establish negligence. You need to teach athletes what is appropriate and give them a system of progression they can understand. Teach athletes to use the correct weight for each lift and explain that increasing their weight is a reward they earn for working hard and doing things the right way.
Finally, we always teach simple safety practices such as using safety catches on squats, putting dumbbells on the rack, paying attention when spotting, using clips, and keeping certain areas clear. I like to borrow the saying “Safety doesn’t take a holiday!” whenever I see an athlete forget one of these things. Like proper technique, these practices need to be reinforced every day, but it’s worth the extra energy to avoid an unnecessary injury.
McGuire: Each of our athletes is placed into our “Developmental Group” whenever they start training with us (freshmen or transfers). This is where we teach our system – how we do everything and why we do it that way. We start with basic movement and body weight mastery drills and progress the athletes individually. We spend a lot of time teaching everything that we do. Our foundation movements are taught step by step and progressed as well.
Leary: We use the acronym MCI. First and foremost is M-mechanics (technique). Form must be perfect. Next is C-Consistency-perfect form/technique every rep. Then and only then will we ramp up I-Intensity by adding reps or more weight.
What is the most dangerous aspect or activity in the weight room and how do you prevent injuries when doing it?
Kielbaso: The three most dangerous activities I see in weight rooms are:
1. The first few days of being in the weight room
or learning new exercises.
2. Testing for max or predicted max strength.
3. Olympic lifting.
When athletes are new to the weight room or learning new exercises, a lot of things can go wrong, so it’s critical to provide excellent instruction and supervision. At this point, young athletes simply don’t know what could go wrong and they are experimenting with everything. It’s critical to maintain control, keep the weights light and focus on doing things properly.
When testing for max strength, athletes will push themselves to lift more than they’ve ever lifted, and they will often sacrifice form and safety to set a new record. While this kind of intensity can create great performances, it can also create dangerous situations. Good coaches must know how to balance intensity and safety so that athletes can push themselves without getting hurt. Putting your name on a board or wearing a t-shirt is not worth risking a serious injury, so help athletes pick weights, be diligent about spotting and safety procedures and coaching technique (even when testing) to help to avoid injuries. Rewarding an athlete for lifting a weight with poor technique tells other athletes that it’s OK, so set your standards high and adhere to them during testing.
While Olympic lifts like the clean or snatch can certainly be done safely, the explosive nature of the lifts brings inherent risks. Missed lifts can result in acute injuries if an athlete tries too hard to “save” it or doesn’t know how to dump the weight when necessary. These lifts require impeccable technique that is often thrown out the door when attempting to set a new record. Bystanders also need to be aware of their surroundings and the weight room should be set up so that people can’t get hit by a barbell being lifted or dropped. Thoroughly teaching technique, providing regressions or alternatives when necessary, and creating a safe environment will all help to make these movements safer.
McGuire: I wouldn’t say that anything we do in the weight room or in training is “dangerous”, but obviously there are some inherent risks during any athletic activity – practice, games, or training. The biggest factor in preventing injuries is teaching our athletes how to do everything the correct way and supervising and coaching effectively. Our weight room is 5,000 square feet with 10 platforms- every training session will have at least one full-time coach overseeing and more than likely 1-2 interns. We have eyes on everyone at all times.
Leary: With our weight room it is space. We can sometimes have 40 athletes training at once. Clearly denoting lifting spaces with racks and Olympic platforms helps. We develop movement lanes so athletes don’t walk under bars or near activities where they could inadvertently get hit. Supervision is also key. No athletes can train in the weight room without a coach there and we keep our weight room locked. We also FMS (Functional Movement Screen) our athletes BEFORE they can start training with us.This lets us know if an athlete has a preexisting injury or movement compensation before they ever pick up a medicine ball, kettlebell or barbell.