How to Train Smarter & Avoid Injury: Advice from a Pro

Meet Zenergy Sports Rehabilitation Clinic’s newest Physical Therapist, Kyle Sela. He’s a physical therapist and board-certified specialist in sports and orthopedics who has taken his practice to the next level. Kyle’s roots working with elite athletes run deep: In the U.S. Army, Kyle served as a trainer and therapist to the Army Rangers. Recently, Kyle captained the 2016 Olympic training regimen of three-time gold medal winning road bike racer Kristin Armstrong.

Kyle’s professional mission is to help people feel better, move better and maximize their potential to live life to the fullest. In his perfect world, you won’t ever need his help recovering from a strain, tear, herniated disk or other painful problem, but the risk of injury is always real.

We sat down with Kyle, who also functions as Zenergy’s new sports medicine program developer, to learn his advice for achieving your health and performance goals without taking yourself out of the game.

Why is movement efficiency key to improving performance and reducing injuries?
Think about movement efficiency like the alignment on your car. If your wheel is off or tire pressure is down, you can still drive. However, the longer or harder you drive it, the sooner you will develop some serious mechanical issues and obviously the vehicle will never perform optimally. Your body is no different. If you are moving poorly for some reason – maybe running with a weak hip, lifting with suspect form, or cycling with a poor set up – you can still train, push yourself and maybe even perform well for a while. But at some point, those inefficiencies will catch up to you, causing injury or preventing you from ever reaching your peak potential.

What can I do to improve my movement efficiency?
It’s best to have a trained professional evaluate you and develop a plan. For most people, it takes another set of eyes and hands to find a deficiency and then figure out how to correct it. Don’t wait for an injury to occur to see an expert! You go to the dentist regularly to make sure your teeth are healthy and to the mechanic to get your tires rotated and alignment checked; why not take a similar approach with your musculoskeletal system? And as you age, try new training programs or sports so your body is constantly adapting and changing.

What’s your No. 1 piece of advice for avoiding injury in the gym?
Avoid routine! It’s great that you “go to the gym everyday” or “run 30 miles every week,” but our bodies adapt to new stimuli and change. What was once a great stimulus will eventually plateau in its ability to improve you and then actually become the very thing that will break you down or hurt you. If you want to run, great! But mix up your running intensities, surfaces, and durations. Incorporate one- to two-week breaks from running throughout the year and temporarily switch to a new workout. If you’ve been doing the same strength training machines or movements on a regimented schedule, you’re very likely in need of a shift to prevent injury and see new changes to your body. That could mean doing completely different movements for a while, changing up the order of exercises, or altering your rep schemes or resistance. You should routinely exercise, but that’s where the “routine” component should end.

What’s the secret to executing the perfect squat?
Just about every strength program includes some type of squat exercise, as well it should. The squat is a highly functional move, meaning we do versions of it in life everyday (using the toilet, picking up items off the floor, getting into vehicles). Being good at squatting can literally improve your quality of life and preserve your independence as you age. Executing the “perfect” squat comes down to three things: keeping your heels on the ground with an active arch in your foot; not letting your knees collapse in toward each other; and maintaining a neutral spine, meaning you should have a slight inward curve at you lower back. The appropriate depth of a person’s squat will be different based on anatomy, injury history, strength, etc. But most everyone will be safe if they adhere to these three principles.

How can I keep my back healthy and avoid injury?
Education and lifestyle play a big role in keeping your lower back healthy. Understanding proper spine position for different types of tasks is key. The spine needs intelligently applied stress to remain or become strong and resilient. We also need the joints above (thoracic spine) and below (hips) the low back to be mobile to protect the lumbar region from having to compensate. From a lifestyle standpoint, consider: How much time do you spend sitting? Are you getting enough sleep? Do you smoke? Are you exercising intelligently? All of these factors play into not only your general health but also your spine health. Finally, realize that back pain is extremely common. You can do everything right and still experience episodes of pain. Current medical research says not to wait it out, get physical therapy early so that your acute episode does not turn into a chronic condition.

What exercise(s) do you wish people wouldn’t do?
I won’t go into what specific moves people shouldn’t do as this can be dependent on too many factors. There are countless different exercises, and someone could probably make a case for any one of them in the right situation. For instance, I’m not a huge fan of using a knee extension machine for general fitness and leg strength, as it tends to cause pain in and around the knee joint. Yet I prescribe it quite often for rehab or other special situations. I am much more confident in saying what people generally should not do in their training. They should not avoid the big, basic, fundamental movements like squats, lunges, presses and pulls. Large multi-joint movements should be the bulk of your strength training and the more often these are done in a free-standing, unsupported position, the better. Yes, the leg press will develop leg strength – but a squat will develop leg strength along with core strength to actually use in life and sport.

Why is strength conditioning so important for endurance athletes?
If a world-class cyclist has four weeks to prepare for a big event, she’ll build strength on her bike with big gears, hills and intervals instead of lifting weights. That’s specific training that will carry over to her race more than four weeks of strength work in the gym. However, long-term health and athletic development is critical, too –and for that reason, strength training is paramount. Cycling, for example, involves a highly repetitive demand, in a poor postural position, that only challenges the body in one plane of motion. If she only does exercises that directly relate to improved power output on the bike, it’s only a matter of time until her body starts to break down.  Her strength and conditioning program would be aimed at counteracting the negative effects of riding the bike and challenge her body in multiple planes and ranges of motion not experienced while in the saddle. This may prevent some of the breakdown commonly seen at the spine and hips and could add years to her competitive career. If not, those same big gears, hills and intervals will be applied to a more fragile system and instead of reaping rewards, she’ll be treating an injury. Ideally, we start working with athletes in middle or high school so there’s a long-term plan to negate the undesirable adaptations of repetitive endurance training. But it’s also almost never too late. I began working with Kristin Armstrong in the 14 months leading up to the Rio games. At age 42, she had never done any formal strength training and her injury and surgical history is well chronicled. Working on her weaknesses in the gym for that year-plus allowed her to train harder with less break down and injury than if she hadn’t. Who knows, it could have been the difference between her third gold medal or not making the podium or even the team.