Lifting weights is risky business. If you lift them for long enough, it is almost inevitable that you will become injured to some degree. In extreme cases, athletes have herniated vertebrae, broken bones or torn muscle from bone. This should come as no surprise as the purpose of lifting weights is to break down your existing bodily structures in order to build them up stronger. Coming to terms with this going to help you to plan and adjust your training in order to prevent injury and gather methods for dealing with those worst case scenarios. The first part of this process is to know the risks. The aim of this article is to highlight the likelihood of injury when training for strength sports and to show you some extreme cases of injury.
Injury and greatness are both not possible without motion. Therefore, athletes must accept some level of risk in order to reach their potential. The level of risk to the athlete is dependent on many factors, including the types of motions, which are vary based on the strength sport. The good news is that the level of risk has been studied and an examination of the literature reveals the statistics. Using these sources, the injury incidence and the most injured body segment will be highlighted for the sports of CrossFit, powerlifting, and strongman.
Mehrab, et al. performed a survey of Dutch CrossFit athletes regarding their injury data over a previous 12-month period . They discovered that 56.1% of their respondents reported sustaining at least one injury with the shoulder being the most commonly injured body segment making up 28.1% of the reported injuries. The majority of the injuries that were diagnosed by a medical professional indicated the cause being chronic or overuse. It is important to note that due to the amount of usage of the shoulder and the high relative number of repetitions of a single movement it seems reasonable to expect shoulder injuries and overuse diagnoses to be reported most frequently among CrossFit athletes.
Over at Stronger by Science, Andrew Patton wrote a short article last year detailing some of the injury results from their survey of powerlifters . Of their respondents, 63.9% reported suffering from an acute injury during their powerlifting career with shoulder joint and rotator cuff (46.9% combined), knee (19.6%), and hip and lower back (56.7% combined) accounting for the most frequently injured body segments of the upper extremity, lower extremity and torso/hip, respectively. The authors note that the quality of their survey may be low due to the wording of their questions and are currently conducting a more thorough survey. However, if the large sample size of this study is taken into account, these results build a good case that the chance of an injury over your powerlifting career is likely.
You may not be surprised that this review, occurring in increasing rates of injury incidence, is ending with the sport of strongman. I wasn’t surprised as I have seen and experienced plenty of injuries over my career as a competitive strongman. Winwood et al. performed a retrospective analysis of strongman competitors over their previous year of training and competing . This study found that 82% of strongman competitors report suffering from injuries, 20% of the reported injuries required one week or more off from training completely and the most frequently injured body segment was the lower back (24%). Most importantly, it was found that strongman athletes were 1.9 times more likely to suffer an injury during training with strongman implements than with traditional strength training implements, such as barbells and dumbbells. I propose two reasons for this finding. First, strongman implements are more irregular than a barbell or dumbbells requiring longer periods of time for your neuromuscular systems to develop optimized models for controlling your body when moving the strongman implements. Second, many of the strongman events involve much more dynamic motion patterns than traditional gym implements. A more dynamic task means it will take longer master it and the more effort required to maintain the performance, both which increase the opportunity for injury.
The goal here isn’t to scare you with the potential risks, but to educate you on them. I don’t want these statistics to prevent you from lifting, but rather force you to make smarter training decisions. I want you to be aware that it is highly likely that you experience at least one injury during your athletic endeavours and you should prepare for it.
Now that I have laid out the likelihood of injuries in some of the major strength sports, I want you to take a look at extreme cases of injuries. Whenever you are pushing the human body to the absolute limits, sometimes it is going to fail. Below, I have included a video containing a compilation of strength sport injuries. Please take a few minutes and watch this video to see what is possible when striving for greatness in strength sports.
Watching these failed attempts makes me cringe, but also reminds me of the reality of what we put our bodies through. If you cannot watch these injuries, then I suggest you choose another activity because it is going to be hard to clear your mind for performance if you cannot accept that the barbell might crush you. Don’t hide from this stuff, learn from it and plan accordingly to minimize the risk. Just like there is no such thing as drug-free sports, there is no such thing as injury-free sports either.
I hope now you are aware of the risks to your health associated with lifting heavy objects. It was my goal to inform you, not dissuade you from competing. It is important that you know the risks upfront. Injuries are not always preventable but knowing that they are probable can help to minimize the damage or prevalence by making smarter training decisions.
References M. Mehrab, R.-J. de Vos, G. A. Kraan and N. M. C. Mathijssen. “Injury Incidence and Patterns Among Dutch CrossFit Athletes,” Orthopaedic Journal of Sports Medicine, vol. 5, no. 12, Dec. 2017.  A. Patton. “What I Learned About Injury Rates from Surveying 1,900 Powerlifters,” Sept. 5, 2017. [Online]. Available: https://www.strongerbyscience.com/powerlifting-injuries/ [Accessed March 1, 2018].  P. W. Winwood, P. A. Hume, J. B Cronin and J. W. L. Keogh. “Retrospective Injury Epidemiology of Strongman Athletes,” The Journal of Strength & Conditional Research, vol. 28, no. 1, pp. 28–42, Jan. 2014.
By Tyler Desplenter
Tyler is the founder of Norther Warrior. He competes as an amateur strongman and powerlifter in Ontario, Canada. He is working towards his PhD in robotics and control systems including the study of biomechanical modelling of human motion and control of wearable assistive devices. @strongbear89