Injury prevention exercises are an important part of any sports training program.
These exercises help to strengthen the muscles, improve muscle pliability and joint range of motion, and reduce the risk of injury.
Injury prevention exercises fall into one of three broad categories:
- Resistance training, to build muscle and strengthen the connective tissues supporting muscle and joint function
- Flexibility training, designed to improve muscle and joint range of motion
- Balance and stabilization training, designed to promote overall stability and functionality
Recommended course: Designing Resistance Training Programs for Muscle Strength and Power
When designing a training program that includes injury prevention exercises, consider the most common injuries athletes are likely to incur. Include exercises designed to prevent those injuries into a training program.
In athletes, the most common injuries are anterior cruciate ligament (ACL) tears, general knee injuries, and rotator cuff tears. Many times, these injuries are acute and happen quickly even under the most rigorous training conditions.
Specific exercises designed to strengthen specific muscle groups reduce the risk of severe injury.
ACL injuries in athletes
ACL injuries are one of the most common injuries in athletics. They are common in any sport that requires sudden changes in direction, jumping, or pivoting like in football, soccer, basketball, and tennis.
Although ACL injuries are common, they can be mitigated by doing exercises that target the muscles around the knee, particularly the hamstring muscles. Recommended exercises include:
- Single leg bridge
- Prone hamstring curls/flexion
- Modified or Romanian dead lifts
Recommended courses: Combined Training: Designing Effective Multi-Goal Exercise Programs
Common knee injuries
Aside from ACL tears, other common knee injuries include patellofemoral pain syndrome, meniscus tears, and other ligament injuries like the posterior cruciate ligament and the medial collateral ligament. Knee injuries are common in athletes due to overuse and include tendonitis versus an acute or chronic development from poor biomechanics.
Either from overuse or acute injury, patellofemoral pain syndrome causes pain in the front of the knee, around the kneecap, usually underneath it. The pain is often the result of repetitive running or jumping.
To prevent general knee pain, include exercises that target the quadriceps, hamstrings, and gluteal muscles. Research shows that the most effective exercises for gluteal muscle activation are step-ups, followed by basic squats, hip thrusts, deadlifts, and lunges (Neto et al., 2020).
Meniscus tears are microscopic tears in the cartilage in the knee. The meniscus acts as a shock absorber and is overused in most athletic training conditions. Because overuse is unavoidable, meniscus injuries are common in athletes. They are caused by sudden twisting movements or direct blows to the knee.
Preventing an acute injury to the meniscus from a collision is difficult. Exercises that strengthen the muscles that support the meniscus include:
- Leg press
- Seated leg/knee extension
- Single leg lateral band walks
Upper body injuries in athletes
Injury to the rotator cuff or shoulder is also very common in athletes. Rotator cuff injuries are caused by repetitive throwing or lifting.
To prevent these tears, target the muscles of the shoulders that include the supraspinatus, infraspinatus, teres minor, and subscapularis. Recommended exercises include:
- Internal/external rotation
- The Pendulum, resisted or no resistance
Dynamic flexibility training
Dynamic flexibility training moves muscles and joints through a normal range of motion with the intent to prepare the tissues for upcoming activity. The motions should mimic the mechanics of the upcoming activity and are intended to serve as a warm-up, both to the tissues and neuromotor system.
When utilized prior to training and competition, dynamic motions can help to improve mobility and reduce the risk of injury.
Stabilization training helps to improve balance and overall motor coordination. It plays a supportive role in preventing athletic injuries.
In male athletes with rehabbed ACL injuries, a recent study (Saki, et al., 2023) showed that eight weeks of core stability training improves core muscle endurance, hip abductor and external rotator strength. This positively impacted knee kinematics during activity and reduced the likelihood of future ACL injuries.
A favorite stabilization exercise that both improves muscle strength and balance is eccentric step-downs. Eccentric step downs work by recruiting the quadriceps to control the descent of the body as the knee bends. At the same time, the hamstrings and gluteal muscles work to stabilize the hip and knee.
In addition to the large muscles of the hip and knee, the soleus muscle of the calf works to control the descent and maintain balance.
Other recommended stabilization exercises include:
- Single-leg exercises
- Core exercises
- Russian twists
Although exercise cannot prevent all athletic injuries, these and other targeted exercises can help prevent some and reduce the severity of others.
This article was written by Amy Ashmore, PhD .