From CrossFit to HIIT: Are you at risk of injury at your overcrowded gym?
How much space do you need to avoid a kettlebell accident? Does your trainer need to be certified? These are the questions you need to ask before choosing your gym.
So there you are, lying on the mat and grunting through the final set of exercise that your trainer has devised for the day.
A loud thud close to your head shatters your concentration. But before you can react, a 5kg kettlebell has landed – mere centimetres away from your face.
No fitness enthusiast will deliberately use equipment to inflict harm on a fellow exerciser.
But whether you’re a hardcore fan of CrossFit, a regular at HIIT (high intensity interval training) sessions, or an old-school gym-goer who prefers the traditional machines, you know that accidents can happen.
We’re not talking about sprains, strains and muscle soreness here. A newbie standing too close to someone cranking out barbell deadlifts might get his toes crushed.
Someone could lose his grip during kettlebell swings and inadvertently release a “cannonball” into his gym mates.
Or it could be an ill-timed meeting of your face and a friend’s foot owing to the lack of space.
CNA Lifestyle spoke to fitness experts to find out what you should be looking for when shopping for a place to work out in. After all, you’re there to get fit, not flat out injured.
IS THERE ENOUGH SPACE?
If you’re no stranger to HIIT workouts, you’ll know that it is one of the quickest ways to meet your workout quota and feel good about yourself.
You get into the gym, go through the stations, feel the burn, and you could be out of there in as little as 30 minutes. Most work meetings take longer than that.
Carol (not her real name) is well aware of those benefits as she has been taking HIIT classes at a gym near her office for one and a half years.
But the sessions are getting more and more crowded as gym members try to make the most of their monthly unlimited passes.
“The workout area is smaller than a badminton court but we sometimes have as many as 15 people jumping, flicking ropes and kicking around,” said the 28-year-old marketing manager.
In land-scarce Singapore, real estate is a real consideration for gym businesses. Rent is high and to maximise their operating costs, accommodating more exercisers is sometimes the way to go.
This, of course, compromises safety and space.
So, just how much space do you need?
“We experimented with a range of ‘pod’ sizes and found that 2.2 sq m is just about perfect,” said Ian Tan, co-founder and program director of Ritual Gym, where gym-goers exercise within their own designated area instead of moving from station to station.
“This allows enough space for the equipment we use, as well as plenty of room to make sure you can train safely. The last thing you want is to be swinging a kettlebell inches from a person doing jump squats,” said Tan.
For training programmes that are mobile and aren’t confined to the indoors, Samuel Lim, who is a trainer and owner of CrossFit Fire City, said that “an ideal training space should allow weights to be released without obstructing others in the class”.
“Visit the gym during class hour to have a feel,” he said.
DO YOU HAVE YOUR TRAINER'S ATTENTION?
CrossFit is another popular workout and it has Singaporeans forgoing the usual bicep curls or jogging on the treadmill.
The novelty of powerlifting, flipping tyres bigger than yourself and heading outside for jogs, among the other activities done in the box (that’s CrossFit speak for the gym, which is typically a warehouse or other such gritty setting), has many people hooked.
Jonathan Ross, a CrossFit coach, said on the How Stuff Works website that often, the coaches' explanations of the exercises are thorough and accurate.
However, because of the group setting, individuals may not always be getting the appropriate one-on-one follow-up to make sure that they are executing the moves correctly.
To get around the issue, suss out the box size. Lim said that anything more than 15 athletes to one coach is pushing the limit.
He or she should be able to ensure that everyone is performing the movements safely and effectively; even seasoned CrossFitters can benefit from a pointer or two on their snatch technique.
Having a trainer's focus also helps during HIIT when you're fatigued and struggling with the last few reps, said Tan.
"Everyone has a weaker arm. Everyone has a stronger leg. When you start to get tired, compensating for these weaknesses will surface.
"If you’re pushing hard, testing your limits and trying to get the most out of your HIIT workout, a coach will not just motivate you, but also keep you safe."
WHAT ARE YOUR TRAINER’S QUALIFICATIONS?
All fitness trainers in Singapore are required to undergo a basic sports science (BSS) course, according to the Singapore Sports Council (SSC).
The qualifications that come after that depends on the trainer.
Those who are able to commit to full-time study and wish to seek higher academic learning may opt for the formal tertiary institutes in Singapore that offer degrees or diplomas in sports science, such as the Nanyang Technological University, National Institute of Education Singapore and Republic Polytechnic.
In addition to the BSS certification, most trainers would possess at least one other professional certification from either a Singapore-based or international certifying body, said Joan Liew, a lecturer and examiner with the Federation of International Sports, Aerobics and Fitness (FISAF).
Locally, that would mean either the SSC or FISAF.
There are more than 10 international organisations whose certifications are recognised in Singapore, including the American Council on Exercise, American College of Sports Medicine, International Sports Sciences Association, National Academy of Sports Medicine, and National Council on Strength and Fitness, to name a few.
To teach more specialised classes, such as CrossFit, instructors will have to further their education.
“A CrossFit instructor should also hold a CrossFit certification, of which, there are four levels,” said Liew.
Although certification matters, Liew said that coaching experience is just as critical. “Most new instructors work as assistants before they start as independent trainers to gain experience.
"A senior CrossFit instructor, for instance, should have expected to complete an average of 1,500 coaching hours,” she said.
Unlike CrossFit, there is currently no standardised pre-requisites to be a HIIT instructor, according to Liew.
"However, there are courses that fitness instructors can take as part of their continuing education and to earn points to renew their instructor certification.
"Various HIIT programmes also run certifying programmes that teach their own style of HIIT classes."
DO YOU KNOW YOUR FITNESS LEVEL?
Be it HIIT, CrossFit or other group exercise class, the high-octane energy of the class, coupled with quick-tempo music, can inadvertently fire you up to push harder and go faster.
After all, these fitness programmes are designed to motivate you to surpass yourself. "CrossFit's greatest strength is also its greatest weakness,” said Ross.
"People have that 'finish at all costs' mentality and there's a little bit of a lunatic fringe that runs in the culture."
And with the popularity that these classes enjoy, the injury rates are also on the uptick.
“We do not have the exact figures, but it is likely that the increase in the number of injuries that we see here is a result of increased participation rates,” said Dr Victor Tan, registrar at the Singapore Sports & Exercise Medicine Centre at Changi General Hospital.
“Due to the higher intensities, it is understandable that HIIT or CrossFit workouts would result in higher injury rates compared to low intensity, low impact activities.”
This is where it pays to know yourself before even paying for the membership.
Are you able to squat properly without pain? Can you balance on one leg with your eyes closed for 30 seconds without wobbling, hold a plank for 30 seconds, do a basic push-up, and walk or run without knee and/or back pain?
Those are questions to ask yourself before embarking on a programme, said exercise physiologist Rachel Straub, co-author of Weight Training Without Injury.
Those with chronic medical conditions such as hypertension and Type 2 diabetes should get medical clearance before starting any exercise programme, said Dr Tan.
"They should also let their trainers know of their conditions, so that the pace and specific exercises of the workout can be adjusted accordingly.
For example, people with hypertension are advised not to hold their breath or strain during strength training to prevent sudden increases in blood pressure."
Knowing your limits for any fitness regime is also echoed by Dr Tan, who said that “a sound fitness foundation” is key to minimise your injuries.
But what if you’re there precisely to build a fitness foundation and are starting from ground zero?
“The No 1 principle of listening to your body during exercise applies,” said Dr Tan. “If you are coasting through your workout with minimal fuss, you can increase the workout intensity.
"But if you feel unwell or experience any warning symptoms, such as chest pain, giddiness, muscle pain or joint swelling, you should stop the workout and seek medical help.
"Remember, nobody knows you better than yourself.”
It is all about picking up the intensity when it comes to HIIT and CrossFit workouts. But that's where it gets relative.
"If you haven’t done any exercise for 10 years, walking fast up three flights of stairs might be all the intensity you need," said Tan.
"That’s drastically different from the seasoned footballer who has to sprint up five flights of stairs to get his heart rate up and muscles fatigued."
"So, find an intensity that is right for you and take your time. There’s no finish line in fitness.
"What you’re going for is consistency. Instead of competing with the guy next to you, do what’s best for you, for today," he said.
And as for avoiding turning dumbbells and kettlebells into projectiles? "Most injuries happen when you’re picking up or putting down the weights," said Tan.
"Most people drag the bar or kettlebell out with a rounded back, or finish their 10th rep and don’t focus on putting the weight down safely.
"Pay attention all the way through, from when you pick it up to when you put it down."