April 20


Pattern Overload – RSI for Athletes and Overuse Injury at the Gym

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I'm sure you've heard of repetitive strain injury, or RSI, before. Due to repeated movement, it's an ailment involving damage, inflammation and injury to tissue. For example, typists and receptionists working with computer keyboards all day are susceptible to wrist injuries. Essentially, pattern overload is the same thing that happens with athletes and regular exercisers.


In sportspeople, recreational and professional athletes and even regular gym-goers, pattern overload can be a significant cause of injury. It occurs when someone repeats one predominant movement pattern over and over. Additionally, in the gym, pattern overload can become a problem with high volumes of resistance machine training.

Pattern overload at the gym

The thing with resistance machines is that they tend to impose restricted movement patterns on your joints and muscles.

Ironically, people with pattern overload injuries are often advised to hit the gym and perform strengthening work. Often, they'll use resistance machines thinking they are safer.

However, machines impose a similar movement pattern on the already overloaded or weakened muscles. As a result, the condition may get worse rather than better.

For example, throwing athletes often succumb to shoulder injuries. Baseball pitchers, javelin throwers, even racket sports professionals can suffer anterior shoulder instability. This is the result of the repeated high-intensity throwing action. Using the pec-deck machine may strengthen the shoulder, however it could also reinforce the ineffective pattern.

Consequently, it is much more likely that the injury will reoccur in the future.

Pattern overload might become a problem for fitness enthusiasts. Large volumes of barbell work or resistance machine training without the accessory work often lead to instability and injury problems. This is particularly the case in the shoulder and lumbar spine regions.

Avoiding pattern overload when using resistance machines

As a general rule, avoid using machines that are ergonomically incorrect for your body. You might find you just can't seem to get a machine to fit to your particular dimensions. If that's the case, don't use it.

If it doesn't 'feel right' no matter how you adjust it, check with a coach or one of the gym trainers. However, it may just be biomechanically unsuitable for your body.

Leave it out and if possible, swap it for a cable or a suitable free-weight exercise.

Rotate and split up your machine training

Again, in general terms, we want to cycle through our resistance machine workouts. Ideally, you'd not want to use any one particular machine more than 2 or 3 times per week. Additionally, it would be a good idea to mix up your routine after about 4 to 6 consecutive weeks.

Where possible, alternate your machine exercises with their cable or free weight alternatives. Likewise, you could also swap them out for another machine.

For example, if you train 3 days per week - make one of the days free-weights only. Or instead, use that day to use a totally different machine for each body part. As above, after 4 to 6 weeks, switch your routine up. If you can, devise a new routine involving none of the previous routines.

The above will help minimise your risk of injury. Additionally, tissues and joint structures can heal when you allow different movement patterns to develop.

Avoid excessive range of movement

With machines, you often restrict movement to one plane, or dimension. Don't let that control fool you into a false sense of security. It may lead you to try to out perform your current capabilities.

Extreme ranges of movement under load can stretch the ligaments and joint capsule. Injury is likely, as the structures can no longer proper support control of the joint.

Looking at specific examples, the leg press can create issues with the sacroiliac joints in your lower back over time. Also, exercises like the lat pullover can overstretch your shoulder if you aren't careful.

In general, if an area of the body is in pain - don't train it

Usually, pain inhibits control and involvement of the stabilising muscles.

Training while in pain may result in progressive instability of the affected joint.

10 interesting facts about shoulder pain

I often get people who come and see me at work that are experiencing pain around their shoulder. They're not necessarily suffering 'injuries' in the common sense of the term. For example, there's been no accident or major trauma that might cause them to be sore.

These people are office workers, labourers and general gym-goers who experience pain and stiffness around their neck and shoulders.

Get professional advice

If you suffer from an instability type injury, seek professional advice before putting together a gym program. Ask for recommendations of a good physio or sports doctor. Alternatively a highly experienced and qualified PT or sports coach may be able to point you in the right direction.

Unstable joints are almost certainly more vulnerable to pattern overload. To combat this, perform appropriate stability training beforehand as part of your warm up.

Consider switching gyms

If your gym only offers a limited selection of fixed weight machines, you may want to look elsewhere.

Look past all the swish and fancy equipment and ensure your chosen facility actually meets your specific needs.

Paul Stokes Perth Personal Trainer Sports Nutritionist Group Fitness Instructor Massage Therapist

About the author

Paul Stokes

Paul Stokes BSc (Hons) is a Certified Personal Trainer, Accredited Sports Nutritionist, qualified Exercise to Music Instructor, Precision Nutrition coach, Massage Therapist and teaches 8 of the Les Mills Group Exercise programs.

He currently works in the Oil & Gas industry as a Wellness Coach, imparting his vast knowledge and experience to improve the quality of life of several hundred offshore workers.

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