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How to avoid injury as you amp up your workout regimen

People workout at Cutthroat Cardio classes at Crunch Gym in Miami Beach, Fla. Moving to a high-intensity exercise requires caution and planning.

Lynne Sladky/AP

Spring has finally arrived and, as fleece layers are traded for tank tops, we may be faced with an unpleasant reality: increased body fat.

Intense exercise coupled with good nutrition is often the preferred choice for those trying to quickly reconnect with lost belt notches. High-intensity interval training, Tabata and some forms of multiset training are popular methods that focus on short bouts of high-intensity, near-maximal exertion followed by periods of lower-intensity exercise to decrease heart rate and promote recovery. Studies have shown these interval-training protocols to be as good, if not better, than steady-state exercise for improving cardiovascular health and creating a caloric deficit.

Led by personal trainers, CrossFitters, athletes and fitness gurus, many workout enthusiasts have embraced interval training as the best way to overwhelm their muscles and accelerate their hearts in the direction of fat-loss fitness.

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Despite the popularity of these aggressive programs, many in search of quick fitness find injury instead. Here are five reasons why high-intensity exercise could be destroying your body, and what to do about it.

1. Insufficient base of strength and balance

Many high-intensity workout programs use plyometric exercises such as hops, jumps and rapid calisthenics to increase heart rate and overall intensity. This becomes an issue when specific areas lack the necessary strength. Several studies have linked a lack of stability and strength in the abdominals and gluteals to back, knee and hamstring injuries during plyometric exercise.

The Fix: Complete four to six weeks of progressive tempo strength training with a focus on core and hip stability. Start with slow, controlled strength exercises and gradually increase the speed over weeks. Work on core and hip endurance with static hold exercises such as plank and bird dog. Progress to standing single-leg exercises that train balance and include a core component.

2. Limited instruction and poor technique

Many high-intensity workout programs use complex multijoint exercises performed at fast speeds to challenge exercisers. The problem is that many people lack the motor control to perform them properly. Studies have shown that poor technique or inappropriate exercise prescription during a basic squat can lead to a wide range of injuries including sprains, ruptured intervertebral discs and other serious back injuries. When explosive speed is added, the situation gets worse.

The Fix: Work on the basics and start slow. Learn proper technique on pushing, pulling, squatting, lunging, core stability and balance by performing slow, precise reps. This will allow you to connect to the supporting muscles that are often bypassed during explosive movements. Do cardio interval training on alternate days to get your sweat on until you are ready to speed up the strength moves.

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3. Too much work on the front of the body, not enough on the backside

Body-weight training, or calisthenics, has become a popular choice for high-intensity workouts, mainly due to the high levels of exertion needed. Push-ups, mountain climbers, burpees, ballistic pull-ups and front squats are found in many high-intensity training systems. These are all movements that strengthen and tighten the front of the body at the shoulder, hip, abdomen and knee. Over time this can create muscular imbalances – leading to joint restriction, pain and injury. Muscle tightness on the front of the body has been implicated in shoulder impingement, patellofemoral knee pain and lower-back injury.

The Fix: Stretch the hips, chest and front of shoulders every day. Twice a week do a lower-intensity workout that focuses on the glutes, spinal muscles and rear shoulder area.

4. Improper warm-up

High-intensity interval training has been marketed as a more efficient way to achieve great results. Many people complete a brief warm-up and jump right in. This is a mistake. According to the American Council on Exercise, 15 to 25 minutes should be spent on core stability and joint mobility prior to the workout, and 10 to 15 minutes on postsweat stretching and tissue cool-down. These measures are a crucial piece of the injury-prevention puzzle.

The Fix: Don't skip the warm-up and cool-down. Even if you cut it short, do at least three core exercises and eight to 10 movement sets such as body-weight squats, lunges, arm circles, heel grabs and leg swings before the main event. At the end of the workout, stretch your hip flexors, quads, calves and chest.

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5. From zero to 100

According to the American College of Sports Medicine, people with sedentary lifestyles or those who experience periods of physical inactivity may have an increased coronary-disease risk with high-intensity exercise. If you've been couch-surfing for some time, you shouldn't jump up to ride the big waves right away.

The Fix: Build a general base before adding intensity, resistance and complexity of movement. The recommended fitness base for detrained individuals is three to five aerobic training sessions per week for 20 to 60 minutes per session at a somewhat hard intensity for several weeks, as well as establishing appropriate exercise form and muscle strength to prepare for resistance-based intervals.

Alex Allan, a registered kinesiologist, is based out of PhysioPlus Health Group in Toronto.

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