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We want to play like our favorite sports stars, but we don’t want to be injured like them

You don’t have to be a serious athlete to get a serious sports injury. Strains, sprains, tears and general pain can happen to weekend warriors and elite athletes alike. In fact, nearly two million otherwise healthy people enter emergency rooms every year for sports-related injuries, according to the U.S. Department of Health & Human Services.

Whether you’re hitting the gym, court, pavement or yoga mat, here’s what you need to know to protect yourself from sports injuries.

During your workout

Most of the people who end up in the emergency room with exercise-related pain are there because of overuse–doing too much, or doing too much in the wrong way. It’s important to progress at a safe pace so that you give your muscles time to adapt as you get more advanced, says Brian Cole, MD, team physician for the Bulls.

“Doing exercise improperly, especially with high weights, can lead to injury,” Cole says. “Doing exercises in a progression that your body can tolerate will signal the proper motor patterns without having to use excess weight.”

Watch out for muscle compensation, as well. Everything in your body is connected, meaning that when one muscle or joint isn’t functioning well or properly, other parts of the body will potentially overcompensate, often leading to stress and strain.

To help with this, Cole suggests that athletes at all levels take special care to strengthen not just one specific muscle, but those around it, too. Instead of basic targeted exercises, he recommends complex exercises including those that respond to unpredictable external forces, and plyometrics (jump training), dynamic strengthening and sport-specific functional strengthening.

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