Joint pain can stop training progress dead in its tracks. Follow a sports-medicine-doctor’s advice to lifting without the hurt.
Heavy, repetitive resistance training wasn’t designed with joint health in mind. Sooner or later, you’ll find that something hurts in your shoulders, knees, elbows, or hips. Many of us just push forward, until that something really hurts. Oftentimes, that’s your first introduction to the itis family: tendonitis, bursitis, arthritis, and so on.
Instead of enduring discomfort or downing over-the-counter medications to relieve pain, let’s instead focus on 11 ways you can make the workouts you’re already doing easier on your joints.
Even if you don’t have pain now, heeding these recommendations can help keep you in the gym and off the sidelines.
1. If It Hurts, Don’t Do It. Look For Similar, Alternative Exercises
A sports-medicine doctor will tell you that if an exercise hurts, don’t do it. But that doesn’t mean you have to abandon that movement pattern altogether. For instance, people with shoulder issues (count me in!) often have problems with barbell presses. The shoulders are locked in one position, leaving little room to work around pain.
A multijoint move like the bench press might aggravate a sore shoulder, so try an isolation exercise like a chest fly or cable cross-over, and see how that feels. They’ll activate the pecs, but alter the motion. You could even change the angle you’re working.
If your shoulder hurts when benching, one option is to try chest flies, a single-joint movement.
But there are more options. “Instead of an overhand grip bench press, try underhand.” suggests Guillermo Escalante, DSc, ATC, CSCS, owner of SportsPros Physical Therapy Center in Claremont, CA. “Dumbbells are also a great option, because they offer more freedom of movement. Move just a few degrees of shoulder abduction or adduction, and all of a sudden, what was a painful movement doesn’t hurt anymore.
“On top of that, newer research shows that because there’s more instability with the dumbbells, the muscle has to activate more,” he adds. “Because you’re having to stabilize the dumbbells, you won’t need as much weight to achieve the same level of activation.”
2. Use Smooth, Controlled Motions, And Avoid Bouncing
Any exercise that allows for body English and momentum also allows you to use heavier weights than you normally would with strict form. Nothing aggravates a sore joint more than putting excess weight on the bar and then using bad form.
“If you’re bouncing out of the hole when doing squats, thrusting through your hips to complete barbell curls, or jerking the weight on rows, you’re stressing your joints, ligaments, and tendons,” says Escalante. His recommendation: Reduce the load and start working on technique while using a smooth, controlled motion.
3. Consider Using Free Weights Instead Of Machines
Machines have their pros and cons. A novice lifter who can’t balance a weight very well might require a machine in order to complete a movement. However, the machine forces you to work in only one direction, not allowing your joints much freedom of movement. Try doing a similar move with a barbell, dumbbells, or cables.
4. Make Sure Your Warm-Up Is Up To The Task Ahead
Being told to warm up always feels like Mom is nagging you to brush your teeth. But it’s sage advice, especially as you age. Warm-ups not only allow you to push more weight in the gym—and shouldn’t that be reason enough?—they gradually loosen up muscles and connective tissue, improving your range of motion and flexibility.
“Warming up increases the dilation of blood vessels, blood flow to the area, and neural activation of all of the muscles you’ll be recruiting,” says Escalante. “Do a 5- to 10-minute cardio warm-up to get your heart rate elevated along with some very light warm-ups sets of your initial movement, but don’t take them close to muscle failure. Save the static stretching for post-workout, but dynamic exercises can also be helpful.”
5. Focus On Time Under Tension Rather Than Training To Failure
“If you’re constantly training to failure—even if it’s light endurance loads—you’re going to have some joint issues,” warns Escalante. “That’s why pushing yourself to just short of failure is a good strategy for at least some of your workouts.”
Training to failure is often accompanied by mild breakdowns in proper technique, he adds. The load in and of itself may not be problematic for joints, so long as you’re not breaking down your mechanics during the lift. For building muscle, however, though. “There’s recent research that indicates hypertrophy is linked to time under tension, rather than loading up as much as you can and doing a 6RM,” Escalante says. “I’d rather do a 12RM, keeping the muscle under tension the whole time and using a slow, controlled motion.”
6. Limit Intensity-Boosting Techniques To Particular Training Cycles
“We hardcore lifters like to push hard, beyond failure, at every workout, and that’s what a lot of intensity-boosting techniques are for,” says Escalante. “If you’re always pushing to the limit, something’s going to give—like your joints. Using a periodized scheme, in which you alternate your loads, is probably the smartest way to avoid this. You can still stress your body, but there are also periods of active recovery cycled in that aren’t as strenuous, and you’re not training to failure all the time.
“I’m a big fan of an undulating model of periodization,” he adds. “Instead of having weeks dedicated to lighter lifting, hypertrophy, or lifting super-heavy, I prefer to include all those within just one week.”
7. Let Pre-Exhaust Lighten The Load