Strategies for Joint Pain

What do you do if your joints hurt?

The majority of joint pain is largely avoidable, people train themselves into pain all the time. Or they neglect their joint health completely, and wonder why gravity starts to wreck them as they age. 

 Basic strength training is the most effective way to ensure joint health. So if you are not already lifting weights, I’d highly suggest you start doing so. 

I wrote this list on the presupposition that is someone is already lifting weights, and they want to avoid joint pain.

Speaking personally, I have no desire to be 50 and lamenting how strong I “used to be”, or how fit I “once was”. I loathe reminiscing about better days. My operative mentality is to be Jacked, Tan, and HEALTHY until the day I die. And do whatever it takes to maintain that. 

We already know that as we age, our body’s accumulates damage from Gravity, this is an inevitability, you cannot avoid gravity as a force.
Especially as you mature, you must be more intelligent with your training and more cognizant of potential aches pains and injuries.

The following is my list of steps for dealing with joint aches and pains. 

1. Learn proper technique-

Bounced reps, forced reps, grinding reps, uneven force contribution, momentum, and overall lousy technique can all lead to pain and discomfort from lifting. Before considering what exercises in your training are bothering you, analyze HOW you are performing those exercises

2. Don’t train for extreme soreness-

Many people cause their joint not because of bad technique, but simply too much lifting. Resistance training is a not a race to see how much you can beat yourself up. Being constantly soreness and feeling stiff and crippled might be addictive, but your probably not making any progress if that is how you constantly feel. Consider dialing back the volume of your workouts, and objectively analyze whether you are training for pain or progress

3. Drop the barbell-

The barbell is typically the most joint stressful training implement you can use. It can beat people up as they age, and becomes a test of how much pain you can handle versus making any progress.  Be cognizant that barbell movements are almost always going to cause some degree of joint stress, even with excellent technique. Unless you have access to Specialty bars, do not get caught up in thinking that you must perform barbell movements during a workout. While the barbell is certainly an effective training tool it is not an absolute necessity.

People can be very adverse to not using the barbell in training, but there is no sacred rule that you MUST do barbell movements as your main exercises. There are plenty of equally effective alternatives, and if your joints are killing you, you should consider them. Don’t take false pride and think you are hardcore for still trying to bench press when you’ve had rotator cuff tears, or trying to deadlift with disc issues. 

4. Eliminate joint aggravating movements-

Next I would consider eliminating any machine or dumbbell movements that cause pain. The same goes for cable and bodyweight movements. Typically speaking body weight and cable movements are the least stressful upon the joints. Machines often fall somewhere in between and it depends upon the machine and question whether or not it works for you. Dumbbells can be aggravating but there are many ways to modified normal movements to alleviate or eliminate this completely. Regardless drop those exercises that are always causing the issues

5.Decompress your spine for lower body exercises-

Taking constant compression and sheer force off the spine can be life changing for your training. There are many ways to do this. All the following movements load your legs without putting direct load on the spine itself 

-Goblet squats (also called DB front squats)
-single leg squats (often called skater or skier squats)
-Bulgarian split squats
-suspended squats
-loaded lunges (weight in the hands)
-leg press, leg extension, leg curls (machines DO work for building muscle)
-pistol squats

6. Take time off from training what pains you-

This can be humbling for the ego but it needs to happen. If a certain joint is hurting no matter what you do or how much you try to solve for it, the only real solution is to not train at all. There are times I have told clients not to train lower body for a full month or not to train upper body. So long as you maintain your protein intake and do not take excessive amounts of time off from training you will not lose any much muscle mass, and you will gain it back when you resume training again.

7. Experiment with reduced training frequency-

Anytime people ask me about XYZ joint or muscle hurting, I ask them how often they train it. If its 2-3 times weekly, that might be the answer right there.

We tend to think of training in one week time frames simply because that is how our time is structured, and that is how we think of training frequency. But there are no rules that say you must train a certain muscle group a certain number of times. If high frequency training leads you to pain, drop your training frequency down to one time weekly. 

If a joint or muscle group is very slow to recover (say low back from deadlifting) consider training on a longer weekly schedule. You can experiment with longer training weeks, like training over 10 days or even 14 days. Maybe squatting or deadlifting or bench pressing heavy once every 9 days work way better than 7 days. 

You might be experiencing cognitive dissonance, thinking that will never work, but many of the strongest powerlifters in the world train this way. And relative to making “gains”, what matters is that you get progressively stronger OVER TIME. If reduced training frequency allows for better recovery and progress, then go with it. 

8. Perform machine and isolation movements only-

Again there are no rules that you must use free weights in training. I never understand why people are so resistant to using a machine or isolation lift other than ego. Would you rather not to lift at all, or find an alternative to maintain muscle mass and strength?
Using a combination of machine isolation exercises can be equally as effective in using free weight compound movements to at least maintain muscle mass. In some cases, training with machine and isolation movements can actually be more effective than using free weights for particular muscle group. Isolation and machine exercises can be very easily modified to suit someone’s limitations and they are very safe to perform. If DB pressing bothers your shoulders but cable chest flys and hammer strength presses do not, then go with those. 

9. Slow down your reps-

This require you to reduce the weight you use but it will also make movements apply stressful all the joints. Slowing down the eccentric portion of your rep significantly can make a big difference and reducing the aggravation. If you combine this tempo strategy with using cables in machines you may find that you are still able to train the particular joint/muscle that has been in pain.

10. Maximize hydration- 

This goes beyond just drinking water. I have advocated for using Intra Workout Mix in the past but it can truly make a difference when someone has aggravated joints and muscles. Having your tissues fully hydrated definitely affects how they contract and are neurologically innervated.  I suggest an Intraworkout mix of fast-digesting carbohydrates, electrolytes, and hydrolyzed protein.

11. ART Therapy-

ART stands for Active Release Technique. Therapists trained in this method are the best practitioners bar none for solving muscular constrictions, scar tissue, and generally restoring functionality. Like any soft tissue therapist, you still have to vet who you work with, but I would definitely recommend finding an ART practitioner and using soft tissue therapy as a strategy to expedite healing and get out of pain

12. Soft tissue therapy-

Aside from ART therapy, the evidence on massage being beneficial for pain management, relaxation, and recuperation is massive. Any kind of massage that you find beneficial can be helpful. If you’ve never gotten massage, start off with something basic and gentle, like Swedish massage, and then progress from there.

13. Curcumin-

I’ve talked about curcumin in the past, this stuff really does have some amazing effects on inflamed joints. The best strategy is to take 2-3 capsules with every meal, and there tends to be a decrease in overall inflammation within 5-10 days. I cannot promise it will work for everyone, but its a relatively cheap supplement with very potent effects

14. Fish Oil-

Fish oil is well proven to have anti-inflammatory properties. While I personally have never noticed any effects from it, I have a lot of friends and colleagues that swear by it, and formal research back up using it. 4-6 grams a day is the sweet spot, so about 2 capsules with your meals. 

15. Collagen-

This is a “new” one, but collagen for joints has actually been around for thousands of years, in the form of bone broth is such a health food. Collagen is used in all of your bodies joints and connective tissues, so it sensible that supplementing with it could have a positive effect on these things. The best form of gelatin is Hydrolyzed gelatin. It is a water soluble and tasteless powder you can mix into any kind of liquid.