5 tips for healthy joints when lifting
“First, move well“Gray Cook
If you take one thing away from this blog, remember that principle.
Joint and soft tissue injuries in the weight room are astoundingly common and can usually be traced back to not moving well.
Think of it like this.
- Weight training is just loaded stretching.
- Your muscles control the movement, lengthening and shortening under tension.
- Underneath the muscles, your joints need to move, and they need to move well.
Why does it matter to keep your joints healthy when lifting?
If your joints don’t move well, tension will shift from the muscles to the passive joint structures. When the load exceeds the load bearing capacity of these delicate structures, injury results.
This can be a full blown traumatic injury or microtrauma that gradually leads to a more serious problem later down the line.
Ever experienced shoulder pain after lifting a weight overhead? Or acute lower back pain the day after deadlifts? If so, the culprit was likely inefficient movement under load.
As a strength coach that specializes in mobility, I attract a lot of clients who are struggling with aches, pains and niggles holding them back. From my experience working with such individuals, a few themes often stand out, such as programming errors, poor exercise form and a lack of mobility.
The good news is that when these things are corrected, the aches, pains and niggles typically fade away. My clients can then get back to pain-free lifting and making sustainable gains!
So how do you keep your joints healthy when lifting?
Here are 5 key tips.
1. Master your lifting form if you want healthy joins
Lifting weights is a skill. Mastery is the goal.
Another principle for you to remember.
If you want to keep your joints healthy and preserve your lifting longevity, nothing is more important than form.
Now of course, if you’re new to lifting, don’t worry if you don’t feel very proficient. It’s normal and you’re perfectly safe if you choose appropriate exercises, keep the weights light and learn from a coach (like me) who can show you what good form looks like.
As your form improves, you can start challenging yourself with heavier weights.
This is when form really matters.
Lifting (heavy) weights with good form is therapeutic. It’s anti-inflammatory, it’s great for joint health and mobility, it loads muscles effectively, it stimulates favorable adaptations like increasing bone density, new skeletal muscle mass and whole body stability. The list goes on…
Lifting (heavy) weights with poor form does all the opposite. It’s inflammatory, destructive to joint health, loads muscles ineffectively and leads to maladaptive responses that degrade muscle quality, worsens mobility and more.
The nuances of good form are not well appreciated or understood.
First, you have the fundamental lifting skills:
- Align the spine and stiffening the torso with proper breathing and bracing.
- Grip strong.
- Activating the feet.
- Move and breathe in an efficient way.
Then there’s the 7 fundamental movement patterns that need to be practiced and mastered:
- Horizontal push and pull
- Vertical push and pull.
As you start to handle heavier weights, it’s important to become a skilled lifter and learn how to lift with maximum muscle tension and minimum joint stress.
2. Choose joint-friendly exercises.
Joint-friendly exercises are the ones that you can perform safely and well. That means you have the prerequisite mobility and movement competency to maintain proper joint alignment as you work the muscles.
Granted, it’s not always obvious to know which exercises are not joint-friendly for you. That’s because your body is very good at compensating and hiding inefficient movement.
Take shoulder presses.
Most people lack the requisite shoulder mobility to get their arms directly overhead without arching the lower back and flaring the ribs (see shoulder mobility blog for the shoulder flexion test). They might not notice this or think this matters, but it does.
If an exercise doesn’t feel good for you or if you can’t perform it with good form, it’s wise to find an alternative. When it comes to building muscle and strength, all that matters is that you can push yourself safely, so that you stimulate the adaptations required to become stronger and build muscle.
Here are some examples of troublesome lifts (for some people) and safer alternatives.
Direct overhead press <> Landmine Press.
- Safer pressing angle.
- Does not require full overhead mobility.
Barbell back squats <> Dumbbell Goblet squat.
- Requires less shoulder, hip and ankle mobility.
- Less strain on the lower back due to a more upright torso position.
Deadlifts from the floor <> Deadlifts from a raised platform.
- Ensures that you can get into the set up position with good form, most importantly, a neutral spine.
3. Never fail a rep.
This one flies in the face of what most people think….particularly the new age TikTok trainers who encourage their audience to train to failure on every set!
I’ve learned from some of the smartest strength coaches and clinicians in the world. Charles Poliquin, Dr Stuart McGill, Pavel Tsatsoline and more.
This is a common theme.
Training to pure muscular failure is detrimental from a strength standpoint and not necessary from a hypertrophy standpoint either. It’s highly risky for joint health because fatigue + heavy weights is a recipe for things to go wring. Finally, it is likely to create so much muscular damage that subsequent weekly workouts will be impaired (residual fatigue will impair work capacity and quality of work).
Never fail a rep doesn’t mean you shouldn’t work hard mind you.
A good rule of thumb is to terminate your working sets 2-3 reps shy of ‘technical’ failure (before form breaks down).
Here are the warning signs that you’re reaching that point;
- The speed of your lift slows down and you start grinding,
- You can’t maintain the same tempo you started with,
- Your technique changes,
- Your breathing pattern changes and you can no longer brace and breathe optimally.
Pay attention to the warning signs and keep a little in the tank. You’ll protect your joints and get superior gains as a result.
4. Train the muscles in a functional and balanced way.
Of all the clients I’ve worked with, Men who adopt a bodybuilding style of training tend to have the worst joint health and mobility of all (I was once one of them). The main culprit is unbalanced training.
Too much pushing. Not enough pulling. Too much squatting, not enough hinging. Too many machines, not enough free weights. Neglecting the weak links.
When muscles are unbalanced, the joints don’t function well due to the length-tension relationships being all screwed up. As a result, movement quality declines.
So how do you train the muscles in a functional and balanced way?
There’s a saying
“If we train muscles we will forget movements, but if we train movements we will never forget muscles”.
Rather than selecting exercises based on the muscles you want to develop, select exercises based on movement patterns instead. Squat, lunge, hinge, push and pull are fundamental.
If you train these movements in a balanced way across your training week, you’re going to do a wonderful job of correcting muscle imbalances and with that, your joint health will improve.
5. Make time for mobility training.
Mobility is a trainable fitness quality, just like building strength, muscle mass and cardiovascular fitness. But in order to do so, you need to carve out some time in your training schedule to work on it. Warming up before you lift weights is not enough, unfortunately.
With that said, it’s important to select methods that are actually effective and structure routines that will work. It takes more than a few random stretches and foam rolling to make permanent change.
My recommendation is short daily routines (10 minutes or so) or two more lengthy routines (30+ minutes) per week focused on the key joints such as the shoulders, spine and hips.
Final thoughts on keeping healthy joints when lifting
Lifting weights can and should be a pain-free endeavour. More than that, it should keep your joints healthy and resilient as you age. It’s such a powerful longevity tool if used correctly.
Programming, exercise form and mobility training are all fundamental.
These topics are meaty and cannot be covered fully in this one blog, but If you follow these tips, you’ll be in a much better place.
If you’d like to follow a program that embodies these principles, I welcome you to train under my guidance with PRGRM.
My philosophy is very much based on putting your joint health FIRST in pursuit of your strength and physique goals.
Thank you for reading today and I hope you found the advice valuable.
Great info! I especially appreciate the warning signs of impending failure of a rep.