Lifting and Joint Health

If you lift weights you’ll eventually be forced to give some thought to joint health. Well, unless your name is Ronnie Coleman and you have bomb-proof joints. But even Ronnie Coleman succumbed to injuries and required corrective surgery.

Thankfully for the rest of us, lifting and joint health aren’t mutually exclusive.

Old anatomy picture of knee joints

Time-Honored Traditions

There’s a typical pattern. Resiliency of youth lets us get away with a lot when we first lift weights—rounded back deadlifts, inadequate warm-ups, behind-the-neck shoulder pressing, and ballistic form with too much weight.

If we manage to avoid catastrophic injuries, by early to mid thirties the complaining from our joints begins to get louder and louder. The hopefully-it-will-go-away-if-I-ignore-it approach is no longer adequate.

Now obviously if we had sense we’d take time off, heal, and reevaluate our programs. But we’re die-hard lifters, sense rarely enters the picture. Fortunately it seems possible to plow on and not damn ourselves to arthritic immobility.

Hark, Tempo

In my experience, the answer lies in overhauling repetition speed and eliminating bounce. In other words, making the muscles do the work while minimizing the advantage of connective tissue elasticity.

This is another one of those “leave your ego at the door” situations—it definitely means lifting less weight. By using a deliberate, controlled motion, joint stress is greatly reduced. It doesn’t have to be super-slow, but some degree of speed reduction is necessary. Experimentation will let you know what is appropriate.

Caveats

This course of action assumes that you have mastery of the exercises—if your form is bad, no amount of tempo alteration will protect your joints.

It also only applies to people looking to increase muscle size and strength as opposed to training for a sport. If maximum performance is your goal, you have to take every advantage, and connective tissue elasticity helps in that respect. Unfortunately maximum performance doesn’t necessarily lead to optimum health.

From Night to Day

All our bodies are different, but the outcome for me since this form change has been remarkable. Over the course of about six months, my golfer’s elbow, tennis elbow, sore knees and shoulders have repaired to about 99%, to a point where they no longer interfere in my workouts. And happily the rep style change was enough to allow healing. I didn’t have to take any time off at all.