Improving Joint Pain When Lifting

An ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure.

– Benjamin Franklin

Leroy Colbert Bodybuilder Overhead Arm Extensions

We all deal with minor injuries from training.

As we get older though, joint pains linger. They grow more stubborn, affecting progress. Deloading or taking a week off doesn’t help much, with the problem returning intensely.

I’ve found that chronic injuries remain so due to behavior foretold by Einstein’s apt quote, “Insanity is doing the same thing over and over and expecting different results.”

We assume through rest alone that we’ll recover, without permanently changing how we approach lifting.

If you have a serious injury, please visit a physical therapist, orthopedic surgeon, or another medical professional trained to help you. However, nagging issues will improve by modifying your routine.

Bodybuilding is harsh on the joints. Single-joint exercises, required to develop multi-joint muscles, are unnatural with heavy weights. They exert high shearing forces which take a toll on the joints. Nevertheless, they are needed to work more than several key muscles.

So, we must accept some joint stress yet adopt methods that limit pain so we can keep getting better.

Table of Contents

  1. Do a Brief Warm-Up
  2. Perform More Repetitions
  3. Move Fast at the End, Not the Beginning
  4. Do a Compound Exercise Before Isolating
  5. Avoid Extreme Ranges of Motion & Positions

Do a Brief Warm-Up

Some avoid warming up for the slightest efficiency boost. Even Jack LaLanne said, “Does a lion warm up when he’s hungry?” However, this is more than offset by the small time investment supported by plenty of scientific & empirical research.

Not only is warming up beneficial to performance, it reduces injuries. Pyramid training, practiced by countless top bodybuilders like Arnold & Sergio Oliva, was applied in part to warm up thoroughly.

Warming up, in our case, means performing exercises with lighter weights, not aerobics or stretching.

A single warm-up set with about 50% of the heaviest weight, for 6-12 reps, is often sufficient. Additional easier sets at higher percentages for dealing with several hundreds of pounds, like on squats & dead-lifts, is sensible.

On later exercises though, you may not even need a warm-up.

There’s no exact protocol here. You should perspire and feel a lack of muscle tightness on your working sets. You are ready but not fatigued, though any slight reduction for your working sets would not matter anyway.

Perform More Repetitions

8 reps are nearly perfect.

This count reaches the minimum number of reps (5-8) to ensure the max duration of full motor unit recruitment on a set. It also brings about enough reps to reduce high forces yet limit much lactate accumulation. Therefore, many also concentrate best here.

However, this many reps may feel too heavy on pure elbow & knee extension movements like skull crushers & sissy squats.

High reps will reduce stress to your connective tissue, which handles the load absolutely, unlike muscles which can recruit fibers gradually to meet the demand.

Anywhere between 5-15 reps has similar advantages. With more reps, your body will adapt to the burning sensation occurring as your body transitions to glycolysis from the ATP-PC energy system. Pushing through it does require more willpower.

Yet as long as your final reps feel heavy at the end, you ensure high-order motor unit recruitment. This brings in the fast-twitch fibers most responsible for growth.

Move Fast at the End, Not the Beginning

Both moving fast and lifting a heavy weight involve the fast-twitch muscle fibers. Ultimately though, you must move slowly enough to maximize tension due to the force-velocity relationship. Moving too fast prevents as many connections forming among muscle filaments.

However, this doesn’t pertain to lifting as much as you may think. All that matters is that moving heavy weights builds muscle far better than explosive activities like running or jumping.

You only need to attempt to go fast, when already fatigued, during a set. The actual movement speed will be slow. This relatively heavy weight recruits all motor units until they begin dropping out in reverse order.

A quick but smooth positive phase of the repetition, followed by a controlled 2-second negative, works great for most trainees & exercises. More importantly though, don’t jerk or heave the weight.

A super-slow lifting style is not ideal for high effort, while possibly having you emphasize vulnerable joint positions, so this extreme is not suggested either.

Do a Compound Exercise Before Isolating

By performing a compound exercise, like squats or leg presses for the glutes that involve the quads, then an isolation exercise such as sissy squats or leg extensions, you can reduce overall knee stress.

Compression forces on earlier movements more naturally involve the knee and prepares it as well. Shearing forces will increase when isolating, but the knees are more ready to handle it. The latter exercise is still needed to work the rectus femoris within the quadriceps.

This same logic applies on bench presses for the chest & front delts before arm extensions, warming up the elbow yet allowing isolation to address the long head of the triceps.

Avoid Extreme Ranges of Motion & Positions

This applies especially to stretched positions on extension movements, which dislocate joints via passive & active tension vectors. Think exercises like overhead arm extensions affecting the elbows.

Be particularly careful when the external moment arm is longest in the most stretched position, like on sissy squats.

Reducing tendon stress helps. Try using more shortened positions. Leg extensions, if available, can replace sissy squats. Cable push-downs could replace overhead arm extensions.

As mentioned when discussing my favorite arm exercises, I use an odd technique on arm extensions where I start from the ground then place my feet high on a wall. This places my elbows near my sides. It feels like a cable push-down made possible with free weights.

On sissy squats, especially if relegated to home training without machines, you don’t have to lean back at the hips as far as possible. Let your hips jut a bit forward to ensure pure knee extension. You also don’t need to descend beyond 90°.

All this shift does is create more active versus passive tension, leading to similar development. There are differences between each tension form, with the latter driving more distal growth. This is likely hard to perceive visually, though Vince Gironda felt it mattered.

Heading to the other extreme by employing say triceps kickbacks, so overly shortened, probably isn’t good either if only due to reduced performance.

Active & passive insufficiency, which occurs when a muscle becomes too short or too long, both harm tension. The body adapts to the range of motion worked, subtracting or adding sarcomeres in-series, but this may not occur completely when overloading the endpoints.

Beyond range of motion, extreme positions are both unnecessary & harmful. Anything too wide or too narrow a stance or grip will irritate the joints.

For upper body movements, try to align the elbows with the wrists. Avoid full supination on curls, which can happen even with dumbbells. An EZ-curl or cambered bar works best.

Don’t go so deep on squats that your lumbar spine flexes. You don’t even have to reach parallel on squats… you just need enough range to develop some power.

In summary, ignore conventional standards! Go medium and set personal guidelines, getting stronger within safe ranges of motion & positions.

The same muscle fibers work continuously throughout the range of motion on the majority of exercises. Even on movements where range of motion does matter, like pull-ups for the lats, you only need to stick around 70-90° here to obtain the full range benefits.

Perhaps reach at least the midpoint of the full motion. You do need some feedback & time to create power that facilitates hard work, though a precise range of motion to suggest is elusive. Static training isn’t the answer either.

Improving Joint Pain When Lifting

Bodybuilding is tough on the joints. However, we can mitigate common issues by lifting wisely. Apply these techniques permanently to reduce joint stress, avoiding injuries and achieving greater progress than you ever thought possible.

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