How to Keep Your Lifting Pain Free: Part 1- Acknowledging That You're Jacked Up

 Part 1: Acknowledging That You’re Jacked Up

Lifting weights is probably the closest thing to the “fountain of youth” we’ve found yet.  The fact that consistently engaging in this one activity makes us as humans stronger, faster, sexier, and generally superior in every way to our non-lifting counterparts is something that makes me feel pretty good about what I do for a living. 

If you don’t lift, stop reading this post and start.  

Like, yesterday.  

(Click here for a great place to start.)

If you do, and have been lifting with any regularity for even a year or so, then you probably know as awesome as lifting is, it’s not all sunshine and rainbows.**  Everyone gets flare ups, muscle pulls, dings, dents, scratches, and probably at least one thing that ends with “itis”.  If you lift with the type of intensity necessary to reap benefits, it’s inevitable, especially as you age.  The key is acknowledging that there’s an issue that needs attention quickly after the onset of symptoms.  

Had he discontinued the lift as soon as he felt discomfort in his shoulders, he may still be able to give hugs.

Had he discontinued the lift as soon as he felt discomfort in his shoulders, he may still be able to give hugs.

Recently, it feels like a lot my clients/readers have had these issues pop up and I’ve found myself explaining this quite a bit. I figured I’d address it here as I know they aren’t alone.  My deepest apologies for anyone that’s trained with me who is reading this as I know they’ve heard me say this 100 billion X during our sessions, but it bears repeating:

When performing a strength exercise, if the limiting factor is anything other than fatigue in the targeted muscle(s), stop said exercise.

In particular for this discussion, I’m referring to joint, ligament, or tendon discomfort.  Sounds simple, but this rule gets broken on the regular and it’s holding you back from progressing.    

A lot of folks get married to certain lifts, programs, training tools, etc. and feel they need them in their life to continue to get results.  For example, most trainees typically do this with bench press, squats, and deadlifts.  “My bench is (X) and I could do (Y) if I didn’t have this issue with my (insert inflamed joint here)”  They continue to hammer bench press as if they are totally healthy even though the joint in question will not allow them to use the appropriate load that their muscles can handle. 

This guy should probably skip bench for a few weeks or so.

This guy should probably skip bench for a few weeks or so.

There are two major problems with lifting through joint pain:

1)     The targeted muscles aren’t getting stimulated enough to inspire growth or strength due to the limitations of the joint.

2)     The joint becomes more inflamed and is basically back to square 1 in the healing process.

In summary, not only are you unable to strengthen or grow the muscles you are attempting to train, this vicious cycle is making it take exponentially longer until you can train them with any intensity again.

Here is the short list of fixes to this issue:

1)     Stop doing the exercise(s) that hurt(s) the joint.

2)     Reread the above as many times as it takes to stop doing the exercise(s) that hurt(s) the joint.

The Difference Between Muscle Fatigue and Joint Pain

Most often its denial, ego, lack of exercises in the arsenal or Crossfit (shots fired) that keeps people who are limited by joint pain performing the same exercises regardless of the pain response.  Every so often however, it boils down to a general lack of awareness.  For those that don’t have as much experience with lifting, joint pain may feel like an appropriate response to training. 

It’s not. 

Using a standard bicep curl as an example, an ideal healthy and effective rep would result in a pain rating of 0/10 at the shoulder, elbow, and wrist throughout the entire range of motion while experiencing blow torch level heat in the belly of the bicep.  If discomfort locally at one of these joints is what limits how much weight you lift or how many reps you can perform, it’s time to stop doing standard bicep curls (blasphemy!) until the joint heals.   

If you are having trouble differentiating between joint pain and muscle fatigue, run this system check.  If the answer is yes to any of these questions, reexamine your exercise choice:

A)     Is most of the discomfort from the exercise close to or at the joint?

B)     Is the pain only on one side of the body? (i.e. right OR left elbow discomfort during a bilateral bicep curl)   

C)     Does the pain in the joint increase intensity during the set?

D)     Is there pain that radiates to other areas not involved in the exercise?

 Decreasing the Risk of Joint, Ligament, and Tendon Discomfort

As stated earlier, typical wear and tear can lead to joint issues if you’ve been training hard enough for long enough.  There are however a few basic programming strategies to minimize the risk.

1)     Use plenty of feeler or warm up sets prior to heavier work sets.

2)     Limit how often you train with heavy loads (90% of 1 RM) in the low rep ranges (1-4 reps).  While this is great for strength and CNS (central nervous system) work, it needs to be a small fraction of your overall training.

3)     Plan deload weeks into your training year. These are weeks where you drastically lower your weights or take off from lifting to promote recovery, typically done at the end of a specific program or when feeling excessive fatigue resulting from training.

4)     Be PERFECT with your lifting form.

5)     Use a slow tempo during the eccentric, negative, or lowering portion of your lifts to limit the load of a given exercise.  This will intensify the stimulus for the muscle without increasing the stress on the joint.

If you learned one thing from this post, I hope it’s to stop ignoring the pain response you feel during exercises.   Do not “push through” the pain to complete the exercise.   It doesn’t make you more hardcore, bad-ass, or whatever word the kids use these days that I’m unaware of. I think “lit” works, maybe not. It’s only going to make it take longer for whatever the issue is to heal and in the long run, that’s going to slow progress more than taking an exercise that hurts you out of your program.   

 Stay tuned for my next post that completes this two-part series where I will discuss options for working around nagging joint issues to avoid a pain response.  In the meantime, lift some weight!

**This is a Rocky Balboa reference, if this went over your head, click below for motivational gold.    

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