The Ultimate Guide to Avoiding and Treating Joint Injury

The Ultimate Guide to Avoiding and Treating Joint Injury

Bodybuilders get joint aches and pains from time to time.

No pain, no gain and all that.

Lifting heavy weights on a regular basis is going to put a fair amount of stress on your joints. Go figure…

But actually, it’s not as much as you might think. Even the most hardcore powerlifters who squat more than twice their own bodyweight don’t come close to exceeding the ultimate strength of the knee joint and tendons. The human body is pretty robust, and that includes the joints.

So, lifting heavy weights doesn’t necessarily mean you’ll end up like one of those gym old-timers with a variety of limps, aches and chronic joint complaints, wishing you’d never set eyes on a barbell. No, not at all.

As long as you follow the advice in this article, and take precautions before and during workouts, you’ll seriously reduce your chances of serious joint injury.

Having said that, as with any physical activity, there’s always a chance that you’ll pick up an injury that needs more than just a few over-the-counter painkillers or a coating of muscle rub.

That’s why we’ll also take a look at a variety of effective recovery methods to get you safely back to lifting in no time.

Lifting-related Joint Injuries | The Risks

Ok, let’s start by dispelling the myth that bodybuilding is a risky activity. It’s not. Impact sports such as football, rugby, hockey, even tennis are more likely to lead to injury than weightlifting.

The main problem is that many people don’t do it right or they take shortcuts. And that definitely does lead to injury – especially in the joints. Ignorance plays a big part in this, so it’s good to understand a few things about joints before lifting heavy weights.

Basic anatomy of the joints

3S image of joints points on human anatomy

We’re not going to get too technical, but here’s a quick description of the main joints used when weightlifting and how they work.


Shoulders and Hips
Ball and Socket Joints
the most mobile joints in the body, allowing movement in most directions, including rotation.
Elbows and Knees
Hinge Joints
they replicate the opening and closing motion of a hinged door or window.
Wrists and Ankles
Gliding Joints
two flat bone surfaces ‘glide’ against each other, held by ligaments.
Neck
Pivot Joint
allows side to side movement.
Spine Vertebrae
Cartilaginous Joint
The joints between the vertebrae are connected by thin cartilage pads that only allow small movements.  

 

All of these joints (apart from the vertebrae in the spine) are known as synovial joints, which contain something called synovial fluid, which lubricates the joint. The joints also contain ligaments, bands of tissue that support and provide stability and are surrounded by muscles and tendons which are contracted to move the bones either side of the joint.

How joint injuries occur

Joint injuries usually occur as a result of straining or stretching the ligaments or tendons surrounding the joint, often resulting in inflammation of the joint. Common joint injuries include:


Sprain
When ligaments become overstretched they can cause a ‘sprain,’ which is a painful condition that can weaken the joint. More serious damage can be done if the ligaments are torn, resulting in longer-term damage. Types of sprain can include runner’s knee, tennis elbow, sprained ankle or rotator cuff injury.
Dislocation
Often a result of a sudden heavy impact or extreme stress put on the joint. The two bones or ball and socket become misaligned and have to be put back into place manually.
Fracture
The bones contained in the joint may break as the result of impact or extreme stress.

 

The most common joint injury for weightlifters is a rotator cuff sprain. The rotator cuff is made up of four muscles and ligaments that surround the shoulder joint. The rotator cuff can become damaged as a result of lifting an arm powerfully against some type of heavy resistance, a common weightlifting movement.

The main symptoms are a tearing sensation in the shoulder followed by intense pain and limited shoulder movement. Rotator cuff tears become more likely with age and become more of a risk in those over the age of 30.

How to avoid joint injuries

‘Prevention is better than cure’ is an age-old saying, but it makes sense.

Especially when it comes to joint injuries that can be extremely painful and difficult to recover from. Avoiding a joint injury in the first place is much less painful than having to deal with one once it’s too late and it also avoids taking time out of your workout schedule to recover.

Plan your routines

All too often, the people that end up getting injured have neglected the planning stage. They go to the gym with a loose idea of what they want to do – perhaps do some work on their chest with bench presses, the pec deck and maybe some dips. This can be a one-way ticket to injury as, without a plan, most people will over-train and put unnecessary strain on their joints.

If you’re doing some serious weight training, you need to plan a routine that alternates between lower weights with a high number of reps (e.g., 12 to 16 reps) and heavier weights with a lower number of reps (e.g., 4 to 8 reps). You should also build in frequent rest/recovery periods. You should know roughly how long you plan to work out for, e.g., 40 minutes and you should also decide in advance how many times per week you will work out that body part. Here’s a rough guide:

16 - 29 years old | Train each body part twice per week
    30 - 49 years old | Train each body part once every 5 days
         50 + years old | Train each body part once every 7 days

 

As for which exercises to do and how much weight to lift, following a professionally designed workout plan is advisable - especially for beginner to intermediate weightlifters. Advanced bodybuilders who have sufficient knowledge are in a better position to design their own, but should still follow a set plan and try not to deviate too much from it.

Warm up thoroughly

Warm-ups are super-important but are quite often overlooked or rushed which leaves people at a greater risk of joint injury. As a minimum, make sure you stretch and warm up the relevant muscles before the first exercise in a routine.

Before a leg routine for instance, you may want to do a few lunges and squats without any weights, as well as independently stretching your calves, thighs and rotating your ankles and hips, etc.

Before going into full-on sets, do several reps with a very low weight as an extra warm up. As a general rule, you should spend at least three minutes warming up before your workout, and increase this with age, for instance:

16 – 29 years old | 3 minutes warm-up
30 – 49 years old | 4 minutes warm-up
    50 + years old | 5 minutes warm-up

 

Also, be aware that it’s a good idea to increase your core body temperature, regardless of the muscle group being targeted, so throw in a few abdominal exercises to achieve this.

Perfect your method and form

This is especially true for free weights. If you find yourself jerking weights up rather than smoothly raising them, then you need to work on your form.

  • Make sure you know the correct starting position and stance for each lift you’re doing, and how to perform the lift correctly.
  • Breathing in and out at the right time is also important for maintaining correct posture, usually exhaling during the exertion phase and inhaling when returning to the start position.
  • Make sure you select the correct amount of weight, if you find yourself shaking or unsteady, stop immediately and reduce the amount – there’s no need to be a hero, unless you enjoy getting injured.

Remember – choosing the heaviest possible weight doesn’t necessarily lead to the greatest gains. It’s far better to be able to do more sets and to be able to pause and contract your muscles at the top of a lift, rather than struggle and rush through a couple of ridiculously heavy sets then collapse in a sweaty, broken heap.

Look after your shoulders

As mentioned earlier, the rotator cuff is one of the most common lifting injuries. Ironically, as the shoulder muscles get stronger, the joint is more prone to injury.

For this reason, make sure you include a few shoulder exercises, e.g., external rotations, into your chest and back days as well as arms and shoulders.

Recovery from joint injuries

Ok, so even if you follow all of the above advice, there’s still a chance you may pick up a joint injury. Or perhaps you’ve got a recurring one picked up a long time ago. Either way, all is not lost. Joint injuries don’t have to spell the end of your bodybuilding hobby or career. There are many things you can do to speed up and improve your recovery, strengthen the joints and to prevent it from happening again.

We will mention drugs and anti-inflammatories towards the end of this section, as they do have their place in joint injury recovery. It’s important not to over-rely on these, and they should be seen as a short-term fix, rather than long-term treatment.

It should go without saying that it’s important to seek medical help and follow professional guidance where appropriate, but there’s nothing to stop you trying some alternative recovery methods alongside medical treatment.

Physiotherapy | mobility exercises

Physiotherapy involves light mobility exercises to increase your range of movement and strengthen damaged muscles and joints. Whether you decide to visit a professional physiotherapist or try it yourself depends on the severity of the injury. If your movement is severely restricted or painful, it’s best to visit a professional. If the injury is mild to moderate, there are plenty of resources such as online articles and videos or books that may help.

Foam rollers and resistance bands are great for joint injuries, and gentle exercise using this equipment can help to reduce joint pain and increase flexibility.

For example, a rotator cuff injury, for example, can be gently exercised using the following routine:

Doorway Stretch | Grip either side of a doorway with both hands and lean forward slightly

Side External Rotation | Lie down on the opposite side to your injured arm. Bend your injured arm at the elbow by 90 degrees, with your elbow propped on your side and your forearm dangling across your stomach. Grip a light dumbbell and slowly raise it towards the ceiling, as far as you can comfortably go. Pause at the top for a moment. Repeat for 4 sets of 8 reps, two to three times per day if you can. Increase this to 16 reps as mobility increases.

High and Low Rows | secure a resistance band at around shoulder height. Lower yourself to one knee, the same side as your injured arm. Hold the band with your injured arm, with your other hand resting on the raised knee. Pull the band towards you gently, retracting your shoulder blades slightly. Alternate between high and low movements. Maintain a straight back and don’t allow your body to twist or move. Repeat for 4 sets of 8 reps.

Other exercises can easily be found on YouTube or other online sources. Routines such as Yoga, Tai Chi or Pilates can also help with joint pain. Just make sure you don’t overdo it and stop if you feel moderate to severe pain.

Ice & heat treatment

Ice is best applied as soon as possible after the injury. Ice will help to reduce any inflammation and reduce pain. Apply an ice pack for approximately 15 minutes at a time, then 20 minutes off for the best results. You can also use ice baths or an ice massage if preferred. It’s a good idea to repeat the ‘on and off’ routine for as much as 3 days after the injury as it will continue to have positive effects.

By contrast, you shouldn’t use heat treatment immediately post-injury. After 3 days of ice treatment, begin to alternate with 15 minutes of heat, either heat packs or hot baths.

Rest

It sounds obvious, but rest is vital to overcoming a joint injury. Make sure you combine mobility exercises with long periods of rest to allow muscle tissue to rebuild and strengthen. When you do return to full workouts, make sure you allow more rest time in your routine than you normally would and use lighter weights to begin with. If you feel excessive pain in your joint after the workout, increase your rest period and use even lighter weights on your return until the joint is back to normal.

Massage

Massage is a great way to relieve joint pain and speed up recovery. Your best bet is to visit a licensed massage therapist, but you can also ask a partner or friend to help out too. Make sure you follow guidelines from a trusted source. You can learn to massage some joints yourself, such as your knee or ankle. Follow advice from videos and articles produced by sports injury specialists for the best results.

Nutrition

When recovering from any type of injury, maintaining a healthy, balanced diet is critical. Remember to get around 40% complex carbohydrates, 30% lean protein and 30% essential fats throughout the day. Fish oils or flax oil will make sure you get that good fat you need for effective recovery.

Also, ensure that you’re getting enough vitamins and minerals, supplementing if necessary, especially vitamin C as it will help with tissue growth and repair.

Natural remedies

There are a number of different herbal and plant remedies and gels available. For instance, arnica gel is a popular herbal pain relief gel that has been shown to be effective in reducing muscle inflammation and pain.

Medication

Over the counter painkillers such as paracetamol and ibuprofen are useful for managing the initial pain of a joint injury. Stronger painkillers can be prescribed by a doctor if needed. Try not to become over-reliant on pain relief, however, as it masks the problem rather than helping to solve it. A combination of recovery methods and preventative action is the best to ensure long-term joint health.

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