Joint Care is something that is often overlooked by a lot of lifters; but it isn’t something that should be necessarily taken for granted if you are somebody who intends to remain in shape for the rest of your life.
There are a lot of misconceptions surrounding gym culture and joint care. A lot of outsiders eschew lifting weights out of fears that they may pick up unwanted issues.
If I had a dollar for every time somebody said to me, ‘Oh, you squat heavy, isn’t that bad for your joints?’ or ‘Oh, I’ve heard deadlifting is really bad for your back!’, well… I’d certainly have more money in my wallet than I do now. The truth is, weightlifting isn’t bad for your joints, or it shouldn’t be. However, if you prefer to be cautious, there are certain joint care steps you could take.
Lifting & Joint Care: The Truth
In a study of 25 weightlifters conducted in 1980, which included powerlifters and Olympic lifters, the authors noted that none of the lifters suffered from the unusual degeneration most laypeople would associate with throwing arounds tonnes of weight, day in day out over the course of many years — flying in the face of naysayers who believe joint care is thrown to the wind in weightlifting disciplines [R].
In fact, the weightlifters’ joints were, on the whole, healthier than those of other people of the same age. Only five of the 25 had significant degeneration, a proportion ‘not greater than that found in the general population within the age group studied’.
Certain disciplines of lifting may even indicate a dynamic form of joint care.
Nor was there any significant evidence of osteoarthritis. Those with evidence of osteoarthritis also had histories of joint injury from other sports. One had a knee injury from football, the other a shoulder injury from rugby.
Joint Care & Olympic Lifters
The authors noted that the Olympic lifters, in particular, demonstrated ‘an exceptional range of shoulder mobility, ‘perhaps due to the enforced stretching associated with this style of lifting’.
It was also noted, however, that the most severe degenerative changes were associated with Olympic lifting, rather than powerlifting; although ‘the numbers are small and their significance cannot be stated accurately’. The authors speculate that this may have been because ‘this dynamic form of weight-lifting with more frequent loss of control of the weight produces greater and more abnormal stresses than the more controlled and less extreme movements of Power lifting’.
*inserts CrossFit fail pic*
Pain is temporary, glory is forever!
Joint Care Study Conclusion
‘Our findings in this study suggest that degenerative joint disease is not an inevitable consequence of long term weight-lifting. However, a previously injured joint is more vulnerable to heavy loading’.
Other more recent studies have confirmed these findings and demonstrated that the forces exerted on the joints when lifting heavy weights, whether squatting or deadlifting, are well within the acceptable ranges of their ultimate strength. Knees, tendons, ligaments and bones, including the spine, are perfectly capable of more than twice a lifter’s bodyweight [R] [R] [R] [R].
In fact, it would appear that when done properly, rather than compromising some of the body’s most fragile tissues, weightlifting actually strengthens and protects them. Squats, for instance, appear to improve osteoarthritis and joint function, rather than causing the former or impairing the latter [R]. Likewise, deadlifts, one study suggests, develop important muscles of the back, such as the paraspinal muscles, which protect the spine and actually prevent injury [R].
Both major lifts appear to be forms of proactive joint care — when executed correctly!
Paraspinal Muscles for Joint Care
The paraspinal muscles
This is all in line with the general advice which we give, for instance in our free eBook ‘The Seven Pillars of Strength’, that weak or vulnerable areas should be trained properly to strengthen them, rather than avoiding training them for fear of injury as a proactive approach to joint care. In fact, avoiding properly training vulnerable areas like the shoulders or lower back will, in the long run, prove counterproductive and may even make you more rather than less injury-prone, as muscular imbalances develop requiring extra joint care in the future.
All of which is not to say that weightlifting can’t cause joint injury, because it really can – as the picture of the CrossFitter aptly illustrates. We can debate until the cows come home whether CrossFit has a higher rate of injury than other forms of exercise or sport, but the obvious truth is that performing highly complex Olympic lifts for high repetitions, under pressure of both time and fatigue, is a recipe for disaster.
Physicians reportedly stan Crossfit as it acts like a conveyor belt of clients with inadequate joint care.
As Mark Rippetoe says, ‘high reps are sloppy reps’; or, at least, they tend to be.
As this video of Tom Platz squatting 500lbs for 23 perfect reps shows,
high reps aren’t always sloppy reps
Avoid Fatigue and Poor Form
When form breaks down, you’re likely to be in trouble. This can happen for a variety of reasons — and all the joint care in the world won’t save you.
Fatigue, as mentioned, is one cause. I discovered this myself when doing high-rep ‘breathing’ squats, 20 reps with a weight you can lift normally for 10 reps; after the tenth rep, you take five deep breaths between each subsequent rep until you reach 20, and promptly collapse on the floor (hopefully having re-racked the weight first). As I discovered, once you get into the teens with your squats, it becomes harder and harder to brace properly. Incorrectly or insufficiently bracing in the squat, especially when you are lifting heavy weights, will leave your lower back vulnerable to damage. Fortunately, I escaped with little more than a sore lower back the next day.
Bravado is another, by which I mean, putting more weight on the bar than you can really handle. Perhaps the most chastening example of this is Jean-Pierre Fux, a Swiss bodybuilder whose professional career was ended by a single misguided attempt at an ego lift for the camera. In 2002, during a shoot for Flex magazine, Fux attempted to squat 675lbs, without the aid of spotters. He went down – but didn’t come up. He spent two weeks in hospital as a result of the accident, which caused a tear to the vastus medialis of his left thigh and another to the patella ligament of his right knee.
The moment Jean-Pierre Fux ended his professional bodybuilding career
My advice is simple: focus on developing your form and adding weight to the bar in a sensible manner. This is one of the reasons I like the 5×5 model: it encourages you to develop your form and progress in a way that is sustainable. Aim to be in this for the long run.
Joint Care & Injuries
Another way you can put yourself at risk of injury is highlighted in the paper mentioned at the beginning of this article: previous injuries. Unfortunately, life has a habit of throwing curveballs, and no matter how carefully you train, it’s still possible for you to accrue injuries outside the gym as well.
Recently, during a daring act of chivalry (the lady’s choice of footwear was far from sensible), I hurt my knee. Rather foolishly, later in the day, having wrapped the injured knee and thought nothing of it, I performed a heavy 5×5 squat session. The next morning, my knee was horribly swollen and painful. Reluctantly, I had to accept defeat. My workout plans for the next couple of weeks would have to change.
Remember: for proactive joint care, leave your ego at the door and listen to your body.
Of course, I shouldn’t have done that squat session. What I should have done is what I eventually did do: RICE. Huh? What’s rice got to do with it? That’s ‘rest-ice-compression-elevation’, to you. Basically, you need to:
- rest the injury
- put ice on it regularly to reduce the inflammation and swelling
- Use compression, such as a knee wrap, to reduce the swelling further
- Elevate the injury as much as possible, again to reduce the swelling
When you’re applying ice to the injured area, don’t apply it directly to the skin: wrap it in a towel or bandage.
Within a week of doing this, I was back to squatting, albeit lower weights and with an emphasis on ‘greasing the groove’ and perfecting my form. It took a further two weeks for the knee to be totally back to 100%.
So to recap: the best way to protect your joints and bones when lifting is to lift properly, with an emphasis on form and sustainable progressive overload.
Dieting For Joint Care
Another easy way you can take care of your joints and bones is through diet. Ensuring sufficient calcium intake and regularly consuming bone broth are two simple ways to do this.
Calcium and vitamin D intake is essential for strong bones and joint care. A study of older women showed that lifetime milk consumption was positively correlated with bone density [R]. Another study showed that ‘women with low milk intake during childhood and adolescence have less bone mass in adulthood and greater risk of fracture’ [R]. Yet another study showed that milk consumption and resistance training together were an effective way of increasing bone density in women diagnosed with osteoporosis [R].
Drink your milk and be a chad, just like these Mongolian wrestlers
Besides good-quality milk, another food you should consider eating on a regular basis is bone broth. Bone broth has become something of a meme in recent years, but this shouldn’t detract from its very real benefits for joint and general health.
As well as being rich in minerals like calcium, magnesium, potassium, phosphorus and other trace minerals that are essential to bone health, broth made with bones containing connective tissue will provide you with glucosamine and chondroitin, both of which are essential to joint health [R] [R].
Awesome Joint Care Recipe
Here is a simple recipe for bone broth.
- 1 gallon (4 liters) of water
- 2 tbsp (30 mL) apple cider vinegar
- 2–4 pounds (about 1–2 kg) of animal bones (preferably joint bones, with connective tissue)
- Salt and pepper, to taste
- Place the ingredients in a pot or slow cooker.
- Bring to a boil.
- Reduce to a simmer and cook for up to 24 hours.
- Allow the broth to cool. Strain it into a large container and discard the solids.
It’s important not to boil the hell out of the bones, but to simmer them gently for the duration. The longer you cook the bones, the deeper the flavour will be and the greater the nutritional content. If you don’t fancy cooking the broth for 24 hours, as little as 8 hours will suffice to produce a tasty, highly nutritious broth.
One handy way to store bone broth is to buy a set of ice cube trays and use them to freeze it. That way, you can keep the broth frozen in handy individual portions. Alternatively, you can store it in the fridge in a bottle or jars. When refrigerated, the broth should take on a gelatinous texture, which will disappear once it is reheated.
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