Do Joints Love or Hate Strength Training?
This week’s article discusses some thoughts on what you can do to maintain your joint health, including whether or not it’s a good idea to perform strength training.
You may have also noticed that I haven’t posted an article in three weeks…Don’t worry, I haven’t been running out of ideas or just getting lazy. What’s actually happened is that my wife and I have finally bought a house! The pictures below will show you what has been taking up my time recently. Anyways, I hope you enjoy this week’s article!
The New House!
As you can see from the picture of the bathroom demo, we’ve been busy! But without further ado, here’s this weeks article…
Recently I have been looking into the benefits of anaerobic/resistance training for runners. This is a topic that I feel deserves much attention because it can benefit the lives and careers of many endurance athletes. You can read more of what I have learned on this topic in my recent post “Strength and Power Training…For Runners???”.
During my research on this topic, I decided to go back to the basics and take a look at the general adaptations that occur when performing a resistance training program.
For an anatomy and physiology nerd like myself, this kind of reading is actually fun. The best part was when my wife was relaxing with me one evening in the living room, and she asked me what I was doing. I said, “I’m reading about the ventilatory response to anaerobic exercise. It’s fun.” Cue the look that says, “You’re insane.”
But I digress.
Of course, there are many wide-ranging benefits to performing resistance exercise, whether you look at the muscular system, the skeletal system, the endocrine/hormonal system, or the nervous system. All of these systems in the body work together and adapt together in response to a resistance training routine, as long as it designed and performed properly.
The obvious benefits of this kind of routine are things like:
Increased muscle mass and strength
Increased bone density
Increased levels of testosterone and growth hormone
Increased ability of the nervous system to recruit muscle fibers to perform efficient movement
Increased all-around awesomeness (that one’s not in the textbooks)
While these are all desirable outcomes of strength training, there is one outcome in particular that really stuck out to me as I was reading. That is the ability of movement and resistance exercise to influence the health of your joints.
The fact that strength training can have a positive effect on joint health is an interesting one, because not everyone sees it that way. In fact, many people are divided on the topic of resistance exercise and joint health.
On one hand, you have people who will tell you that strength training is good for your joints, as long as it is done properly. On the other, there are people who say that squatting is bad for your knees, or lifting heavy weights will cause arthritis.
So what’s the truth? Which side of the story is correct? Well, as usual, it’s not that straightforward.
As in most debates, there is some truth behind both sides of the story. There have been cases where people develop joint pain and discomfort from lifting weights. However, there have also been cases where people get rid of joint pain by lifting weights.
What’s the difference between these two? How can the same activity have such an opposite effect on two different people? From my point of view, there are two main reasons: The quality of exercise technique, and the amount of logic involved in the design of the training program.
First and foremost, whenever weights are being lifted, safe lifting principles must be followed or injury will occur. Lifting weights requires that your muscles are in an appropriate position to stabilize and buffer the force placed on the joints. If the muscles are not able to do this, then you are essentially placing all of the force on the joint itself and testing its durability. This will ultimately lead to joints being worn down, if not injured immediately.
Unfortunately there are too many gym-goers out there who think they know how to properly do a squat or a deadlift, but when I take a look, there form doesn’t measure up to safe standards. For example, see the deadlifting technique below:
This deadlifting form is putting the spine at a huge disadvantage, because the muscles that run along the spine are stretched, and not in an optimal position to support the spine under heavy load. Additionally, the flexed position of the spine causes a large amount of pressure to be exerted on the discs in between each vertebrae. That is precisely how disc bulges and herniations occur.
When I see technique like this (and believe me, I have seen it with my own eyes), I have no problem believing that some people hurt themselves lifting weights.
However, if someone is coached properly on the movement and is conscious of their technique every time they lift weights, then there is a very small chance that they will become injured. In fact, weightlifting has a lower injury rate than most sports, as long as it is coached and performed properly.
Even if exercise technique is pristine, however, there is another reason why strength training may lead to joint injury, and that has to do with the design of the training program. A good training program involves smart exercise choices for the individual performing it, manageable volume, and logical progression.
Where you can get into trouble with program design is when you have exercises that are inappropriate for a specific individual, you have too much volume in each workout, or you have progression that is too rapid.
Everybody wants to break records and get to their goals as fast as possible, but it is the job of a good coach or trainer to ensure that progression is being managed at a logical rate, and that the exercises and volume are appropriate.
When these simple training principles are followed, there is very little chance that joint injury will occur as a result of lifting weights or doing any kind of exercise routine. On the other hand, if injury does occur, there’s a good chance that one of these factors, either technique or program design, is lacking.
With all of this in mind, I would like to end with some physiological reasons why movement is actually one of the best things that you can do for your joints. As much as joints don’t like to be placed in bad positions, they really don’t like to be immobilized. If you’ve ever had your arm in a sling or foot in a boot, then you know the difference that immobilization can make on your ability to freely move the joint.
This is also true of instances where people live a predominately sedentary lifestyle. The joints crave movement not only to maintain mobility, but also to maintain the health of the cartilage and other structures that the joint is comprised of.
The cartilage that is in each joint attaches to the ends of the bones and acts as a shock absorber. Additionally, it provides a smooth surface for joints to glide over. Many people know that as you get older this cartilage tends to break down and arthritic joint pain is the result.
The unique thing about cartilage, which ties into maintaining its health, is that it lacks its own blood supply. This is why it has a much more difficult time than muscles or bones when it comes to healing after an injury. The oxygen and nutrients necessary for health are not directly supplied to cartilage as they are in muscles and bones. Instead, the cartilage must get its nutrient supply only by diffusion from synovial fluid, which is also found in the joints.
According to the book, “The Essentials of Strength Training and Conditioning,” which is published by the National Strength and Conditioning Association, “The fact that articular cartilage gets its nutrient supply by diffusion from synovial fluid links joint mobility to joint health.”
When joints are moved, changes in pressure within the joints drive nutrients from the synovial fluid to the cartilage. That means that the best way to maintain healthy cartilage is to move the joints regularly through large ranges of motion. While it may seem easy and safe to not put any pressure on the joints by remaining sedentary, this is actually preventing much needed nutrients from getting to the cartilage.
Furthermore, it does not appear that chronic and strenuous exercise decreases cartilage in joints, rather it has been shown to thicken it. On the other hand, immobilization of the joint prevents proper diffusion of oxygen and nutrients, which results in the death of the chondrocytes (i.e. the cells that produce and maintain the cartilage), and the resorption of the cartilage.
You can see, then, that sedentary behavior may feel better in the short term, but ultimately it prevents your joints from maintaining their health. If you are someone who already suffers from arthritis, it can be painful to exercise at times. However, exercising and regularly moving your joints is the best thing you can do to prevent increased pain from arthritis as it progresses.
It can be challenging to move your joints regularly if they are stiff and painful, but that is what they need. Beginning or maintaining an exercise program with arthritis can be challenging if you’re unsure what to do. So get help from someone who understands joint mechanics and can teach you exercises that will move your joints safely.
Whatever you do, though, make sure you keep moving your joints. They will thank you in the long run!