Your Joints and Strength Training
Updated: May 16, 2021
By David Drinks
Is strength training good for your joints, or does it cause arthritis?
It’s an important question to answer before you can confidently engage in a strength training program. That’s why today I want to dive into this topic to provide you with some insight into the impact of strength training on your joint health.
But first, let’s talk about why you would even want to engage in a strength training program in the first place!
The benefits associated with strength training are undeniable. A regular strength training routine helps develop lean muscle mass, which improves your resting metabolic rate (i.e., you burn more calories, even at rest). This improved metabolic rate means that you will have a better chance at preventing excessive fat storage and unnecessary weight gain.
An increase in lean muscle mass also helps regulate blood sugar and prevent or better manage Diabetes and Pre-Diabetes. The more muscle mass you have, the better chance you have at taking in glucose from the bloodstream and utilizing it in the working muscle. This, along with proper diet and regular exercise, helps to keep your blood sugar numbers at a lower level, staving off all the negative consequences of elevated blood glucose levels.
Strength training also has the benefits of making you more functional and fit by increasing your overall strength, ingraining efficient movement patterns, preventing imbalances in strength throughout the body, and improving your muscle mass and bone density.
One of the most brilliant aspects of strength training is that it makes you more resilient to stress in general. If your bones, tendons, ligaments, joints, and muscles are used to lifting, moving, and carrying heavy loads on a regular basis, then they are well-trained to withstand stress. This makes you less susceptible to soreness, pain, and injury.
Often, pain and injury occur when tissues are overloaded by a certain activity that they’re not prepared to handle. Well, strength training prepares you to handle much higher stress to the body and doesn’t allow your muscles, bones, ligaments, tendons, and joints to be overcome as easily.
So, strength training offers a ton of clear benefits, which should make you want to go lift something heavy!
However, wouldn’t it be a shame for you to derive all those benefits from strength training, and then wind up with arthritis from strength training? Yes, it would.
Fortunately, it doesn’t have to end like that!
Let’s take some time to talk about your joints and strength training to see if your strength training routine will lead to early joint wear and tear, or if it will result in increased resilience and healthier joints.
First, I think it’s important to define what I’m talking about when referring to strength training because there’s a vast difference in the variety and intensity of strength training options. For example, strength training can look a lot different if you’re training for a sport or competition that requires super-human strength, versus simply using strength training for overall health.
I think many people who fear that strength training will harm their joints are thinking about an NFL lineman squatting 500lbs and making that their view of how all strength training works. Instead, they should be thinking about the normal, everyday person squatting a reasonable weight for their body.
When I refer to strength training, I’m really referring to any exercise done with progressive resistance to promote muscular strength. That could look like squatting a barbell for some people, or it could look like getting up and down out of a chair for others. Either way, strength training simply means that you’re building muscular strength based on where you’re currently at. You’re trying to get stronger than you were yesterday; you’re not just trying to be the hulk!
So, the goal of the individual engaging in a strength training routine is an important first consideration when discussing the impact of strength training on joint health. When someone is training for a strength competition (e.g., a Powerlifting or Olympic lifting competition), their only goal is to get as strong as possible. Sometimes, when training for competition, health is compromised to push the body beyond its normal limits.
In that scenario, strength training may not be good for the joints, and it may lead to excessive wear and tear on the joint cartilage.
However, a person focusing on building strength with appropriate progression and an emphasis on proper technique is in a totally different boat. In that case, their joints aren’t experiencing excessive wear and tear, but a stimulus to the tissues that can actually promote better health and resilience.
Now, some people might say that the answer to avoiding arthritis and joint pain is to avoid all stress on the joints. If you just keep them stress-free and don’t put too much strain on them, they’ll stay pain-free!
However, that’s not the best answer. In fact, your joints require stress.
Stress to your body is not a bad thing because your body is not simply a machine that wears out with use…we don’t come with 5 or 10-year factory warranties!
Instead, you must consider your joints from the standpoint of living tissue. The bones, collagen, ligaments, and tendons that make up your joints are all living tissue. As such, they are made to undergo stress and adapt accordingly. The tissues in your joints can remodel and rebuild – albeit some do this more effectively than others.
For example, bone and muscle remodel and rebuild quickly due to the fact that they receive a direct supply of blood, and thus, the oxygen and nutrients that allow for healing and rebuilding. On the other end of the spectrum, ligaments and cartilage remodel and rebuild very slowly, or not at all due to their avascular nature. They don’t receive a large amount of nutrients from direct blood supply.
Interestingly, though, much of the cartilage in your joints does receive a supply of nutrients to allow it to remodel and rebuild, it just doesn’t receive it through a direct blood supply. Instead, joint cartilage receives its nutrients through diffusion from the synovial fluid. This diffusion of nutrients is facilitated by joint loading, as compression and movement of the joint allow the nutrients in the synovial fluid to move into the cartilage.
According to the book, 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. Movement about a joint creates changes in pressure in the joint capsule that drive nutrients from the synovial fluid toward the articular cartilage of the joint” (Ratamess 108).
That means that the best way to maintain healthy cartilage is to move the joints regularly!
While it may seem easy and safe to not put any pressure on the joints by remaining sedentary – especially if you already have some joint discomfort – that is actually preventing much-needed nutrients from getting to the cartilage.
According to the same textbook referred to above, “Immobilization of a joint prevents proper diffusion of oxygen and essential nutrients throughout the joint, resulting in the death of the chondrocytes, and the resorption of the cartilage matrix” (Ratamess 108).
Sedentary behavior and immobilization of a joint may feel better in the short-term (and it may really be necessary for a short period of time following an injury), but ultimately it prevents your joints from maintaining their health.
So, movement and proper loading of the joints through a strength training program that emphasizes proper technique and logical progression is one of the best things that you can do for your joint health!
To add even more credibility to this concept of exercise and joint health, you can check out the following article from Harvard Health Publishing: Exercise and Your Joints - Harvard Health Publications - Harvard Health.
The article highlights several studies that looked at exercise and joint health. Here are some of the results of these studies:
No link was found between exercise and the onset of arthritis in a study of over 1,000 people over the course of about a decade.
In another study on about 300 men between the ages of 40 and 69, the results showed that people who performed the most vigorous weight-bearing exercise had the thickest, healthiest knee cartilage.
Yet another study looking at runner’s knees vs. non-runner's knees demonstrated that after more than 20 years of follow-up with these individuals, the runners experienced significantly less musculoskeletal disability than their less active peers – and the runners also enjoyed a 39% lower mortality rate!
All of this highlights the need for the living tissue in our joints to be loaded, stressed, and used in the right way. Plus, staying active makes your entire body healthier, as indicated by the lower mortality rate experienced by the running population.
As I was thinking about how the right amount of stress to the joints can be very beneficial for joint health, a great analogy came to mind about how living things can respond positively to the right amount of stress (and negatively to the wrong amount of stress).
You may or may not be aware that one of my favorite hobbies outside of work is lawn care. I have found it fun over the past several years to learn more and more about how to properly care for and maintain a well-manicured lawn.
Here's my lawn after a couple of years of hard work:
And do you know what the absolute best thing you can do for the health of your grass is? Mow it properly!
If you think about that, mowing is literally chopping the tops of your grass plants off, which obviously causes a bit of stress to the plant. However, this stress results in a positive deepening of roots and thickening of the grass plant when it is done properly.
To mow properly, you need to adhere to the 1/3 rule, which states that you should never cut more than 1/3 of the grass blade off in a single mowing. That ensures that you stress the plant just the right amount to get it to thicken up and extend its root system, while not stressing it excessively by cutting too much off at a time.
However, for those of you who let your grass grow tall, and then chop it down as low as you can so you don’t have to mow again for a while…it’s no wonder why your grass is thin and pale, and weeds have taken over your lawn!
Now, grass is a living thing that, when stressed properly, will respond by thickening up and growing healthier. Just the same, your joints will respond to proper strength training by thickening the cartilage and building stronger, healthier joint tissue.
But, just like improperly mowed grass, if you don’t follow good strength training practices, your joints will not respond positively.
So, what’s the takeaway here?
Strength training and joint health is a discussion that is not so black and white. You can’t say that all strength training is good for your joints, but you also can’t say that all strength training breaks down your joints and causes arthritis.
Like most things, context matters. If you follow a logically designed strength training program that is progressed properly and focused on good technique, your joints can grow stronger and more resilient!
On the other hand, if you train with max effort every workout, follow a program that is poorly designed, don’t progress gradually enough, or you don’t have proper lifting technique, then your strength training program really could lead to joint breakdown and arthritis.
Which side of that coin do you want to be on?
I’d rather train smarter and have good joint health for many years to come! How about you?
Ratamess, Nicholas A. “Adaptations to Anaerobic Training Programs.” Essentials of Strength Training and Conditioning, by Thomas R. Baechle and Roger W. Earle, Third ed., Human Kinetics, 2008, pp. 108–108.
If you want to make sure that you're on the right track with your exercise routine to promote joint health and not joint breakdown, then contact us here!
Our exercise specialists can show you how to perform your routine with proper technique, and get you set up on the right program and progression for you to reach your goals while maximizing your joint health.