The challenge of pushing through to the point of momentary muscular failure is a goal embraced by the Iron Game and physical fitness community. Often, however, those challenges are never attempted because of chronic joint pain. Whether the pain is in the joints or from structures outside the joints, the bottom line is that pain sucks and when you have it, you don’t want to train hard – if at all. Let’s look at seven practical steps that can help you stay pain-free.
1. Stretch. A study published in 1982 in the American Journal of Sports Medicine found a connection between muscle tightness and lower body injuries such as tendinitis, which is an inflammation of tendons; tendons attach muscles to bones. In an Australian study involving a total of 10,393 male and female basketball players, researchers found that the athletes who did not stretch were 2.6 times more like to suffer an ankle injury. Based on such evidence, stretching is often recommended by many health care practitioners, such as physical therapists and chiropractors, as a treatment for many types of injuries and chronic pain.
There are many types of stretching, but most popular one (because it’s easy to learn and can be performed pretty much anywhere without any assistance) is static. With this type of stretching, you assume a specific stationary posture and then attempt to stretch a muscle beyond its length at rest. The stretches are usually held for at least 30 seconds. The most popular book (written for the lay person) on static stretching is Bob Anderson’s Stretching, which has sold nearly four million copes.
Another type of stretching that could fall into the category of static stretching is fascial stretch therapy. This type of stretching involves having a practitioner move an individual’s limbs while the rest of their body is stabilized with straps on a treatment table. The purpose is to stretch not just muscles, but also the connective tissue called fascia that (among its other functions) provides stability to the limbs. The gold standard references for this type of stretching are Stretch to Win and (for a more technical review) Fascial Stretch Therapy by Chris and Ann Frederick.
Although generally considered safe, there is considerable research suggesting that static stretching should not be performed before sports training or strength training, especially stretches held for more than one minute. In a review published in 2012 in the Clinical Journal of Sports Medicine, the authors reviewed 106 articles and concluded that pre-training stretches lasting longer than one minute could decrease power, strength, and overall performance in speed-dependent activities.
2. Use Distraction Methods. Using elastic bands, distraction methods create traction to open up joint capsules to help them function better. To learn more, an excellent book on this subject is Becoming a Supple Leopard by Kelly Starrett and Glen Cordoza; also check out the many videos Starrett has posted on YouTube that demonstrate distraction methods.
3. Use a Dynamic Warm-up. Dynamic stretching involves rapid movements that move the limbs through a large range of motion under control to help you prepare for intense exercise. This type of stretching does not decrease power, strength, or speed. Gymnastics and martial arts use these types of movements in their training. One excellent book on this topic is Stretching Scientifically by Tom Kurz; Pavel Tastasouline has also written extensively on this topic.
4. Get Soft-Tissue Treatments. Adhesions can prevent proper biomechanics in sports performance and lifting. One of the most popular forms of soft tissue work to deal with adhesions is called Active Release Techniques® (ART), developed by Dr. Michael Leahy.
5. Wear Good Shoes. It’s important to wear the appropriate type of footwear for whatever activity you are doing. Soccer players, for example, have special cleats they use for the type of surface they are playing on: hard ground, firm ground, and soft ground. In the Australian study on basketball players, it was found that those athletes who wore shoes “with air cells in the heel were 4.3 times more likely to injure an ankle than those wearing shoes without air cells.” For Olympic lifting movements, there are special shoes that have an elevated heel to help weightlifters maintain good mechanics during these lifts. Also, if you have a foot condition called valgus that causes the feet (and knees) to collapse inward, you might need to have shoes with a firm arch that helps you maintain good knee alignment when lifting.
6. Use Appropriate Repetition Protocols. There are some exercises that should not be performed for high repetitions with heavy loads as it is extremely difficult to maintain proper technique. Competitive Olympic lifters, for example, seldom perform more than three reps in the snatch and clean and jerk. That said, partial Olympic lifting movements, such as power cleans from the hang position or pulls, can be performed for higher repetitions.
7. Learn and Practice Good Technique. German sports scientist Dietmar Schmidtbleicher classified exercises into six levels according to their neurological complexity, as follows:
Level 1: Isolation exercise on variable resistance machine
Level 2: Complex exercise on variable resistance machine
Level 3: Isolation exercise on constant resistance machine
Level 4: Complex exercise on constant resistance machine
Level 5: Isolation exercise with free weights
Level 6: Complex exercise with free weights
The first four levels of exercises use machines and required less skill to master – they can often be learned correctly in a single workout. For example, a Level 3 exercise might be a leg extension with a circular pulley that provides constant resistance. Levels 5 and 6 require more skill, and often require multiple sessions to master (preferably under the supervision of a qualified instructor).
Although exercises with machines are easier to master than free weight exercises, there are many machines that you need to be especially careful with because they have a higher risk of causing injury. For example, a leg press machine that starts with the knees bent encourages the trainee to jerk the weight to get the resistance moving, a practice that can cause the lower back to hyperextend. Another machine that can cause the lower back to easily hyperextend is the reverse hyper; with the reverse hyper units that have a chest pad parallel to the floor, lifting the legs past parallel will place a high level of stress on the L3 to L5 vertebrae. For the upper body, a lateral raise machine is often used to target the medial (side) deltoid, but lifting the resistance pads higher than parallel may place the user at a high risk of shoulder impingement.
Weight training can be one of safest activities you can do to transform your physique and improve your quality of life. Pain sucks, so follow these practical tips so you can hit the gym hard and fulfill your physical potential!