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Is lifting weights bad for your joints?
This is actually a common question and concern amongst people who want to get fit but are hesitant to start a resistance or strength training program.
Logic tells us that if we over exercise or put too much force on our joints and muscles, we can sustain an injury but is general strength training bad for the joints.
I wanted to share my opinion in this article by giving you the reasons why strength training and resistance training (weight lifting and bodybuilding) is both good and bad for the joints.
First of all, let’s discuss what a joint is.
A joint is a connection between two bones to facilitate movement. Bones are joined by ligaments and other connective tissue with muscles acting on the bones to move them.
Joints come in different types such as a hinge joint like the elbow which moves in two directions to a more complicated joint such as a ball and socket joint for example the hip joint which has a greater degree of motion compared to the elbow.
Now, let’s look at a typical strength training movement that can cause a lot issues to a person, in particular with their knees.
The exercise in question is the Squat. The squat is a popular lower body exercise which is a multijoint, compound exercise.
If we look at what joints are moving when we do a squat, we can start from the ground up.
If we speak strictly then the joints in the foot are used for stabilisation as do the spine but the prime moving joints in a squat are the ankles, knees and hip complex (The lumbar spine should NOT move during the squat and should be stabilised)
It’s very common for people to complain about knee pain during a squat leading people to think that the squat is a bad exercise for the knees. But is it?
First of all, remember we spoke about the joints acting in this exercise. There are at least 5 with 3 major movers. The ankle is acted on by the Gastrocnemius, Soleus, Posterior Tibialis, Peroneus muscles and the flexor Hallucis and Flexor Digitorium… 7 Muscles!
Then the knee which has the quadriceps, hamstrings and gastrocnemius as well as the popliteal and the hip joints have the hip flexors, extensors, abductors and adductors which are a lot of muscles.
The point is, a weakness in any of these muscles can cause an issue with the squat and understanding how the muscles help with the squat can also change the nature of the exercise from a painful one to a solid and useful exercise.
To put it in more simpler terms, technique is everything!
With improper form, technique and understanding of your own personal biomechanics, strengths and weaknesses, any exercises can be done wrong but with the right form, technique, application of resistance profiles to match your muscles biomechanics and appreciation for your biomechanics will not only mean the exercise is safe to do, it will actually strengthen your joints!
With the right training and technique we can see a few things happen.
1. The improvement in strength of connective tissue
According to studies, The available data suggest that 1) physical activity can increase connective tissue strength and mass, 2) activation of the antigravity muscles must be accomplished to adequately stimulate connective tissue, and 3) the volume, intensity, and load-bearing nature of the exercise training are important factors in causing connective tissue adaptations. Based on the above factors, a speculative model of training for increased maximum strength of connective tissue has been developed.
2. Muscles support joints
According to the paper entitled “Muscle as a molecular machine for protecting joints and bones by absorbing mechanical impacts” muscle tissue can support the joint from shock impact.
Muscles also act as stabilisers to joints so it goes without saying that the stronger the muscle is, the more support it can provide to the joint.
3. Strength training improves bone density
Research has concluded that strength training and plyometric training increases bone mineral density. According to research conducted on a group of female test subjects, they found that given the right mechanical tension and acceleration, strength training can promote the formation of bone minerals in a process known as osteogenesis. Since bones are part of the joint mix, stronger bones equate to stronger joints. Also, in females, osteoporosis is a high risk so strength training to improve bone density is very important especially for females.So strength training with the right form and technique are crucial to preserving joint health when it comes to strength training and even improving it.
And when it comes to technique, it is important to have a basic understanding at least of muscular anatomy.
This is why, when I work with clients, I take my time to assess them and during training sessions, I have developed a “Coaching eye” to see what’s going on underneath the skin so to speak in order to help facilitate movements that correspond with a clients anatomy.
Just doing exercises without any consideration for muscle fiber direction and attachment points can also lead to poor joint health.
But what about all the big pros out there who don’t pay attention to this? They’re huge so they must be okay, right? Wrong.
Although you can gain muscle tissue, there could be actual damage to the joints due to shearing forces applied to muscles and joints due to incorrect execution of exercise and the set up of the machines being used.
One only has to look at a legend like Ronnie Coleman who has suffered so much damage to his spine and hips, he’s now paying the price of over doing it.
So that being said, there’s a case to argue that weight training is bad for the joints if one is lifting with poor technique and incorrect form or is over training. Remember, someone new to the gym doesn’t have the same connective tissue strength as someone who has been training for a long time so injuries will be inevitable if someone new goes in and copies the pros.
But, on the same token, if you were to train smart, sensibly and scientifically, strength training and weight training could be the best thing for your body and your joints!