How to Protect Your Joints When Weight Lifting

Weight lifting can be a double-edged sword when it comes to joint health. On the one hand, studies have shown that putting the body under increasing pressure helps to maintain cartilage, bone and muscle strength, all of which can serve you well in the future. Put simply, as you subject your body to added strain, your joints can respond positively by strengthening. This means that weight lifting doesn’t necessarily have to be any more “dangerous” than other types of exercise.

There’s more. Evidence seems to suggest that larger volumes of muscle have the potential to reduce pressure on the joints. In brief, the muscles help to do some of the work that would previously be expected of the joints. As an example, when individuals with arthritis of the knee are subjected to quadriceps-strengthening resistance training, significant improvements have been observed both in pain levels and range of movement. Long term, therefore, weight training really does seem to offer genuine benefits for the joints.

The flipside, of course, is that putting joints under added pressure has the potential to cause injury. Joint pain experienced by weight lifters can vary from short-term discomfort after an intensive session, through to more prolonged pain in later life. Such problems can be particularly serious in those with existing joint issues, such as undiagnosed cartilage damage.

The key, therefore, is to action to avoid joint damage while carrying out resistance training. In doing so, not only can you avoid pain or injury but you can also enjoy all the benefits that resistance training can offer.

So what should we do?

Maintain Proper Function

We’ve all been in the gym before while someone wrestles and writhes next to us, doing anything they can to lift their chosen weight. Unsurprisingly, such activity has the very real potential to cause injury.

Over the years, expert weight lifters and trainers have slowly developed a range of exercises designed to maximize muscle load while minimizing the risk of injury. Sadly, learning proper function takes time and effort. Worse, there is so much mid-information as to what “good form” looks like, that even weight lifters trying to maintain form may be unwittingly putting themselves at risk.

Firstly, therefore, take the time to learn how to complete each exercise in the safest manner possible. Whether you opt to spend time with a personal trainer, an experienced lifter or even just videoing yourself, your first goal should always be proper form. Whilst YouTube is alive with mid-information, there are a number of trusted personal trainers present, whose videos can be very valuable for perfecting your form.

Secondly, it is important to appreciate that some exercises make injury far more likely than others. Whilst this is not necessarily a reason to avoid them completely, learning proper form is even more critical with exercises like deadlifts and front squats to avoid muscle strain or joint damage.

Thirdly, consider shifting your mind-shift from continually increasing the weight that you lift, to continually increasing the weight you lift with proper form. If you manage to increase your maximum load, but do it with improper form, then you’re essentially “cheating”. Not only do you increase the chances of joint pain but you’re also probably not deriving the maximum muscle-building impact from your exercise regime. Take pride in your form, and become an example to others of what theyshould be doing at the gym.

Train All Major Muscle Groups

Most of us know at least a few guys who focus 99% of their weight lifting time into building a bigger chest or arms. You know the ones; where their biceps are bigger than their thighs. Whilst this focus on one or two muscle groups is understandable, it is generally not advisable.

Numerous studies have found that one of the most common sources of sport injuries are physical imbalances. For example, when athletes have one leg that is significantly stronger than the other, they are statistically far more likely to suffer injury in the “weaker” appendage. One study, for example, found that targeted exercises designed to improve weak hip muscles can reduce injuries in runners.

Training all major muscle groups isn’t just helpful for reducing the odds of joint injury of course; it can also benefit your overall progress. When lifting with free weights, for example, an astonishing range of different muscles are used besides the main target. Maximising strength in each of these muscle groups can therefore assist continued improvement and make progressive overload safer.

For this reason, a holistic resistance program designed to target all the muscles of the body is likely to reduce pressure on joints. By ensuring that all muscles of the body are regularly targeted, weight lifters can ensure that they are maintaining proper function and protecting themselves against injury.

Vary Body Parts & Exercises

One interesting study looked at “spinal shrinkage” when lifting heavy weights, such as when carrying out squats or deadlifts. The scientists in question measured how much each weight lifters spines contracted after such loads, then monitored how long they took to recover.

The experts discovered that while the spines of healthy participants did recover successfully, the process took a surprising period of time. For example, it was found that twenty minutes after exercise no significant recovery had occurred, though by the following morning everything was back to normal.

These findings suggest that repeated, ongoing weight lifting that compresses the spine may not give our bodies long enough to fully recover. If whole body exercises like squats and deadlifts are to be used, therefore, it may be beneficial to spread these out over a number of days, rather than repeatedly hitting the spine with one exercise after another in one single workout.

Another important consideration is “fatigue” which has been shown to increase the chances of injury. By carrying out a range of exercises designed to target the entire body, and allowing specific joints and muscle groups to rest sufficiently between load, can both help to reduce joint-related injury.

Ease Into Strain

Studies have repeatedly found links between long-term high-impact exercise and ongoing joint problems. As an example, studies have linked a career as a professional athlete with increased odds of osteoarthritis in later life. This is likely the result of repeated, excessive pressure and damage to the joints over an extended period of time.

One way to reduce the pressure on joints is to ease into exercise slowly. It could be argued, for example, that grabbing a load and lifting it swiftly into the air is likely to be harder on the body than gently easing the weight off the ground. This slower movement offers our body the ability to ease into the exercise at a more modest pace, and can reduce joint damage. One study on the subject, for example, suggested that athletes should “avoid impulse loads for which they are unprepared”.

When carrying out those squats therefore, permit your body the time to slowly “take the strain” as you lift the bar to your starting position. In the same vein, deadlifts should be completed slowly, with the weight gently lifting off the mat, rather than being tugged up to full height as quickly as possible.

Take Suitable Rest

The human body takes time to recover after resistance training. In this phase, microscopic damage is repaired, allowing the muscles to grow, whilst glycogen levels – the fuel of the muscles – are replenished.

Suitable rest therefore represents an important technique for avoiding joint pain and other injuries associated with resistance training. It is also associated with more rapid gains in muscle mass and strength. Far from being “lazy”, therefore, we need to see proper rest and recuperation as a key part of weight lifting. As many experts will tell you, rest is just as important as exercise when it comes to bulking up and avoiding injury.

Eat Right

For muscles to grow, and joints to remain mobile, a proper diet is of course required. Individuals undergoing intensive forms of exercise like weight lifting have been found to grossly underestimate the calories they use. As a result of this, many of us fail to properly provide our bodies with the nutrition they need to fully recover. A lack of fuel can be reflected in muscle fatigue, which itself has been linked to increased injury risk.

Of course, when it comes to joint maintenance it’s not just the volume of food consumed but also its constituents which are important. Foods high in omega 3 oils, for example, have been shown to help protect the joints by combatting inflammation. At the same time, this effect can also help to reduce joint pain, and in some studies has been found to be as effective as doctor-prescribed painkillers.

When it comes to the joints, “healthy fats” have been shown to play an important role, so don’t ignore them at the expense of protein and carbohydrates. Try to eat suitable portions of oily fish and nuts to ensure you’re getting suitable levels of unsaturated fats in your diet.

Consider Supplements

Supplementation and weight lifting often go together like rice and peas. All too often, however, this supplementation focuses solely on muscle-building options like creatine and BCAAs. Whilst such supplements have a decent amount of research behind them, it is all too easy to forget about supplements for joints.

When you’re placing your joints under excessive pressure thanks to resistance training, maintaining joint health should be a serious consideration. Whilst there are many supplements that are believed to help reduce joint inflammation and damage, two of the best-known are glucosamine and fish oils. If you can’t consume suitable volumes of these nutrients in your diet, supplementation can therefore represent a practical and cost-effective alternative.

Find out more about glucosamine supplements at