Take Care of Your Joints
Anybody who has been bodybuilding for a while knows the importance that joints have in one’s ability to keep training hard. If joints are not operating at their peak, the ability to lift heavy weights and perform certain bodybuilding exercises becomes limited. For instance, for an exercise like the bench press you need healthy shoulders, elbows, and wrists. If any of these becomes badly damaged, then there goes your ability to bench press and the quality of your upper body workouts suffers as well.
Why Do Joint Injuries Occur?
For us bodybuilders, there can be several causes for a joint injury. That’s the bad news. The good news, however, is that for the most part, we can avoid these by using the right training, nutrition, supplementation and rest/recovery tactics.
- Excessive use of weight on an exercise coupled with bad lifting technique: In my personal opinion, this is one of the main reasons why so many bodybuilders and fitness enthusiasts end up with injured joints. Consistently using heavy weights and bad form invariably lead to bursitis, which is the inflammation of the bursae; small fluid filled sacks whose job is to reduce friction in the joint. Elbows and shoulders are often afflicted by this condition so all of you bench press kings please pay attention to this, as it is hard to bench with bad shoulders and elbows. Bad lifting technique, too, also causes tears on the tendons which can lead to tendonitis. Assuming that the lifting technique is really horrible and there is way too much weight being used as well, then this can lead to total misalignment of the joint as well.
- Muscle strength that increases too quickly: Certain supplements, like creatine and nitric oxide boosters for instance, can cause our muscle strength to skyrocket. While that is a great thing, in these cases, it is of utmost importance that we slowly control the rate at which we add weight to the exercises. Even if more weight can be put on the bar, it is best to opt for doing more repetitions instead. The reason for this is because muscle strength increases much quicker than joint strength. So increasing the training load too soon can easily lead to a joint injury even if the form practiced is impeccable and if the muscles can easily handle the load. This is a situation that is also very often encountered by teenagers as teens’ muscle strength quickly rises due to all the anabolic hormones been produced by the body at that age.
- Lack of proper nutrition: Joints, just like muscles, require nutrition and rest. Lack of the right nutrients diminishes the body’s ability to adapt to stress. As a result, if one continues to train with poor nutrition micro tears can start occurring in the tendons as well as a deterioration of the cartilage in the joint, which will lead to more wear and tear of the joint than normal. Chronically low levels of nutrients coupled with hard training will then invariably lead to conditions like osteoarthritis (the more common form of arthritis encountered by weight lifters caused by cartilage becoming rough and thus causing more friction at the joint) and tendonitis, which we briefly discussed above, and is the inflammation of tendons due to accumulated trauma.
- Lack of proper rest/recovery: Consistently overtraining, lack of periodization (meaning that you always train heavy), and lack of sleep all lead to joint problems. Too much training and/or consistently training at 6 repetitions or less will cause too much trauma in the joint that will accumulate over time and result in either osteoarthritis, bursitis, tendonitis or even a full tear. Keep in mind that if the body cannot recover completely, some of the trauma caused at each training session will remain and over time accumulate. Periodization of training and full body part recovery is essential to preventing this microtrauma from accumulating. Also, lack of sufficient sleep will result in poor recovery as it is during sleep that the body produces all anabolic hormones that will be delivering the nutrients to the right places for full recovery. So sleep deprivation leads to depressed hormonal production which at the end of the day, affects your recovery.
Now that we know the common causes of joint problems, here are some guidelines on what you can do to prevent them.
How to Prevent Joint Injuries While Bodybuilding
- Use The Right Training Routine: a well-periodized routine that alternates between periods of higher volume/higher repetition (10-15 reps) work with periods of lower repetition/heavier weights (5-8 reps) will work best. Active recovery phases where training volume is dramatically reduced should also be incorporated. The training routine should not be more than 60 minutes long and frequency of body part training will depend upon individual recovery. Generally, teens and those in their twenties can train a body part every 48-72 hours (so twice a week). Thirty-year-olds and those in their forties benefit more from once every five days. Fifty year old and older, once every seven days.
- Use Proper Warm-Ups: warming up is extremely important, and it becomes more important as we age. While in my opinion, we only need to thoroughly warm up for the first exercise of a body part, not doing so puts you at the risk for injury. To properly warm up, if you know you will be doing 225-lbs on the incline bench for 10 repetitions, the first set you would just do 135-lbs for ten controlled slow repetitions. Then you would increase the weight to 185 for ten reps and only after that second set you would go up to 225-lbs and that would be my first work set. However, if working out on a cold climate, besides wearing warm clothing, you may ride a stationary bike first for 6-10 minutes, not in search of aerobic conditioning but with the goal of increasing my core body temperature. Alternatively, I’ve also used abdominal training as a way to increase my core body temperature as well.
- Perform The Right Exercise Techniques With The Proper Weight: Proper execution of exercise and proper lifting speed is crucial. The exercise form should never be sacrificed in the name of adding weight. Nothing good has ever come out of that combination. In addition jerking the weight up and down not only affects how much the muscle is actually stimulated (so your muscle building results will be less) but puts much of the stress on the joints leading to unnecessary micro-trauma. So always choose a weight that allows for full control of the weight and a lifting speed that is steady and controlled on the way up and slower on the way down. Contracting the muscles at the top position also helps to provide maximum stimulation without unnecessarily having to use super heavy weights.
- Ensure Rotator Cuff Health: One of the most common injuries in weight training is that of the rotator cuff. The reason for this is that as the shoulder muscle gets stronger, the rotator cuff gets weaker unless you train it directly with 3 sets of 15-20 repetitions of rotator cuff exercises. Some external rotations at the end of your chest or back workout will do the trick.
Bodybuilding Nutrition Guidelines
- Having The Right Diet With Sufficient Amounts of EFAs: A balanced diet made up of 40-50% complex carbs, 40-30% lean proteins and 20% good fats with multiple small meals spaced out 2-3 hours throughout the day will prevent poor recovery due to lack of good nutrients. Of utmost importance is not to disregard the intake of good fats, emphasizing the fish and flax oils which are high on the Omega 3 essential fatty acids (EFAs). Turns out that these fats play a huge role in anti-inflammation and also on hormonal production. Another good way to get these fats is through a serving of wild atlantic salmon a day or mackerel.
- Sufficient Calories Even When Dieting: Many people cut their calories too low when embarking on a fat loss phase. This leads to loss of bone mass and also poor joint health. Therefore, when dieting, keep in mind that only a slight caloric deficit is required in order to lose body fat. (in the order of 300 calories less than one burns every day or so).
Bodybuilding Supplementation Guidelines
- Take Your Multiple Vitamins/Minerals: Many trainees do not realize the importance of taking these micronutrients. However, these are essential to ensure that your body will operate at maximum efficiency. Vitamins are organic compounds (produced by both animals and vegetables) whose function is to enhance the actions of proteins that cause chemical reactions such as muscle building, fat burning, and energy production. Minerals are inorganic compounds (not produced by either animals or vegetables). Their main function is to make sure that your brain receives the correct signals from the body, balance of fluids, muscular contractions and energy production as well as for the building of muscle and bones. Therefore, on a very simplistic level, without vitamins and minerals, it is impossible to convert the food that we eat into hormones, tissues, and energy. So as a result, joint health, amongst many other things, will suffer.
- Take Extra Vitamin C: Some research indicates that increased consumption of Vitamin C lowers cortisol (catabolic hormone) levels and improves joint health as Vitamin C is required for connective tissue formation. 2-3 grams of this vitamin split into 1 gram doses at different times of the day will do the trick.
- Gelatin: Believe it or not, gelatin is a source of two very important amino acids that are required for collagen formation: glycine and proline. Several studies (Adem et. al. Therapiewoche, 1991) have shown gelatin providing improvements by reducing joint pain and improving cartilage health.
- Glucosamine/Chondroitin Combination: In a recent review of clinical trials on glucosamine and chondroitin, researchers from Case Western Reserve University School of Medicine, in Cleveland, Ohio found that of 13 studies reviewed, all were classified as demonstrating positive results. The dosages used in the studies were 1500mg of glucosamine sulfate and 1200mg of chondroitin sulfate.
- MSM: At the Oregon Health Sciences Center in 1997, researchers showed that MSM provided relief equal to a popular non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drug. MSM expert and medical reviewer for the Journal of the American Medical Association (JAMA), Stanley W. Jacob, M.D., suggests that MSM actually blocks pain signals from traveling along a network of C fibers from the site of damaged tissue to the brain. MSM also appears to reduce inflammation, enhance blood flow, and reduce painful muscle spasms.
- Essential Fats: As stated on the nutrition tips, if you do not consume wild Atlantic salmon or mackerel, it is suggested then that you supplement your diet with 1-2 tablespoons of fish oils and/or flaxseed oil in order to get the very important essential fatty acids that your body needs. Carlson fish oils and spectrum flaxseed oil are great products to get these fats from.
Note: A good and convenient product that contains Vitamin C, Gelatin, Glucosamine, Chondroitin and MSM at the right dosages in a good tasting drink is called ElastiJoint® by Labrada Nutrition.
- Use Periodization And Provide Enough Rest Prior To Training A Bodypart Again: As mentioned in the training guidelines, periodization and the right amount of time before training a body part again are of utmost importance to joint health and recuperation. Overtraining leads to overuse injuries.
- Get Your 8 Hours Of Sleep Each Night: Sleep deprivation leads to depressed hormonal production which at the end of the day affects your recovery and prevents full recuperation from training.
Advice For Youngsters On The Importance Of Joint Health
For those of you starting out in your teens, please start following the advice presented in this article. While it does not seem important, any joint injuries at that age will remain with you for the rest of your life and any little thing that you do will aggravate them as you get older. In addition, because your strength will increase at an incredible, accelerated rate at this age, be sure to increase repetitions before deciding to increase the weight on an exercise in order to protect your joints. Keep in mind that your muscles will always grow quicker than your joints.
Only when you can easily perform 15 repetitions for an exercise for all sets then should you consider slightly increasing the weight. Because your anabolic hormones are at an all time high, you will achieve great results anyways.
If you follow all of the guidelines in this article you will greatly minimize your chances of a joint injury and as a result will have great pain-free workouts for many years to come.
However, if you feel pain every time you hit those weights, my advice is to try exercises that do not trigger such pain and that you visit a good doctor who can get to the cause of the pain and who refers you to a good physical therapist to start working with you on fixing it. In this case, it is more crucial than ever that you adhere to all the guidelines presented here and that you consume your nutritional supplements on a daily basis.