Should you train through joint pain?

Aching and painful joints is a common malady, especially among older adults. While arthritis is a common culprit in causing joint pain, other factors include inflammation, repetitive motion, weak muscles, a lack of mobility and being overweight.

For anyone who is accustomed to being active or working out, joint pain can be frustrating. We want to keep doing the things we love, yet also know we should be prudent when it comes to pushing too hard. It’s easy to keep going when we’re young, but people in their 30's, 40's, 50's and beyond are going to have to adjust.

We do know that exercise can help. Regular activity can help reduce inflammation, increase blood flow and strengthen the muscles around the joints. The last thing you want to do is “nothing”.

You’ll want to approach your training perhaps with some modifications and additional time spent on warming up.


Don’t Neglect Your Prep Time

Prepping the body for working out is one of the most important things you can do. Almost everyone could use more time spent on mobility and on priming the joints and tissues for movement, but many neglect this important phase of training. It may be tempting to hit the gym and just grind, but if you want to remain pain and injury-free, you’ll make time for your warm ups.


Foam Roller for Massage

Foam rolling is an easy way to get your body mobilized. Foam rollers are a great tool for self myofascial release; they get into the muscles and help get the tissues prepared for work. Spend some time rolling out your quads, hamstrings, glutes, lower back and thoracic spine. You’ll use your own bodyweight against the roller on the floor, or you can use a lacrosse ball on the wall to dig into some smaller and hard to get to areas.


Joint Rotations for Lubrication

Once you’ve rolled out, spend 5-8 minutes on joint mobility, starting with some simple joint rotations.

Think of moving each joint through its full range of movement in a circular fashion. All joints articulate with rotation, so it makes sense to train them in the way they are meant to move. Try and do at least 10 rotations per direction per joint.

Include the following 10 movements as a starting point:

  • Neck Rolls
  • Shoulder Shrugs or Rotations
  • Arm Swings
  • Elbow and Wrist Circles
  • Thoracic Spine Circles
  • Hip Hula Hoops
  • Forward and Back Bending
  • Leg Swings (front to back, and lateral side to side)
  • Knee Circles
  • Ankle Rotations

Remember that joints don’t get a direct supply of blood. Joints rely on synovial fluid to wash away waste that can build up and cause problems. Mobility training stimulates the flow of that fluid, which allows us to run, jump, climb, lift and move in any way we want.

Even if you don’t suffer from joint pain, joint rotations will prevent stiffness and can even restore lost range of motion.


Dynamic Stretches for Overall Mobility

After a bit of time on joint rotations, you can move on to more complex mobility work and light dynamic stretches. You do not want to hold any deep, isometric stretches before training (save those till later), but as long as you keep moving, you’ll be fine. Mobility gets the blood circulating into the muscles, lubricates the joints, and primes the central nervous system for more work.

Of course, you can modify your warm-up based on the type of training you are doing on a particular day. Have a heavy lower-body day? Then concentrate more on hip and ground mobility. Are you training mostly upper body? Then work on thoracic extension and dynamic shoulder stretches.

If you suffer from tendinitis (inflammation of the tendons that surround a joint), you really want to get lots of blood into the muscles and synovial fluid into the joints affected before you train. If you are experiencing elbow discomfort, it may help to pick up a pair of very light dumbbells or bands and performing some open-chain exercises such as curls and triceps push downs. Perform slow, light, full range of motion movements that mimic the more strenuous exercises that you plan to perform that day. If you feel that the discomfort subsides after doing a few sets of moderate to high reps, you may be safe to train heavier. If the pain doesn’t go away, you may have to modify your workout plans.


Get The Blood Flowing

Finally, move to a bit of light cardio activity that’s easy on the joints, just to get your heart rate slightly elevated. If your elbows are sore from tendinitis, you may start with a few minutes of jump rope, but if you have sore knees or ankles, you may opt for a bike or a rower. Use something that’s suitable for you. Some options include:

  • Jump rope
  • Light jog or running in place
  • Marching with high knees
  • Light shadow boxing
  • Rowing (erg), light pace

You’ll know you’re properly warmed up when your breathing is accelerated and you’ve just started to perspire.

When training, never go beyond the threshold of pain. “No pain, no gain” isn’t a mantra to live by. If pain persists, even after a few days of rest, contact your physician or alternate health care professional for advice.

Mixing up your workouts will help avoid over-training one particular area, so if you’re a weightlifter, try doing some yoga. If you’re addicted to running, try some bodyweight strength exercises. Think of things you might enjoy that won’t stress your joints -- swimming being the ultimate low-impact activity.

Remember that pain should not be a factor. Discomfort may be a sign that you are trying to hard, or have a potential injury. Listen to your body and respect it!

By: Greg Carver for Lebert Fitness
Founder/Lead Training, StrengthBox, Inc