Is Weightlifting Bad For Your Joints?
This is one of the most common questions we get. Many people are deterred from lifting weights because they are nervous of hurting themselves, or causing long-term damage to their knees, shoulders, hips, etc. So instead, they go for runs and do bodyweight exercises for a bazillion reps without realizing the damage they are doing to their joints, tendons, and ligaments from repetitive, cyclical exercise.
What are Tendons, Joints, and Ligaments?
Tendons are fibrous structures that attach muscle to bone. When a muscle contracts, its tendon pulls on the move causing movement at a joint. Think about what happens at your elbow when you contract your bicep. A ligament is a fibrous structure that attaches bone to another bone (or organ to another organ). Its job in joints is to maintain stability and prevent unwanted movement. Joints are where different parts of the human body are fitted together. At your knee your femur, patella, and tibia are fitted together.
It is important to understand that tendons directly act on joints to create movement and ligaments hold these joints together.
So what kind of movement strengthens these structures, and what kind of movement breaks them down?
Mechanical vs. Cyclical Loading
A tendons response to load is dependent on the type of load. Cyclical loading is repetitive activities like running, jumping, gymnastics (kipping pullups, push ups, air squats). These movements are fast, and typically done with just bodyweight. They actually cause tendon BREAKDOWN. This means if you do too much of it you are likely to end up with tendinopathy (tendinitis or tendinosis). Mechanical loading involves an external force or load. Movements like squatting, deadlifting, pressing, strict pulling done for strength are tendon BUILDING. However, these movements must be done with control, and heavy enough so you aren’t doing tons of reps. We like you in the 5-12 rep range.
The reason why CrossFit has such a bad rap when it comes to joint health is because too often, participants will simply do too many WODs, without enough focused strength work. Our workouts are typically light and fast, with the intent of getting your heart rate up and creating a metabolic effect. These workouts are mostly cyclical. That is why at Yankee the first half of our class is strength work. With the exception of snatches and clean & Jerks, this part of class is all mechanical loading, and tendon building. It is important to be doing enough mechanical loading in relationship to cyclical loading to prevent breakdown and damage.
It is also important to note that I am not specifically talking about the sport of Weightlifting (Snatch and Clean & Jerk) in this blog, but rather lifting weights. Those who compete in the sport need proper mechanical loading as well to prevent tendon breakdown.
Mobility and Flexibility
The other piece to the puzzle is mobility and flexibility. You are much more likely to damage a joint (i.e. tendon/ligament tears) or have joint pain if you are trying to do movements you are physically able to do correctly because you lack range of motion. For example, if your hips do not have enough flexion to squat to full depth and your ankle dorsiflexion is poor (think your knee driving forward in a squat), and you go do some heavy back squats you are likely going to compensate. Compensations over time lead to injury. The most common in this person’s case would be a leaned forward squat leading to lower back pain or hip pain.
So….. Is Weightlifting bad for your joints?
Lifting weights correctly is actually GOOD for your joints because it helps build healthy tendons that act on them. However, the loading must be done with intention and you must have a plan around balancing cyclical & mechanical loading. Also, if you have mobility and flexibility restrictions it is important to modify the full range of motion movements that your restrictions will affect to partial range of motion exercises while you focus on improving range of motion. For example, subbing a box squat for a back squat, or a romanian deadlift for a deadlift.The good thing for you is that we do the hard thinking and planning for you!
Joint pain associated with exercise is NOT normal. If you are having pain with specific movements, please reach out and schedule an assessment. We can, and want, to help you!
Email Yankeecrossfit@gmail.com to set an assessment up!