03 Feb Does Strength Training Ruin Our Joints?
If you’re like me, you care about your joints.
The last thing any of us would want is to have joint pain or any joint issues that limits us in any way.
I’ve been thinking a lot recently about the effects of heavy strength training on our joint health. Does heavy training ruin our joints? This is a big deal if you think about the consequences of wearing down the joint surfaces and what that can mean for us in terms of pain, loss of mobility, and functional decline.
This topic was prompted by a great podcast interview I had with Chad Waterbury.
First, let me review some science. Then I’ll share common sense and personal experience about this question so we can logically approach strength training for the long term.
When I refer to strength training, I’m referring to lifting heavy weights with free-form compound movements, such as with kettlebells, barbells, and any other training modality in which heavy weights are used in multi-joint lifts.
ARTICULAR CARTILAGE AND OA
Let’s talk about the joints, specifically the articular cartilage. Articular cartilage is connective tissue that covers the joint surfaces between bones. The primary function of articular cartilage is to absorb shock, distribute weight efficiently, and allow for pain free movement and articulation between the joint surfaces.
Articular cartilage is composed of 2 major elements, cells called chondrocytes and the extracellular matrix. Both of these are critical in optimizing healthy, high performing joints.
Osteoarthritis (OA) or degenerative joint disease is non-inflammatory and primarily effects the articular cartilage. Spine, hip, and knee are commonly effected by OA. OA is a major cause of joint pain, dysfunction, disability, and decreased quality of life.
There are many factors that contribute to OA which include sedentary lifestyle, overweight and obesity, excessive joint loading, and previous injury to the joint. OA also occurs with abnormal joint stress and is a natural process of aging, which means we’re likely experience it at some level in our lifetime.
Aging and sedentary lifestyles are the major factors that contribute to reduce the metabolism of the articular cartilage, which promotes the condition of OA.
THE SCIENCE BEHIND EXERCISE
In a recent comprehensive research review looking at the effects of physical activity on articular cartilage, the study concluded that strength training is essential for joint health. It’s essential to increase the shock absorption capabilities of the musculoskeletal system, as well as stabilize the joints effectively.
In fact, the research concluded that many forms of physical activity and exercise can help prevent or delay the onset of osteoarthritis (OA).
Did you get that, prevent or delay the onset of OA.
Several studies have shown the strength training and compressive joint loading is extremely important to maintain the normal structure of the articular cartilage and ultimately improve joint health.
The scientific evidence seems to highly suggest that inactivity and sedentary lifestyle are the most detrimental to joint health as compared to weight training and joint loading, which is in fact, very beneficial.
The big question is what about heavy weight training such as done with powerlifting and Olympic weightlifting?
With these training practices, significant loads are placed on the joints and the articular surfaces, so wouldn’t that promote joint degradation over time?
In another study looking at highly experienced weightlifters and powerlifters, the study evaluated the joint health of 24 subjects between the ages of 24 and 49.
Subjects were evaluated by radiographic exam (x-rays) to determine the degree of joint degeneration and revealed very interesting findings. Clearly, a big limitation of the this study is the small number of athletes and larger studies are still needed.
The study found that there was a surprisingly low incidence of degenerative joints in the athletes.
20% of the subjects had some evidence of OA in at least one joint (nearly all were mild), which is comparable to and potentially less than what you’d expect to find in the general population.
It should be noted that previous injury to a joint is a risk factor for OA and degenerative changes.
You may think that the cumulative joint stress could lead to an accelerated degree of joint degeneration. However, keep in mind what was stated earlier about how strength training promotes the integrity of the joints and enhances metabolism of the articular cartilage.
More data suggests that strength training is an extremely effective treatment approach for patients with existing OA.
Patients who have OA greatly benefited from resistance exercise.
This shouldn’t be surprising at all. In a recent pooled study analysis evaluating 60 trials with over 8000 patients, there was significant evidence of the benefits of exercise intervention compared to no exercise at all. Again, this is looking at the results from over 8000 patients with degenerative joint disease, primarily in the knee.
Exercise is clearly beneficial, but how much loading is safe? Does heavy lifting over time ruin our joints?
A TALE OF 2 ATHLETES
Let’s look at 2 different training examples and the potential impact on joint health. Let’s assume that both athletes primarily train for the goal strength development.
Athlete #1 frequently trains heavy. This athlete is committed to getting as strong as possible and enjoys lifting heavy things. But, the athlete doesn’t take much time off or incorporate periods of de-loading because they’re “addicted” to training – they have a hard time taking off or simply reducing volume.
Unfortunately, technique and skill development aren’t a primary focus either as the athlete is mostly concerned with lifting max weight as compared to improving technique and developing skills. This athlete seems to be always battling through nagging, recurrent injuries. Unfortunately, this scenario is quite “real world.”
In contrast, we have athlete #2 who also trains very heavy, but follows strategic programming approach and incorporates planned periods of “de-loading” with reduced training volume and intensity.
This athlete is very dedicated to improving technical skills, as well as improving movement and biomechanical efficiency with their training. The athlete listens to their body and takes an extra day off or more, if they feel the need for extra rest and recovery. The athlete is pain-free and mobile.
Both athletes train heavy and both make progress, but which athlete do you think will have healthier joints for the long term?
The answer is obvious.
Many years ago, I suffered a devastating injury.
I had a severe, debilitating disc herniation in my low back (lumbar spine) which required surgery. It was one of the worst experiences of my life, but it also provided many valuable lessons.
Among those lessons were “don’t do dumb stuff” and “don’t be a jackass – listen to your body!” Anyway, the intervertebral joints of my spine will always be a vulnerable area for me and an area I need to be aware of.
The ONLY time my back bothers ms is when I miss a few workouts or I’m inactive for an extended period of time (which is very rare, but it does happen).
In other words the more active I am, the more I exercise, the more I work on strength and movement – the better my back feels.
It’s very simple – move more and lift more, feel better.
This is one reason I’ll be “training” for the rest of my life or for as long as I’m physically able. When I train, my back feels great and when I miss or take off, it doesn’t.
THE BOTTOM LINE – WHAT WE KNOW
Let’s pull this all together.
What we clearly know is that exercise is good for our overall joint health.
Specifically, strength training and increased compressive load actually improves the health and metabolism of the articular cartilage and reduces our chance to develop OA.
However, common sense tells us that if we continuously train heavy without periods of de-loading, the joint surface can degrade and wear out over time.
And, there are things that are much worse for joint health (sedentary lifestyle, obesity, and high impact jumping and rotational forces, just as examples).
Safe training, proper technique, smart strategic programming, and periods of rest and recovery are essential over the long term training plan to minimize joint issues and maximize joint health.
It can’t be emphasized enough about the importance of “de-loading” to reduce the incidence of injuries and avoid the consequences of overreaching or overtraining.
In other words, “we cannot train all out, all the time – we have to de-load” and reduce the intensity, frequency, and volume in a systematic training approach.
This is why it’s typically such a great idea to “de-load” for a week or so following an intensive training program.
Again, strength training is extremely beneficial for our joints. Science has shown us the benefits of exercise to prevent OA, but it’s important that we follow simple rules.
- always train using safe technique, no matter what you do
- implement smart programming strategies over the short and long term
- incorporate appropriate periods of “de-loading”
We need to train heavy, but we need to be smart and train and as safely as possible for our long term health and success.
Personally, I train heavy and feel mobile, supple, and pain-free. I also train smart and pay close attention to how I feel at all times. My training does NOT “beat me up” in any way because I train strategically and optimize nutrition and recovery.
Is heavy weight training good for our joint health?
Let’s be clear, none of us wants to trash our joints.
We need to remember that we are all unique and we all have individual differences.
We also need to use good common sense and avoid anything that causes increased joint pain.
But, when strength training is done properly, the benefits are proven. And, as I mentioned, I’ll be training heavy for as long as I possibly can because the benefits of physical strength are extensive.
Please share this article anywhere you’d like.
I stand by the information in this article and did not want to alter what I had originally written. However, I did want to make it clear that lifting “heavy” means being sensible and rationale with training while using “reasonable” loads. It should be distinguished that training for maximum strength development (1 RM – 1 Rep Max) is something that must be done safely, strategically, and be programmed accordingly with periods of de-loading.
To be clear, training “heavy” and training for maximum (or limit) strength (1 RM) are 2 different things. Training for 1 RM is an individual decision and individual goal. 1 RM is not what I am referring to in this article, although the trial above cited high level strength athletes with a similar incidence of OA as compared to the general population. I wanted to make sure the reader differentiates between training “heavy” and training for true 1 RM strength. We need to use a common sense approach with our training and keep our specific goals in mind.
The bottom line is our joints like movement, as illustrated in this article. Resistance exercise provides significant benefit for joint health, providing it’s conducted safely and with proper guidelines and considerations based on individual needs and background.
I hope this point is clear.