Joint pain is unavoidable if you lift weights. Even with no injuries, the reduced recovery of aging will force it. But thankfully there are changes you can make to keep training and stay healthy.
Here’s the typical pattern. In youth you dive into weight lifting, visions of Arnold in mind, barely taking the time to learn technique. And you get away with a lot because you’re so resilient at that age. Rounded-back deadlifts, inadequate warm-ups, and ballistic form with too much weight.
If you manage to avoid catastrophic injuries, by early to mid thirties the complaining from your joints gets louder. Ignoring it and hoping it goes away no longer works, and you’re forced to think about training longevity.
The first step in easing joint strain is exercise selection, and ditching the idea there are compulsory movements. Muscle stimulation via force resistance is all that matters for hypertrophy. It’s true there are more and less efficient ways to supply that force, but if certain methods lead to injury, other ways will still get you there.
For example, you can still build impressive quadriceps with leg presses instead of squats. Or get chest growth with machine presses instead of barbell bench.
The same goes for rep ranges. Science has shown you can build as much muscle with high reps as with low, given enough effort.
Therefore, we have vast programming choice to best find a minimally joint-taxing way to train. If a particular exercise or rep range leads to problems, try some alternatives till you find what works.
The other critical factor is exercise form, and there are several components to it. The most obvious part is learning to perform movements in a joint-safe path that targets the right muscles.
However, tempo and intent are also important. High speed, sloppy reps direct force away from muscles and onto joints and connective tissue (bouncing out of the bottom of a squat, for instance).
The most joint-friendly repetition is a controlled one with mental focus on the muscle (mind-muscle connection), not on the amount of weight you’re using. It might mean a reduction in weight, but that’s good because it further reduces joint strain. There’s another advantage, too: this style of training maximises stress on a muscle, which is better for growth.
It might seem this approach requires a slow rep-speed, but as long as control is maintained, you can still contract your muscles explosively. In fact, doing so helps maximize fiber recruitment for best hypertrophy. Probably safer to slow down a bit on the eccentric portion though.
In it for life
In my case, stubbornly overdoing exercises with improper form lead to permanent joint injuries (albeit not debilitating). As such there are some great movements I can’t do anymore without further degradation.
It’s frustrating in hindsight, but by using the principles outlined here I can still train very productively. And most importantly, in a joint-friendly way that will give me the best chance of keeping it up for life.