Your muscles may be ready, but your joints aren’t.
This simple sentence just so happens to be the best injury prevention advice I’ve ever heard. Why? It exposes a major flaw in how the majority of us approach resistance training. We train to get big and strong. We lift to ‘chase the pump’ and look like our best selves in the mirror. While all of these things can be healthy motivators at the right doses, there is a key piece of the puzzle missing if you stop there.
Ask yourself this question… “Am I training in a way that is truly fostering injury prevention, or am I merely hoping that I don’t get hurt?”. Yes, it’s a big reality check. Don’t worry if you’re leaning towards the latter, I’m often there too. Even with the knowledge that I’ve acquired as a kinesiologist, I can struggle to prioritize ‘prehab’ work in my personal programming.
If you’re not quite sure where I’m going with this, I hope a few lightbulbs go off by the end of this article. My main goal is to widen your perspective on what really matters in the gym. Yes, short-term aims are great but don’t forget about the long game. If you implement the three practical tips below, you’ll be setting your body up for a good time and a long time.
Joint health is nothing to mess with. Be proactive and start fostering proper mobility and stability today!
Three Tips to Staying Injury Free by Building Robust Joints
You may argue, “Well I’ve never been injured yet so why change my fitness routine now?”. The reality is, with increased age comes an elevated risk of musculoskeletal problems. This is especially apparent at joint sites where constant stress is being loaded through workouts and daily activities.
Although I mentioned resistance training above, this is absolutely relevant to aerobic athletes as well. Whether you’re currently injured or feel healthy as a horse, it doesn’t matter. This is about being proactive to ensure that you arrive and remain at your peak shape for as long as possible.
Without further ado, let’s jump into the 3 major pillars of joint health!
1) Do Slow Progressive Overloads
If you’re unfamiliar with this fitness principle, don’t worry. The idea is very simple. In short, your body always requires a new, more challenging stimulus to adapt and become stronger. For those looking for ‘gains’, it’s absolutely critical to increase the intensity of your workouts (whether through the load, rep ranges, sets, exercise prescription, etc…) slowly over time.
The keyword here is slowly.
The most frequent joint health mistake we can make in the gym is loading up too heavy too quickly. This is especially prevalent in beginners who are eager to lift as much weight as possible. The reality is, you may have the brute strength to get the weights up, but your joints aren’t there yet. If you haven’t gradually progressed to that point, the relationship between your musculoskeletal and nervous systems will be weak and uncoordinated. If you continue to attack training at a level that’s beyond what your anatomy is ready for, your joints will quickly let you hear about it.
I really want to avoid overcomplicating things, so here is an ultra-quick strategy for performing a safe and gradually progressive overload. When approaching a new exercise, begin with a weight that feels slightly too light. Once you’re able to perform that exercise with perfect form and control for at least 10 reps, slowly jump to the next progression. If you want to take it a step further, I’d highly recommend waiting until you have two sessions in a row at that current state before progressing further.
While this may feel slow and unproductive, you’re building an important foundation for when you eventually get to the heavier loads. Not only will your joint health be much better suited for the task, but your form will be top-notch as well.
For those training for power and brute strength, rep ranges will obviously be lower than ten most of the time. I’m hoping that these athletes are already more advanced and have proper coaching for how to be progressing their lifts safely. For the majority of us, following the advice above will ensure we’re moving safely and improving at a sustainable rate.
2) Avoid Overtraining
As much as rushing progressions is an issue, overtraining is also all too common. Again, while some professional athletes may need to be religiously dedicated to their craft, the majority of us don’t need to be training for hours on end. If you’re spending 3 hours in the gym 6 days a week, you’re doing something wrong.
The most underrated element in fitness is exercise choice. Try and limit each session to 5–10 ‘high-yield’ movements that you can do safely and with great form. While strategies like drop sets and compound sets can be fun, ensure that you’re moving efficiently. Some of the most respected lifters I know only take 45–50 minutes per session and will solely focus on 5–6 strategically placed movements per workout.
If you’re spending 3 hours in the gym 6 days a week, you’re doing something wrong.
Not only is this saving a ton of time and protecting your joints, but it’s also just way more effective for achieving a maximal stimulus. There is a phenomenon called central fatigue that is essentially your nervous system’s ability to recruit and fire a signal to help you lift as much weight as possible. If you’re overtraining and failing to rest (both between sets and between workouts), this signal will die down and you’ll never get to your full potential. Although this is a major oversimplification, I hope you see the key point:
Less is almost always more in the gym. Never neglect the rest and recovery phase either…it will come back to haunt you later.
3) Prioritize Joint Mobility / Stability Work
The first two tips were talking about avoiding faulty training habits, so let’s shift gears and talk about what you can do. To fully maximize your joint health, you must be doing mobility and stability work in conjunction with your other training.
Just to clarify, mobility training is taking your joints through their full range of motion, while stability work is more about loading up a joint in a unique way to increase balance, muscle and nervous system recruitment/coordination, and overall safety of movement. Below, I’ve attached 5 easy exercises for each. While this isn’t an exhaustive list, it’s a great start to getting you on the right path. If you’re interested in learning about more exercises, I’d highly suggest checking out thephysiofix.
For each movement, try 10–15 reps for 2 sets.
5 Mobility Exercises:
Hip CARS (controlled articular rotations)
90/90 Hip Switch
5 Stability Exercises:
Pallof Press (Core)
Ankle Stability/Proprioception Drill
Bottoms Up Kettle Bell Press
Shoulder External Rotations
Rapid-Fire Bonus Tips: Warm-up, warm-up, warm-up! Eat well, and take supplements if recommended for your age. Exercise mindfully and stop before pain. Drop your ego at the gym door (so, so key). Prioritize a full recovery by sleeping at least 7–8 hours per night.
If you want to have a long fitness career, you need to get serious about joint health today. It’s an absolute no-brainer as it’s quick, easy, and productive on so many levels. Not only will you avoid being sidelined due to injury, but your coordination, strength, balance, and overall fitness will improve. There are far too many influencers out there that will push you to train hard every single day for 'maximum gains’. While that may work in the short term, you’re bound to burn out eventually.
What I’m more interested in is getting you feeling like your best self in a sustainable manner that can be maintained for years to come. Commit to joint training and your fitness journey will never be the same. Your gains will improve, and you’ll be better equipped to face the many curveballs that life will throw at you.
It all comes down to training smarter, not harder.
Now get down to business!