Isn’t it just the best feeling when you find out your doctor lifts? Doctors who lift say things like, “Let’s keep you working out.” I get a fuzzy feeling when this happens.
Recently, this happened when I went to a hand doctor for a sore thumb (no, really). A lifter himself, he said something else that resonated: “When something starts hurting, I know it’s just a matter of time til something else comes up.” He shrugged and smiled.
If you’re frustrated by aches and pains from lifting, let this soak in: Those of us who train consistently are hard on our bodies. It’s the same with runners and anyone else who trains repetitively. Repetitive stress injuries are common and don’t just come from sports – playing an instrument, using the computer, texting, playing video games, and cashiering are all repetitive motions.
When this kind of stress occurs repeatedly over time, the body’s joints can’t recover. As a result, the joints and surrounding tendons and muscles become irritated and inflamed. Muscle and joint dysfunction happen, along with chronic pain.
We lifters try very hard not to have flat-out injuries. We practice pristine form, add variation to our workouts, and give ourselves time to recover. We know the rules of lifting: Use your core, don’t arch your back, keep your shoulders down.
But what most of us experience more often than an acute injury is nagging pain or tightness in a muscle, ligament, or joint. Tendonitis, muscle spasms, and inflammation are language of repetitive use. The benefits of lifting outweigh these aches and pains, but we’d rather not have them because they interfere with lifting!
Ignorance Is Not Bliss; Lifting Is Bliss
While visiting my family in Dallas recently, we hopped in their minivan for an overnight trip about 85 miles away. My husband and I were startled when the van let out a loud, whining sound, but once the van warmed up the shrieking noise faded away. Apparently, this had gone on for some time, and everyone forgot about it. But sure enough, as we were getting ready to come back the next day, the minivan choked and refused to start. My dad looked under the hood and pulled out a belt that was completely tattered.
I’m sure you know what I’m getting at here. Over time, we accumulate wear and tear from lifting. If you ignore your body’s signals, it’s eventually going to break down.
Methodically addressing each ache, pain, and tweak helps you avoid bigger issues down the road. A side benefit of “ongoing maintenance” is that over time, you’ll have fewer aches and pains from lifting as you learn how to train smarter. Actively engaging in prehab is simple maintenance with a big payoff.
Treating Tweaks Like Training
In theory, the perfect training program will help you avoid injury. And it will help. But in practice, human factors like overconfidence, impatience, distraction, and inexperience can interfere. Take my thumb issue, for example. I probably strained it when did cleans as a warm up. Heck, it seemed like a fine idea at the time; I was feeling strong and limber and needed the challenge. Looking back, though, I can see that it was a lame idea, particularly with my degenerative wrists. I knew it probably wasn’t injured, but I wanted an X-ray to make sure.
Here’s the reality: When you train day in and day out (i.e., consistently), you’ve got to care for your occasional aches and pains as if they’re part of your training. I view this as the “care and maintenance” of lifters – you.
When an ache or pain crops up, you can learn from it. Eventually, you’ll understand what you should always do and what you should never do. Your tweaks become less frequent, injuries non-existent, and you’ll be able to do what you love – train.
We’re Jacked Up Before We Even Lift
Pretty much everyone is at risk for aches and pains from lifting, simply because we’re jacked up before we even walk into the gym.
Your 30-minute commute, hours of hunching at the computer, your 30-minute commute home, and the fanfuckingtastic evening couch time all cause tightness in your body and weak, inactive glutes.
The result? When you lift weights, your body tries to “move around” tightness and underfunctioning muscles, causing smaller muscles to take up the slack. Over time, your body’s compensations cause overuse of support muscles and dysfunctional movement patterns.
In the end, those tight hips from sitting might cause you to favor your quads during squats, thus knee pain. Those tight upper traps might cause you to unconsciously shrug during overhead presses, causing rotator cuff irritation or muscle spasms. All this noise hurts, as you most likely already know.
Some of these problems do originate in the weight room due to improper form, lack of knowledge, or bad decisions. We typically know it when we make a mistake that causes a tweak or injury. [Tweet “Fixing repetitive stress issues is the secret to lifting weights long term.”]
A System For Lifting Longevity
If you listen to your body’s signals, tweaks usually won’t turn into full-fledged injuries. Incorporating preventative measures into your training and your life will help you move from constantly tweaked to that blissful place of being (mostly) strong and injury-free.
Prehab – Your Best Friend
I don’t really care what the current buzzword is for prehab. Just do it. Your routine should also be individual to your aches and pains, workout, and history. Most importantly, it should be systematic. Here’s what I do, and what I recommend for my clients.
Before Every Workout
♦ Foam roll tight, overactive muscles and adhesions acquired while sitting and doing other repetitive motions.
Foam roll whatever feels tight or painful that day (adductors, hip flexors, quads, glutes, calves, lats, rhomboids, etc.).
Most people do not foam roll correctly. The proper technique is to find a tender spot and stay on it until it releases (20-60 seconds). Simply rolling back and forth might increase blood flow a bit, but it won’t work out adhesions.
By the way, if your low back hurts, please don’t foam roll your low back. Instead, foam roll your glutes, adductors, and tensor fascia latae (TFL), as these muscles tie into the lumbar spine. It’s also not a good idea to foam roll your anterior delts in most cases, but give your rear delts, pectorals, and lats extra love as needed.
There are endless foam rolling instruments of pleasure you can use! I posted this quick list of my favorite tools on Instagram:
♦ Do a 10-minute dynamic warm up consisting of 6-8 exercises
Each time I arrive in the gym, I deliberately avoid looking at the squat rack. That’s because if I see that the squat rack is empty, I have an insane temptation to run over there without warming up. By now, I’ve suffered the consequences of skipping my dynamic warm up enough times that I rarely skip it. I’m not a fan of needlessly pulled muscles.
Dynamic warm ups are simple, bodyweight exercises that take your joints and muscles gently and safely through the same movements as your workout. Dynamic warm ups can result in increased flexibility and range of motion. In effect, that means your warm up is your best tool for lifting longevity.
A few of my favorite dynamic warm-up exercises are:
- Single-leg glute bridge
- Glute bridge with leg whip
- Split-stance adductor mobilization
- Quad/hip flexor stretch
- Band pull apart
- Shoulder dislocate
The lunge with thoracic rotation is another one of my favorites for upper-body mobility.
♦ Do five minutes of static stretching. Your muscles actually get tight while you’re lifting, too. It’s a good idea to loosen things up with static stretching after your sessions. I personally spend five minutes stretching my hips, quads, calves, lats, and pectorals.
♦ Foam roll any known problem areas.
Daily and As Needed
Posture. Sitting is a major source of aches and pains for many folks. Stand or walk as much as possible during the day. At the computer, keep your shoulders down and relaxed and your chin tucked. Don’t look up at the computer screen and don’t hunch down over the keyboard. Always be conscious of your posture, whether you’re cooking, standing, driving, or sitting.
Soft tissue work. I often use a la crosse ball on the bottoms of my feet during the day (stand and roll the ball under your foot with gentle pressure). I’ll also sit on a foam roller on non-workout days or use the Beastie Ball on my rear delt. I have muscle spasms that act up now and then and I always address it the same day.
Rest and recovery. We all love to go hard and wish we could train every day. But smart lifters know that recovery is just as important as training. Leave 48 hours between training the same muscles, and give yourself days off.
When Something’s Wrong
There’s aches and pains from lifting, and then there are injuries. This is basic stuff – don’t ignore the loud whining sound or you risk being down for the count for a long time. (Also, use your discretion on how to proceed. I am NOT a doctor, so please do not assume that my advice will replace one.)
- If you feel a twinge, tweak, pull, or pain, STOP what you’re doing. It might be a good idea to grab a foam roller and try to work out the area right then and there. But I still recommend stopping the exercise until you can tell how bad it is. Just trying to “finish the set” is bullshit, so don’t do that.
- Take standard precautions, like icing, compression, and rest.
- For god’s sake, do not train that area again until it’s pain free!
- Get a diagnosis and tests done to help you determine what’s up.
As far as my sore thumb goes, the hand doctor says it’s probably a strained ligament from months ago. It will heal eventually. When I tape it, it doesn’t hurt. So I tape it.
Those of us who lift consistently for years may face aches and pains from lifting from time to time. We may not be right off the lot, but if well cared for, we’ve got miles to go.
This article originally appeared on www.workoutnirvana.com.