Why Do My Joints Hurt? How to Diagnose and Work Around Lifting Injuries

Why Do My Joints Hurt? How to Diagnose and Work Around Lifting Injuries
Cranky elbows and creaky knees? Turns out it could be due a variety of issues but first and foremost you need to address biomechanics and programming - here's how.

Key Points

  1. Programming plays a key role in preventing injuries. Neglect it long enough and it will catch up with you.
  2. Most trainees should be hitting their "go" muscles more than their "show" muscles.
  3. The hips, knees, and shoulders are the primarily load bearing joints within the body and as such, suffer the highest injury rate. 
  4. Biomechanics play the largest role in injury prevention. However, individual anatomy differs highly so it's impossible to make absolute recommendations.

I can speak from firsthand experience when I say that injuries are no picnic. As a sprinter I dealt with injuries that sidelined me from competitions, and as a lifter I dealt with injuries that sidelined me from major movements in the weight room. 

In setting a foundation for training, I definitely wish that ten years ago, I learned what I know now about the human body, as it would have been a great way to preemptively avoid setting the stage for loopholes in my training, and ultimately injuries developing over time. 

If you’re a lifter who’s just starting out, or someone who’s currently experiencing the side effects of poor programming or lifting technique then this article could be your saving grace.

The Simple Truth

The knees, hips, and shoulders are the three primary load bearing joints within the body. As a result, most musculoskeletal injuries are a product of these joints being affected in some way, shape or form. 

It’s impossible to get to the root of every issue through a 1000 word article, but going over some truths can help eliminate possibilities and get a better understanding of what to do to address an issue, or prevent it altogether.

In order to create a stable joint, there has to be a relative balance in strength between the muscles on either side of that joint.

Often, a discrepancy between the muscles surrounding joints is what causes the beginnings of chronic pain, and leads to injury.

Across the board, the anterior musculature (on the front of your body) is trained much more regularly than the posterior musculature (on the back side of your body).  That means they’ve got a higher chance of becoming tight and overworked if they aren’t addressed. 

Pull More than you Push!

Seriously – If you do a more detailed examination, most people’s entire posterior chain is significantly weaker or less active than their anterior chain.

Why Do My Joints Hurt

It’s made worse when bench press, biceps curls and leg extensions are the movements of focus in the gym. Pressing movements as a whole require more warm up and preparation since the forces are working directly against the joints. It’s a reason that squats can aggravate a lifter who has bad knees, but deadlifts (even deeper set trap bar deadlifts) tend to cause much less pain.

Becoming strong at exercises like row variations, chin/pull ups, deadlift variations, pull throughs, and glute hamstring raises will create a suitable foundation for the body’s general strength balances and make movements like squats, overhead press, and bench press much more efficient and pain free. 

Start by doing 2 pull exercises for every 1 push exercise.

A major reason your joints hurt is probably because of the above – too much pressing and not enough pulling. A simple change in that ratio could salvage your joints.  But if it goes beyond this, and you’re already covering your bases with pulling more often, what else might be causing the problem?

Refine your Technique

As mentioned above, pressing exercises tend to be the ring leaders when it comes to aggravating joint pain. For the purposes of this article, we’ll focus on squats, bench press, and overhead press as the focal points to refine.

Squats

One of the most important aspects to emphasize within a back squat is a linear bar path in order to minimize shearing forces and ensure an even load distribution.

Also, initially when you’re starting out, avoid using heel lifts if at all possible to ensure the pelvis stays neutral. It may mean a minor sacrifice to depth, but at the end of the day, it could salvage a pair of angry knees, if your body is not in proper condition. 

Experiment with stance width and toe angle to determine what works best for your body.  Plenty of hip stress can be attributed to an incorrect stance that’s either too wide or too narrow.

Why Do My Joint Hurt

Many people’s hip sockets (acetabulae) are located on different places of the pelvis – some more towards the front, others more towards the sides. Making sure the femurs line up with these sockets when setting up for a squat will mean your deepest, safe depth without any “grinding” or “catching” of the muscle or connective tissue in the hip complex.

Bench Press

The bench press is a slightly different animal, simply because good technique actually asks the body to “break the rules” of what’s natural.

Proper form in the bench press means the shoulder blades are to be pinned to the bench, allowing for no movement, and better isolating the chest and lowering the involvement of the rotator cuff and shoulder capsule.

Unfortunately, an immobile pair of scapulae throws off the congruent rhythm they should have between themselves and the upper arm as it moves. The only way to correct this is to allow the shoulders to slide around on the bench which, as we know, is dangerous while baring load –and could lead to shoulder injuries.

The bench press is generally lower on my list of big lifts to master because, for most people, the cost to benefit ratio should be skewed slightly in favor of doing this less often.

Ego is a major player in how much this exercise is practiced, and it could often mean the demise of a lifter’s shoulders if they’re in a poor condition to start. 

Along with building a strong upper back through properly executed pulling movements, focus on the importance of proper function of the shoulder blades – scapular mobility is often neglected in the name of creating stability instead.

For a better explanation of this topic, check out the video below.

Overhead Press

Pressing a bar over your head can set the perfect stage for forcing proper balance and an even weight distribution over all involved joints.

The problem is, most people press weight to where they can see it, and not to where they can’t. The vertical push movements involve spinal loading, and the bar should be loaded over the spine at the end of the lift. If it’s not, then the end result will be plenty of shoulder stress that could even refer to back stress, especially if a pair of immobile hips cause a hyperextended lumbar spine.

At the end of an overhead press, the head should “look through the window” you create with your arms, and the bar should be loaded over the shoulder blades, which is basically over the spine. Once more, view the video below for a thorough explanation.

Bad Joints Be Gone

Most of the time, it’s not simply a matter of a given exercise not being ‘the right one for you’. In truth, there’s a good chance you’re either doing too much of one exercise, or just using poor form on the right exercise. 

Creating balance as a young, novice lifter can set the stage for success and a whole lot of muscle. At the same time, recreating balance as a mature lifter can be the first step in saying goodbye to nagging joint pain.

Now is your chance, are you willing to take the steps to a build a strong foundation and set yourself up for success?