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10 Ways to Protect Your Joints

Armor-plate your shoulders, hips, knees, ankles, and elbows with these 10 expert training tips.

Joint pain can be a major issue when you're working out and playing sports.

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And while complaining about a bad back or stiff hips might typically be considered a sign of old age, it's a frequent problem with Regardless of age, it's time to start taking care your joints so you can enjoy life, and training, to the fullest.

Stiffness is only one condition that can result from a lack of joint care. Strains, sprains, dislocations, and arthritis are four more things you want to avoid throughout your strength and conditioning career. These four conditions are common in weight-bearing joints: knees, ankles, shoulders, elbows, and wrists. The good news is that with proper care, you can avoid joint injuries using a variety of training and lifestyle principles so that you’re always improving in the gym.

To learn how to work out pain and injury-free, we asked orthopedic surgeon Ron Noy, M.D., and Michael Camp, D.P.T., C.S.C.S., P.E.S., for ways to increase training longevity. Follow these 10 expert joint-saving tips to improve athletic performance and stay functional throughout life. 

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Balance Low and High-Impact Cardio

High-impact cardio, such as running, plyometrics, and agility drills, is a great tool for activating fast-twitch muscle fibers. However, too much impact can cause stress and potential damage. “Balancing low-impact exercises with your impact activities to strengthen the muscles will help protect your joints,” says Noy. “Muscle strength across the joint is what stabilizes and protects it.”

Elliptical machines, stationary bikes, rowing machines, treadmill walking, and swimming are examples of low-impact cardio that will provide continued muscle strengthening, and aerobic and fat-burning benefits while minimizing stress, says Camp.

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Increase Flexibility

Stretching, whether it is dynamic or static, maintains range of motion around joints.

“When a joint is stiff, it can alter the stresses seen during activities and it’s more prone to swelling, which can weaken the muscles protecting the joint,” says Noy.

Warm up all major muscle groups prior to exercise and stretch afterward to increase flexibility.

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Avoid Behind-the-Neck Presses

Moving your hands and arms behind the plane of your shoulders during a weightlifting exercise, like a behind-the-neck overhead press or a behind-the-neck lat pulldown may place the shoulders in an unstable condition. And that instability may lead to injury.

“With both of these movements, your shoulders are in an externally rotated position,” says Camp. “Most people have limited shoulder joint mobility in addition to poor muscle flexibility, so they get hurt performing these movements. There are safer and more effective exercises to perform, so take them out of your routine.”

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Get Nutrition in Check

Minimizing inflammatory responses and excess body fat are two ways to ensure healthy muscles and joints.

“Diets that are more alkaline have been shown to improve your energy and help lower inflammation,” says Camp. “Foods such as berries, avocados, ginger, apples, dates, kale, spinach, and papaya are important to include in your diet.”

Noy adds that a diet low in saturated fat and processed foods can be beneficial. Also opt for fish, vegetables, fruits (cherries, apples, pineapple), whole grains, nuts, and legumes. 

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Supplement Up

Recommended for treatment of osteoarthritis, the joint supplements chondroitin sulfate, glucosamine, and hyaluronic acid have been shown in medical studies to be beneficial for joint health, says Noy. Some joint supplements have a combination of these ingredients for maximum joint health and overall energy.

Wear the Right Shoes

Regardless of the activity, shoes should provide cushioning, stability, and comfort while being flexible. Camp says the arches of your feet can be high, normal, or non-existent and knowing this information is crucial for selecting a training shoe. Also, knowing your foot strike pattern, whether it’s overpronation, underpronation or neutral, is necessary for finding the right shoe.

For running, the main factor is the compression ability, which is typically reduced at 300-500 miles. At this point, or about every six months, it’s time to replace your running shoes because worn shoes cause abnormal stresses on weight-bearing joints. 

Consult a podiatrist to analyze your gait pattern and get the perfect fit for whatever the task at hand.

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Maintain Proper Posture

If you have to sit, practice good posture.

“Poor sitting posture can lead to tightened, compromised muscles, and eventually back pain,” says Camp. “The vertebral discs have poor nutritional blood supply when your body is static. Getting up and moving around every hour to stretch and move is necessary to combat these affects and reduce any spinal pain.”

For the right sitting posture, Camp suggests lower back support. “Setting up your desk so your workstation is close to you, an maintaining angles of 90 degrees for your elbows, hips, and knees have been found to be best,” he says. “Having a chair with low back support is ideal, and if you do not have one, roll up a pillow or bath towel and place it behind your low back.”

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Listen to Your Body

Avoid being overzealous and know when it’s time to stop a certain movement--it can mean the difference between major performance improvement and a dislocated joint or other injury.

“If you have pain during an exercise or sport, stop and rest,” says Noy. “If it persists, consult a doctor to check out why so you are not causing preventable permanent damage. Sometimes ‘no pain, no gain’ can lead to problems if not addressed early enough.”

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Reduce Stress

Controlling stress is imperative to decreasing levels of the stress hormone cortisol, which can drive down the production of collagen, a compound necessary for healthy joints.

Camp suggests that practicing diaphragmatic breathing for 5 to 10 minutes, which can lower your stress hormone levels. Or try yoga, a low-impact exercise for overall health and flexibility. 

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Already Injured? Brace Yourself

If you’ve already injured a joint, ligament, tendon or muscle, a protective brace can help reduce inflammation in that area.

“While there is controversy around whether braces can prevent injuries, such as ACL tears, they may provide benefits when you are working through an injury or have damage already,” says Noy. “Compressive sleeves can provide warmth, combat swelling, and provide biofeedback, and some braces can help unload an injured part of a joint.”

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