Few parts in the body work in isolation. The joints are no exception. When you lift weights, run, bike, endure a cross fit class, or shake your hips in Zumba, chances are you think about the muscles you want to strengthen, the calories you want to burn, and/or the personal record you want to achieve. You probably don’t connect each of these goals to your joint health. But you should.
Take the push-up as an example. You need muscles to lift up at least half of your body weight, but your joints—shoulders and elbows—are required to provide stability and mobility in every rep. Indeed, the strength a muscle can generate results from the muscle-joint interaction.
As we expect the shoulders muscles to aid on pushing motions—and not on pulling moves like the back muscles do when we pull—each joint has a specific function, which has helped experts to detect its more common dysfunctions.
“Because joints are linked together in a kinetic chain, if a single joint becomes impacted, joints above and below the original affected site must now compensate for either a lack of mobility or a lack of stability in the chain and will begin to experience dysfunction,” explains Thomas Henry, MS, CSCS, Department of Athletics, Sacred Heart Schools, Atherton, Cal. “In fact, every joint in the body experiences some degree of dysfunction from just one break in the chain.”
This means is that any knee joint discomfort may take away its primary joint specific function: stability to a exaggerated mobility or vice-versa. Other body areas have to take up the slack and lead to strain and injury. So it’s not uncommon to experience ankle and/or back issues from an instable knee joint if the problem is not addressed properly.
What is Your Workout Missing?
Any type of physical problem can affect the joints. Immobilization, underuse, overuse ,or disease along with an injury can break down the joints, says APTA spokesperson Jennifer M. Gamboa, DPT, OCS, MTC, President and CEO of Body Dynamics, Inc. and Physical Therapy and Wellness Center, Falls Church, Va.
“The health and integrity of joints depends upon making sure that they are exposed to the right type and amount of stress and strain,” she says.
To ensure this, Gamboa explains that regular exercisers should ensure their programs are well balanced. “A balanced program includes a proper warm-up, steadily progressive strength training using correct form and avoiding sudden significant increases in weight, repetitions, speed, or distance, and time to cool down and stretch tight muscles.”
All this ensures that your entire body receives the same attention so you don’t overwork one area while neglecting another. “It is important to note that if a training program works to increase mobility somewhere, it must also work to increase stability somewhere else,” says Henry. Otherwise, the body may theoretically return to a dysfunctional state and all efforts to increase functionality will have been in vain.” This can then lead to an ineffective joint-muscle relationship.
Joint-Muscle Friendly Workout
If you don’t have any pain, stiffness and/or difficulty moving—otherwise you must see a physical therapy for a more in deep evaluation—Gamboa recommends some basic core stability and mobility exercises to keep the joints lubricated and functioning at their best.
First, perform this easy total body warm-up:
- Standing leg swings: Front to back, 10 to 15 times, repeat right and left
- Knee to chest walks: Four times parallel, four times knee out. Repeat the sequence four times with alternating legs
- Shoulder circles: 10 to 15 times in each direction; repeat right and left
- Walking lunge twisting the torso: take a lunge step forward, twist torso over front leg; repeat 10 to 15 times with alternating steps
Key Core Stability Exercises
Here, the goal is proper form and endurance. You practice a pattern of stabilization for your spine and shoulder blade region, which creates a stable base for full arm and leg movement.
Bridging to Activate Gluteals. The spine should stay in neutral alignment without excessive arching or tucking. Squeezing your buttocks first can help keep the hamstrings from dominating the exercise. If your hamstrings cramp then just practice the gluteal squeeze without lifting up. To build endurance, research suggests using the following cycle of repetitions: 5 reps with an 8 second hold; rest; 4 reps with an 8 second hold; rest; 3 reps with an 8 second hold.
Front Plank. This can be done against a wall, kneeling, or in full plank depending on your form and skill. The goal is to find your pain free “sweet spot” where the obliques, lattisimus dorsi, transverse abdominus, and glutes work together to hold the thoracic and lumbar spine, shoulder girdle, and hip joints in a neutral position. Endurance is built using the same cycle of repetitions as above (5 reps with an 8 second hold; rest; 4 reps with an 8 second hold; rest; 3 reps with an 8 second hold). Keep in mind you can use progressive position changes to make the exercise more challenging.
Side Plank This can be done against a wall, with knees bent, or with legs straight depending on your form and skill. The goal is to challenge important side stabilizers of your trunk while minimizing excessive loads on your spine. As with front planks, you use a reverse pyramid cycle of repetitions to build endurance. However, you should alternate right and left before resting and then decreasing the number of reps. You can still use progressive position changes to increase the challenge.
Bird/Dog. This exercise trains back extensors as well as emphasizes neutral spine posture when the abdominals are consciously activated. Ultimately, the goal is to lift the opposite arm and leg at the same time, but beginners can begin with just legs and then just arms. Keep in mind that no matter your starting position, begin with 5 repetitions at an 8 second hold, first on the right and then on the left. Follow with a rest period, before continuing the cycle of decreasing repetitions.
Key Mobility Exercises (Photos: Jennifer Gamboa)
The goal here is to move in pain-free ranges of motion. The first two exercises focus on proper spine movement. The last exercise lays the foundation for proper use of back, hips, knees, and ankles during lifting activities and many daily functional movements.
Cat and Camel (spine flexion and extension). The goal is to decrease stiffness, so you are moving in mid range, rather than pushing into end ranges of flexion and extension. Research suggests five to six cycles.
Half-kneeling torso twists (spine and hip rotation with a stable pelvis). Here, you want to promote proper sequencing of motion in the spine, pelvis, and hips during trunk rotation. Five to six slow reps on each side is sufficient. You can increase the challenge by narrowing your base of support.
Wide Base Narrow Base
Sit-to-Stand Chair Squats. The goal is to make sure your hip joints can hinge independently of your spine, your knees stay in neutral alignment over the midline of your foot, and your back maintains a neutral spine with partial or full shoulder range of motion. Initially, you should conduct 5 to 10 repetitions. Once this motion is consistent and pain-free, you can increase the challenge by performing as many repetitions as possible until form loss and fatigue set in.