How do joints affect lifting and progress in the gym? Lifting weights is sometimes viewed as getting bigger and stronger muscles. Remember for training and getting better in the gym we must think of exercise as training movements and not muscles. If we want to improve in the training realm and have a better quality of life, we must be able to move well and be efficient with our movements. So where do joints come into play? Before we go there here is a quote from long time strength coach Mike Boyle. “Lose ankle mobility, get knee pain, lose hip mobility, get low back pain, lose thoracic mobility, get neck and shoulder pain.”
Ankles (Mobility): One could make an argument that this is the most forgotten about joint when it comes to mobility. The ankle isn’t always given the credit it deserves rather it be good or bad. When a person’s squat fails people often like to blame the hips or knees, not realizing that the underlying factor may come from the ankles. If the ankles fail in a lift it makes it much easier for the other joints to follow suit. Rather it is in the weight room on the court or on the field we absolutely need ankle mobility. As mentioned above poor ankle mobility can often lead to pain in the knees. If you want to test ankle mobility perform an overhead squat and see how your squatting pattern is, then re-test it with the heels of your feet elevated. If your squat improves the ankles could be a limiting factor in your movement patterns. For athletes and clients, I have worked with I would estimate at least 80% have had large limitations at the ankle joint.
Knees (Stability): The knees must have superior stability. Think about what one of the main ques we give to people when trying to squat. Knees out! We say it over and over, and it’s not always in the squat. It may happen during a deadlift or a lunge. Knees fall in and become a problem. Lack of knee stability is a big issue in many females, and is one reason why we see so many female athletes suffer ACL tears. Just like Boyle said, if one joint is struggling it can affect the next joint. If our knees fall in, it could affect our hips and our back as well. Knee stabilization Is important for not only lifting properly, but it is important for staying healthy during training and non-training activities.
Hips (Mobility): A key to power and strength. Hip mobility is a necessity for everyone. Can you train properly with poor hip mobility? No. Why not? Without good hip mobility the individual will struggle with movements such as any kind of squat variation, deadlift, or Olympic style lifts. Simply put lifts that can help generate a lot of force off the ground will be hard to achieve without hip mobility. If the hips can’t function properly during these movements other joints will be affected, mainly the lumbar spine. The lumbar will more than likely fall into flexion, and this is when lower back pain becomes an issue. With immobile hips we also tend to see pain in the knees. Why? If the hips cannot externally rotate properly the knees cannot displace enough in movements such as the squat, so that “knees out” que becomes irrelevant because the person simply cannot do it, and the knees are forced to fall more over the toes then they should. The farther forward the knees go will equate to more pressure on the knee joint, which is not what you want!
Lumbar (Stability): The lumbar is made for stability! I am going to say that again, the lumbar is made for stability! There is a reason you get lumbar pain when your lower spine is constantly going into flexion and extension. No matter what you do, do not train the muscles that surround the lumbar by performing some quirky exercise that rounds or extends your lower back. When you are moving furniture and you hurt your lower back it usually hurts from picking an object up with a rounded lower back. Training in this way is not going to make it any better. Remember if our hips are doing their jobs the lumbar should be safe, stable, and in a neutral position. Take away here is train stability in this joint and do not try to increase range of motion (ROM).
Thoracic Spine (Mobility): Remember when I said the ankle joint was one of the most forgotten about joints when it came to mobility? In my opinion the thoracic spine is the other joint. Many athletes and people in general suffer from constant flexion in their thoracic spine or “T-Spine.” We spend a great amount of time leaned over at the computer, looking at our phones, or slouched over in a couch watching T.V. If the T-Spine is in constant flexion it makes it very hard to extend. Without the ability to properly extend the T-Spine an individual cannot reach overhead properly. They may also not able to do certain squatting variations, and will be forced to move with a rounded back. Poor T-Spine extension can affect the scapula from moving along the ribcage properly, which can then affect the shoulder joint. Getting away from just extension it is important to note that the T-Spine is made to rotate as well. Although being able to extend the spine is very important, we must also possess the ability to rotate. For rotational athletes such as baseball players this is very important to their success. The mistake I see most people make when working on thoracic mobility is only working on extension. We must also work on the rotation aspect as well.
Scapula (Stability/Mobility): We must be able to stabilize our scapula to maintain healthy shoulders. If the scapula is unable to move along the ribcage the shoulder and rotator cuff muscles will be at risk for injury. For any person I think it is very important implement movements in your training that involve scapular retraction, depression, and up-ward/downward movement. Strengthen the retractor muscles and improve your scapula stability. The healthier the scapula is the less likely a person is to acquire a shoulder injury.
Shoulder (Mobility): I will touch base on my last point for the shoulders. We must be able to stabilize and fully move the scapula for the shoulder joint to be healthy. The shoulder is made to be mobile, but at the same time cannot do so if the joint below it is not doing its job. Implementing wall slides in your program can help the shoulder function properly. By inserting wall slides in programming we improve overall shoulder mobility and learn how to retract the scapula to help achieve both a stable and mobile shoulder joint.
Summary: The joints in our bodies are very complex. A defective joint can affect its neighbor joint, who can in turn affect the next joint in the kinetic chain. The hips are very important, but do not neglect the others joints, especially the ankles and thoracic spine. To be a complete athlete/healthy person you must have proper functions throughout the body. Lack of joint mobility or stability can hinder a person both in and out of the gym.
Brett Cummins, CSCS, USAW
Trainer at Forge-RX