No matter what your age, I’d like you to listen carefully to what I’m about to say – because sooner or later, it’s going to matter. And make no mistake, even if you just started training yesterday there’s something here for everyone. In fact, this message is arguably more important for the younger trainee to hear vs. the older one. So please, pull up a chair and give me 15 minutes of your time. Because what you learn could mean a lifetime of training, or spending your golden years in a chair.
Like me, my wife is in her early 50’s. Unlike me, she’s going to need a hip replacement in a few months given her severe arthritis. She’s bone on bone, meaning no cartilage left and excruciating pain from the second she gets out of bed in the morning. I have severe arthritis too, but only in my right elbow (likely from many years of baseball, I was a pitcher)… so I can certainly empathize. So what got us here? Step 1 in my mind is always identifying the cause. And, as you’re about to learn, there’s usually more than one.
Severe arthritis can occur for several reasons: First – there is a genetic component, meaning for some no matter what they do some degree of arthritis will eventually manifest. Including interestingly enough, in the eye. Then there are contact sports, things like football, rugby and MMA. We have a pee wee football league here in town, where kids as young as 9 are hitting and getting hit. I love what I’ve learned in Jiu Jitsu, but any MMA contest can and usually does involve violent, torque like moves that can damage joints. Less obvious are things like baseball, basketball and soccer where repetitive motion injuries wear down cartilage. So you get done playing one or more of these sports in high school, then go to work. Physical jobs like construction, law enforcement, HVAC etc. take their toll as well. And after a hard days work, many of these guys head to the gym.
Which brings us to weight training, which is way down the list BTW when it comes to acute injuries (I know, I worked with actuaries who priced the premiums for sports blanket insurance). Guess what sport is most dangerous in that regard? Surprise. It’s…. soccer. Back to lifting. No matter how you lift weights, chronic joint damage usually accumulates. There’s a reason why you don’t see 80 year olds squatting and deadlifting 500 or more pounds in your gym. I’ve seen guys who lift heavy with low volume get arthritis, guys who lift light with higher volume get it and everything in between. Bodybuilding, Powerlifting, Olympic lifting… they all produce wear and tear on the joints. And let’s not forget the most powerful joint wrecking activity ever devised – Crossfit. So enough with the causes, the real question is – what can be done to avoid it?
First, be a good steward of your joints. Meaning basic things like keeping your body fat levels down over the course of a lifetime. Use proper form, and don’t try lifting weights you’re not ready for yet. Every week at my gym, I see idiots that look like they’re on a circus ride. Don’t be one of them. Do your best to find the minimal amount of volume to grow, and don’t exceed it. There exists a certain threshold of work that’s necessary for everyone, your job is to find and adhere to it. Once you’re big enough, consider a sole focus on strength, as over-training your CNS is far more forgiving than repeated joint insults. A world class CNS is also a lot easier to maintain than the joint integrity needed to slog through 15 to 20 sets per body part.
Next, try looking at training this way: “This stuff is powerful medicine. What’s the lowest effective dose I can use and still get results”? A whole bottle of aspirin will kill a headache. It’ll also kill you. If all it takes is 1 or 2, why take more – especially when you know bad things are going to happen? Let’s say this again – Find your lowest effective training dose.
Ask yourself this question: How infrequently can I train and still progress? Or, what if I trained flat out for 3 weeks, then took every 4th week off? Will the world end if it doesn’t work? No. Can you extend your training life by years, perhaps decades if it does? Possibly. I’d bet dollars to donuts you’d make better gains too. These are all worthwhile questions that need to be answered. And look into other alternatives, such as blood flow restriction training and isolation only routines. Adhere to an age based % of bodyweight work, and stick to it as the years go by. You don’t have to go all in on any of these, but do pick and choose what works for you – and start using it.
Finally, don’t under-estimate the power of supplements. Because when it comes to joint function.