So you’ve read that resistance training is important especially as you age.
But what if you have some existing physical issues?
A knee that feels stiff in the morning, back pain that comes and goes, or a tight shoulder for example.
You want to get stronger but you’re understandably concerned about making these issues worse.
Your concerns are well founded. This can certainly happen. The flip side of course is that resistance training can also make these things better.
In fact done right, it can eliminate them altogether.
In this post we’ll look at how to start resistance training to reduce pain and get stronger. In particular we’ll discuss the variables involved and how manipulating them successfully can be the difference between feeling worse or so much better.
First a little background.
When I started out in this industry over 20 years ago, I was struck by how many people seemed to be suffering from ailments of one sort or another.
Perhaps even more disconcerting was how exercise could both make these things better and worse in equal measure.
This single phenomena has occupied my mind ever since (along with the chicken or the egg question).
How then can you ensure you achieve a positive result rather than a negative one?
What do you need to measure in order to achieve this?
And where do you start?
Here are some questions to ask yourself.
Firstly, what do you want to be able to do that you currently can’t? Get out of a chair without pain, play a round of golf, or run a marathon?
Although very different, each one of those goals will depend on the ability of your muscular system to tolerate the forces involved.
Let’s take getting out of a chair as an example. Even improving this relatively straight forward task is not as easy as it might sound.
We can directly assess potential impediments to this movement by looking at how much motion you have at the joints involved.
How far can you bend your knee for example?
Not only that, how strong are you at the start, middle and end of your knee flexion range?
Try this little experiment.
Standing up, place both hands on a wall. Bend one knee up as far as it will go and note how close your heel gets to your butt. Now can you hold that position for 10 seconds?
If you straighten your leg a little bit (to around 90 degrees) can you hold it there for 10 seconds?
Lying on your front, if you bend the same knee a little bit, can you hold it there for 10 seconds?
Repeat on the other leg.
What did you find? Was there a noticeable difference between one side and the other in terms of both range and strength?
Was it surprisingly challenging to hold some of those positions?
Now let’s see how the muscles that extend the knee feel.
Can your quadriceps develop and sustain contractions when your knee is fully flexed, in the mid range and fully extended?
Try this, lying on your back bend one leg up so the knee is directly over your hip.
Straighten the knee a few degrees and hold it there 10 seconds.
Now straighten it so there’s a 90 degree angle at your knee. Hold it there 10 seconds.
Relax the leg to the floor, fully straighten the knee and lift the leg a couple of feet off the floor. Hold it there 10 seconds.
How was that? Was there any difference between one side and the other?
Even this simple assessment of range and strength can give you an indication where you may have limitations.
What else might impact the ability of your knee to flex and extend?
As your knee is made up of two joints, the patellofemoral joint and the tibiofemoral joint, we should also be considering how well your hip rotates both internally and externally and how well it flexes and extends.
Your tibia (lower leg) is also capable of both internal and external rotation and should be assessed as a result.
Remember, so far we’re just assessing the ability of your knee to flex and extend in order to get you out of a chair without issues.
If you want to run a marathon, you can appreciate how much deeper we would need to go.
Where most exercise programmes begin.
Contrast this approach with the starting point of many exercise programmes.
If there’s any movement based assessment at all, it will usually involve your ability to perform a multi joint exercise like a squat.
What is really being assessed here is your ability to compensate around weakness, rather than the actual weakness itself.
If you see something interesting, it’s just that, interesting. There is no way you can tell why it’s happening. There are too many pieces in play.
The consequences of not getting specific.
This becomes particularly relevant when you’re suffering from aches and pains. Pain is an indication you may already be running out of movement options.
It’s important therefore to investigate precisely where these limitations are so you can improve them directly.
Simply adding load to joints that aren’t moving well has limited benefit and may have you feeling worse rather than better after training. The opposite of what we’re trying to achieve here.
Whilst it’s impossible to give you precise instructions without assessing you directly, I can give you is a few principles to apply for both safety and effectiveness.
- First of all start with single joint exercises as far as possible to reduce the risk of compensation. Read more about muscle compensation.
- Assess how much active range of motion you have at these joints before you begin.
- If you notice range of motion limitations, use low intensity isometrics to improve the range before you train it. This post will give you further information on how to do this.
- Only train in the range of motion you have available. Check this before every exercise. This is the most important rule of resistance training.
- Use slow repetition speeds and don’t be afraid to pause at the start, middle and end of the range to assess your strength in these positions.
- Moving fast is one of the most common strategies your body will use to avoid weakness. You’ll see 95% of people moving weights too fast in any gym you visit. Be the other 5% to achieve better results.
- Finally progress slowly. Your body can only adapt at a given speed. Asking it to do more too quickly won’t get you stronger faster.
Get our guide explaining exactly how to use lower body resistance training equipment to recover from injury and improve your performance.