Why is joint strength so important?
Picture this: You’re nearing the end of an obstacle course. Your muscles are aching and your energy supply is dangerously close to depleted. You’re dreaming of the finish line when you look up to see a eight-foot wall ahead of you. Slowly and against all odds, you manage to pull your aching body to the top. Then you jump off. What happens next—whether you collapse in pain or finish the race strong—depends largely on the health of your joints.
You probably haven’t given joint health or strength much thought. Most people don’t until they’re facing an injury to their knees or shoulders. But as recreational athletes become more intense about their fitness goals, joint problems are spiking, says John-Paul H. Rue, M.D., a board-certified orthopedic sports medicine surgeon at Mercy Medical Center. Back when he was the head team physician at the Naval Academy, Dr. Rue treated overuse injuries—mostly those related to muscle and joint failures—more than anything else. They were the leading cause of ongoing disability for the military. And everyday athletes who put their bodies through tough competitions and rigorous workouts often go through training as intense as bootcamp.
When your muscles are fresh, bent knees come naturally. You probably land softly without thinking about it. But when you’re eight miles into a grueling nine-mile race, you’re far from fresh. You’re fatigued. You’re close to bonking out and probably getting lazy with your form. That’s when you need strong muscles around your joints: They protect you when you’re approaching your physical limit.
“The stronger your muscles are, the stronger your joint is,” says Dr. Rue. “It has more ability to withstand forces, and it’s more tuned-up to handle the inadvertent slip, bad footing, or force that happens because you weren’t expecting it.” In other words, strong joint muscles are like healthy shocks, keeping the frame of your body from bouncing around and damaging itself, even when you get lazy.
Excess body weight is another contributing factor in joint injury: A 2017 study published in the Journal of Orthopedic Sports and Physical Therapy found that alongside sports injuries, rising obesity rates are the other major problem fueling the rise in osteoarthritis among young people. And as the Arthritis Foundation reports, every pound of excess weight adds about four pounds of pressure to the knees.
Build Strong Joints and Improve Joint Health
So other than keeping your weight in check, what can you do to prep your joints for your hardest physical feats? Strength train strategically, says Dr. Rue. You want to make sure you have the right kind of exercises in your routine to bolster your joint health.
For the muscles surrounding your knee, work in the following exercises:
For shoulders—another spot prone to joint injury—add the following:
Push-ups or bench presses
To build up the muscles around your rotator cuff, Dr. Rue recommends holding three-to-five pound dumbbells and performing sets of Ys (lying on a bench and lifting your arms overhead, in a Y), Ts (standing and lifting your arms until they're perpendicular to your body), and rows (hinging at the hips with your back straight and arms hanging below you, lifting in toward your chest).
And drink more water—not just on race day, but every day. Dehydrated reduces your joint health.
Finally, listen to your knees, shoulders, and ankles. When they tell you they need a break, give it to them. A period of recovery can often go a lot further than another day of pushing through pain. “There’s really no shortcut,” says Dr. Rue. “In the end, there’s no better philosophy than hard work, rest and recuperation, and adequate amounts of nutrition and hydration.” Do that, and you’ll have no trouble clearing whatever hurdles stand between you and the finish line.
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