As someone who has studied skeletal muscle function for over two decades now, I can tell you countless ways to get stronger, bigger, and faster. And if you have the motivation to train hard, eat right, and sleep well, you can go very far. However, what limits us most of the time isn’t necessarily a ceiling in strength or performance adaptation, but the ability of our joints to withstand larger-than-life forces over time. We often hear comments about athletes along the lines of, “If they could just stay healthy, we would win the championship.” Well, I’m here to tell you that staying healthy has almost everything to do with your joints. And yet, most people don’t pay attention to their joints until they’re sidelined from training or sports, or experiencing aches and pains.
The importance of healthy joints isn’t emphasized as much as healthy muscles—but it should be. While muscles exert force, joints allow us to effectively move, sustain a healthy range of motion, and perform actions both hard and simple, such as running, jumping, lifting weights, and even playing with our kids. Don’t wait until your joints start yelling at you to give them some attention; support your joints now with these tips so you can move and perform well for years to come.
What Causes Joint Pain?
Obvious but necessary definition here: A joint is where two or more bones meet up or are joined together, and include the knees, low back, and elbows (among many others). Joints are held together by connective tissue structures like ligaments, which connect bones together, and tendons, which connect muscle to bone.
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Many joints are lined with specialized tissue called cartilage and fluid that allow bones to glide over one another smoothly and prevent bone-to-bone contact. Overuse injuries occur when connective tissue recovery can’t keep up with the demands of exercise, or even your own body weight or daily activities. Over time, cartilage can also break down, causing painful articulation of bone against bone.
How To Support Your Joints
Overuse injuries and bone-on-bone contact sound pretty awful, right? Trust me, you want to avoid them. Luckily, there’s plenty you can do right now to support your joints.
1. Get Your Fill Of Collagen
The structural protein collagen is the main component of connective tissue and plays an essential role in joint health. It helps give shape to bones, skin, and cartilage, and provides joints with strength and flexibility.
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Collagen has been studied for its potential in promoting joint health and comfort, as it may support the regeneration of damaged cartilage cells and improve overall joint function. In fact, a recent analysis of 15 controlled studies concluded that collagen has the potential to improve joint comfort and functionality, especially when paired with a rehabilitative exercise protocol. As little as 15 grams per day taken before exercise for three months supported healthy movement. Thus, my first piece of advice for healthy joints is to consume at least 15 to 25 grams of collagen protein per day.
2. Go In On Fish Oil
Fish oil is a natural source of omega-3 fatty acids, which have been shown to offer numerous health benefits, including supporting joint health. Consuming fish oil on a regular basis can help support joint mobility and flexibility, help with joint comfort, and nourish cartilage so that it can avoid wear-and-tear. In fact, a fairly recent study showed that fish oil improved joint comfort and range of motion following a hard training session. Furthermore, as it is generally low in contaminants like mercury or lead, fish oil is a safe supplement for most people to take. (Some fish are highly contaminated with these detrimental substances.) Therefore, adding fish oil to your regimen is a good move for joint health maintenance. When selecting fish oil, it is important to look for the essential fatty acids EPA and DHA. Pick an option that has a minimum of 600 to 1,000 milligrams of EPA and 300 to 500 milligrams of DHA per serving. Taking this daily can help joints recover from hard exercise.
3. Drink More Water
Hydration is also essential for joint health. Since joint tissues are composed mainly of water, without adequate hydration, joint movement can become more difficult and joint pain may increase. Meanwhile, keeping the body well-hydrated helps support joint lubrication and cushioning, as well as joint flexibility. Another perk? Proper hydration helps joint tissues like cartilage absorb nutrients and remove waste products.
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It’s important to drink enough fluids to support your joints throughout the day. But how much water is enough? However much keeps your pee looking light like lemonade. Any darker and you are dehydrated and more prone to impaired joint function!
4. Rotate your Exercises
Every time you have your car tuned up, the mechanic rotates your tires to avoid wear and tear—and we should approach weight training similarly. Most people get in the habit of performing the same exercises over and over again, but moving joints in the same fashion each workout contributes to overuse and is the most common reason for joint pain. For this reason, I recommend changing up your main exercises every four weeks. For example, you can switch from a close-stance leg press with toes pointed forward to a wide-stance leg press with toes pointed outward. You could also swap the flat barbell bench press for a dumbbell bench press.
5. Deload Regularly
Any time you hear an expert talk about long-term training programs, they almost always address deloads. Deloading, in which you generally maintain your training frequency but lower the number of sets you do by 50 percent and reduce heavy sets by at least 80 percent, allows you to maximize recovery while relieving your joints. I recommend doing them every 16 weeks. Here’s what that might look like:
Typical leg day (12 total sets):
– 4 sets, heavy squats
– 4 sets, moderate-weight leg press
– 2 sets, high-rep leg extensions high rep
– 2 sets, high-rep leg curls
Deload leg day (5 sets):
– 1 set, heavy squats
– 2 sets, moderate-weight leg press
– 1 set, high-rep leg extensions high rep
– 1 set, high-rep leg curls
Deloading gives your joints time to heal and refocuses your efforts in the gym so that you make gains when you re-up your training volume.
The Bottom Line
Though you might think mostly of your muscles when you plan your workouts, meals, and supplement regimen, your joints are truly one of your most valuable assets—and you’ll need to support your joints if you want to grind long-term. In addition to providing your joints with plenty of collagen, omega-3s, and fluids, make sure your gym routine includes regular exercise rotation and deloads. Checking all of these boxes will provide your joints with the nourishment and recovery they need to continue supporting your heaviest lifts and favorite daily activities.
Known as ‘The Muscle Ph.D.,’ Dr. Jacob Wilson has a knack for transforming challenging, complex concepts into understandable lessons that can support your body composition and health goals. A skeletal muscle physiologist and sports nutrition expert, Wilson is a leader in muscle sports nutrition. As the CEO of The Applied Science & Performance Institute and researches supplementation, nutrition, and their impact on muscle size, strength, and power.