Should You Weight Train if You Have Chronic Pain?
Chronic pain can make you afraid of doing any activity that might cause a flare up. Weight training can seem intimidating or downright dangerous. Certainly, doing any activity poorly increases the risk of feeling more pain. However, weight training is not inherently dangerous and everyone, including men and women in chronic pain, should incorporate it into their fitness routines*. That being said, not every exercise is going to work for every person. Each person is unique and requires an individualized approach to weight training. First, let’s consider a few of the many benefits of weight training:
1. Increased stimulus for greater bone density
2. Increased stimulus for greater lean muscle mass
3. Greater muscular and fascial support of joints including the spine
4. Increased tendon and ligament health
5. Increased muscular strength, power and endurance
If you have chronic pain wouldn't you want all of these improvements in your body? Of course you would! Oftentimes those who suffer from chronic pain also experience atrophy of their musculature because pain forces them to be less active. However, further weakening of the body only makes existing pain worse and can create new pain. Thus, weight training can be used to strengthen muscles that help support joints which can lead to less joint compression. Also, better muscular endurance can help you more fully participate in activities of life and prevent another injury from occurring. Please consider the following general weight training guidelines for those with chronic pain:
Start slow and light. If you are just starting to implement weight training then even “light” weights are going to be something your body isn’t used to. There is no need to lift very strenuously. Over time, you can work up to using more challenging weight. In the beginning, lifting modest weight slowly will help you recruit more muscle fibers, familiarize your body to new activities and help build the resiliency of your tendons and ligaments.
If you can’t do something unloaded then don’t do it loaded. This is a classic mistake I see 90% of gym goers make. If you cannot reach your arm all the way over your head without arching your back or doing some crazy contortion then you have no business trying to press weight over your head. This will only reinforce dysfunction within your body or possibly even an injury. Instead, stick to weight training exercises that require ranges of motion you already have. You can always work on improving your mobility with other exercises that do not utilize weights.
Body mechanics rule the road. The same exercise may be considered good or bad for you depending on how you execute it. Perfect technique takes time to master but your weight training should always use enough proper technique to be safe. Even if you select an effective exercise for yourself, performing it with incorrect technique can make dysfunction worse or create a flare up. Thus, it might be a wise investment to consult a professional for guidance, at least in the beginning, to help you establish a solid foundation.
Remember, start with slow and simple exercises and don’t be hesitant to consult a professional. But most importantly, have fun and be proud that you are working on a better you!
*Always consult a qualified medical professional before embarking on a new fitness plan.