Juice Up Your Joints

Heed those rusty hinges now, and they'll work more smoothly when it really counts

Dec 1, 1997
Outside Magazine
Go ahead — enjoy the season. relish the feel of those parabolics on the rare occasions when you do manage to lift yourself from the sofa. Make a few tracks with the snowshoes after stuffing yourself into catatonia. Just don't get so swept away by holiday decadence that you forget the sports you'll resume come spring. To ignore some crucial maintenance now could be to court injury later — injury, more
often than not, to one of your joints.

Marvelous as they are, these functional junctions of muscle, bone, ligament, tendon, and such are biomechanical accidents waiting to happen, accounting for 60 to 70 percent of athletic injuries, according to trainers. Tending to them, for an athlete, is something like tipping for a smart traveler: A show of consideration along the way keeps things running smoothly. Your joints undergo incredible forces — a 160-pound runner places up to 1,776 pounds of force on his knee with each stride — and they tempt other indignities as well. Poorly balanced muscle groups throw joints out of alignment, leading to inflammation and torn ligaments. Shoddy athletic technique and overuse beget tendinitis. And the inevitable klutzy move can harvest a sprain. What's worse, a fluke injury can leave a joint permanently loose and interrupt nerve signals to the brain. Once your fitness starts unraveling at the joints, patching it back together becomes an all-encompassing task.

But not all is grim, despite a dusty nugget of sports-club wisdom that says you can't strengthen joints. It's true of ligaments, which tie bone to bone, but you can strengthen the muscles surrounding your hinges and bolster the tendons that connect those muscles to bone. To that end, we've provided a guide to shoring up your weak links. The joint-specific workouts that follow can easily be tacked onto an existing routine; mix and match to suit your sport. And in case your range of athletic interests leaves you wondering where to start, we've ordered the joints according to vulnerability. We've made sure to include exercises that work opposing muscle groups — quadriceps and hamstrings, for instance — which are especially important for joints. That way you'll avoid muscle imbalances that can make all your efforts backfire.


The ankle's lot is not an easy one, what with all that teetering weight above and shifty ground below. Like an empty beer can supporting a great weight, it'll hold up fine until it's tweaked ever so slightly. Small wonder that ankle injuries — 85 percent of which are sprains, with most of the rest resulting from overuse — are the most common in sports. It's a shame, too, says Dr. John C. Cianca, assistant professor of physical medicine and rehabilitation at Baylor College of Medicine: "Protecting the ankle is very simple."

Begin by working the various muscles of your shin to guard against sprains and overuse injuries. "Many people are strong in the calves and weak in the front, an imbalance that often leads to a tight Achilles tendon," Cianca explains. "That forces the anterior tibialis [at the front of the shin bone] to work harder, which can cause shinsplints." Four simple exercises cover the bases: ankle inversion and eversion (twist your foot to either side against the tension of an exercise band), the toe raise (lie on the floor and cock your toes toward your shin, using the band as resistance), and the basic calf raise (with light weights).


The knee almost equals the ankle in first- to-crumple honors. Knee problems often stem from overuse, and consequently, any muscle imbalances in the knee will haunt you. Burly quads may be the grail of most any self-respecting outdoor athlete, but if you neglect your glutes and hamstrings, the stronger muscles will tug unevenly at the kneecap. The result? The biomechanical efficacy of the joint breaks down, creating pain that might lead you to favor your other leg, which overburdens its muscles and joints and breeds even thornier problems.

Classic leg extensions and leg curls balance each other well, but as concentric exercises they're only half the story. They shorten muscles to build strength, but to brace your joints under pressure you'll need muscle-lengthening eccentric work too, says Dr. Richard Simon, orthopedic surgeon and consultant to everything from U.S. Diving to the Red Clay Tennis Championships. "Eccentric strength is meant to slow down the joint and prevent too much motion," he says. So the ideal leg workout requires you to do exercises in which you propel yourself in a controlled motion, such as the squat, lunge, vertical leap (jump onto a 12-inch-high box and then hop down), and jumping rope.


As the most mobile joint of the body, the shoulder is alarmingly vulnerable. Despite what you may have heard, the much-ballyhooed rotator cuff deserves little of the blame. "The rotator cuff is sort of a victim," Cianca says. "It's composed of small muscles in the shoulder joint, and it gets dumped on by muscles that aren't doing their job." A stronger cuff wards off dislocated shoulders, but building up the tangle of muscles surrounding your shoulder blade — the rhomboid, trapezius, subscapularis, and serratus anterior, if you're taking notes — delivers better results. To strengthen those muscles around the shoulder blade, start with the classic push-up. The seated row, lateral arm raise, and military press help, too. But the most streamlined program includes the wall push-up (precisely what it sounds like), internal and external rotation (fold your forearm across or away from your torso while holding a taut band for resistance), and baby rattle (see photo, opposite bottom).

Elbows and Wrists

Elbow and wrist injuries slow down many a climber. Unlike the shoulder, no amount of strength training will protect your forearms in a fall. Nor will working out stop the wrist numbness that cyclists suffer, a result of gripping the handlebars, which compresses both the median (aka carpal tunnel) and ulnar nerves. But you can reduce the chance of an overuse injury here.

With some 26 intertwining elbow and wrist muscles, when one falters, others have to compensate, leading to muscle strain and inflammation of the joints. Tennis elbow, for instance, which can strike climbers as readily as Sampras wannabes, results from overloading muscles in your wrists. "Conveniently," says athletic trainer Kevin Brown, a consultant to the American Sport Climbing Federation, "the forearm muscles support the wrists and the elbows." So strengthening those muscles does double good. For your lower arms, combine the hand grip (squeeze a wad of sports putty), wrist curl, dumbbell rotation (twist the weight counterclockwise as you curl it), and triceps press-down (see photos, opposite top).


"The hip is a great joint because of its deep socket," says osteopath Dave Jenkinson, team doctor for the U.S. Canoe and Kayak Team. "It's very muscular and well protected." Still, as the central link in the kinetic chain between the torso and legs, the hip warrants some attention. Underdeveloped or overtight hip muscles often lead to hamstring injuries, because if they tire, your body calls for backup from above and below. To target hip flexors, extensors, adductors, and abductors, try a regimen of bounding (leaping across a field in 50-yard stretches), hip flexion (see photo, left), and combinations of the adductor and abductor (stand and sweep your straight leg to either side, like a pendulum, against a taut band).


Adding a joint tune-up to your existing workout should barely cost you ten minutes apiece, two or three times a week. (We're assuming you've already stretched). Focus on your weakest link. Just as when you pony up an extra few bucks for insurance on a rental car, if all goes well you'll never fully appreciate the value of your forethought.

Ankle. Start with the ankle inversion and eversion: Hold each contraction for ten seconds, and for each set, complete 20 repetitions per leg. Then do 20 reps each of toe raises and calf raises. Two sets of each exercise should suffice.

Knee. Jumping rope for two minutes can serve as a warm-up; add two-minute spurts after each set of other exercises. Do three sets of squats and lunges, 15 reps each. Then do a continuous set of vertical leaps until fatigue sets in.

Shoulder. Do 20 reps each of the push-up, wall push-up, and baby rattle. For internal and external rotations, 15 reps is good. Do two sets of each exercise.

Wrist/elbow. For the hand grip, wrist curl, dumbbell rotation, and triceps press-down, choose weights that will allow you to do two sets of 30 reps apiece.

Hip. To complete a good bounding session, alternate 50 yards of leaping strides with 50 yards of walking, and repeat the sequence four times. Then do two sets of 20 reps of the hip flexion, hip abduction, hip adduction, and diagonal hip abduction.

Matthew Segal, a Los Angeles-based writer, is rehabilitating a knee he sprained snowboarding.

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