Today I'd like to address a common question I get. "Is it okay to strength train if I still have musculoskeletal pain?"
I should first preface my response by letting you know I am in the buisness of analyzing movement patterns or applied biomechanics. That means that I see people who have found themselves in a chronic pain cycle or inability to do the activities of daily living/fitness/sport because of misalignments in their muscles, joints and sequencing of motor patterns.
So, when a client of mine asks me if it's okay to strength train if he/she still has pain, of course the answer is simply NO. And this answer applies to any movement, be it lifting weights, doing pilates, yoga, Zumba, CrossFit, running, walking..... if you have muscle and joint pain (NOT THE GOOD KIND) while you do those movements, trying to gain strength doing those activities is not a good idea (for now).
Pain is your body's only way of telling you that something is wrong. Trying to strengthen over pain that is never a wise choice and ultimately can cause greater damage.
The blessings and curse of being a posture specialist. One of the best things about my job is that I can help a client mitigate pain symptoms very quickly. But the curse is that sometimes, clients forget that they haven't finished the rehab process. It happens all the time.
Now, let me fill in this conversation and use it as a common situation that many corrective exercise and postural therapy clients find themselves in on their healing path. If you've partnered with a great biomechanics specialist and had your posture and movements analyzed then you've had a few sets of corrective exercise sessions and homework assigned to you.
Most clients are diligent with their homeword, and get them done. Pain will certainly be mitigated quickly, and it's tempting to get back into your activities full-throttle. Why not? If you are a runner and you no longer have low back pain symptoms, and are for the most part pain-free let's face it. You're outside running again!
Joy! Things are good. Or are they? It's tempting to do your corrective exercise menus a little less, because the pain is gone. It's easy to fall into the trap of thinking that the process of fully correcting your biomechanics and movement patterns is complete. It's a common mistake.
The bigger question has to be asked. Are you really entirely pain free? The reality is, if you stop and examine your movements, the anser might be maybe. Maybe certain movements that you love to do are just fine, but others like bending or lifting still give you a twinge or tweak.
This is where the truth hits. There actually is some pain, but you can do what you want to do, so you get back into the old habit of ignoring what your body is telling you. That is your old behavior setting up a trap for you to fall right back into the chronic pain cycle!
So the question comes up, "can I workout, or strength train on/through/over it? I want to strengthen my body and simply doing cardio won't give me that. Is it okay? "
Of course not.
Pain is a Signal! and the only way for your body to effectively communicate with you about structural damage. Corrective exercise does not just involve strengthening muscles. It involves retraining the way the entire body coordinates movement throughout all the structures of the body. It is a PROCESS.
Along the path we need to re-introduce the correct strength and biomechanics for the seven basic/primal movement patterns which are:
If you have musculoskeletal pain, it's important to clearly understand that working out on it without identifying the movement or position of the body causing the problem is simply treating a symptom without addressing the disease. Position vs Condition! You will never get to the bottom of musculoskeletal pain and dysfunction if you do not correct your position.
What has happened here is that one of the most common mistakes a posture alignment client can make is allowing the absence of pain in a short time "trick" you into thinking the process of rehab is complete.
And therein lies the problem.
The human body is an amazing machine! It has an innate ability to generate force, power and activity under the worst of circumstances. You can be active every single day, moving from a place of horrible postural positions and get huge tasks done for years until one day pain sets in.
It really is as simple as this. Your body is designed to create a way for you to generate force and movement even if you don't or cannot create a stable posture or load joint position. This is why you can do incorrect movements over and over again (perhaps for years) before you feel the signal of pain.
This is the most common reason why people are shocked when their body "suddenly gives out" and they fin that they have worn out a joint, tendon or disk from doing "normal, everyday movements".
Just because you did movements for a really long time without pain, does not mean you were doing them from a place of stability and ease. More importantly, just because you don't currently have pain, does not mean you are not causing damage.
The human body will take a ton of abuse for a really long time before it signals chronic pain. Get your posture and position checked. Your body is designed to last a lifetime. If you have pain, working through it, isn't making you better.
Do you know what to look for?
Sadly, most people don't know what a poor postural presentation looks like, let alone what it looks like under the load of activity and movement. Can you describe your posture? There are key postural misalignments that people think are normal, but it might be absolutely horrible. Good posture is not just simply standing up straighter. But how would you know?
For example, if you sit all day long at a desk, you're much more inclined to have a forward head position, increased rounding in the shoulders and arch in the low back, combined with a pelvis that has now shifted, rotated and/or tilted.
This is a repetitive postural presentation that doesn't just go away when you stand up. And I promise you that it does not go away when you take it into exercise. This postural position impacts your upright movements, exercise and sleeping positions. Now multiply that by the number of years you've been repeating this posture habit, and you realize that changing your postural position is a process. It's a journey, not a singular event.
If this sounds like you, LISTEN! Train SMART! The National Academy of Sports Medicine (NASM) has defined postural-distortion patterns “as predictable patterns of tissue overload and dysfunction that lead to decreased neuromuscular control, thus initiating the cumulative injury cycle.”
Can you strength train if you have musculoskeletal pain due to poor posture and biomechanics? Sure you can. But is that SMART?
In my opinion NO! Strength gained through improper biomechanics and poor posture alignment is the perfect trifecta to guarantee chronic pain and potential for injury.
Hire a posture specialist you can help analyze your posture and help you isolate incorrect movement patterns. Find someone who is certified to do a proper structural assessment to identify poor posture, joint alignment and mechanics and will help you through the process so you can achieve and MAINTAIN a pain free life and living!
Have questions? Please reach out. Remember, we're in this to ether, and I am here to help!
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Head Photo Credit: Ruby and Roxy Photography
Deb Preachuk is a Chronic Pain Pain Relief, Posture Restoration and Athletic Performance Enhancement pro specializing in corrective exercise, applied biomechanics, STOTT Pilates and functional movement patterns.
Founder of Pain Free Posture MN, Deb helps real people transform real-world chronic pain challenges into achievable results. Deb infuses her teaching with an honest, open and down-to-earth mix of chronic pain relief therapeutic modalities training techniques to make the concepts of pain relief and body/mind transformation accessible and achievable!