Joint-Friendly Conditioning, Part 1

Aerobic training, energy systems work, metabolic training, get-sexy-for-beach time. However you want to put it, it’s loved by many, and even if for those who don’t love it, it needs to get done.

Unfortunately, the large, waving red flag I continually see soaring above the majority of people’s conditioning* routines, is that they quickly leave their victims injured and broken, rather than better equipped for the arena of athletics or simply leaner and healthier.

*Note: I realize this term means completely different things to different people, and entire books could be written (and have been) on the matter. However, for the rest of the post, for all intents and purposes “conditioning” will be used to simply imply anything elevates your heart rate up for the purpose of  enhanced work capacity, performance, fat-loss, or health. 

Traditional running programs boast one of the highest injury rates among participants to date, and the incalculable group exercise classes and exercise DVD sets out there have people performing lunge jumps,  broad jumps, repeated box jumps, and other so-called “plyometrics” until they’re blue in the face. Or, until their patella tendon shoots out front side of their leg, whatever comes first I suppose.

As as aside, please keep in mind that when I use the term “injury” I’m not so silly to presume that all of you out there undergoing a common conditioning regimen are going to become paralyzed or some equivalent of being blasted by the Death Star’s ray gun, but it could be something as simple as tendinitis, tendinosis, back pain, or any developing some sort of “achy” joint in general.

So, given that you’re likely either A) an athlete, or B) someone who cares about feeling, looking, and moving better, this begs three questions, along with the part of this article that you actually care about:

#1. How do you perform conditioning routines that reduce the risk of injury occurring during the process?

#2. If you’re currently currently suffering any form of injury, how can you still become a mean, lean, fighting machine despite your achy knees, back, and/or shoulders?

#3. If you’re a competitive athlete, how do you obtain enhanced work capacity, yet spare your joints and central nervous system in the process?

In general, you’re going to want to avoid exercises that place high stress on the joints, and movements that, when performed under a state of fatigue, aren’t likely to degrade in form. So running, jogging, flat-ground sprinting, and repeated jumping and bounding (incorrectly dubbed ‘plyometrics’ by the fitness gurus) are going to be considered “higher risk.”

Oh, and I can’t believe this should even need be addressed, but the olympic lifts for high reps are out, too.

So, what to do? Below are a few of my choice, joint-friendly conditioning options (feel free to chime in any of your personal favorites below), which I’ve divided into two “spectrums:” Beginner —> Intermediate and Intermediate —> Advanced. There’s obviously overlap between the two categories, and everything isn’t black and white, but hopefully this will help you get a decent idea of some of your options to toy with.

Beginner —> Intermediate

1) Loaded Carries (Farmer Walks)

A bread-and-butter movement.  Quoting the man Dan John himself: “The loaded carry does more to expand athletic qualities than any other single thing I’ve attempted in my career as a coach and athlete. And I do not say that lightly.”

Virtually anyone can do them, the majority of the variations are extremely joint-friendly, and not to mention they get the heart rate up at an alarming rate. The other week I took my farmer walk implements to the local high school track and walked 800 meters with them. The next day I no longer wondered what loaded carries were good for.

Below is a real quick video on a bunch of different variations you can  use if you don’t have access to implements. Note that you can certainly use a dumbbell instead of a kettlebell for a large majority of these.

Bill Hartman also wrote an excellent recent post on how loaded carries make for quite a remedial exercise selection. Check it out HERE.

2) Sled Pushing, Pulling, Dragging

This has to be one of my favorites, by far. Easy on the low back, shoulders, and knees. It’s relatively “dummy proof,” it teaches one to simultaneously flex one hip and extend the other, and produces very little post-workout soreness (extremely important for athletes in particular). Just last year, when I was dealing with a nagging leg injury that made squatting problematic, I was still able to push it hard on the sled while concurrently healing my injury.

3) Jumping Jacks. Who said it had to be complicated?

4) Medicine Ball Work. Note that I’d recommend sticking to overhead slamming until one knows how to use their hips (not low back) to do wall throws.

5) Airdyne Bike. 

6) Low-level + Low Repetition Bodyweight Drills in Sequence

7) Dynamic Mobility Work

Intermediate —> Advanced

1) Any of the list above (sled work, farmer carries, jumping jacks etc.). It’s all scalable, after all.

2) Crawls!

People usually make fun of these until they try them. They’re deceptively challenging when performed for reasonable distances, and the beauty of them is they can literally be done anywhere.

See the video below for numerous demonstrations. I’d recommend starting with just the bear and tiger crawls, and make sure you’re keeping a stable spine throughout. The chicken, kangaroo, gorilla, spider, and scorpion wouldn’t be advised to those with injuries.

3) KB Swings

4) Burpees. Maybe. Just be sure you’re achieving full hip extension at the top and not looking like a pile of doo-doo as you land from the jump and transition into the pushup. 

5) Sledge Swings

6) Hill Sprints

7) Jump Rope

8 ) Barbell (and Kettlebell) Complexes

9) Low-level Push/Pull/Hinge/Squat Patterns

I’ll be back on Friday to briefly discuss a few options on how to string these together.

(Update: You can see Part 2 HERE)