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How to Fix an Aching Joint and Avoid Temporary Fixes

Lacrosse balls and foam rollers will not build you a better joint

Let that crappy joint be or try to fix it

Most of us in the 30+ population have at least one joint that gives us trouble. The effects of fun we had with various sports growing up- or a lifetime of chair sitting or sleeping wacky, seem to start nagging us around the time the greys start popping up. Clearly we have two choices at this point: let that crappy joint be or try to fix it.

Letting it be reminds me of an old proverb about a dog. A man going for a walk passes by a porch with a dog lying by the stoop, whimpering. He gives the dog a pet and asks the owner why his dog is whimpering, to which the man replies, “He’s lying on a nail”. “Well why doesn’t he get off of it?”, “I don’t know… I guess it doesn’t hurt enough”.

In the gym business, you find people lying on the nail every day. In your youth, you may be able to get away with ignoring a problem, it might actually go away. But as you pass 30, you can’t hope for the same results. Usually that crappy joint or tendon just gets worse. Once you notice a nagging pain that persists for more than a week or two, it’s time to admit you have a problem and get to work.

Getting off the nail, and finding a qualified trainer or therapist near you, seems to be a simple and positive solution. It can be, but if you’ve ever tried this route, you’ll know that it’s often complicated and can get REALLY expensive, especially in this country. Not only that, but most of these therapies are temporary or conducted with the quick-fix mindset. Like physical therapy, where you get a few exercises to do for a few weeks and then you stop doing them. What do you think happens a few weeks or months down the road? Many of those physical therapies won’t hold if you don’t continue the exercises with some degree of regularity. Just like you wouldn’t expect to hold onto that double bodyweight back squat when you stop squatting.

There’s also the silent third option of doing nothing, aka taking time off and letting it heal. This is a lateral move that can buy you some time, but it does nothing to address the problem. It might have been an accident that messed up your knee, like someone slid into second base and took you out, or it might be a painful spot that pops up from training or living. In either case, time off may help take down some inflammation, but let’s not be confused: time off is fixing nothing at all. 

Why you can’t “smash” yourself a new shoulder

Rolling on foam and high density rubber, stretching and even the best of bodywork, are all essentially this lateral move of temporary relief, some more lasting and wonderful than others. Just to be clear, I’m not at all against bodywork, it may be a necessary part of the healing process and can jump start your journey to a better knee, but there will be some type of a movement practice required to maintain or further-fix that bum knee, hip, or shoulder. 

My point is that you can’t stop at rest and foam rolling or "smashing" tissues with a lacrosse ball. You need to build yourself a new knee and you need to find a way to get the point across to the knee and supporting tissues, that it needs to change its ways. You need to speak the language that stimulates new tissue development and you need to understand how to specifically direct the right kind of force via muscle contraction to the proper tissues so that they fortify and respond with permanent changes.

That knee will give you trouble again if you don’t do what you need to do to care for, strengthen and prepare that knee moving forward. If you do nothing, that bum knee won’t get better and stronger on it’s own. Joints that have scar tissue are more likely to be re-injured because scar tissue is weak and shitty tissue. That nagging shoulder or golfer’s elbow will flare up yet again when you start back at it. Maybe worst of all is that people avoid the position they got hurt in for a long time after an injury, making it weaker than ever. 

FRC and Kinstretch will help you strengthen and improve your joints, and fortify them in your weakest and most vulnerable positions so that they become more resilient and resistant to further damage. You would think that by squatting and deadlifting you’d be able to strengthen your joints, but it turns out that this is not the case. At least not in a complete way that insulates them from the damage they incur from said activities. 

Case in point

All of this theory is nice and all, but my own story (or really, the story of my hips) is case in point. Me and my hips are 41 years old and after 13 years of ballet, 10 in yoga, 5 in Pilates, 3 in CrossFit, and with general weightlifting and bodybuilding since the mid 90’s… my hips are crushed. I have arthritis already… or some kind of Itis. Ballet is notorious for blessing dancers with the need for new hips in their 40’s, so all things considered, it’s not actually that crazy, just f’ing unfortunate. 

I was a little shocked and bummed that my years of trying to move with the best of intentions after ballet had left my hips in such a crappy state. I knew the ballet would likely mess them up but then the years afterwards of trying to stretch, “smash”, and strengthen everything to the best of my abilities had more or less failed to help my hips. I tried out many different types of mobility work, bodywork and therapy over the years to fix the problem or make them better and nothing really seemed to do it until Kinstretch. 

It took me a while with Kinstretch too. It’s not a glorious love-at-first-sight story. Not because it took a while to work, but because one of the main base positions for the hips, the “90/90”, seemed to not be good for MY hips so I avoided it. 

You might be wondering what I meant by “seemed not to be good for my hips”. Every time I did PAILs & RAILs (progressive and regressive angular isometric loading… at high intensity) in the 90/90 position, my hips would be lit up for a week or two afterwards. Sometimes to the point where I’d be unable to walk without severe pain by the end of the day. The point of 90/90 PAILs/RAILs is to develop and strengthen range of motion. I felt satisfied with my range of motion, and as the PAILs/RAILs kept sending me for a loop, I decided to avoid the position unless I had to coach someone through it; seemed reasonable enough. 

After we opened our gym, my hips were in terrible shape. They were fine so long as I did nothing even remotely like a leg exercise. If I jogged 20 ft to catch my phone ringing, I’d pay the price of throbbing hips later that day and lasting for a week. If I stepped and rotated a certain way, I’d hit a nerve that could bring me to my knees with the piercing stab of a hot dagger. My walk had a limp most of the time and I’d developed a funny gait that kept my hips from passing through a painful range. Once I started working out again (after construction) and coaching, they got even worse. 

Rather than get depressed, I just gave up. I passed into a stage of extreme fuck-giving burnout. I had 2 Kinstretch/FRC (Functional Range Conditioning) classes to coach per week and I did not want to give them up because I really enjoyed them. So I started doing the 90/90 once or twice a week with my classes and as expected, my hips got worse for a month. But then, what I didn’t expect to happen, did: they got better. A lot better. They stopped hurting after a 20ft jog, no longer “died” at night, the stabbing pain is almost gone, and the best part is that I can train the muscles of the upper leg and hip without having it hurt my hip sockets. They still have the ache of arthritis, get cranky when I sit and get worse if I don’t exercise. But they get a lot worse If I don’t do 90/90 or some other version of capsule PAILs & RAILs. They need me to train rotation. Forever. 

PAILs & RAILs are intended to develop more range of motion and strengthen those ranges of motion. I had good range and did not have much discrepancy between active and passive range. What I discovered was another benefit of 90/90 PAILs/RAILs. What I think they really did for me was improve the function and quality of the deeper tissues surrounding the joint, in a way that no other exercise, mobility wise or not, could boast. Of course like any exercise, it’s effects are permanent so long as you continue to train it.

Joint capsules need rotation, and to be relatively strong in rotation, to withstand heavy or repetitive loading in all of the other positions. Sadly, most of the strength training you’ll see in any given gym completely neglects rotation. 

I really wish that I had started doing this type of work on all of my joints before they started hurting. Pain is a late sign of trouble. If only I could convince everyone of how important it is to train joint prep before they come to us with the nail in their hip, elbow, or shoulder! The only benefit that I can see from having these crappy hips is that I can test out this info and say for sure that all of the squatting, deadlifting, and hip thrusting in the world did not target the capsule and prepare the deeper tissues to handle the squatting, deadlifting, and hip thrusting. My hips continued to get worse until I trained rotation. 

It seems a little counterintuitive to suggest that you need some deep tissue, rotational capsule prep work to support flexion and extension endeavors, but hey I’m no Yoda. I left that work to the wonderful nerds that came up with Kinstretch/FRC and the even larger nerds that did the research. 

The best proof is in the results, and they don’t even take that long. I have seen a lot of tough shoulders dramatically helped by capsule PAILs/RAILs (internal and external rotation). I’ve seen some tough elbows improve with rotational work. And of course, my crappy hips. 

Learn how to treat your joints

Hopefully I’ve convinced you to try Kinstretch if you haven’t yet. It’s not just for people on nails, it’s for anyone who doesn’t want to … get nailed. I honestly wouldn’t recommend strength training without it. I wouldn’t recommend chair sitting without it. I wouldn’t recommend grappling, dancing, speed walking, swimming, rugby, football, gymnastics, skiing, or really anything- without it. That’s why we infuse a little FRC into our strength classes, so you can’t completely avoid what’s good for you. They should just go hand in hand and then your joints won’t fall apart! Even if they don’t hurt yet, they feel better doing Kinstretch/FRC. 

Most of our clients are bought in, but some of you still feel like it’s a waste of a workout so I’m talking to you folks right now. If I ask you why you workout and any part of the answer has anything to do with feeling better, aging better, or performance… then Kinstretch should be the cornerstone of your routine. Build yourself stronger, better joints and better positions to train. Develop motor control using weird isolation drills. With this foundation, anything that you do will go over way better with your body. 

Even the best strength and conditioning program needs a mobility program that actually works, so that it doesn’t break you down like every other sport. That’s why so many pro sports teams are using Kinstretch/FRC now. And when I say “mobility” program, I don’t mean “flexibility” program. Mobility is usable, controllable movement; flexibility is bendiness. Not having movement in a joint is as dangerous as having uncontrollable movement in a joint. Smashing, foam rolling and myofascial release do not constitute a mobility program: these are simply tissue recovery tools. Flossing and passive stretching will only temporarily improve a position. 

Kinstretch is an actual mobility program that includes joint rotational strength training, among many other things that lead to more permanent changes, so long as you continue to at least do the maintenance exercises. Adding Kinstretch as a mobility program to our strength and conditioning programs, on top of eating real food, should be all a human needs to feel and perform at the top of their game. Without Kinstretch, your bones will start to hurt sooner or later and you’re more likely to get injured or re-injured or develop arthritis. You can’t hammer away at lats and delts and ignore your shoulder capsule. 

The takeaway plus some extra credit reading

Everybody should do at least 1 Kinstretch class per week, but I highly recommend working with someone one-on-one if you have an issue with a joint or have had an injury. This way we can find the specific exercises you need to target and strengthen the problem tissue and give you something to take home and work on. 

Here are a few key training concepts we use at Basis that will take you a long way in not doing further damage. 

Don’t load and train in passive ranges- this means don’t use weight and loading or momentum to get into a better position or into a position that you can’t get into with your own muscles, ie bottoming out in squats, cleans, snatches or hanging from bars or kipping into the end range of your shoulder capsule with every rep or pressing weight overhead when you can’t keep your elbows under the bar or actually get overhead without back bending or doing push ups or handstands on wrists that don’t have anywhere close to 90 degrees of active extension… see where I’m going here? This is how you screw up your joints- lots of loaded reps in passive ranges. 

Build yourself a super deep position (ie squat) with various PAILs/RAILs and squat within it, not to the max of it LEST YOU MORTAR AND PESTLE AWAY YOUR JOINTS

Capsule work needs some rotation and bending of the surrounding joints to direct the stretch and contraction into the deeper tissues- if the surrounding joints are straight, it stretches tissue across multiple joints and directs the stretch into more superficial tissues, if you don’t know what PAILs/RAILs are and you’re reading this as a non-member, we offer online consultation and training, just reach out to us at info@basishp.com

  • Train rotation in joints like shoulders, hips, ankles, and elbows to support the dominance of flexion and extension training
  • Train flexion and extension of the spine before rotation
  • Supplement your strength training with joint balancing exercises- for example if you squat, add in some end range hip flexion training, since in squatting the force is always pushing against hip flexion, train pulling INTO hip flexion
  • Use PAILs/RAILs before you train to create the best position that you can to train in- just make sure you add in some dynamic warm up or plyometric movement right afterward to get everything firing properly after a stretch, ie do ankle dorsiflexion PAILs/RAILs before squatting, but prior to squatting and after the PAILs/RAILs do some ankle CARs, heel and blade walking and jumping
  • Know that passive stretching without PAILs/RAILs is kind of a waste of time. Passive stretches temporarily delay your stretch reflex and if you do a lot of consistent passive stretching, you will have a more permanent-seeming delay in that stretch reflex. What you will not have is a longer muscle. Nor will you have a stronger position or better tissue. You may have increased your passive range, but you have also likely created a range that you can’t do a darn thing with, which actually makes you more likely to hurt yourself, rather than less likely. SO, do PAILs/RAILs because it does build tissue, it does strengthen the position, it does give you usable range and protect the joint, making it stronger in what would normally be a precarious situation. 
  • Get tissue work to help recover over-done tissues so that they don’t turn into an Itis (inflammed tendon). But then figure out why those tissues are getting over-done in the first place. Is it just your programming or is your elbow not ready to do what you’re asking it to do? How can you get it ready? What things should you NOT be doing with that crappy elbow? “Smashing”, a term for self myofascial release with a ball or roller, is tissue work. It may help with these over-done tissues in a very temporary way but it’s not really fixing anything. You can smash that achy knot in your delt all day long and it won’t address the fact that the back of your shoulder capsule is a disaster, and that disaster is causing the pain in your delt when you reach overhead. Or whatever the real cause is. Sleeper PAILs/RAILs might actually fix the delt symptom. 

If you’re training with pain, I hope that this information gives you some motivation and tools to start fixing the problem. We’re here to help. Come see us or email us if you’re ready to fix that crappy joint.