No matter how diligent you are with warming up, proper form and recovery, if you’re a regular exerciser, you’re going to get sore. “Our bodies are well-designed machines created to take an overwhelming amount of punishment and keep moving forward,” says Eraldo Maglara, NSCA-CPT, a New Jersey–based personal trainer. “However, even machines have a breaking point, and when you push your body beyond its limits, you put yourself at risk for injury.”
But differentiating between an everyday ache and a more complex injury isn’t always easy. “If you’re not a little bit sore after a workout, you’re not doing enough,” says Jordan Metzl, M.D., a sports medicine doctor in New York City and author of the new book Dr. Jordan Metzl’s Workout Prescription (Rodale Books, 2016). “But soreness that lingers and changes the way you move is a big red flag.”
Clearly, if your knee goes right when it should go left, you’re ER-bound, but if your knee has a niggling little tweak or dull, nebulous pain, it’s time to tap the experts. Read on to see what Maglara and Metzl had to say about common aches and pains — identifying their cause, remedy and prevention.
Your knee is the insertion point for muscles on both sides of your leg, and the push/pull action of these opposing forces can wreak havoc on this joint.
A pinching on the outside of the knee is likely caused by a tight iliotibial (IT) band, which runs down the outside of your thigh from your pelvic bone to your shin. Inflammation here is caused by a combo of overuse and/or repetitive motions and improper recovery, as well as a weak hip complex.
A pinching on the front of your knee where the kneecap attaches to the shinbone is more likely patellar tendinitis, aka “runner’s knee,” an overuse injury common in all athletes who jump a lot or who perform repetitive stop/start motions.
- RICE (rest, ice, compression, elevation), a change in training protocol and time off are solid remedies for minor knee pain.
- Do leg swings and walking lunges for mobility preworkout, and stretch your hips, hamstrings and calves to improve range of motion postworkout.
- Foam-roll your quads, calves, hamstrings and glutes preworkout and postworkout to break up adhesions and alleviate pain, Metzl advises.
- Strengthen the supporting muscles with squats, step-ups and deadlifts, and perform bridges to target the glutes and hip complex.
Stand in front of a box that is knee height or less. Step up onto the box with one foot and extend your leg to stand on top. Reverse the move to return to the start, and continue, alternating sides.
Quick-Fire Question: Knee Brace or No Knee Brace?
Answer: Only if recommended by a doctor or specialist, and then only on a temporary basis. “If a brace is worn on a continual basis (beyond the recommended recovery time), the knee may become dependent on the brace and, consequently, weaken the area instead of strengthening it,” Maglara says.
According to statistics, eight out of 10 Americans suffer from some form of back pain, which can be caused by anything from simple muscular strain to degenerative disks and everything in between.
If you’ve got some general stiffness in the lower back, however, don’t panic, Metzl says. If it goes away when you start working out, it’s probably just tightness because of inactivity or poor posture. However, if you experience sharp or shooting pain that radiates down your leg and/or numbness or weakness in that limb, call your doc because it could be a herniated disk.
- Use heat/cold therapy and over-the-counter meds to help with minor pain.
- Warm up your hips, glutes and lower back with foam rolling, distractions and trigger-point work,* Metzl says. Maglara recommends knee rolls to increase range of motion.
- Avoid potentially compromising exercises such as good mornings, and strengthen your hips, lower back and core with planks and knee raises, Maglara advises.
- Practice good posture in the gym and out to relieve pressure on your lumbar spine.
Move: Knee Roll
Lie faceup with your knees bent and raised above your hips, arms extended out to the sides. Slowly lower your knees side to side, keeping your core engaged and your shoulders pressed into the floor.
Back in Action
Sore lower back? Add a little extra cardio to your routine: As little as 25 minutes of moderate aerobic exercise twice a week can increase blood flow to the soft tissues in the back and nix stiffness and pain, according to research from the University of St. Mark and St. John in England.
Your hips move in multiple planes of motion as well as in rotation, and because of that, they can experience impingement.
“Pinching on the front of the hip, especially during a deep squat, is pretty common among people who strength train,” says Metzl when describing the feeling of a hip impingement, which can be caused by improper form or tightness in your hip flexors.
However, if you feel a dull pain on the outside of the hip or deep in your glutes, it could be bursitis, an inflammation of the fluid-filled sacs that cushion the bones, tendons and ligaments, caused by repetitive movements or overuse. If that pain is accompanied by clicking or if it increases with prolonged sitting or walking, it could be a torn labrum, another overuse injury, which requires surgery.
- Use RICE and heat/cold therapy for minor aches and pains.
- Avoid high-impact activities until your pain subsides.
- Stretch the hip flexors preworkout with moves like Pigeon, and Metzl recommends adding clamshells and hip thrusts to your warm-up to mobilize your hip complex.
- Strengthen your hip extensors — your glutes — with bridges, step-ups and lunges.
Get into a low lunge and place both hands on the floor on either side of your leg. Drop your front knee to the side so the leg lies flat on the floor with your shin perpendicular to your body (or your knee bent to about 45 degrees), hips level. Your other leg is extended behind you. Hold and breathe for 60 to 90 seconds on each side.
Just like the hips, the shoulder is a complex joint, working in multiple planes of motion as well as in rotation. All this range of motion means a higher potential for injury.
Pinching felt when reaching overhead usually signals the impingement of a nerve or tendon, which is typically caused by an imbalance or tightness in the muscles of the shoulder, according to Metzl. When not addressed, an impingement can worsen, morphing into bursitis or — at worst — a tear in the rotator cuff, which manifests as pain and/or weakness that radiates down your arm.
- Use RICE and over-the-counter anti-inflammatories to quell minor pain.
- Avoid moves that put your shoulder in a compromised position, such as behind-the-neck presses and upright rows, Maglara says.
- Strengthen your shoulder stabilizers with seated cable rows, YTI raises and the medicine-ball alphabet, as prescribed by Maglara.
- Take extra time to warm up and stretch your shoulders in all directions — up, down, side to side and around.
Move: Medicine-Ball Alphabet
Hold a light medicine ball with both hands straight out in front of you at shoulder height. Draw the alphabet from A to Z in the air.
Rotator-cuff stabilization exercises (such as this one) were shown to reduce pain and improve shoulder function in people with impingement syndrome in just four weeks, according to research published in the International Journal of Sports Physical Therapy.
Your ankle is another tricky joint, and excessive exercise on unforgiving surfaces such as pavement combined with repetitive motions can cause a strain — a dull ache that can occur anywhere on your ankle. But if that tenderness is in a specific spot and abates when you’re at rest, it could be a stress fracture, which is also a result of the aforementioned conditions.
An ache in the back of your leg or above your heel after activity could indicate Achilles tendinitis, which is typically caused by overuse or by a sudden increase in training intensity or duration.
- Use RICE and over-the-counter anti-inflammatories to treat minor aches and strains.
- Limit your training to upper body only, or choose isolation exercises such as leg extensions or leg curls to work your lower half.
- Strengthen your ankles with weighted calf raises and squat jumps, Maglara says.
- To improve mobility, draw the alphabet with each foot while sitting in a chair preworkout, or even on a lunch break.
- Once healed, replace long, repetitive cardio sessions with short, intense high-intensity interval training workouts.
Move: Weighted Calf Raise
Stand on a small box with your heels hanging over the edge and hold a dumbbell in each hand. Sink down into your heels as far as you can and get a good stretch, then rise up onto your toes as high as you can and pause before repeating.