Bodybuilding is all about mass: building more muscle mass means lifting more mass in the gym. No bones about it, you must train heavy to get huge. Just take a look at the poundage hoisted by some of the sport’s biggest pros, such as Ronnie Coleman, Markus Rühl and Dorian Yates. These guys train hard and heavy and it shows. The irony of training with a lot of mass to put on muscle mass is that it has the opposite effect on joints. Lifting heavy weights actually reduces the mass of cartilage.
Researchers headed by a scientist from Ohio State University (Columbus) have discovered that heavy loading causes cartilage breakdown. Don’t drop those 120-pound dumbbells just yet, though. The good news is that they’ve also discovered how to build the cartilage back up and prevent further breakdown.
The team of scientists discovered that heavy loads — such as weights that prevent you from completing more than eight reps — can cause inflammation in joints that results in cartilage deconstruction and inhibits its reconstruction. Heavy weight seems to affect genes in cartilage cells that cause cell-signaling molecules, called cytokines, to initiate a chain of events that result in the release of chemicals that appear to attack the cartilage. This type of attack is similar to that in arthritis.
If you frequently train heavy and your elbows, knees, hips or shoulders are sore, it may not necessarily be due to a specific training injury. It could be the breakdown of your joint cartilage over time from the heavy pounding your joints sustain. Ask any oldtime bodybuilder who trains heavy about joint pain, and he’ll likely recite a long list of aching joints that he has accumulated over the years.
It doesn’t have to be this way. The problem is that bodybuilders who train heavy and experience a lot of joint pain probably rarely use light weights. A major misconception is that heavy lifting and joint pain are cause and effect. Many bodybuilders and powerlifters just deal with the accompanying joint pain. They reach for glucosamine, chondroitin and fish oil to get relief. Although these are good supplements for joint preservation, trainers should also be reaching for lighter weights from time to time.
The previously mentioned research team also established that training with very light weight (a weight that allows the completion of 15-20 reps) prevented cartilage deconstruction and even enhanced its reconstruction. Most bodybuilders would assume that this works because it gives the joints a break from heavy pounding. That is not the reason.
The scientists found that exercising with light weights reverses the processes that occur when joints are stressed by heavy weights. Light weights seem to inhibit the activation of genes in cartilage cells that cause inflammation and an ensuing attack on cartilage. This prevents the breakdown of cartilage and leads to it being rebuilt.
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