If your strength training workouts don’t make you feel great or, worse, leave you feeling achy or beat up, then you need to change things. Now. Here’s how.
Below you’ll find four tips I use with clients (and myself) who complained that lifting weights didn’t “feel good” or left them feeling achy. Whether you’re an older lifter and want to strength train as safely as possible, you have previous aches and pains you want to alleviate, or you want your workouts to make you feel better and have more energy, give these four tips a try during your next workout.
Tip 1: Slow down your reps.*
This tip is simple to practice but also very effective, especially if you’ve previously experienced discomfort or pain from strength training workouts. Give this a try during your next workout (or even test it now with a set of push-ups) to experience it for yourself.
Slow down your reps by taking approximately 2-3 seconds to perform the lowering portion of the exercise. You don’t need to count, but noticeably slow down your rep performance. Using a push-up as an example, take 2-3 seconds to lower yourself down to the ground.
Then smoothly reverse the motion; do not use momentum or “bounce” back up. Sticking with the push-up example, after you lower yourself down, smoothly reverse the motion and press back up. It may help to add a slight pause in the bottom position to ensure you don’t bounce out of the bottom.
Perform the lifting portion in about 1-2 seconds. With the push-up example, once you smoothly reverse the motion press back up taking 1, maybe 2, seconds. Once you’re in the top position immediately lower into the next rep.
To break down the rep performance again: take 2-3 seconds for the lowering portion, smoothly reverse the motion or pause in the bottom position for a second, take 1-2 seconds to perform the lifting phase of the rep.
Notice how I lower the dumbbells under control and then smoothly reverse the motion; no bouncing out of the bottom.
Bouncing out of the bottom position is something many people do with pull-up variations; they drop down quickly and use that natural “bounce” to help them get back up. Don’t do that if you want to keep your shoulders healthy. Lower down under control taking about 2-3 seconds and then smoothly reverse the motion and take 1-2 seconds to pull back up.
This tip should also be applied to band assisted pull-up variations too.
You can apply this slower rep performance technique to most exercises using barbells, dumbbells, cable machines, and bodyweight.
*I do not recommend this tip be practiced with deadlift variations (e.g., trap bar, sumo, conventional) except Romanian deadlifts (RDLs are the one deadlift variation it’s beneficial to slow down the lowering portion of the lift). And, obviously, don’t practice this technique with explosive exercises (e.g., jumps, swings, Olympic lifts, etc.).
Tip 2: Use more joint-friendly equipment and exercise variations.
This is a tip I use liberally with my more mature Beautiful Badasses (usually 40+) and individuals who are beat up from years of lifting heavy weights or other activities that were hard on their bodies.
With those individuals I stick to mostly dumbbell, bodyweight, suspension trainer, and cable machine exercises; we use barbell exercises sparingly. Those tools tend to be more joint-friendly because they allow natural movement in your joints, compared to similar barbell exercises.
Let’s compare a barbell and dumbbell overhead press. With a barbell overhead press your joints are locked in to a more fixed range of motion, but with dumbbells, there’s more natural movement at the wrists, elbows, and shoulders because you can adjust the position of the dumbbells. I’ve had several clients not be able to press a barbell overhead without shoulder pain but can do the dumbbell variation without issue.
If you ever feel beat up from heavy barbell workouts, try using dumbbells, cable machines, a suspension trainer, and bodyweight exercises instead and see how you feel. I’ve used this successfully with older trainees; this simple change has allowed them to keep training hard, safely, and continue to make progress while remaining pain free. (Check out the 12 Week Dumbbell and Bodyweight Program if you want a done-for-you workout program that uses dumbbell and bodyweight exercises exclusively.)
Tip 3: Reduce the load and focus on your form.
Lifting heavy weights and getting strong is damn fun, and awesome.
But if you experience occasional aches and pains associated with lifting heavy weight on a frequent basis, reduce the load and focus on your form.
“But, Nia, won’t using lighter weights cause me to lose the strength and results I’ve worked so hard to achieve?”
Progressively getting stronger is a great way to improve your performance and thus transform your body. However, it’s not the only way to improve your performance. Focusing on your form is another method of performance improvement and a great way to make strength training feel good, and not leave you feeling beat up.
If you typically focus on lifting as much weight as possible, try reducing the load a bit (even just 5-15%) and really focus on your rep performance; make every single rep count, and focus on each individual rep. You can even combine this tip with Tip 1 above.
Just because you lighten the load doesn’t mean you’re not working hard or making progress. Reduce the weight a bit and put 100% effort into every single rep you perform. Sounds simple, but it works, and it can make you feel great.
Tip 4: Use a different workout split.
Workout splits control the volume and frequency that you work each muscle group or movement. For example, if you perform three total body workouts per week, you’re essentially working your entire body, three times each week.
Some trainees who primarily use total body workouts could benefit from rotating a different strength training split into their programming, such as an upper/lower split or even a push/pull/legs split.
An upper/lower split is exactly what it sounds like: each workout trains either your upper body or lower body muscles. I prefer four workouts per week when using an upper/lower split so you hit each muscle group twice per week. For example: upper body workout on Monday, lower body workout on Tuesday, upper body workout on Thursday, and lower body workout on Friday works well. (For more information on this split refer to this article.)
For trainees who’ve been doing nothing but total body workouts for months or years, switching to an upper/lower split for 4-12 weeks can help alleviate aches and pains, because the frequency of hitting each muscle group is a bit less.
Another split option, which I only use for intermediate and experienced strength trainees, is a push/pull/legs split. This is just as it sounds: one workout you train pushing movements (e.g., overhead press, push-ups, triceps extensions), the second workout trains pulling movements (e.g., deadlift variation, rows, chin-ups, biceps curls), and the third workout trains legs (e.g., squats, lunges, hip thrusts).
The frequency for training each muscle group is low with this split (once per week) but is a great option to include for those who find 2-3 workouts per week for each muscle group too much to recover from.
If you’ve been using the same split for several months, give this a shot. Try a different split for the next 4-8 weeks and see how you feel.
Always remember that strength training should make you feel great;working out should never hurt. If you feel a bit beat up from your workouts, start practicing the four tips above and start feeling great. Remember, the goal isn’t just to train hard this week, but you want to be able to keep training hard next year, and 10 years from now. For that to happen you need to train smart and stay healthy.