If your lower back, knees, elbows, shoulders or wrists are giving you grief, but you still want to keep on training hard, I’ve put together a list of joint-friendly exercises that will stimulate muscle growth, but with less risk of making your joints play up.
The stock answer usually given to anyone who finds that the bench press hurts their shoulders is to use dumbbells instead. This isn’t bad advice, but you also need to consider the position of your hands and elbows.
More specifically, if your elbows are out wide and your palms face forwards, that’s exactly the same position they’re in if you’re using a barbell. If the barbell bench press causes shoulder pain, then doing the same thing with dumbbells isn’t going to help.
Rather than flare your elbows out to the side, or going to the other extreme and tucking them all the way in, they should be somewhere in between, like so:
Dumbbell Bench Press
Something else to consider is your range of motion. Some people are built in a way that makes them more likely to suffer from shoulder problems than others.
If you have long arms and a small rib cage, bringing the bar all the way down to your chest in an exercise like the bench press means that your shoulders have to go a lot deeper into extension than someone with short arms and a large rib cage.
It may be the case that no matter what you do, you won’t be able to perform the bench press or dumbbell bench press through a “full” range of motion without your shoulders giving you grief.
If so, try the floor press, decline bench press or the “shoulder saver” bench press, all of which involve a much shorter range of motion than the flat bench press.
Shoulder Saver Pad
The push-up is another option.
During the push-up, the shoulder blade is able to move a lot more freely than it does during the bench press, making it a much more “shoulder friendly” way to train the chest.
If you’ve got a dodgy shoulder that hurts when you bench press, switching to push-ups may well allow you to continue training your chest without a problem.
However, as with the bench press, it’s important to get the position of your elbows right. You don’t want the elbows flared out to the side or tucked in to your sides either. Somewhere in between is about right.
Strength coach Mike Roberston explains the correct elbow position during the push-up in the video below.
To make the push-up harder, and put more of an emphasis on the upper chest, you can raise the legs and do decline push-ups.
You can also use a weighted vest or elastic band to make the standard push-up more of a challenge.
Something else that’s worth a try is the single arm dumbbell bench press, which is useful if you’re able to train one side of the body but not the other.
Single Arm Dumbbell Bench Press
Focusing on one arm at a time makes it easier to press the dumbbell along a particular “pain-free” path, which often differs from one side of the body to the other.
As well as the chest, shoulders and triceps, this exercise requires extra work from the abs to stabilize the body.
There is also a phenomenon known as the cross-education effect, where training a non-injured side can affect strength in the injured untrained limb.
Many exercises for the back can be done with rotating handles, allowing you to work around niggling joint pain in your wrists, elbows or shoulders.
Because the handle rotates, you can start with whatever grip feels comfortable, and then supinate your hands to whatever degree you want as you perform the exercise.
Not only does this feel easier on your joints, pull-ups done with rotating handles have been shown to work the lats just as hard as the same exercise done with a straight bar.
Working one side of the back independently also helps to iron out any differences in muscle strength from one side to the other.
Single Arm Lat Pulldown
Single Arm Cable Row
Kneeling Rope Cable Lat Pulldowns
You may find that a particular grip or hand position is less stressful on your joints than another. If so, use that. Experiment to find out which one feels best for you.
If a compound lift like the overhead press causes pain, you’ve got a few options. The first is to change the position of your arms.
One quick and simple way to relieve shoulder pain is to move your upper arms closer to the center line of your body. In other words, rather than positioning them straight out to the side (the 0° position in the image below), your arms should be tucked in at a 30-60 degree angle.
This is known as lifting in the scapular plane, and is a much more shoulder friendly position during many exercises, particularly the overhead press.
A very simple way to move your arms closer to the center line of your body is by switching to a neutral grip where your palms face each another.
Everyone is put together in a different way, and there’s never going to be a single hand position that will take the pain away for everyone. However, a neutral grip will often set the stage for a reduction in shoulder pain by moving your arms closer to the center line of your body.
It’s not always as straightforward as using one grip or another. Sometimes, the best position for your hands is somewhere between the two. Changing hand position by a few degrees here or there can make the difference between pain and no pain.
Neutral Grip Dumbbell Press
I much prefer to do this exercise one arm at a time. Doing so makes it easier to adjust the path of the dumbbell, the position of my elbows and range of motion in such a way that it doesn’t cause me any pain or discomfort.
It’s also easier on your back as well. Pressing a 40-pound dumbbell over your head will impose less compressive load on your spine than an 80-pound barbell.
Something to pay particular attention to is the range of motion that you use with any overhead pressing exercises.
Rather than going “all the way up and all the way down,” it’s often better for your shoulders to shave a few inches off the bottom of the movement.
In other words, rather than using a “full” range of motion, you’d lower the weight until your elbows are at roughly 90 degrees, before returning it to the start position.
Another option for working your shoulders is the face pull, which you can do with a cable or resistance band. The video below shows you how I like to do them – with the palms facing down, and the band/cable pulled to the forehead.
The squat is another compound lift that’s often touted as “essential” for building muscle. While it’s a highly effective exercise for your lower body, some people find that it causes problems for their lower back.
If so, try the Bulgarian split squat or reverse lunge, both of which can be done with dumbbells, a barbell or weighted vest to add resistance. Because you can keep your body upright, both exercises reduce the amount of work done by the lower back.
Bulgarian Split Squat
Compound lifts like the split squat or reverse lunge are quite awkward to do, and you may find it tricky to keep your balance. If so, try the single-leg leg press.
Single-leg Leg Press
The single-leg leg press also makes it a lot more difficult to round your lower back (which doesn’t do your spine any favors), making it a lot safer all round.
Another option is the leg extension.
Leg extensions are often slammed as being “bad for your knees.” While they certainly have the potential to be bad for your knees if they’re not done properly, they’re also a very useful way to develop your quads.
While the squat leads to high levels of muscle activation in vastus lateralis and vastus medialis (two of the four muscles that make up your quads), the leg extension has been shown to preferentially recruit rectus femoris, which is the muscle running down the front of your thigh.
In fact, the leg extension, performed three times a week for three months, leads to faster growth in rectus femoris compared to the other three muscles that make up the quads.
Leg extensions have also been shown to reduce knee pain. In one 2016 study, doing leg extensions four times a week for four weeks led to a significant reduction in knee pain in athletes with patellar tendinopathy (also known as Jumper’s Knee).
I’m not saying that leg extensions are some kind of universal “cure all” for knee pain, irrespective of what’s causing that pain. But they’ve helped me, and may well do the same for you.