Joint Health

Matt showing excellent depth while working the rare Sott's Press.

Matt showing excellent depth while working the rare Sott's Press.

Today’s post comes from CF West member Matt Schwartz.  Matt has been involved in strength and conditioning a long time and he is enormously learned in the field.  Besides being one of the original CrossFitters under Coach Glassman years ago, Matt holds exercise science and personal training certifications, as well the Russian Kettlebell Challenge certification under Pavel Tsatsouline.  This is all in addition to a lifetime of physical training and athletic pursuits, including collegiate rowing, big wave surfing, and kite boarding.  Matt actively seeks out experts in various fitness and health related fields for both treatment and continuing education, such as ART, chiropractics, and CrossFit legend Kelly Starrett’s unique brand of physical therapy.  One of his most storied accomplishments (about which he would never brag, but I will) is 105 snatches with a 73# kettlebell in 5 minutes.

I am sure you will find his guest post as educational as I did. Thank you, Matt.

Your Joints On CrossFit

One of the main reasons we do CrossFit is because it gives us access to elite physical performances. However, those performances are of limited use if they compromise our structural health over the long term. This can be seen in many pro sports where athletes mortgage their future health for their athletic career. When you’re being paid millions to play a game you love, that’s a trade many are willing to make. However, most of us aren’t willing to pay for a 400 lb. squat or 8 minute Helen with arthritic knees in 10 years. And luckily for CrossFitters, it doesn’t have to be this way.  Most of us want to be not only as fit as possible, but also vigorous and healthy for the long run. And CrossFit excels on both counts.

As we age, one of the main markers of our health is our mobility. What movements can we do and how vigorously can we perform them? And that, friends and neighbors, is all about our joints. When people get older, what do they complain about, their muscles or their joints? For example, do you hear complaints about that sore knee or that sore quad? I would bet it’s the knee. There’s a saying that you’re only as old as your joints. Keep those puppies healthy and you will remain robust and able to perform. Ignore them and only focus on the muscle and you can be sure that your joints will complain eventually.

And that’s where CrossFit comes in. CrossFit movements not only challenge our muscles but they also challenge our joints. And in a healthy way. That means we stay in (or strive to regain) normal (non-pathological/non-painful) joint ranges by paying strict attention to form and making sure we learn to support our joints with our muscles.

First of all, let’s look at what exactly is a joint.  It’s a pivot point in our skeleton that’s usually lined with a layer of slippery articular cartilage and supported with ligaments connecting the moving parts (bones). Furthermore, we have tendons crossing those joints that transmit the force from the muscles to the bones that move. Finally, our joints are bathed in a layer of synovial fluid that provides nutrition and removes waste. That fluid is how our joints “breathe.” Joints have very limited blood flow, so joint fluid circulation and health is driven mostly by the joint’s movement.

If we limit a joint’s range of movement, we also limit what areas of the joint surface are strong and healthy. This is why knee and hip replacement are so rampant in the US. Our modern lifestyle requires a lot of sitting with limited knee and hip movement. That causes the underused parts of the joint to decay while the overused parts of the joint wear out more rapidly. That deterioration combined with overweight or injury can cause parts of the joint to eventually become decrepit.

Want healthy joints? Move them through large, safe ranges (study anatomy and check with your trainer to learn each joint’s safe range), and at a variety of angles and loads. Sound like CrossFit again (hint: constantly varied, functional movements at high intensity)? Functional exercise (ie CrossFit) helps our joints in 2 ways.

          1) Heavy and/or ballistic loading of the joint in a progressive and sane way encourages thickening of the joint components (cartilage, ligaments, tendons, and fascia). These are our strength/explosive workouts.

          2) High repetitions of unloaded to moderately loaded movements at varying angles and ranges break up joint adhesions and calcium deposits, smooth articular cartilage, and flush synovial fluid throughout the joint components, thereby nourishing and rejuvenating the joint. This is of course what we do in our WODs and can also be done as light restorative work in our non-workout time.

Without our joints we’re really useless (in an athletic sense), so remember that while we’re chasing performance, healthy joints are what provide us that performance, so be sure to take care of them for a life of vigorous movement capability.


10 Rounds

100m Row

2 Clean and Jerks bw

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