When Your Joints Rebel: How To Modify Your Lifting Regimen So You Can Train With Joint Issues

You are a beast in the gym…that is, until a joint injury or flare-up from arthritis, bursitis or sprain threatens to deflate your motivation as a result of the pain. While it is always important to take preventative measures to protect the joints, such as warming up the surrounding soft tissues properly, using proper form during exercises, and taking supplements which promote joint health, there may be times when joint discomfort is so significant that a little TLC needs to be added to the regimen. The recommendation of complete rest usually falls on deaf ears when a fitness fanatic is the one suffering from joint woes, because the general mindset for such an individual is to push through the pain and continue training. However, in most cases, the pain and inflammation will throw a wrench in the works by adversely affecting range of motion and strength. As long as the joint pain isn’t severe, and is not caused by direct, acute injury to the joint, exercises can usually be modified to alleviate load stress on the affected area.

There are a number of exercise modifications which can be made to weightlifting exercises to minimize the loading on affected joints while still effectively training surrounding muscle groups. Bear in mind that you might not be able to perform certain exercises at all, even with a modified grip or stance. The most important thing is to pay attention to your body and stop doing anything which exacerbates the joint discomfort.


Since shoulder joint issues are relatively common, most of the suggestions made in this article for exercise modifications for the upper body will take this into account. Depending on the degree and location of shoulder pain, you might still be able to perform shoulder presses, but do not perform them behind the neck as they can cause impingement. Incidentally, you will also need to avoid pulling the bar behind your head when doing lat pulldowns. To perform overhead presses, use a straight bar with a grip slightly wider than shoulder width apart, or use dumbbells, and use a light weight. Another exercise which should be modified when shoulder pain is an issue is the bench press. Chest presses should be avoided on an incline bench due to increased abduction and a corresponding increased shear stress and strain on the glenohumeral joint.

Shoulder joint pain can also interfere with lower body barbell exercises like the back squat and lunges. Since the barbell must be stabilized across the back, the shoulder must remain in an externally rotated and abducted position. Even barbell deadlifts force the shoulder into a gravitational load in extension which can be enough to aggravate shoulder joint issues if a heavy weight is used. Modifications to these exercises include performing front squats while holding onto a kettlebell or dumbbell, and switching to dumbbells when performing lunges and deadlifts.

Most cases of shoulder pain from joint instability or arthritis can make it impossible to perform a plank for an extended period of time due to the superior-posterior stress across the shoulder joint complex, but this is easily remedied by modifying the plank so that you rest on your forearms instead of your hands, thus shortening the lever arm and decreasing the stress load.

If you have issues with your elbows, it is wise to avoid pullups, pushups, mountain climbers, overhead tricep extensions and planks, but bicep curls may also be difficult to do, especially as you supinate and flex the elbow. The elbow joint is a tricky one to train around, and the best approach is to completely avoid any direct movements which involve the elbow flexors if the pain is severe. If the pain is minimal, regular dumbbell bicep curls, hammer curls and cable tricep extensions can be performed with light weights. Using a false grip on dumbbells (in which the thumb is not engaged in opposition around the bar), using a cuff around the arm with a cable assembly, or switching to weight plates with a neutral (palms in) grip can also be helpful in minimizing the strain on the elbow stabilizers during delt training routines.

Wrist pain can often be eradicated by using lifting gloves which have wrist support to counteract some of the stress. Since bench dips can aggravate sore wrists, they should be avoided and replaced with cable tricep extensions, which can be performed without extending the wrist. Traditional pushups also force the wrists into a hyperextended position, but a simple switch in hand position, in which the fingers point out to the sides, with hands at least shoulder width apart, will minimize joint stress during the down phase of the movement.


If you have issues with the joints in your lower extremities (hips, knees, ankles, feet), ballistic movements, such as the ones performed in plyometrics and calisthenics, should be avoided. Unfortunately, exercises which are considered staples in a weightlifter’s regimen, such as squats, lunges and leg presses, can also wreak havoc on achy hips and creaky knees, especially if poor form and heavy weights are used. It’s best to trade these in, at least for a while, and instead turn to leg lifts on all fours, wall sits, front leg raises against a wall, and single leg deadlifts, all of which decrease the load on the hips and knees while still providing good isolation.

Since ankles and feet take the brunt of weight bearing, they should be babied when flare-ups occur, which means that calf raises, leg presses, and squats should be avoided and replaced with moves which do not require excessive joint motion under a loading force. Foot stance should be maintained at shoulder width to maintain the ankle position in a neutral plane and avoid any inversion or eversion. Mat exercises are also an excellent alternative to hardcore standard weight machines when dealing with joint flare-ups in the ankle or foot.


The incidence of low back pain is extremely high, especially among fitness devotees. Since it is usually triggered by extreme positions of flexion or extension, something as simple as standing with your heels on two weight plates and dropping the amount of weight lifted can be enough to maintain a more upright position and avoid the excessive lumbar flexion often seen with back squats. Another modification which spares the low back as well as the knee is performing Bulgarian squats, which keep the upper body in a vertical plane.

If you experience joint pain in your neck or upper back, you should avoid exercises mentioned earlier such as behind the head lat pulldowns and military presses, both of which cause excessive flexion in the cervical spine. In some cases, you will need to omit exercises which involve the use of a barbell behind the neck since this type of load increases flexion stress. You can modify these movements by using dumbbells or by switching to a machine, for example, switching from barbell squats to hack squats.

The most important thing to remember is to listen to your body and stop any movement if you feel sudden pain. By training wisely and making necessary modifications while your joints are inflamed, you will be able to bypass injury and continue to make gains at the gym.


My Experience With Food Intolerance

Before I began competing in 2009, I could pretty much eat whatever I wanted without any digestive or reactive consequence. All that changed by the time I earned my IFBB Pro Card in 2013, when I developed a number of food intolerances which forced me to change the way I ate and what I consumed. It was so bizarre for me to mount reactions to healthy foods which had never caused an issue in the past. During one particular contest prep regimen, I began to notice that every single time I ate broccoli, I would get severe abdominal cramps and a headache which persisted for an entire day (now they last for 3-5 days if I am stupid enough to eat even one small floret). I honestly believe that the extreme and repetitive meal plans which I consumed while competing were major factors in the development of my food intolerance issues.

I retired from competing in June of 2014, yet I developed even more food issues. I noticed that other foods were aggravating my gut, my skin, my head and my mood, so I decided to eliminate them. In January of 2015, I had an ALCAT food intolerance test, and discovered that broccoli on the list of offending foods for me. I also had SEVERE gluten intolerance, as well as intolerance to coconut, flaxseed, mangoes, casein, blueberries, and a number of other foods which are considered healthy. In an effort to allow my body to calm down, I eliminated every food which I had any intolerance to (there were about 30 foods) for close to a year. To this day, I am very careful about the foods which my body rejects, and keep my exposure to a minimum.

I will allow myself to have blueberries, coconut, mango, lobster, cashews, bison, and spinach on rare occasion, and have noticed no reactions. However, I mount strong reactions to other foods and food combinations. For example, within two consecutive days of eating flaxseed, I develop one or two deep, painful, cystic pimples on my face which will not resolve until I stop eating flaxseed. When I eat gluten, I become irritable and emotional, I get headaches, my belly aches, and I don’t sleep well. Of course I didn’t know that this was the case until I did an elimination diet and gradually began feeling better, then tried eating gluten after many months of avoiding it. Every time I ingest gluten containing foods, I notice symptoms which can be mild or severe depending on the food and the quantity eaten. Pizza is VERY dangerous for me now, so if I am faced with the prospect of eating the cheesy, gluten filled meal, I have to take a Glutagest (which breaks down gluten in the food eaten) if I want to avoid the ugly consequences of allowing gluten to enter my body. The combination of pizza and wine is even worse. I might as well forget about functioning like a normal person for a couple of days if I dare to consume this food and drink duo.

I agree that the whole gluten-free trend has gotten a little out of hand, but I also strongly believe that there are many people walking around with gluten intolerance and other food intolerances who have no idea that the foods they are consuming are affecting their health and well-being. I have personally benefitted from going gluten free and avoiding foods my body rejects, and have been rewarded with more luminous skin, thicker hair, better digestion, better overall mood and energy, and much better sleep.

If you suspect that you have food intolerance, try eliminating the suspect food to see if it makes a difference. Trust your body’s signals. And if you want to get a food intolerance test, check out ALCAT.com and Everlywell.com for the kits they offer.

Anti-Inflammatory Meds and Muscle Growth

NOTE: This was originally written for Oxygen Mag digital version.

There has been a heated debate over many years within the bodybuilding community about whether anti-inflammatory medications like ibuprofen (Advil, Motrin) and naproxen sodium hinder muscle growth. These medications inhibit the synthesis of prostaglandins, which also play a role in muscle synthesis. All it took was one clinical study published in the Journal of Clinical Endocrinology and Metabolism to put bodybuilders into a panic about reduced protein synthesis, and it didn’t matter that such results were found in laboratory rats. While there is some evidence to suggest that the anabolic signal is shut off when anti-inflammatories circulate in the bloodstream, nothing is absolutely conclusive, and what might be seen in the rat model might not necessarily be the case for humans.

While I will never advocate chronic use of painkillers and anti-inflammatory agents, I think they definitely serve a purpose when acute injury is present. When I find myself in the middle of disputes with bodybuilders who INSIST that a few days on such medications will completely destroy all their efforts in the gym, I simply shake my head in frustration. If you are injured and your lifting is adversely affected by the injury, whether it be a muscle strain, a ligament tear, or a minor disc herniation, you need to be aware that training through that injury, especially when it deranges your form and causes other body parts to compensate for the injury, will end up really messing you up over time. I honestly think that a minimal decrease in muscle mass over the course of a few days is preferable to the imbalance and asymmetry which usually occur when a bodybuilder foolishly pushes through heavy workouts despite an injury which has a domino effect on the body.

Common sense, and medical expertise, dictate that the inflammation must be removed from the area, most commonly through short term administration of anti-inflammatory agents, ice, and rest. Trust me, if you follow a regimen like this, you won’t lose all the muscle you have built over the years. Be sure to take these medications with food, and if you have any history of gastric ulcers. bleeding disorders, or kidney dysfunction, avoid taking them.

Remember that I am talking about DAYS, not weeks or months. This is one time when eating constantly has its benefits, since bodybuilders and fitness people can pretty easily fit in their medication administration with one of their meals. I know it’s difficult to back off from training, but if you truly want to HEAL, you must give the injured area time to repair itself. If you insist on continuing to train through the injury, especially, without any medications or other interventions on board, you can count on the injury either lingering or worsening over time.

No Olympia For Me This Year

Fun times from Olympia 2011 with Anca and Farinaz

For the past seven years, I have attended Olympia every year and have always enjoyed the whole experience. This year, however, I will not be attending since the main sports supplement company I work with, SWAT Fuel, will not have a presence there this time around. What is strange for me is that I am not bothered by the fact that I won’t be rubbing elbows with the fitness and bodybuilding icons I have come to know over the years. In some sense I am actually relieved that I will get a break this year, since I have been traveling more this year and could use a staycation.

For those of you who are wondering what event I will be at next, please come by and say hi at the Ferrigno Legacy on November 18th and 19th. I will be at the Flexpo, handing out samples of SWAT Fuel’s 9mm+P, which is a combination preworkout/endurance/thermogenic formula unlike anything else on the market!

For more information and tickets to the Ferrigno Legacy, please visit: https://www.ferrignolegacy.com/

Jerry Frederick Of Ironman Magazine Fame

While at Joe Wheatley’s Muscle Beach event on Labor Day, I had the pleasant surprise of seeing Jerry Frederick, whom I hadn’t seen in several years. He was sitting under the main canopy, with his ever-present breakaway reading glasses around his neck. I was just tickled to see him. For those of you in the bodybuilding world, you know that this man had worked for Ironman Magazine as one of their staff photographers for several decades. He has always had a strong passion for the world of competitive bodybuilding, and has gone out of his way to create content with athletes such as myself to use for features within the publication.

Jerry and I chatted for several minutes, and he was full of smiles and that sweet, gentle demeanor which makes him so loveable. I was saddened to hear that he has a neuromuscular disorder which could be Parkinson’s but which hasn’t been definitively diagnosed yet. Hopefully Jerry will be placed on a treatment plan which halts the progression of the disorder.

Why We Crave Bad Foods

Most of us have certain food cravings, and for some of us, those cravings can be frequent and incredibly strong. Scientists have determined that there is a biological basis for food cravings, so those cravings may be next to impossible to avoid. First of all, our prehistoric ancestors had to deal with a very limited supply of calorie dense food because they had to hunt for it. They constantly dealt with a feast or famine lifestyle, a stark contrast to modern times, in which plenty of food is readily available.

Programmed To Crave

The prehistoric human brain would respond to a sudden caloric intake by releasing serotonin and dopamine, both of which created a sense of well-being. This release of brain chemicals also occurs in modern humans. In addition, meals which are high in fat and sugar result in decreased production of stress-related hormones.

The bottom line is that our brains are programmed to crave and seek foods which are high in calories, fat, carbs and salt, just like our ancestors, who rarely had meat protein, and only after a successful hunt. It’s no surprise that fatty, caloric foods are associated with feelings of contentment, especially since we tend to have more cravings when we are anxious or under stress.

According to research from the Monell Chemical Senses Center, three regions of the brain (hippocampus, caudate and insula) light up when a subject craves a certain food. In another study, by Adam Drewnowski, PhD, when pleasure-sensing opiate receptors in the brain were blocked, subjects no longer craved sugary or high fat foods.

How To Control Cravings

Though carbohydrates have gotten a bad rap in recent years, it is the combination of carbohydrates with fat and salt that appears to be the winning combination for foods which spark cravings. Prime examples are pizza, French fries, and macaroni and cheese.

Individuals who have a greater degree of willpower are usually best off with having a small serving of the food they crave, which satisfies the craving. However, some people lack the ability to control the desire to indulge in cravings, and tend to binge on decadent foods. In such cases, the best thing to do is to avoid stocking those foods entirely.

What The Hell Is “If It Fits Your Macros” Anyway?

You have probably heard about the “If It Fits Your Macros” (or IIFYM) trend which has been increasing in popularity within the fitness and bodybuilding world. It’s not surprising that the concept was embraced and developed by people within the industry who were sick and tired of adhering to monotonous, restrictive meal plans in which the vast majority of foods were labeled as evil and forbidden. On a personal note, I jumped on the IIFYM bandwagon as well because I was fed up with avoiding certain so-called “bad” foods and also dealing with metabolic burnout from years of caloric restriction. What surprised me was the positive manner in which my body responded to taking in maintenance calories as opposed to constantly functioning at a caloric deficit which only served to slow down my metabolism.

The term macro refers to the principal nutrients which the body requires: protein, fat, carbohydrates. IIFYM dictates that as long as you fulfill the energy needs of your body, you can obtain calories from any food source. Let’s face it: your body needs a certain amount of protein, carbohydrate and fat, along with fiber and micronutrients such as vitamins and minerals in order to function optimally, but it doesn’t scrutinize every macronutrient gram as it is thrown into the body. On the other side of the coin, it is also important to bear in mind that most proponents of IIFYM do not consume large amounts of junk food either. As long as quality protein is consumed in adequate amounts to contribute to muscle growth and repair, along with micronutrients and dietary fiber to support normal digestion, it shouldn’t matter if a small percentage of caloric daily intake is obtained from discretionary or junk food items.

My personal opinion is that the quality of carbs still should come into play if you are employing an IIFYM approach. However, if the majority of carbs comes from quality sources such as oats, sweet potatoes and brown rice, a small amount of junk carbs (cookies, Pop Tarts) shouldn’t tip the balance too much. I am a fan of carb BACKloading and believe the largest insulin spike should come at night before you sleep, since you will be fasting for several hours.

I know some of you are still reading this with great skepticism and want to hold onto your six boring meals of tilapia and green beans every day, refusing to accept the concept of loosening the reins a bit and actually enjoying a variety of foods. IIFYM doesn’t mean that you lose control and eat whatever you want, whenever you want. What it DOES mean is that foods will no longer be forbidden or “bad”, and that you can actually consume them on a fairly regular basis as long as you keep track of your daily nutrient intake.

The main drawback of IIFYM is that you must track your food intake, which in a sense is another form of food fixation. However, there is a greater chance that you will meet your body’s nutrient needs than if you follow a cookie cutter, calorie restricted, orthorexia lover’s contest prep meal plan. When clean eating is followed 100% and the majority of food sources are banned, caloric restriction is almost inevitable. Such caloric restriction, when practiced for an extended period of time, will cause fat loss to stall and metabolism to slow down.

How about if you met your macronutrient needs without having to banish most foods from your diet? So many people in the world of fitness suffer from orthorexia, a psychopathological condition in which foods are labeled as “good” or “bad”, and in which individuals become socially isolated over their need to eat “correctly”. I have seen so many competitors struggle with an increasing difficulty in losing fat, so their coaches restrict their calories even more and ban more foods from their meal plans. Fruit, healthy fats, and healthy carbs are stripped away in an effort to lean the competitor out. Another thing to consider is what food deprivation does to people. If a food is “bad”, suddenly the temptation to indulge in that bad food is intensified.

You might want to consider trying IIFYM if you are in a slump with your current meal plan. You may feel like a hamster on a very boring and restrictive “clean eating” wheel in which you are only allowed to eat very specific foods in certain combinations. For some of you who have been doing this incessantly for years, you may have noticed over time that it has become more and more difficult to lose weight. Your meal plan is probably VERY rigid and VERY boring, consisting of foods you are probably so sick of that if you never had to eat them ever again, you would rejoice in the streets for days. Give IIFYM a try. You might be pleasantly surprised at how your body responds.