How do I avoid shoulder and knee pain?

March 3, 2012

Q: I love working out and lifting weights but sometimes have minor pain in my shoulders and knees. It’s nothing serious, but it sometimes makes it difficult to work out. Do you have any tricks to help alleviate this problem so I can continue to work out without making the situation worse?

A: If you spend enough time in the weight room, you’re bound to experience your fair share of minor aches and pains, but knowing how to tweak your workout to avoid further injury could be the difference between a little inflammation and a major injury. And since you can’t get in shape if you’re lying on the couch trying to heal, it makes sense to learn how to shift gears and change your routine up before it’s too late. Here are four ways I have found to give your joints and connective tissue a break from the rigors of working hard without missing a workout.

Turn palms from out to in on dumbbell presses
The most common way to do dumbbell chest presses is to lie on a bench with dumbbells held in each hand over your torso and then slowly lower the weight until the barbells touch your chest with your palms facing away from your body. Although this can be a great way to work your chest, it can also sometimes inflame the shoulder joint. If this happens to you, try turning your wrists inward so your palms are facing toward each other and your elbows are pointed away from your body. More often than not this simple change in hand grip will take the pressure off the shoulder joint and allow you to continue working your chest without further pain.

Angle toes slightly outward on squats
Squatting with your feet straight in front is not a natural movement and can irritate your knees, causing pain and inflammation. If you don’t believe me, try this simple test to find your most natural foot stance. Hang from a pull-up bar and allow your feet to dangle below you, and you’ll find that your feet naturally angle slightly outward away from your body. This stance is also the most natural foot position for any type of squat because it allows the knee joint, the femur (thigh bone) and the hips to align correctly, avoiding knee joint pressure. So regardless of how wide you choose to place your feet, make sure your toes are slightly
angled outward.

Go palm to palm on curling exercises
Straight bar curls and dumbbell curls are a great way to isolate the biceps but often inflame the elbow joint. To remedy this, simply limit your bicep work to dumbbells and turn your palms inward toward your body and continue to curl. The best example of an exercise that fits nicely into these guidelines is the dumbbell hammer curl. I wish a had a nickel for every time I told a client experiencing elbow pain to switch to hammer curls, and the pain was instantly gone.

Exchange running routines for low-impact cardio
Running is a great way to burn fat, but the constant pounding of stepping and landing can send shock waves down your spine and cause knee, hip and lower back pain. In fact, most runners should periodically take a break and trade their road work in for more joint-friendly, lower-impact cardio. Machines like the elliptical, arc trainer and rowing machine can be a great choice because they have a softer gait and put less pressure on the joints.

Remember, the name of the game is longevity, and if you want to stay healthy you have to learn to shift gears. If you experience pain or inflammation, see a doctor to make sure you don’t have a serious injury, and if you’re given clearance to continue working out, try the above techniques to see if they help. If the pain persists, stop doing the exercises and seek the help of a professional.

  • Chris Antonio is a personal trainer and former world-class weightlifter. He has been lifting for more than 20 years and has trained a wide variety of clients ranging from All-American athletes to the average person trying to get into shape. To send a question to the Ask the Trainer column, email Chris at or check out

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