What am I doing wrong? Gym, weight lifting, stiffness.
October 20, 2015 11:49 AM   Subscribe

It seems like I gained strength and flexibility at the gym while also gaining knee pain, hip pain, tight thigh muscles and incredible morning stiffness. What have I been doing wrong?

So a year ago I started going to the gym, doing various exercises and lifting weights. I gained a lot of strength and muscle. Two weeks ago I hurt my knee and stopped going, though I continued bike commuting. In the past few months, I've had problems with pain from an old hip injury plus an increasing degree of stiffness after lying in bed for a few hours or overnight, plus very tight thigh muscles and a general sense of off-ness with my knees. After two weeks, I am springing out of bed fresh as a daisy, knees feel great, hip doesn't hurt, thigh muscles feel fine.

Obviously I'm doing something wrong at the gym, but what?

My typical gym routine is curls, some other arm dumbell stuff, weighted crunches, weighted reverse crunches, overhead press, chest press, bodyweight squats, adductor work since my adductors are really weak plus a few other bodyweight exercises.

I would love recommendations for continuing to lift weights while also not being, like, really sore all the time. I want to continue with the weights because the increased strength has made major differences in the rest of my life.
posted by Frowner to Health & Fitness (24 answers total) 12 users marked this as a favorite
Do you warm up before you start, and stretch afterwards? I can tell a huge difference in how my body feels when I don't. My trainer tells me to get my heart rate up for about ten minutes, and go through full range of motion with a few stretches (you're not trying to gain flexibility here, just warm up your muscles) before I start lifting. Then, afterwards, spend about twenty minutes doing passive stretching and foam roller exercises. I have some alignment/drive train issues that make my knees/hips/back really tight and immobile if I don't do this...maybe you do too?

Maybe also watch some videos to make sure you're getting your form correct on exercises? Even bodyweight squats can aggravate things if not done correctly I think.

Also-also, are you eating enough and drinking enough water? I feel weak and crummy and just generally not-good if I don't eat enough and drink a TON of water when I'm exercising. Maybe that's part of it?
posted by stellaluna at 11:59 AM on October 20, 2015 [2 favorites]

Have you ever consulted with a trainer to make sure you're doing everything right? It's possible you are not following proper form and aggravating your old injuries/causing new ones. Knee pain seems to be very frequently caused by this (ask me know I know!). Even if you had a trainer in the past and learned proper form, if it's been a while you might be slipping and need a check-in.
posted by joan_holloway at 12:00 PM on October 20, 2015 [2 favorites]

This was happening to me for awhile, and was reduced by 1) having my IUD removed (dunno if that's relevant to you!), and 2) generally resting more + also getting stronger. Since it seems like you've been doing this for awhile, you're probably pretty strong, so maybe you simply need more rest in between sessions?

I agree that one or a few sessions with a personal trainer could really help. You're in the intermediate stage now, so you're not a beginner, seems reasonable to invest in a little outside instruction.
posted by easter queen at 12:03 PM on October 20, 2015 [1 favorite]

If your form is even a little off when lifting, you'll make adjustments that can cause all sorts of problems. Given that the problems are hip/knee/thigh related, I suspect that it's the squats. Squats are fantastic if you can do them with good form, but are notorious for causing injuries when done incorrectly. I'd see if you can have a knowledgeable friend check your form and/or hire a trainer for 1-2 sessions.
posted by insectosaurus at 12:05 PM on October 20, 2015 [2 favorites]

What are you doing for mobility work? Are you and a foam roller BFFs? How often are you working out? What kind of volume does your lifting program have? How heavy are you lifting?

Without knowing any of those variables — my guess is you might need to modify your lifting program for either less volume or less weight; lift less frequently and give your body more time to recover and heal; and do more mobility work, because anyone who is not Kelly Starrett needs to do more mobility work.

Also, read Matt Foreman's book on weightlifting for masters athletes. Some of it's very specific to the Oly lifts, but there's an awful lot of good advice on how to cope with and avoid injuries so you can keep on lifting.
posted by culfinglin at 12:20 PM on October 20, 2015 [1 favorite]

Following on insectosaurus's comment, if you've already injured your hip(s), squats could greatly aggravate that injury, even if your form is good. I did it myself.

But if your form is off, that could also explain the knee aggravation, especially if you're not turning your knees outward enough on your squat.

I agree with the suggestion of hiring a personal trainer for a session or two to watch your form--based on knowledge of your injuries and what relieves it.

One thing you can try before hiring a trainer is also something you should probably do before every workout: foam rolling. Roll your IT band, piriformis (glutes), hips, hamstrings, front hip flexors, and upper and lower quads just above your knee. If something is sore, slow down the rolling and try to really get in there. If something hurts, it could be that area that's the problem--or it could be an adjoining area. This would be good info to give to the trainer.
posted by ImproviseOrDie at 12:24 PM on October 20, 2015 [1 favorite]

Response by poster: But I worked so hard to be able to do squats! It took so long to gain enough core strength and hip flexibility! Sob!

I always figured that foam rolling stuff was just silly, since most of the people I see doing it lift those little pink 5 pound weights and spend a ton of time rolling - but maybe not?

I don't lift super heavy weights - I was doing barbell squats for a while to try to build up, but it brought on some circulatory and back problems that are rooted in the full-blown Lyme with neurological complications that I had when I was a kid. So all I do is chest press - sitting at 90 pounds right now - and sixty pounds for overhead press, plus dumbells. I use twenty pound dumbells for curls, fifteens for some other stuff and 35 for bent over rows. (I'm pretty confident of my form on the overhead press and the bent-over rows, but the others I just do the best I can based on reading up on how to do them.) Sometimes I do weighted carries at about seventy pounds total. So nothing seriously weighty.

I usually do two sets of twelve for weights. I'm not lifting the very heaviest things I can lift - just weights that feel a little challenging. I've increased weight slowly - over a year I've gone from 10 pounds for curls to twenty, for instance.

I do this about three times a week, or I did.
posted by Frowner at 12:43 PM on October 20, 2015

The thing that sticks out quickly to me is that adductor work you mention- are you doing it on one of those machines? If so, I would take that out- it could be aggravating your IT band, which could explain some hip and knee pain. You can still work on strengthen them, but I would follow more of this routine (explanation on first page, exercises on second).

I also second everyone when it comes to foam rolling and checking with a trainer about your squats. If you just can't bring yourself to do that, try looking at some of the girls sone strong videos (link below) and watching and listening to her queuing. Then go to the gym and try to remember her suggestions, or bonus points if you can manage would be video yourself doing the exercises.
(But really, I'm a personal trainer, I would be more than happy if someone in the gym asked me to check their form, please don't be scared. Hell, send me a video and I'll take a look)

Also, you might have just not mentioned it, but from your list I see a lot of front of your body work, but not anything for the back of your body. Strong back, glutes and hamstring are essential and will help keep your hips and knees happy.

I cant tell from your profile your gender, but if you are a woman (and really, even if you are a guy, she has good advice and form videos) would be Girls Gone Strong or Stumptous . My husband has been enjoying Nerd Fitness
posted by zara at 12:46 PM on October 20, 2015 [3 favorites]

I always figured that foam rolling stuff was just silly, since most of the people I see doing it lift those little pink 5 pound weights and spend a ton of time rolling - but maybe not?

I definitely know at least one "serious" weightlifting dude who does the foam rolling.
posted by easter queen at 12:57 PM on October 20, 2015

Without actually watching you at the gym it's going to be hard to say where your form is off, but my red flags went up more at the weighted crunches, weighted reverse crunches than the body weight squats. Core strength is good, I'm just not sure these would be the best ways to achieve it.
posted by kanewai at 12:59 PM on October 20, 2015

The roller stuff is incredible. I'm using the super-aggro pointy rollers that look like something you'd jump over in a platform game, and they're unreal. They do some sort of wacky deep tissue massage, I dunno, I'm not a scientist. But it WORKS.

Also let me be the annoying one to come in and say "add in some yoga." I'll tell you why: it strengthens all those weird ligaments and tiny muscles that you're mostly getting but in a more sustained way. If you treat yourself right and proceed with caution, it's GREAT for knees, hips and ankles.
posted by RJ Reynolds at 1:02 PM on October 20, 2015 [3 favorites]

And a quick note on personal trainers - the ones at the big chain gyms like 24-Hour Fitness are not to be trusted (zara I hope I'm not including you in this!).
posted by kanewai at 1:03 PM on October 20, 2015 [1 favorite]

Response by poster: Noooooooooo, not yoga. I had this horrible feeling that people would tell me I should do yoga. I have access to free classes at the YWCA (which is where I work out) so it's not the end of the world.

I can probably hire a trainer for a couple of sessions.

I am willing to accept that foam rolling works.

I feel like my core is a lot stronger and my back is way better than it used to be - perhaps this is because I was so pathetically weak before. I thought squats did strengthen your glutes and back, though - or at least, I have a lot more glutes than I used to after doing a lot of squats and something has been helping my back.

What should I be doing instead of weighted crunches?
posted by Frowner at 1:11 PM on October 20, 2015

Instead of crunches, the usual recommendations are hanging leg raises, planks, and/or an ab wheel. Typical crunches can be pretty hard on your back.
posted by markslack at 1:14 PM on October 20, 2015 [2 favorites]

I have some alignment/drive train issues that make my knees/hips/back really tight and immobile if I don't do this...maybe you do too?

If you're a woman with wide(r) hips, I just want to second this. This is just a personal anecdote, but I have wide hips and have constant problems with my knees getting pulled out of alignment, which manifests itself much like you're talking about, with additional problems with my calves and feet that are kind of hard to describe. It just gets worse with more exercise unless I pay attention to it. And it's interesting that zara brought up the front of body work, because these problems always rear their heads when I'm doing a lot of work or activities that build up my quads without balancing other muscle groups.

If you do have alignment issues, it might take some physical therapy or at home exercises to work them out, and it's something you'll have to keep an eye on. (Because I tend to notice it with more exercise, it's real easy to not notice I've "slipped" when I'm not exercising as much.) I've found that, to add another annoying voice to RJ Reynolds, yoga with proper form helps a lot as well but of course yoga isn't for everyone.

For me, figuring this out was the result of a serious injury that came about from my stubbornness to work through it. I'm not trying to scare you, it's more that I don't know how you go about figuring it out or who you talk to besides an orthopedist. Perhaps someone will have another suggestion. But if you work on your form, stretching, and other suggestions in this thread, and you're still having problems, it might be worth considering alignment issues. I was startled at how much my hips could affect my entire lower body.
posted by barchan at 1:23 PM on October 20, 2015 [2 favorites]

Foam rolling is serious business for serious lifters. I foam roll, and this is me squatting. As you can see, I do not lift dinky-ass 5# pink Barbie weights.

Whatever trainer you hire, ask them about their certifications. If they rattle off a string of acronyms, say 'Westside Barbell' or 'Louis Simmons,' 'Greg Everett,' 'Mark Rippetoe' or 'Dimitri Klokov.' The trainer's eyes should light up on fire and they should start blathering about Smolov squat cycles, periodization, or something else equally arcane. If the trainer's eyes do not light up after you have spoken one of those magical phrases, find another trainer to advise you on weightlifting. You can sometimes find good trainers with solid certifications at globogyms, but they're likely to be the master trainer.

Three days a week seems reasonable; are you repeating the same workout every time, though? Or are you working split body parts? (One day is legs, one day chest, one day back/abs, etc)

If you can afford it and have health insurance that'll pay for it, hie thyself to a physical therapist, to see wtf is up with your knee.

Feel free to MeMail me if you want more specifics.
posted by culfinglin at 1:48 PM on October 20, 2015 [2 favorites]

I am going to buck the trend and express my significant reservations about foam rollers. There is a lot of mythology floating around that this is a physical therapy technique that comes to us from professional athletics and ultimately the medical establishment. Out of all of the medically trained and licensed orthopedists and physical therapists in my circle of friends and family (there are two of each) none of them uses or recommends this mode of treatment for muscle pain and stiffness. In all of the Olympic events, NFL football games, World Cup matches that anyone has watched; have you ever seen a trainer on the sideline hunched over an athlete passing a roller over their body? Not once. You will see trainers preforming massage and assisted stretching all of the time. Foam rollers may temporarily affect the limits and configuration of a muscle, but at the price of inducing tissue damage to accomplish this- it is simply like using a sledge hammer to drive a nail. This could possibly be a last ditch solution to get a muscle that is seriously compromised in working order before exertion in a match or race, but you may be doing a lot of wear and tear in the long term if this is used as routine post-workout coping. Warm up/stretching/cool down/stretching is the tried and true procedure.
posted by incolorinred at 2:43 PM on October 20, 2015

Warming up and stretching beforehand is very important. Cold, tight muscles get pulled much more easily. And it also sounds like maybe the weights you are using are too high. Lower the overall weight and increase the number of reps. I would be aiming to achieve muscle fatigue at your third set. If you're achieving total failure in your second set, I think the weight is too high. And some exercises just won't cooperate with your body. Squats hurt my knees, so I have to do sitting leg presses instead.

As for foam rolling, I've never tried it, but I am aware of professional athletes that use it.
posted by AppleTurnover at 3:24 PM on October 20, 2015

This may be even more horrrrrrible than yoga, but pilates has restrung me a couple times after I've wrenched/twisted/misaligned/overused some vital joint. The spring machines let you concentrate on one joint at a time.

Classes with dancers and retired dancers in them are useful because they expect clear biomechanical instructions and want to get very strong, but also intimidating because dancers.
posted by clew at 4:47 PM on October 20, 2015 [2 favorites]

Jumping in again. I think if we can convince you to foam roll & stretch, thats a big step in the right direction.

I hated hated hated yoga, thought it was lame, and no joke, have walked out of a heated yoga class because I wanted to die and kill the annoying instructor. Deep breath....My name is zara....and Im a yoga convert. I still wont do a hot yoga class, and think they are generally a bad idea, but oh man, if you find a good instructor and a class you like, its amazing. And it can kick my ass in a way the weight room can't, and my abs and posture are definitely better for it. But don't start going now thinking its like a punishment for being injured, go someday because you think it might be fun. Or, right now, just convince yourself that if you foam roll you don't have to yoga.

Not to totally derail on the squats too much, but you are right that they should be a full leg exercise. But, with incorrect form you can totally get away with really just doing them with your quads. I like adding accessory exercises like bridges to help remember to activate the glutes, hamstring ball curls are another great way of engaging the back of the legs without loading on weights. Also, one last article about squats that people might find interesting, and helps you find
the right squat for you (barchan, I'm totally with you, Ive had guy trainers tell me to bring my legs in for squats and I...can't. I have hips. My hips dont work like narrow man hips.)

Also, I totally blew past the weighted crunches. Planks, side planks, ab curl roller things, palov presses, are much safer options
posted by zara at 5:11 PM on October 20, 2015

Chiming in to second the idea of getting some physical therapy - if you've got muscles that are chronically tight and sore some PT can help a lot (am in the midst myself for just that). Once those muscles are cranky it can take more than rest to help calm them down. THEN work with a trainer for at least a couple sessions to make sure you're not re-injuring yourself with bad form.
posted by leslies at 7:06 PM on October 20, 2015

I just want to throw in another vote for a couple rounds of physical therapy-- ask around and get solid recommendations first. I ended up learning about a congenital thing that I had been working around for over two decades of dance and long distance running, which I was able to get a handle on for the first time ever with the diagnosis of a sports medicine doc and three months of solid physical therapy of working the deep tissue and with targeted stretching. Sure, I could probably have been okay without the PT-- I had convinced myself that once running a seven minute mile meant my knee problems didn't matter!-- but in the long run, I feel healthier knowing that I've built up different muscles and that I've given myself a better platform for being stronger in the future. I hope you find a method or a trainer who can help you out and that you feel better soon!
posted by jetlagaddict at 10:37 PM on October 20, 2015 [1 favorite]

Out of all of the medically trained and licensed orthopedists and physical therapists in my circle of friends and family (there are two of each) none of them uses or recommends this mode of treatment for muscle pain and stiffness. In all of the Olympic events, NFL football games, World Cup matches that anyone has watched; have you ever seen a trainer on the sideline hunched over an athlete passing a roller over their body? Not once.

My understanding of foam rolling comes from working with two certified personal trainers, both of whom also trained professional athletic teams, one of them in the NFL. (MN Vikings) I've also done my fair share of PT.

I've never heard a personal trainer or PT say that foam rolling should ever be used for anything other than prep BEFORE a workout, not as any kind of therapy afterward.

To repeat, foam rolling is for prep. Not recovery or therapy.
posted by ImproviseOrDie at 9:37 AM on October 21, 2015 [1 favorite]

I got hooked on foam rolling through my physical therapist. He works at a respected hospital and has done research on its efficacy for prep. I have seen athletes use the tiger tail-style portable foam rollers . You might feel more comfortable using one of these.

See a trainer to check your form, and, if the injury returns, go to a sports medicine practice. Look for one with physical medicine and rehabilitation doctors on their team instead of just orthopedic surgeons or family practice doctors with a sports medicine fellowship.
posted by missmerrymack at 5:30 AM on October 22, 2015

« Older Geography is Destiny? What's the best media on...   |   Our 'Tidy Cat' is not so tidy. Newer »
This thread is closed to new comments.