How to Build Muscle If Your Joints Hurt

November 3, 2011

When I was first training back in the late 80’s I assumed that to build bigger muscles I would have to constantly lift heavier and heavier weights. To a certain extent that is true, but there are ways to make a lighter weight “work” your muscles much harder than normal. The guy with the most impressive chest I have ever seen in person never benched more than 205 pounds. He told me that anything heavier “made his joints hurt”…so he used lighter weight to get the job done. This past summer I got stronger than ever at chin ups and shoulder pressing, but my elbows began to hurt and I decided to mix in a 3-4 month period of light lifting to give my joints a much-needed break. I’ll outline what I’m doing.

[Lifting weights should be a healthy long-term deal. If you are feeling any joint pain, then you might want to give your joints a rest and go light for a few months.]

High Reps to Fatigue = One Way to Build Muscle Mass

This isn’t news to anyone who has read my Visual Impact courses, but high reps are actually a great way to build muscle mass. Lifting in the 8-15 rep range increases fluid within the muscle cells (sarcoplasmic hypertrophy) and this causes quick muscle growth. I do recommend lower rep ranges as well to increase strength, density and definition…but lifting lighter works well for increasing the size of a muscle.

Right Now I’m Lifting As Light As Possible for 8-15 Reps

I should probably rephrase that: I’m using as light of weight as I can while still fatiguing my muscles to the max in the 8-15 rep range. This is not quite the same as phase I of Visual Impact Muscle Building. I’m purposely going lighter than would be ideal for that phase. I’ll give you an outline of a routine, but first an interesting study…

A Study About Low Resistance Exercise and Muscle Growth

Christian Finn, has a great article on his blog about gaining muscle with oxygen restriction. This post talked about how low oxygen levels in the muscles stimulates fatigue and increased muscle gain. He sites a study which talks about reducing oxygen levels in the muscle by using higher reps:

“Even just using a light weight (50% 1-RM), slowing down your reps (3 seconds for eccentric and concentric actions, 1-second pause, and no relaxing phase) and trying to maintain “constant tension” on the muscles has been shown to lower muscle oxygen levels, as well as building muscle just as well as heavier weights (80% 1-RM) and faster lifting speeds (1 second for concentric and eccentric actions, 1 second for relaxing)”

The Main Variable Here Is Constant Tension

What they found was that more explosive movement didn’t create constant tension…the muscles got “a breather” (literally) and wouldn’t get the desired low oxygen fatigued state. I have been performing the reps at a slightly higher tempo, but not resting at the top or bottom of the movements at all. It has been working well, but I may switch it up and try the “3 seconds up and 3 seconds down” method my next workout. Thanks for the tip Christian!

My Quick Outline of This Type of Training

I don’t want to mess with your workout split. Keep doing the routine you are doing, but use this set and rep scheme.

  • Chose a Weight That is About 50% of Your 1 Rep Max: I can bench press around 265-275 at this time, so for bench press I use 135 pounds.
  • Aim for 15-20 Reps on Set #1: Lift REALLY close to failure. If you can do more than 20 reps the weight is too light. If you can do less than 15 it is too heavy.
  • No Pausing at the Top or Bottom During the Reps: Do your best to avoid pausing. You want the muscle to fatigue with each rep “building upon” the previous rep.
  • Rest Only 45-60 Seconds Between Sets: Again…the idea is that you want to hit that muscle before it recovers from the previous set.
  • Do 5 Sets Close to Failure: Typically you will be able to do less and less reps each set. Do your best to make sure that you don’t dip under 8 reps on that final set.
  • Do 2-3 Exercises Per Muscle Group: When you are feeling a surge of energy and have more time, pick 3 exercises per muscle group (15 total sets). On days where time is limited or you feel worn down, then chose 2 exercises per muscle group (10 total sets).

You Will Have to Suck Up Your Ego for This to Work

Guys who have been through phase 1 of my program have already gone through this, but it is humbling if it is your first time lifting like this. On your second exercise, there is a good chance that you won’t even be able to use 50% of your one rep max. For instance, after doing my 5 sets of bench with 135 pounds my chest is smoked! I typically will use only 35-40 for my dumbbell incline press right after that. It feels light in my hands, but I can’t push much past 15 reps no matter how hard I try. It’s an odd feeling.

Easy on the Joints, But Not On the Muscles!

This type of training burns when you do it. Your joints will feel fine and improve week-to-week as you do this, but your muscles will feel sore on a regular basis. You should notice that your muscles look fuller than normal due to sarcoplasmic hypertrophy. The only downside is that you will feel like a wuss when you are struggling to press 8 reps with 135 pounds on your 5th set of bench presses 🙂

Note: For those of you who want to avoid adding muscle, do the polar opposite of what I talk about in this post… Lift heavy, use low reps, avoid failure, avoid fatigue, less sets, rest a decent amount in between sets, pause in between reps, etc.

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{ 33 comments… read them below or add one }

chris watson February 1, 2012 at 11:45 am

Great article. I have problems with my knees and this article was great help

Brian February 2, 2012 at 5:15 am

Rusty, great post. The advice you give is always exceptional. The joint pain you mentioned happened to me a couple of years ago. I would try to work through the pain but utimatly the only thing that helped was rest and modifying my workout. Thanks!

Erin Young February 9, 2012 at 12:00 am

Thanks for sharing! Being a girl I do not want to gain big muscles, but I do have bad joints. Thanks for the advice, I am going to take a different approach in my workouts.

Top Best Used Cars February 9, 2012 at 4:46 am

I’m also going back through phase 1 and it is indeed an ego killer

monica February 15, 2012 at 11:04 am

Hey Rusty!

Thank you for the great article!! I just started increasing my dose of fish oil & decreased sugar intake for joint pain. I think next step is your recommended workout, as I was a marathon runner for several years & suffer from some joint pain. Thanks again for the helpful advice!

Chiropractor in Denver, CO February 27, 2012 at 7:19 pm

Hey Rusty thanks for the great info. I’m going to share with my practice members!

[email protected] March 2, 2012 at 6:31 am

Great article, really important to know how to do this, especially if you want to carry on playing sport etc.

Rick Upshaw March 3, 2012 at 4:23 pm

I hope to see Rusty come on here soon and reply to some of these comments with questions. These are good questions, and the answers to them would make for some great content.

Andrew March 6, 2012 at 10:27 pm


At our Eden Melbourne Personal Trainer studio we like to use body weight training to mix it up. You don’t really get the same effect with bands.

Jim March 9, 2012 at 5:40 pm

This is great! the key i think is mixing it up between body weight, heavier weight, and light weight. by doing this you’ll get a better looking body and stay, for the most part, risk free.

Zach man March 26, 2012 at 12:31 pm

Having been a weightlifter for over 14 years I agree with your comment very much about making this a lifelong endeavor. Great strategy for allowing ones joints and ligaments to repair while still pushing the muscles. I plan to use this on my shoulder routines.

Herman March 30, 2012 at 4:03 am

Thanks for advise, I got a shoulder injury which bothers me when working out. I’ll use your information!

Reece - Training Products Reviewed April 2, 2012 at 7:18 am

Don’t agree with high reps at all, doesnt work for me.

Kathy Stumm-Bogale Calgary Alberta April 12, 2012 at 9:39 am

Joint pain can be very restrictive and uncomfortable. Plan to use your tips!

vans kopen April 13, 2012 at 11:05 am

I do agree with the fact the hight reps and low weight. Personally do this myself and see really the progression. But sometimes just to “surprise” my muscles go for higher weight. Of course with the lower weight.

Nick April 25, 2012 at 3:17 am

Really liked your post. I am a personal trainer and have just messed my knee up lifting heavy weights. Always looking for new knowledge and am glad I came across your site. I know too many people who have injured joints due to heavy loading.

John Oxnard April 28, 2012 at 8:51 pm

Great article, I also thought that in order to get bigger muscles I would have to steadily increase the weight. Lifting lighter weights but with more reps can help really help prevent injury from occurring.

PiJi May 10, 2012 at 3:07 am

Hi Rusty,

Got a Q for you about this type of training, does it also work when you broke your upperarmbone ? Cause it keeps the most tension of your joints I think it is perfect to use it also as rehabilitation exercise.

What do you think?

Kind regards,


Gary May 31, 2012 at 9:42 am

If bigger weights make your joints hurt, injury isn’t going to be far away. Fatigue without pain is a sure sign that your exercise regime is doing what it is supposed to do.

Peter August 23, 2012 at 3:53 am

The perfect way to be healthy is “be happy”. I agreed with your points that Yoga and Exercise are the best way to get awesome muscle even if we are suffering from ills

Bill Brooks September 25, 2012 at 4:11 pm

Great stuff here. I have been trying to add major muscle mass for a while now and I’m about 15 pounds off my goal weight. Recently I have been doing sets of 12,10,8,6,4 or 10,8,8,6 until failure (or close to it) and have seen alright results, but I’m wondering if I’m stunting my growth potential by going from high to low reps in the same set. Would you recommend eliminating low reps?

Also, check out my blog: and let me know what you think. Its still very new, so let me know if you have any suggestions.

Bill Brooks September 26, 2012 at 3:27 pm

My blog is actually at a new site:

The Convivial Coach November 21, 2012 at 7:04 am

Yoga, I hadn’t thought about that, I’ve been avoiding the shoulders because of some soreness. I might have to try that out.

Keith December 7, 2012 at 10:01 pm

This has worked wonders when ever i have joint pain, i use to always do 1-1-3 second timing but i never thought of trying the 3-3 second timing. Ill try it in the future, thanks.

Thomas December 27, 2012 at 5:47 am

One of the things that I consider whenever I am going to do changes in my body is the food that I eat. I usually eat foods that are high in protein whenever I want to build my muscles. In addition to this, there are also health drinks, which are not steroids that could be taken in. One of the trainers in the gym also advised not to use heavy weights because it would just worsen my joint problem.

Ziyaad December 29, 2012 at 7:35 pm

Hi there plz help. I,ve just started lifting up waights. I bench press about 15kg daily doing different muscle building. But now i have a pain in my shoulder joint ,i don,t know if it bone pain or muscle pain.plz advice. Thnx.ziyaad.polokwane.

Ricky January 23, 2013 at 6:57 pm

Nice post. I’m almost right on point with this workout as opposed to the heavy lower rep to failure workout (in my younger days when I didn’t get sore just sitting on the couch). Oddly enough, as I grew older and my body began to be more easily prone to injury I naturally transitioned to higher reps and lighter weights. It works great for me. I workout less now than I did when I was 20 and I feel like I stay just as toned and in shape.

Ian April 4, 2013 at 7:29 pm

Damn! Gave it a shot with bicep curls using 20’s & on the 5th set I couldn’t get past 5 reps…. Muscles feel sore as hell ever since (been 5 days).

The Convivial Coach April 9, 2013 at 8:50 am

You know I tried this with the bench press and I’m not happy with the results…though it did work in the since of what was posted. I didn’t like my end result…4 in the last set, and barely made it through the 4th set. Thank god for the spot or that would of been a moment of the roll of shame in the gym. Great post by the way.

Power Pump XL Muscle May 9, 2013 at 2:16 pm

Vitamins A, B-complex, C, and D are found in Sarsaparilla.
If you only lift ten pounds routinely, your muscles will grow to meet that
need and no more. Figuring out how much protein you should be eating can be tricky.

Rene June 12, 2013 at 5:19 am

is there any need of suppliments with this??

Trevor June 25, 2013 at 4:53 pm

Great post Rusty. I find I get this issue in my knees as I continue to increase the weight on squats, but I find a strong warm up tends to help eliminate a lot of the joint issues.

Titanium Pro X August 12, 2013 at 11:03 am

I was suggested this website by means of my cousin.

I’m now not certain whether this post is written by way of him as no one else recognise such distinct about my problem. You are wonderful! Thank you!

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