If you had to narrow it down and choose just ten things you can do to prevent niggles, what would those things be?
The most common niggles
We’ve all had the odd niggle I’m sure. A little niggly pain that distracts you when you’re working out. It hurts a bit, but not enough to stop you. Niggles are a pain in more ways that one. For a start, they stop you applying full force to your lifts. You’re cautious, or the pain is preventing all-out effort. That’s going to stop you progressing, or you may even go backwards. And if you don’t nip them in the bud, they can develop into full-blown injuries, and that will definitely stop you in your tracks.
Wouldn’t it be better just to avoid them in the first place? Well, you can!
First, you’ve go to know where the niggles are likely to arise. In my years of experience of working with clients and training myself, the four most common niggles are
- Knee pain
- Shoulder pain
- Lower back pain
- Forearm pain
Of course, there are others, but I can attribute the majority to these four.
Ten things you can do to prevent niggles – the list
Armed with the list of the most common niggles, we can derive a shortlist of actions you can take to help prevent them.
To avoid the most common niggles, the ten most useful things you can do are, from the bottom up:
- Improve your ankle mobility
- Roll and stretch your thighs
- Improve your hip mobility
- Strengthen your core
- Improve your thoracic spine mobility
- Stretch your chest
- Do shoulder external rotations
- Improve your shoulder blade stability
- Lengthen the muscles emanating from your neck
- Take a break from heavy lifting
How did we come up with that? Here’s the mapping
Regions of mobility and stability
In general, your body alternates regions of stability and mobility. Take a look at this snap of the muscle system taken from the chart in our studio.
The areas highlighted in green should be mobile. The regions highlighted in red should be, relatively, stable.
Yes, the knee moves, but only in one plane. In the other directions, it should be stable. Sure, there’s some movement in the sacroiliac joint and lumbar spine but, on the whole, that area should provide stability. The shoulder blades shouldn’t move a lot; they should just slide a little to assist other movements, and they should stay in a good position most of the time.
Of course, for many people, especially as you get older, these regions of stability and mobility become less distinct. Hunching over a computer or steering wheel for extended periods stiffens the thoracic spine. Prolonged sitting stiffens the hips. And most people have a raised heel on their footwear which chronically shortens the posterior chain and leads to ankle immobility. So, your lifestyle habits are influential on your movement and posture.
What happens when mobile areas become stiff? The regions that are supposed to be stable become more mobile. Once that happens, muscles can get overworked or underworked, posture deteriorates, joints don’t track correctly, and movement becomes dysfunctional. If you then train hard, well, you’re going to start to get aches and pains and niggles. And if you don’t address the underlying causes, you’ll get injured.
It’s best to prevent the niggles in the first place.
One of the best ways to do this is to re-train your body to function correctly. So, you’ll see that a lot of the preventative measures are associated with re-mobilising the areas that are supposed to be mobile and stabilising the areas that should be stable.
Ok, so here’s the list, this time with a little more detail.
Ten things you can do to prevent niggles – the details
1. Improve your ankle mobility
If you adopt a half-kneeling position and lean forward over the front foot, keeping your heel down, how far can you get your knee beyond your toes? If the answer is ‘I can’t get it beyond my toes at all’ then you could improve your ankle mobility!
Why does it matter? In a training setting, this will affect your squat. Your heels will want to lift as you go into the squat. But if you consciously prevent that, you’ll end up bending more at the waist and putting strain on your lower back. You may well feel knee pain as your weight is pushed forward, putting pressure on the knee. In everyday life, this will affect the way you walk, get in and out of chairs, pick things off the floor; even the way you stand.
Ankle mobility is more than just dorsiflexion and plantar flexion, of course. As you perform the variety of your daily activities, the feet and ankles move and adjust, forwards and backwards, from side to side and also rotationally, absorbing the perturbations that would otherwise cause your whole body to have to compensate. If you take away some of that mobility, then other joints tend to try and compensate. The knee is the next joint up. Unwanted side to side and twisting movements in the knee may result. You definitely don’t want that! That’s when you get pain and, potentially serious damage.
The preventative action
- Calves are often the most significant contributor to ankle immobility. Roll them and stretch them.
- Also check your tibialis anterior and peroneus muscles. If they’re tender when you roll them then try and get rid of that tenderness and lengthen those muscles.
- Do ankle mobility drills. Take a look at our previous article on ankle mobility for some guidance.
2. Roll and stretch your thighs
For most of the clients who have ever mentioned knee pain, it’s been an issue with their thighs. Most of the time it’s their rectus femoris. Because this muscle crosses the hip, it tends to be chronically shortened at the proximal end and can pull up on the knee during certain exercises.
The preventative action
On several occasions, I have instructed a client to roll their thighs before the session, with the resulting removal of any pain. I then ask them to stretch their thighs afterwards. Usually it’s the rectus femoris, but sometimes it’s the outer thigh or ITB that needs a bit of attention.
If they keep rolling and stretching for a few days, the niggle disappears.
It’s not always the issue of course, and if the initial rolling doesn’t remove the pain, then we’ll steer clear of it and ask them to visit the physio.
Rolling the thighs can be painful. Once you find a tender spot, hang around on it and make sure you get through the pain. Allow the tenderness to dissipate before finding the next spot.
When you stretch the rectus femoris, in particular, be sure to rotate the pelvis posteriorly to lengthen the muscle fully. You’ll find more detail in our previous post on cooling-down.
It’s also not a bad idea to strengthen your hamstrings to balance the tensions on the knee. Use both knee flexion and hip extension movements.
3. Improve your hip mobility
The hips are designed to have an extensive range of motion in all planes. They flex and extend, they abduct and adduct, and they externally rotate and internally rotate.
If your day consists of prolonged sitting, then you will likely have tight hip flexors, which will affect your ability to extend the hip. In turn, this will affect your gait and your standing position. As you extend the hip, your hip flexors will tend to pull your pelvis forward, and you may recruit your lower back to keep your torso upright. Your lower back may become inappropriately mobile, over-recruited and hypertonic. In addition to this, you may find that, accompanying your tight hips, you’ll be strong on abduction and external rotation, and tight on adduction and internal rotation. Again, this will affect many of your daily movements.
The preventative action
Rather than try and work on specific aspects of hip mobility, your best bet is to incorporate all-round mobility work into your routine.
Use the following as a starting point
- Active straight leg raise. Lying on your back, keeping one leg on the floor, raise the other as high as you can, keeping both straight. Alternate sides.
- Leg swings, both forwards and backwards and side to side. Make sure that your core remains engaged and your lower back doesn’t take part in the movement.
- The shinbox position.
- Hip circles. You can do these with your leg in different positions for a full mobility drill.
4. Strengthen your core
The word core is a very general description of the region between the hip and the thoracic spine that should be, in most people, stronger and more stable. The problem is that so many people sit for prolonged periods and are quite sedentary. The core and, in particular the abdominal muscles, become weak. They do not provide the foundation or stability required for efficient functional movement.
Having a strong core and a good brace can help your hips and thoracic spine to move appropriately. It can also help you maintain proper pelvic positioning and compensate for tight hips. If your core is weak and your hips and thoracic spine are stiff, then the lower back can get too involved in movement and posture maintenance. That’s when backache can become a nagging pain or, worse, a debilitating affliction.
More generally, if you can stiffen up the lumbar region by improving your abdominal strength, then all your movements will benefit.
The preventative action
There are so many exercises that you could do for core strength and lumbopelvic stability, and there’s lots of science written about it. But let’s keep it concise. You’ll get the most bang for your buck with two isometric holds:
- Standard plank
- Side plank.
For more details on the plank, take a look at our previous article on posture. Make sure your transverse abdominis is nice and tight, and that you tuck your tail to prevent low back sag. Build up to a good intense minute and aim to repeat that two or three times in your session.
With the side plank, make sure you are not rotated forwards and ensure your torso is in a straight line from feet to shoulders. Fight the sag.
5. Improve your thoracic spine mobility
So many people have curvature – kyphosis – of the upper back, caused by lifestyle postures. Over the years, it can become a permanent posture and extremely challenging to undo. The permanency arises from the stiffness that develops. You should frequently be using exercises and mobility drills that require your upper back to move. If you’re not doing them, start now.
During everyday movement and particularly in sport, your thoracic spine flexes, extends and bends sideways, as well as twisting left and right. How many sports can you think of that DON’T involve a thoracic spine twist of some sort? There are very few. Thoracic spine mobility allows for correct and powerful movement.
When this region of your spine is stiff, and its shape is permanently altered then, guess what? For a start, your lower back can tend to take on some of the movement. But in this case, it will also affect the action of the shoulder blades in assisting movements of the shoulder joint. It may also affect the integrity of the movement at the shoulder joint. Gaps in the joint capsule can become narrowed, putting pressure on articular surfaces and causing wear and tear, inflammation, pain and so on. It may even cause nerve impingement
The preventative action
There a lots of great exercises and mobility drills for the upper back. Here’s my shortlist:
- Upper back rolling. I don’t use this to iron out knots and muscle tension in the back, but more to open up the ribs and stretch any fibres at the front that may be pulling the ribcage down. Allowing your legs to fall out to the side can also help to encourage rotational mobility
- Lumbar locked T-spine rotations. Kneel on the floor and put one elbow between your legs, the other behind your back. Keeping your elbow on the floor and your bum cheeks on your heels, rotate your torso to take the spare elbow up. Use your out-breath to allow a better range.
- We’ve written about the swan previously.
- Supine T-spine rotations. I like this one because it also trains static motor control of the shoulder blades. In other words, it helps with shoulder blade stability.
- Side bends. This one is better done in a more dynamic way, rather than as a stretch.
6. Stretch your chest
Everything we do in life is in front of us. Eating, driving, typing, watching TV. We tend to be hunched over with our shoulders rounded forward. Unless you stretch regularly, the fibres in your chest muscles can become chronically shortened. This tends to pull your shoulders forward and internally rotate them. It may also contribute to a rounded upper back.
As with thoracic spine immobility, having shortened chest muscles is going to cause stiff, incorrect or compromised movement in the shoulder joint. This can lead to wear and tear, inflammation and pain.
The preventative action
The doorway stretch is a good one. Have a look at our article on recovery for more details.
Make sure you hold the stretch for long enough so that the chest relaxes and yields. With your elbows at shoulder height, this will stretch the pec major. Also stretch the pec minor by taking your hand further up the door frame and dipping your body a little. You’ll feel this more into the armpit.
7. Do shoulder external rotations
To get your shoulder to sit in the correct position, you’ll first need to ease the tension at the front – that’s the chest stretch. But you’ll also need to strengthen the muscles that externally rotate the shoulder. Combined with the pec minor stretch in particular, this will help you develop stronger, functional movement and keep your shoulders in a better position. When you’re lifting it will give you better strength and stability on all exercises involving the shoulder joint, but particularly overhead movements. This, in turn, will help you avoid pain and injury.
The preventative action
External rotations with a band are all that is needed. Be sure to keep your elbows from rising out from your side and keep them tucked back. Aim for fatigue. If you’ve got more left in you at 15 reps then find the next stronger band.
8. Improve your shoulder blade stability
The shoulder blades are designed to move to some extent. They should glide over your rib cage to enable a full range of movement at the shoulder when necessary.
But they shouldn’t move willy-nilly. When you’re doing a bench press, for example, your shoulder blades shouldn’t actively protract at the end of the movement. If they do, you’re more likely to get pain, impingement and wear and tear. You should try and keep them stable and retracted when you’re performing pressing movements. And when you’re doing rowing movements, try and keep them retracted. Having this level of control, strength and stability will help you stand and sit with better posture, as well as maintaining the integrity of your movement at the shoulder.
The preventative action
- As listed above, T-spine rotations are a good starter.
- The T exercise and Y exercise are also excellent
- Keeping your shoulder blades stable during training is another excellent way to strengthen the muscles that stabilise the shoulder blades.
9. Stretch the muscles emanating from the neck
I see this a lot: you may have an upper trapezius that is rock solid, and you may be extremely tight across the upper chest, scalenes and sternocleidomastoid (SCM). Again, these tend to come about from prolonged sitting, especially in sofas.
There are several consequences of this. Aside from not being able to move your head through it’s intended range, you may have elevated your shoulders, so that you are in a permanent ‘shrug’. It may also contribute to a rounded upper back and rounded shoulders. As previously mentioned, this is going to compromise movement at the shoulder and may lead to pain.
But this collection of stiffnesses is also responsible, in my view, for an underappreciated side effect. A line of tension runs all the way down from the neck, through the shoulders and into the upper arm and forearms. You’ll feel this if you drive your hand down away from your shoulders and tilt your head in the opposite direction. You should feel a tension going through your forearm. If you have tight forearms or a niggle there, it may even hurt.
Of course, there are forearm stretches you can do, but you may find the forearm niggles persist unless you address the line of tension coming down from the neck.
The preventative action.
This is a stretch that you can use to target several different muscles. I like to hold a couple of dumbbells at my side and allow the weight to pull my shoulders down gently. Do it seated so that the seatback provides a reference for your spine, which you should keep neutral. Retract your shoulder blades and, if necessary, reset your spine. Allow the dumbbells to pull your shoulder blades down. I like to externally rotate my shoulders by moving my palms to face forward a little.
At this point, you can move your head.
- Tilt it to one side to stretch the scalenes.
- Look down at the opposite shoulder to stretch the upper trapezius.
- Look up and around to the corner of the room to stretch the SCM.
Repeat on the opposite side. By the time you get through the different positions, you may find your grip is challenged. But what you should also notice is that you get a good stretch down the chain from the neck into the forearm. So you’re killing two birds with one stone.
10. Take a break from heavy lifting
Going heavy is great to do from time to time. It’ll give you excellent strength and build some bulk too. But it’s tough on your tendons. If you’re deadlifting and doing heavy pulls without straps, then you can batter your forearms. They can become tight and knotty and prone to niggles.
If you need a strong grip for your sport, then make sure you give your forearms plenty of TLC, and give them a break from time to time by having some back-off weeks. If you’re not that fussed about your grip, then use lifting straps. You can train your forearms for size in other ways with, for example, reverse curls, hammers and wrist curls.
Even if we’re not talking about forearms, the joints, tendons and other connective tissues all over your body need a break from heavy lifting from time to time. The blood supply to connective tissues is not as good as it is to your muscles, so they don’t recover and mend as quickly. They need a break to catch up. Periodise your training so you have lighter phases, and regularly change the exercises you choose.
Niggles don’t have to be an accepted consequence of training or getting older. You can largely prevent them by regularly performing preventative drills.
To be clear though, everybody is different. Maintaining or correcting movement will be different for everybody and, in reality, everyone’s corrective or ‘pre-hab’ routine should be individualised. But if you don’t want to seek professional coaching or therapist help for something that is not yet a problem, then the above collection of preventative drills will likely serve you well.
Safeguard your lifting career by preventing niggles. Stay strong for life.