training through arthritis pain

'Training Around Arthritis Pain in the Shoulder' by Jan Libourel

July 19, 2020 2 Comments

If you have been following the SET FOR SET blog this year, then you are familiar with our friend Jan Libourel. For those who aren't, Jan is 79 years old and he is one of our favorite mace-swinging, unconventional-lifting, badasses on the planet. A recent visit to the doctor due to shoulder pain revealed Jan has arthritis (compounded by a couple of small bone spurs). Olivia, at SET FOR SET, has been in touch with Jan through this all and she shared part of their conversation for this blog post, as it shows the tenacious nature of Jan Libourel and just how passionate he is about working out.

"As it turns, one look at the X-rays told it all. My shoulder pain was not the result of a pulled muscle or any other training injury, it was caused by arthritis and some small bone spurs. I guess I am going to be stuck with some shoulder pain the rest of my days. Of course, this is the common lot of most people if they get old enough, and if the pain doesn't increase too much with the passing of the years, it should be no great cross to bear.

I was mostly interested in how this affected my training. The doctor counseled against any sort of lateral movements. (He is dead set against lateral raises for delts and similar exercises, says he cringes when he sees them being performed in the gym.) Any sort of serious overhead pressing with my left arm is also ruled out. The good news is that he gave me permission to perform whatever exercises I chose as long as they didn't aggravate my shoulder. This was a very considerable relief to me, and I rushed home to do some experimenting." - from Jan Libourel back on June 16th, 2020. 

Olivia decided to ask Jan if he could do a write-up regarding his training experience with arthritis as time went on...Today, we have the pleasure of reading that write-up and being inspired by Jan yet again.

Below is Jan Libourel's story on "Training Around Arthritis Pain". We hope this helps others out there who have a relentless determination to continue their fitness training through similarly troublesome arthritis pain.

exercising with arthritis in shoulder


By Jan Libourel

The genesis of this piece is that in recent months I had found myself increasingly dogged by pains in my left shoulder. I had hoped to remedy this problem with exercise. I have been exercising for the past four years with Indian clubs. They are supposed to be beneficial for remedying shoulder pain, but they seemed to do no good in my case: Recommended movements proved fruitless and often painful, as were efforts like rolling the afflicted shoulder on a hard rubber ball. (This was recommended by a well-respected physical therapist, also by an Indian club guru.) Now, I am one of those people who likes to consult a physician as a matter of last resort. However, the time arrived, and off to an orthopedist I went. This doctor is a renowned as a leader in the field of sports medicine in our area, and his advice had helped me clear up a case of forearm tendinitis three years ago.

Arthritis in Shoulder

X-rays revealed the problem was arthritis compounded by a couple of small bone spurs. To briefly summarize the doctor's advice, there really wasn't anything I could do about it except to avoid exercises that aggravated my shoulder. He said he expected me to be back in another three years with more training over-use issues. (I'll be 81 by then!) This might sound dismaying, but actually I was well pleased--no surgery, no long layoffs, no tedious regimen of remedial exercises. I was on my own and eager to find my way. I rushed home to see what I could and could not do. (The doctor, himself very much a fitness person, had bemoaned how hampered he was by the contemporary closure of gyms. I could only feel smug about my well-stocked home gym that includes, along with other gear, about 800 pounds of free weights, seven kettlebells, four pairs of Indian clubs and a full complement of SET FOR SET macebells.)

Can I workout with Arthritis in Shoulder

Back home, I was uncertain whether to start with my macebells or my kettlebells (my two favorite exercise tools). I decided to compromise by doing one cycle of kettlebell exercises, one cycle of my favorite macebell exercises and finish up with 100 tire slams. I started by cleaning and pressing a one-pood (36.11-pound) kettlebell with my left hand. Ouch! Sharp pains shot through my shoulder. Well, scratch that one. All my other customary kettlebell exercises went off without incident, as did most of the macebell exercises, including the tire slams. I found that while overhead and lateral movements with my left arm were out, my gripping and pulling strength with the left hand seems unimpaired. In all, I was left very heartened and encouraged by this initial workout. Since that day, I have had 28 workouts, all with unconventional fitness equipment, and here is what I have found:

How to exercise with arthritis

Macebells: Since I now know what a flexible, versatile piece of equipment the macebell is, I fully expected to get a lot of future (post diagnosis) work in with my fine SET FOR SET macebells, and I was not disappointed. I have had to make some adjustments, though. Overhead work has been eliminated: This includes stork walks (see my February 29 post on this blog), squats with the macebell overhead, military presses and similar exercises. I have also put my 30-pound macebell into what I hope is temporary retirement. On the positive side, I can still perform many popular and classic macebell exercises with almost no difficulty--360s, 10-2s, gravediggers, spear thrusts (aka "jousts"), uppercuts and barbarian squats with a panoply of macebells ranging from 10 to 25 pounds. Typically, I will do a set of 360s with a 10-pound mace followed by gravediggers (25#), spear thrusts (20#), uppercuts (25#) and barbarian squats (20#). I will then repeat the cycle with 10-2s followed by the same exercises and poundages. I then repeat the cycle twice more with my 15-pound mace, and finish up with some 360s and 10-2s with the 20-pounder (Confession: I am not gripping the latter all the way at the bottom of the handle.) In all, despite my gimpy shoulder, I feel I am getting a very good, strenuous workout that uses many of my body parts, and I remain very satisfied with the macebell as my Number One workout tool.

workouts for seniors with arthritis

Tire Slams: In recent months my SET FOR SET 15-pound macebell has become my "go to" implement for tire slamming, my sledgehammers languishing in retirement in my tool shed unless I should need them to demolish something. My customary cycle with the tire is 25 left side slams, 25 right side slams, 25 overhead slams (left hand uppermost), 25 overheads (right hand uppermost). I will often perform one of these cycles if I still feel energetic after another workout. Happily, my tire slamming seems quite unfazed by the arthritis. A good quick (about 25 minutes) and simple workout involving tire slamming and the 15-pound macebell is 100 slams, 360s (AMRAP), 100 slams, 10-2s (AMRAP) and a final 100 slams.

can i use kettlebells if I have arthritis

KettlebellsAs previously mentioned, the message I got from trying to clean and press the one-pood kettlebell with my left hand was, "Don't try it again!" I had phased out snatches after getting a nasty attack of golfer's elbow in my right arm, the result of snatching a 40-pound kettlebell a couple of years ago. For the rest, my workout has been unaffected by the arthritis. It is a simple workout: I use the one-pood kettlebell for the clean and press with my right arm and shift between my 53-, 62- and 75-pound kettlebells for my other exercises--upright row (two-handed), bent-over row (one-handed), goblet squats and Russian swings--varying the poundages depending on how ambitious and vigorous I feel. Recently (post-arthritis diagnosis) I have added Romanian deadlifts with double kettlebells. (If I am compelled to live with a weaker left arm, at least I can have a stronger back!) However, I quickly maxed out with my existing kettlebells, presently performing the latter exercise with my 62 in one hand and my 75 in the other. I customarily perform three cycles of kettlebell exercises for a total of 18 sets.

training around arthritis

Kettlebell Carries: A pleasant workout is carrying a moderate-weight kettlebell for about a mile through a nearby park. The weights I use are 36, 40 and 45 pounds, depending on how ambitious I feel on a given day. I have tried my 53-pound kettlebell, but I am usually exhausted after a half-mile. I will variously carry the kettlebell in the "briefcase," "goblet" or "shoulder rack" positions. Except in forcing me to eschew the shoulder rack position with my left arm, the arthritis has no other effect on my performing this exercise. I have heard it claimed that mile-long kettlebell carries fall more into the realm of cardio training, to which I would reply, "Fine! Nothing wrong with adding a bit of cardio to your regimen."

best training equipment for people with arthritis

Balls (Medicine and Slam): A medicine ball workout has always impressed me as among the most low-stress forms of vigorous exercise. I have an 8- and an 18-pound medicine ball. I was somewhat surprised to find that cleaning and pressing the 18-pounder overhead for high repetitions or for burpees caused a noticeable amount of pain in my afflicted shoulder, and I have had to phase out standing exercises with the medicine ball. I can still perform floor exercises without impairment. The one exception would be asymmetrical push-ups (with one hand resting on the med ball or the ball of a macebell). These I would not want to do with my left arm. As a consolation, I found I could perform push ups without discomfort if the hands and elbows were kept close to my body. My ailing shoulder did not preclude me from doing exercises like planks and mountain climbers with the medicine ball. Curiously, medicine ball workouts are the only ones after which I have experienced the phenomenon of post-workout nausea (nothing worse than some mild queasiness in my case, fortunately). I suspect high repetitions, the large number of sets in close succession and that many medicine ball exercises hit the abdominal area may be the causes of this.

exercises for shoulder arthritis

After my experiences with shoulder pain with the 18-pound medicine ball, I had thought my 40-pound slam ball would be unusable. After all, picking up the slam ball and heaving it down are at the core of slam ball training. To my great and pleasant surprise, I found that slam ball exercises caused little to no discomfort, this in contrast to the medicine ball that weighed less than half as much. I can only conjecture that the squishy, yielding surface of the slam ball makes it more accommodating to my grip and hence more comfortable to use.

indian clubs for arthritic shoulder pain

Indian ClubsIn the March 15 edition of this blog, I wrote a piece extolling the virtues of Indian clubs, so it makes me very sad to report that any future use of them is likely to be very circumscribed. I love the clubs--their beauty, their feel, their rich tradition. I relish the joyful swings and circles performed with them. I prize their utility as warm-up tools. However, it looks as if I shall be confined to a very limited range of motions with light clubs if I wish to continue using them. The clubs are the one major casualty of my shoulder arthritis. I suppose I should be content I got off so easily. Perhaps I can find some ways to make more extensive use of them in the near future.

how to train with shoulder arthritis

When I got the diagnosis of arthritis, I was somewhat philosophical about it--aches and pains being the common lot of old people, and I am now in my 79th summer. I have sometimes felt a little uneasy about macebell and other fitness enthusiasts calling themselves "warriors." Fitness is about promoting health, strength and longevity. Death, destruction and mutilation are the ultimate work of warriors. However, on another level, I suppose I am fighting--pitting the elemental forces of strength and sinew against the inexorable processes of old age, decrepitude and ultimate death. In the case of my arthritic shoulder I have hit a barrier that I apparently cannot storm by frontal assault, but I can certainly attack it from the flanks--hard!

Related: Beating Shoulder Pain with Asymmetrical Training by Jan Libourel

should I exercise with arthritis pain

Leave a comment below for Jan!

2 Responses


July 28, 2020

As I turn the corner on 70 next week, Jan, you are my inspiration.

Jan Libourel
Jan Libourel

July 21, 2020

Just to set the record straight, I am 78, not 79. This is, as I stated, my 79th summer. My first summer commenced when I was three months and three days old. When I celebrated my 78th birthday, it was for having already lived 78 years. This is now the 79th year of my life.

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