If you’ve been suffering with a sharp stabbing pain in your sternum and have been asking “can I lift weights with Costochondritis?” then you’re going to want to read about how I overcame costochondritis once and for all. In fact, I have enjoyed pain-free workouts for the last decade and I want YOU to be pain free too. In this article you’re going to learn about a new approach that attacks the underlying cause of costochondritis which will enable you to lift weights without pain.
Before we go any further however, please consult a doctor if you are experiencing any kind of chest pain. This article does not constitute medical advice and it is written on the assumption that you have been diagnosed with costochondritis and have been cleared to exercise by your healthcare professional.
What is Costochondritis?
For those of you who don’t know, costochondritis is a condition caused by the inflammation of the tissues where the upper ribs connect to the cartilage that adheres them to the sternum (also known as the breastbone).
While the pain from costochondritis may feel like it’s coming from your lungs or heart, it actually comes from one or more of these bands of cartilage.
The areas where the cartilage meets the sternum are known as costochondral junctions.
When costochondral junctions become inflamed, we call this condition costochondritis. For many people costochondritis is a persistent condition which will make working-out uncomfortable and in some cases impossible. In the most severe cases, medical treatment may be required.
Symptoms of Costochondritis
The most common symptom of costochondritis is pain over the front of the chest in the area between the pecs. Sufferers commonly report that the discomfort is often felt at more than one costochondrial junction and is characterized by a sharp stabbing pain, or a deep aching pressure within the sternum.
Costochondritis can make coughing, or even breathing difficult as the pain spikes when the lungs fill with air, or when air is expelled quickly from the lungs.
There are many reports of patients presenting at the emergency room fearing that they are having a heart attack only to be ultimately diagnosed with costochondritis.
The should you give you an idea of the severity of the pain of this condition.
If you’re currently suffering with this misery-inducing condition, then you don’t need to be reminded how awful it is.
The good news is that I have got some strategies to help you get your life back.
What Causes Costochondritis?
Little known is about the actual cause of costochondritis, but is thought that physical strain (such as lifting heavy weights) could be a contributing factor, as could trauma to the sternum.
Statistically, women are more likely to be affected by costochondritis than men and there is some suggestion that allergy sufferers are also more prone to the condition.
So while it’s clear that inflammation in the Costochondrial junctions causes the pain, the specific cause of the inflammation tends to remain a mystery for most people.
My Experience With Costochondritis
I was in my early 20s and getting stronger every week. I was a committed gym-rat, spending just about all my free time either working-out, eating or partying!
I thought that life was great and that I was invincible. I was basking in my muscled-up stature!
Then I met Mr Costochondritis and all that changed!
I don’t remember exactly when I suffered the first attack of the condition, but what I do remember vividly is the intense pain that spontaneously sprang up in my sternum and then stayed with me for months afterwards.
It felt like a sewing needle had been hammered into my sternum.
From being an athletic, active gym addict – I suddenly found myself struggling to breathe without wincing in pain.
Even simple activities such as putting a seat belt on when driving were unbearably painful, and I would find myself stifling sneezes and coughs and breathing shallow, short breaths to avoid the pain that would inevitably accompany any expansion or contraction of my rib cage.
Despite the debilitating pain, I managed to recover and it’s now around 20 years since my last flare up of the condition.
Looking back, I can see that there were probably a number of factors that contributed to my costochondritis.
Firstly, I was always looking to bulk up and that meant eating 6 meals per day. My food choices weren’t always the most healthy in those days either – as I chased calories and consumed as much protein as possible.
The second factor that I consider to have contributed to my costochondritis was over-doing it on the bench press. Every week I was focused on beating my lift from the previous week and sometimes, my form would be compromised and the bar would hit my sternum as I forced a final rep out.
Sometimes though, it wasn’t bad form so much as just repeatedly having the bar resting on my sternum at the bottom of the rep. The contact between the bar and bone seems to have triggered the condition.
The final factor was pursuing a one-dimensional workout regime. I believe that a lack of cardiovascular exercise and absolutely no stretching whatsoever may also have given rise to elevated levels of inflammation.
So that’s my experience of suffering from costochondritis and the reasons why I let’s get into the detail of lifting weights with Costochondritis and how we can address elevated levels of inflammation.
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Lifting Weights With Costochondritis
I want to make one thing clear: there’s no magic wand that will take the pain away immediately and enable you to resume your normal workout regime.
The first thing you need to do is to fight back against the inflammation that is making your life hell.
This is a war and we’re going attack our enemy (inflammation) like any good commander would when planning a winning campaign: we’ll hit it on multiple fronts.
Beat Costochondritis by Fighting Inflammation
I mentioned earlier that back in my early 20s when costochondritis struck me, I was eating a high-calorie diet. This kind of eating regime where food is consumed every 2 or 3 hours of the day was definitely contributing to systemic inflammation within my body.
This 2020 study couldn’t be any clearer in terms of the benefits in intermittent fasting and I would highly recommend adopting a regime of taking breakfast at 6am and your evening meal between 6 to 9 pm, eating nothing outside of these two meals.
Obviously, you’re going to want to make these meals very hearty and nutritionally dense.
The incredible benefits of following this regime cover everything from optimizing circadian rhythms, combating obesity, reversing metabolic syndrome, and even combating nonalcoholic fatty liver disease!
And there’s more: intermittent fasting has been found to blunt inflammation in asthma and rheumatoid arthritis patients, supporting the view that it may be an effective immune-modulatory intervention.
The benefits will be felt within 4 weeks of switching to this regime too, so while it may seem like a drastic intervention, I genuinely believe that this could be key in combating costochondritis – and certainly worth trying given all of the other benefits.
Natural Anti-Inflammatory Foods
Okay, so this is the secret to my own recovery from costochondritis: tart cherry juice. That’s right, cherry juice!
I can’t remember how I discovered the anti-inflammatory effects of cherry juice, but I bought a bottle specifically to deal with costochondritis – and it worked!
Within a week of taking it twice per day, I noticed a significant improvement in my symptoms.
Was it just the placebo effect? No!
If you don’t believe me, read this study on the effects of tart cherry juice on inflammation. This study suggests that “the ability of tart cherry juice to reduce systolic BP and LDL cholesterol, in part, may be due to its anti-oxidative and anti-inflammatory properties.”
So are cherries unique in their anti-inflammatory properties or are there any other natural foods that can help to reduce inflammation?
Well it turns out that there are loads – way too many for me to mention in this article – but I will mention two more incredibly potent foods that I can attest to have had good results from.
The first one is ginger. As well as being delicious (try powdered ginger in your porridge – it’s gorgeous, trust me) ginger is a potent anti-inflammatory.
Ginger is cheap and readily available, so this is one of the most convenient interventions available to you and you can start consuming it today.
The final food intervention I want to bring to your attention is similar to ginger in that it is another plant root: it’s turmeric.
Turmeric is finding fame as the king of anti-inflammatory spices and the internet is full of testimonials from people who have experienced dramatic improvements in arthritis and other inflammatory conditions by taking turmeric regularly.
This review from 2016 states that “patients with osteoarthritis showed improvement in pain, physical function, and quality of life after taking curcumin“ – curcumin being the active ingredient in turmeric.
Turmeric is more earthy in flavor than ginger and as such, you may find that you prefer to consume it in capsule form rather than in your food recipes.
Unless you’re a huge fan of Indian food, that is!
Stretching to Reduce Inflammation
Remember how I mentioned that I did no stretching at all back in my gym-rat days and how I believed this to be a serious mistake and one which may have contributed to costochondritis?
Well, there are numerous studies that show the benefits of stretching for combating inflammation, but I particularly liked this one which looked at the effect of a twice daily 10 minute stretching regime on rats suffering from subcutaneous inflammation of the back.
The study found that “stretching of connective tissue reduced the migration of neutrophils and increased tissue RvD1 concentration”
Neutrophils are the body’s first-responders to sites of inflammation. So in terms of the above study, it shows that the stretching regime was reducing the spread of inflammation.
RvD1, or resolvin D1, has a broad range of functions but crucially these include the resolution of inflammation and general tissue repair.
If you’ve been neglecting stretching – it’s time to address this.
I incorporated an 8-minute per day stretching routine into my own fitness regime and over 30 days, experienced dramatic improvements in my flexibility. You can see my 30 day flexibility progress photos here.
So make a commitment to incorporating a stretching routine into your fitness plan and watch what happens to your inflammation levels and general well-being.
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Let’s Work Out!
So you’ve commenced your intermittent fasting regime, you’ve started supplementing your diet with tart cherry juice, ginger and turmeric, you’ve committed to a daily stretching plan.
Let me tell you, costochondritis stands no chance!
In some cases, I believe that following this protocol for more than 10 days, will lead to a complete remission of symptoms. Imagine how good that would feel to be pain free and back hitting the weights as if nothing had ever happened.
But I want to sound a note of caution.
Inflammation and the damage it imposes upon tissue won’t heal overnight, so go easy on yourself as you get back into lifting weights.
Let’s look at a costochondritis friendly workout regime that will still deliver results, but will avoid the harshest impacts on your sternum.
Lighten Up Dude
Yes, this one is somewhat obvious, but while you’re implementing the anti-inflammation strategy, above, you should also use this time to temporarily abandon your one-rep max goals!
Lighten the load across all your lifts and focus on higher rep ranges as you allow your body to go through a period of healing and restoration.
I’d suggest focusing on the 12-15 rep range.
If you have access to a functional trainer machine, it would be a good idea to make this machine your new best friend.
Functional Trainers offer infinite variations of exercises and you can adjust the positioning of the pulleys to work around your pain.
They also provide constant tension throughout the range of every movement, meaning you get a great pump on the muscles being targeted with less pressure on joints and tendons than when using free weights.
You can read about a great range of functional trainer machines here and you’ll be pleased to find that there’s a model to suit every budget.
If a Functional Trainer is out of your budget – or you simply don’t have the space – then consider getting hold of some resistance bands.
I’ve recently been traveling a lot for my day job and keep a few closed resistance bands (the big elastic loops) with me.
You’d be surprised at how effective a resistance band workout can be and, like with cable machines, you can adjust the angles and the resistance of each exercise to avoid causing any further pain.
Cut Out The Compounds
This may be considered heresy in most workout communities, but you really do want to give up the big compound movements for a while.
I’m referring to deadlifts, squats, overhead press and the barbell bench-press.
It’s not a permanent abandonment of these exercises, just a temporary break while you heal.
One day you WILL be back chasing your personal-bests on each of these lifts again, but for now, your new focus is a pain-free sternum.
Watch out for those lighter lifts that generate a lot of torque at the sternum and can cause huge pain.
I’m thinking specifically about the front dumbbell flye – a movement which was impossible for me when I was suffering from costochondritis.
To learn more about moment arms and force vectors in exercise, check out this video from Hypertrophy Coach:
Avoid any exercises that generate pressure in the sternum.
Exercises to Try
Here is a brief guide to the best exercises for somebody with costochondritis who wishes to continue to lift weights as well as highlighting some exercises to avoid.
It’s important to listen to your body when attempting any of these movements, and if there’s an increase in pain, then stop and try an alternative movement.
|Legs||Deadlift||Trap bar deadlift (light: 20 reps min)|
|Squats||Kettlebell Goblet Squat|
|Bulgarian Split Squat|
|Chest||Barbell Bench Press||Press Ups|
|Dips||Dumbell Bench Press|
|Cable chest press|
|Resistance Band Chest Press|
|Shoulders||Barbell Overhead Press||Dumbell Shoulder Press|
|Resistance Band Shoulder Press|
|Resistance Band upright row|
|Cable shoulder press|
|Dumbell lateral flyes||Cable flyes|
|Resistance band flyes|
|Back||Barbell bent over row||Resistance band row|
|Seated cable row|
|Dumbell bent over row (+15 reps)|
|Lat pull down (heavy)||Lat pulldown (light) with underhand, shoulder width grip|
|Band assisted chins|
|Arms||Generally, no restrictions on arm exercises, although avoid heavy barbell curls|
|Hanging leg raises|
|Lying leg raises|
Conquer Costochondritis and Leave a Comment
I hope that armed with the knowledge of how to combat inflammation, you’ll incorporate fasting into your weekly routine as well as adding some ginger, turmeric and tart cherry juice to your diet.
Make a commitment to finding and following a proven stretching program too and you’ll be giving yourself the very best chance of conquering costochondritis.
It’s been over two decades since I suffered with costochondritis but I know how miserable it made me at that time. So you have my sympathy and my support as you begin your battle against inflammation.
If you’ve done all of this and are now able to exercise again without the fear of that horrible, sharp stabbing sensation in your breastbone, then let me know in the comments.