Back in December 2020, I got diagnosed with having costochondritis. This is basically inflammation of the cartilage that joins your ribs to your breastbone (sternum) which results in chest pain. It could have been brought on by lifting or it could have been something else. But my guess is I started to lift too heavy after getting back to the gym after lockdowns. And because of my experience with this condition, I thought I’d write this guide to lifting weights with costochondritis. Because even though this condition is quite common, there’s not a lot of practical advice on it.
I still have costochondritis now, but altogether I probably had to take 3-4 months in total off from lifting because of this. And each time that I thought I would be ready to start lifting again I’d set myself back multiple times.
This article will be a guide that includes the things that worked for me to help deal with costochondritis and eventually get back in the gym pain-free. Which I can happily say I can do now.
And if you’re suffering from costochondritis hopefully you can start using these tips to help you get back to the gym as well. I will preface this by saying I’m not a doctor but these are just some tips that have helped me.
1. Once You Have A Flare-Up Of Costochondritis Take At Least 2 Months Off From Performing Upper Body Exercises
If I’d just been patient I could have easily halved the amount of time that I needed to spend away from performing upper body exercises.
Having some time off from upper body exercises will reduce the inflammation and eventually the pain will subside. Going back to lifting heavy weights will just make the problem worse. Take the 2 months off and be patient. Read that again.
2. During Your 2 Months Off Use An Ice Pack On A Wet Tea Towel For 10 – 15 mins 3-4 Times Per Day
This is another good way of reducing inflammation. It will also reduce the amount of pain you feel. Apply the ice pack on a wet tea towel to exactly where the pain is. For me, that was to the left side of my sternum and occasionally the pain would drift to the right as well. When that happened I’d also apply the Ice pack there.
3. Stay Away From Specific Exercises That Make The Pain Worse
For me these were mainly exercises such as:
- The barbell overhead press
- The barbell deadlift
- The barbell squat
- Lateral raises
- The Barbell Bench Press
These exercises all put a tremendous amount of pressure on your sternum. For me, I could perform every other leg exercise without pain apart from the barbell squat. This is because a loaded barbell on your back is directly above your sternum. And with the deadlift, lifting heavy weights resulted in a popping sound coming from my chest and pain along with it. Think about it, the heavyweight is in your hands. Directly below your sternum. This puts a lot of pressure on your sternum.
Lateral raises, the overhead press, bench press and the chin-up/pull-up were more of the same. They just didn’t feel like they normally did and all made the pain worse.
4. Take Ibuprofen Sparingly
During the 2 months, I had off, when the pain was really bad I would take ibuprofen, maybe 2 per day but only when the pain was very bad.
Ibuprofen is a type of medicine called a non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drug (NSAID). It’s good at treating pain and inflammation. But I’d only take it when the occasion really warrants it. And I suggest you do the same. I say take it sparingly because just like any drug it has side effects.
5. Train Your Legs Once Per Week And Keep Active
As costochondritis causes pain to your chest, you can still train your legs, I recommend not squatting, use the leg press instead.
Here are some exercises you may want to include in your leg day.
- The Leg press.
- The Lying Leg Curl.
- Leg Extensions.
- Calf Raises.
For example: here is the workout I did:
3 sets of the leg press for 8-10 reps.
3 sets of the lying leg curl for 8-10 reps.
3 sets of the leg extension for 8-10 reps.
3 sets of calf raises for 8-10 reps.
I recommend that you warm up for the first exercise (leg press) and then you should be good to go for the rest of your workout.
I also recommend that you go on daily walks because staying active can help with your circulation and get your heart pumping. This will help reduce inflammation in your body and help you recover faster.
I recommend starting with 30 minute daily walks and if you want to walk for longer push that to an hour.
6. Go Back To The Gym And Train Your Upper Body (Start Light)
Once you start going back to the gym make sure to start very light. And don’t train anywhere close to muscular failure. This is the point when you can’t perform any more good quality reps.
Even after going back to the gym, I’m currently not conventional deadlifting, barbell squatting or barbell overhead pressing. Because these exercises aggravated costochondritis the most for me.
I mainly use dumbbells for my chest and shoulder exercises although the barbell bench press feels okay for me now.
When Getting Back Into Lifting Leave Reps In The Tank
This is super important. Every set you must leave at least 1-2 reps in the tank and control the weight with good form. You must let the muscles do the work.
Going too heavy too soon will just set you back.
Work In The 8-10 Rep Range
There’s no denying that working in the lower rep ranges such as the 4-6 rep range are much better for building strength (lifting heavier weights). But they can also be very hard on your joints.
Working in the higher rep ranges gets more blood in the muscles, and is a lot more forgiving when it comes to your joints. For this reason, I recommend that you work in the 8-10 rep range for all of your exercises.
8. Gradually Build Up To Your Previous Strength Levels
Every week that you train after getting back into it after your lay off, focus on progression. But the smallest amount. Try and get just one more rep than you did last time.
And when you can perform 10 reps using a given weight for any given exercise put the weight up by the smallest increment or the next dumbbell up. This way you’ll keep the gains coming, without risking injury.
How Should You Eat If You Have Costochondritis?
I recommend not trying to lose weight. Because when you’re trying to lose weight your body isn’t at its best as you’d be eating fewer calories than you burn. And that’s why I recommend eating at your maintenance calories.
This is the number of calories you need to eat to maintain your weight. To work this out multiply your bodyweight in pounds by 15. So for me, I weigh 173 pounds so to maintain my weight I need to eat roughly 2595 calories (15×173) which is actually very accurate from my experience.
I’d also recommend taking fish oils every day as they’re high in omega 3 essential fatty acids which have strong anti-inflammatory properties.
And make sure to eat a high protein and nutritious diet so you can get your body back to its best.
The Bottom Line On A Guide To Lifting Weights With Costochondritis
- Take 2 months off training upper body exercises.
- Make sure you put Ice where the pain is located, keep active, eat at your maintenance calories, get enough sleep, take fish oils, eat a nutritious diet, and take Ibuprofen sparingly.
- Slowly get back into lifting, work in the 8-10 rep range for all exercises.
Thanks for reading and be sure to subscribe to my email list for weekly tips and access to my latest content.