Athletes – from elite to recreational – understand the importance of taking care of their bodies, particularly their muscles. Muscles are responsible for strength, speed, and flexibility, so muscular training, conditioning, and recovery are integral to superior athletic performance.

But what about joints? The role of the joints in physical performance is significantly under-appreciated. What most athletes don’t understand is that muscles will only do what the joints allow them to do. So, it’s important to not only develop and maintain your muscular system but your joints as well.

Here are eight things you can do to prevent joint injuries:

Regulate your workouts. Injuries often come from doing too much, too soon. Never increase the length of your workouts by more than 10 percent from one week to the next, and never increase both the length and intensity of your workout at the same time.

Maintain strength in the muscles surrounding the joint area. To strengthen the knees, do calf raises, lunges, squats, and leg lifts. For the shoulders, do simple moves such as push-ups, lateral lifts with light weights, and bench dips.

Cross-train. Repetitive-motion injuries caused by doing just one sport or workout are some of the most common. You can prevent them by doing different sports or activities that work different muscles.

Never skip your warm-up or cool down. Tight or stiff muscles around a joint will make the area more prone to injury. This is especially important in sports that require quick movements, such as basketball and tennis.

Always use proper technique and body mechanics when playing sports involving repetitive motion, such as tennis and golf. Taking lessons from a certified coach or trainer can help you learn and stick with proper form, which can reduce your injury risk substantially.

Stay in shape. A high cardiovascular fitness level is crucial to avoid joint injuries. Otherwise, as you tire your form can fail and your joints carry unbalanced weight.

Wear proper shoes that provide adequate support during exercise.

Know your limits and don’t exceed them when exercising or participating in physical activities.

Developing and maintaining a strong musculoskeletal system is critical not just for athletes, but for anyone who wants to live an active life. Proper care of your joints and muscles can preserve function over the long term and allow for continued physical activity as you age. Physical activity, a balanced diet, avoiding injuries, and getting plenty of sleep will help you stay healthy and keep your joints and muscles healthy too.

Authored by Zach Meeker, Research Assistant for Midwest Orthopaedics at Rush University Medical Center

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