Meet Jim. Jim’s been training hard since he was 14 years old. He’s deadlifted 550 lbs, benched 425 lbs, played football, baseball and ran track, and over the course of his training career, he has never, never had a strain, sprain, setback or injury.
Of course… No. Jim isn’t real, and that scenario of a happy, injury free training career is about as likely as meeting the real Tinkerbell.
You are not so invincible
If you train hard, you will eventually get injured. If you play sports long enough, you will get injured. It could be a minor setback, like a muscle pull, or something that needs to be fixed by surgery, like an ACL tear. Even if you do every single rep perfectly, do a proper warm up and cool down, and have the athleticism of Adrian Peterson, you will still probably get dinged up. There are many things that you can’t control – the missed block that allowed that linebacker to take out your knee, the foul ball the broke your thumb, or maybe you are just getting older and your muscles can’t recover like they used to.
Now that we got that out of the way, being injured doesn’t mean shutting it all down! On the contrary, you can and should be able to to get productive training sessions in, no matter the injury. Being less than 100% is no excuse to give up.
Change your thinking
You hurt your (insert body part here). Time to pack it in and feel sorry for yourself.
Or, you could re-frame the situation – most of your body is perfectly healthy and capable! You must now focus on what you CAN do, not what you can’t. Successfully navigating around injuries require a strong mental game, having a plan and the ability to adapt – like most things in life.
I’ll preface my guidelines by stating the obvious – every injury is different, and some are a lot easier to workaround than others. Use your own discretion!
Move from the barbell to other loading methods, temporarily
I love the barbell, but it usually requires coordination and strength from your entire body – an injury would definitely limit your ability to do this. Focus on other ways to load up your muscles:
- Dumbbells/Kettlebells – these allow unilateral loading – perfect for someone who has an injured limb
- Landmine – has the same benefits as the DBs and KBs, just with less of a stabilization demand
- Machines – requires verry little in the way of stabilization, and the potential for loading is very high. However, not every gym has a ton of machines, and the carryover to full body barbell exercises and athletic movements is limited
When injured, you want to keep your strength and power up as close to your pre-injury levels as possible. So sitting on your couch for 4 weeks so your hamstring feels better isn’t an option. Use heavy weights – as long as it doesn’t interfere with the recovery of whatever you hurt.
Substitute and modify!
You don’t need to completely scrap what you are doing. Modify your existing program.
Take 10 minutes at the beginning of the week and think about what parts of your training are affected by the injury and write down three alternatives. Take the same exercise that you would have usually performed and either:
(1) add stability – Adding stability usually means regressing from standing to sitting, to half kneeling, to lying on the floor. You can also support your chest or use a weightbelt to protect core and lower back injuries. The more contact your body has with either the ground or an external support, the more stable it will be.
- Standing strict press vs. seated strict press
- Bent over row vs. chest supported row
(2) Switch implements and cut your body in half – do the exercise with one limb using one of the loading suggestions mentioned above.
- If you hurt an arm, do single limb presses and pulls – substitute pull ups for 1 arm pull downs, substitute 1 arm DB bench for barbell bench
- If you hurt a leg, substitute single leg squats for barbell squats
(3) Try a different plane or angle – Try doing the exercise on a incline or decline for your upper body, or try moving side to side instead of front to back for your lower body
- incline bench press vs regular bench press
- side lunges vs. front lunges
Change your goals and manage expectations
You probably won’t get stronger, faster or set any world records while injured. Injuries take time to heal – no matter how badly you want to get better, your limiting factor is the time your body can rebuild itself. Your immediate goal is no longer to run a 4.4 40 yd dash, or to squat 500 lbs. Your goal is now to maintain the strength and function of your muscles as much as possible so that when you are back to 100%, you can attack your main goals with focus and intent. Failure to change your mindset will almost certainly lead to setbacks and frustrations.
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