How to Train if You Have an Injury

I don’t normally run guest posts on Nerd Fitness, but I made an exception today.  “What should I do if I’m injured?” is a question I get a few times a week; I’m always hesitant to give advice because I simply don’t have enough experience in dealing with injuries.  I asked Vic Magary, my buddy and co-author of the Rebel Strength Guide, if he could provide his expertise and shed some light on the subject.  Disclaimer: this info is for entertainment purposes only! If you are injured you should seek medical advice from your doctor before proceeding. (Okay, our asses are covered).  Take it away Vic!

There’s no gentle way to say this – training with injuries SUCKS!

Unfortunately, that nagging shoulder pain or swelling in your knee will only get worse if you don’t give it the rest that it needs.

But it’s tough. . .

You’ve been training hard, seeing great results, and you don’t want to stop now because of a little “pain”. Below are a few suggestions to keep you training while at the same time allowing you to take care of what ails you.

Before I get into the specific injuries, there are a few general tips I give no matter what:

Test ALL movements

First, test all movements. And by test, I mean work through as much of the range of motion of an exercise as possible with zero additional resistance and without feeling any pain. That means if your shoulder bothers you, just see if you can extend your arms all the way above your head without holding a barbell before you even consider doing a push press or shoulder press.

After that, make sure to test movements that you don’t suspect will be a problem. A shoulder injury could very well making doing box jump sessions impossible due to the arm swing involved in the movement.  Try out each movement cautiously!

Something to keep in mind: just because you have pain with a push movement, does not necessarily mean you will have pain with a pull. I have had a shoulder injury where dips and push ups were out of the question, but pull ups were fine. And that is why you should test all movements – you may have more training options than you expect. Then again, your injury may limit movement more that you realize. Last time I’m going to say it – test.

Rest sucka!

Next, rest. And by rest, I mean completely stop doing movements that cause you pain until you are healed. If you feel any pain during your test mentioned above (especially joint pain) then you should abandon the movement until the injury heals. You cannot “suck it up” and just grind through joint pain without hindering healing at best and causing further damage at worst.

Along with rest, a recovery regimen to accelerate healing should be considered. Ideally, this would be done under the care of a physician. I have been to the doc for injuries in the past and have found that those that use “Sports” in the title of their practice (Sports Medicine, Sports Therapy) do their damnedest to keep you active.

Two often overlooked components of recovery that can be controlled even if you do not seek medical care are sleep and nutrition. These things are always important when it comes to fitness, but for the swiftest recovery from injury you need to get your food intake and sleep schedule dialed in extra tight. Sign off of Call of Duty an hour earlier and get to bed (Steve’s note: booooo….okay fine). Have a second helping of spinach and forgo the pizza. If you want to do everything within your control to sway the healing forces in your favor, be extra diligent with your sleep and eats.

Find the opportunities

My dear friend, it’s time to get creative.  When you get injured, start thinking outside of the box to find the opportunity in the obstacle. A shoulder injury may make back squats incredibly painful, but holding the bar for a front squat instead could feel fine…and perhaps it just so happens that you have neglected the front squat lately. . . try to look at an injury as an opportunity for you to focus on a weakness.  Strengthen your weaknesses, become more well rounded and better equipped to deal with rigorous activity.

But enough of the generalities. You want some specific recommendations on how to train around your injuries. . . Here are some tips that have worked for myself and my clients that will keep you training despite injuries:

Lower back

Forgo any spinal loading. Period. That means no squats for sure. But it also means no dead lifts. It also means using no additional resistance in any movement where your shoulders should be higher than your hips. That pretty much limits you to the bench press as far as free weights go. . . and I’m not a huge fan of the bench press. Instead, spend your recovery time exploring various body weight exercises.

Wrists

Wrist pain is most commonly complained about when doing the traditional push up. I have had several clients alleviate this pain by using push up bars and even (believe it or not) knuckle push ups. This is most often due to a flexibility issue and not an actual injury. Front squats and power cleans done with the Olympic rack position may also lead to complaints of wrist pain. To eliminate wrist pain in the front squat, try the more common crossed-arm rack position. For the power clean, concentrate on getting the bar on top of the front of your front deltoids (shoulders) – if the bar is touching your throat, you are getting there.

Knees

Knee pain typically comes in a fitness setting as the result of one of two things: deep bending such as with a squat or lunge, or impact that corresponds with landing from jumping. Lateral (side to side) movement may also be an issue especially for participants of sports like soccer, rugby, basketball, and other “man to man” athletics.

Knee issues can be especially frustrating for those trying to lose weight because exercises involving squatting, lunging, and jumping are ideal for accelerating fat loss. In this situation, I typically recommend a kettlebell swing as my first alternative option. A properly executed swing does not involve much bend of the knee and in my experience most clients who cannot squat can handle swings without screwing up any preexisting knee conditions.

Another option I often try for those with knee injuries seeking to lose weight is boxing drills.  However, it is important to work slowly at first to be sure that the twisting necessary for generating punching power from the hips does not aggravate the knee condition.

Elbows

You’re screwed. Sorry. Nearly any upper body exercise, push or pull, will hinder your recovery time. Instead, focus on lower body work such as barbell squats, lunges, and sprinting.

Ankles

Avoid any high-impact movements. And all that means is do not jump. But other movements that involve more subtle ankle movement such as squats may also have to be put on the back burner as you heal. It is possible (likely?) that you may have to focus on upper body movements and use seated versions of movements such as rows and overhead presses instead standing while the ankle heals.

Shoulders and hips

Test, test, test. These ball and socket joints can be the most unpredictable when it comes to training options. Start slow, start light, and back off the second you feel any pain.

Injuries are always frustrating when they happen. But I don’t know anyone with any significant amount of training time under their belt who hasn’t had to deal with them. When injured, be smart with your exercise selection, dial in your nutrition and sleep, seek a medical opinion, and be aware of training opportunities that you would not have considered without the injury.

-Vic

Vic Magary is the co-author of the Rebel Stength Guide and the fat loss expert behind the 31 Day Fat Loss Cure. You can read about his explorations of personal development over at Vic Magary.com.

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Rob sent this to me way back in early April, and I’m just now getting around to posting it. Middle of Spring, four inches of snow on the ground overnight? No problem.  Rob threw on his NF t-shirt, wrestled a Yeti, rescued a TaunTaun, and then worked out in the snow.  Epic.

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  • Man, that is PERFECT timing for me. I JUST started having some shoulder pains. I’ll take a look and follow said advice.

  • colovet

    I tore my Achilles tendon last October–it was a huge bummer because it was the start of snowboard season here in CO but I managed to get through it ok. I started taking lots of fish oil to help with inflammation and my doc was quick to get me out of a cast and into a boot. He said it was ok to start working out, so I did. My crossfit coaches at my great gym, CrossFit Verve really tailored my workouts to ensure I was not doing anything stupid but still pushing it. I have them to thank for at the flexibility I still have in the tendon and to still be in decent shape. I was snowboarding by February thanks to them and thanks to my doc.

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  • Anonymous

    I never healed from crummy knee surgery performed in ’02 so, I must avoid knee-intensive work outs. I’ll look into this kettle-ball idea. Thanks.

  • Kalell

    Good article.  Maybe sports should be mentioned as well, listing the many options one could try.  Injuries suck.   Lifting weights when not having all muscles available to work out makes it boring after a while, so sports can REALLY motivate you to stay active.  I tore my pectoral tendon in jiujitsu, so I joined a soccer league.  I then broke my clavicle in soccer (bad sportsmanship; dude pushed me from behind) , so now I’m taking up hiking and rock climbing. In my opinion it’s better to break some bones than to have a million regrets as an old guy.

  • “You cannot “suck it up” and just grind through joint pain without hindering healing at best and causing further damage at worst.”  

    So true!  I have some runner acquaintances that did this throughout their running career, which is non-existent now because the Dr claims they need knee full knee replacement due to lack of cartilage.  They are in their late 30s.

  • “You cannot “suck it up” and just grind through joint pain without hindering healing at best and causing further damage at worst.”  

    So true!  I have some runner acquaintances that did this throughout their running career, which is non-existent now because the Dr claims they need knee full knee replacement due to lack of cartilage.  They are in their late 30s.

  • Hiya!
    I had a knee injury back in December, and actually was able to train through and heal it myself without going to a doctor.  This probably wasn’t the smartest thing to do, but here’s how I got it done:

    More Fat!
    I’d been paleo for a while, but still too shy on fat.  This was what finally got me to eat more avocados/animal fat instead of just peanuts all day-bad!

    Lower Mileage:
    Duh!
    I took it easier and focused more on swimming and cycling instead of running for a little while.  I also did aqua jogging and elliptical training to supplement my running.

    Physical Therapy:
    I used stretch cord exercises in a warm pool, and worked all the muscles around my knee joint.  I took my leg through a range of motions five times a week, and progressively made them more challenging.

    RockTape
    This stuff is amazing.  It’s a kind of kinesiology tape that helps recovery and stabilizes the joint.  It also helps with knee tracking and to reinforce basic bodily movements.  I can help anyone who wants to get some since I’m sponsored by them too:)

    Magnesium:
    Most americans are deificent in this stuff, and its essential to all sorts of healing processes.  I use stuff called Natural Calm and it tastes amazing!

    Thanks for the great post, and if anyone has any questions about my little protocol, please ask!

    -Armi Legge

  • Zachary Steinert-Threlkeld

    What does lower back pain feel like?  I can’t tell if the muscle is just sore from exertion, like any muscle, or whether it is strained.

  • Zachary Steinert-Threlkeld

    What does lower back pain feel like?  I can’t tell if the muscle is just sore from exertion, like any muscle, or whether it is strained.

  • Lower back pain is generally chronic and right at the center of your spine.  Sore muscles are usually more to the sides (spinal errectors).  If it doesn’t feel better after a day or 2, you might want to think about some rehab techniques.  Good question!

    -Armi

  • Kim Taura

    Thank you for this article! I have been asking this question for years and the answer I was given, do geriatric routines, did not sound appealing.
    I have a question though- what kind of doctor should I talk to first? I have ankle, foot, back, wrist/forearm injuries that have become a chronic pain and I’m afriad of messing myself up even more.

  • Elonazoom

    Hi Armi,

    I have just sustained a small tear to my medial meniscus in my knee – can you recommend any more than above with a crossfit fitness regime – also can you describe in further detail the cord exercises.  This tape you speak of – I live in Australia – is there a brand name? Also how did you tape the knee when exercising?

    Cheers

    El

  • Hey El,

    I’d also suggest collagen protein.  You can find it here online:

    http://amzn.to/qE5xae

    The tape is called RockTape.  You can buy it here online:
    http://amzn.to/r3G0lu

    In retrospect, I don’t think the cord exercises did much.  I’d think about doing some of the exercises on this site:

    http://mobilitywod.com

    Hope that helps.

  • MarkjewellMD

    Great timing for this article. I broke my foot in 3 places and tore the Liszfranc ligament 2 weeks ago. I’m going for weekly x-rays to make sure that I can avoid surgery. I will be asking on Monday (my next appointment) what types of exercises that I CAN do. I need something. I lost my ability to drive with this injury. If I can’t work out, I will really go in to a depressed state! Thanks for sharing this great information! If you have any tidbits, they would be greatly appreciated. For the time being, I can not put any weight on my right leg.

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  • nakawan

    So if it’s an Achilles’ tendon problem, I shouldn’t be doing squats?

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  • This is exactly what I needed. I’ve had chronic wrist pain for more than 4 months and it even hurts to type …. learning to type with one hand now ^_^

  • Padster

    Great read I am recovering from a herniated disk (l5-s1) not able to walk let alone play hockey in months!! Some good ideas and suggestions here. My body really wants to be training but have become fearful of moving going to try alternative movements that don’t hurt

  • Noe Khalfa

    Thanks Vic & Steve, I’m gonna take these suggestions to heart to heal wrist and shoulder. Sleep is a big one for me. Gonna give it a go.

  • Ooi Wei Chin

    If I’m having knee injury, could I go for gym exercises for my upper body part?? Of course I still doing some knee recovery exercises in this period.

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  • Janet Bowling

    I too tore the meniscus in my knee. What exercises do you recommend I do and which ones do I avoid?

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