As someone who’s been injured in pursuit of a goal more times than I can count (to be fair, I can’t count that high) I know how frustrating and demoralizing to finally start making good progress, only for the proverbial wrench to get thrown in the works.
While obviously you want to prevent injuries in the first place, to quote Forrest Gump :
I’m going to give you a game plan to keep building strength and losing fat even if you have an injury. That way, you don’t squander all of hard earned results playing Banjo-Kazooie on the couch for 3 months while your ankle heals.
I’m going to use the term “injury” quite loosely here. When I say injury I mean “moderate level pain”. This could be something requiring medical attention, or you could have just tweaked your shoulder a little and it’ll be fine so long as you give it enough time to heal.
I’m going to give you some tips on how to keep training, keep getting results, regardless of whether or not you have an injury. Because there’s pretty much always a way to work around an injury and keep making progress. Something is always better than nothing. Of course, some injuries are significantly harder to work around than others, but today I’m going to give you principles and a process you can use to navigate whatever ails you.
Because the only thing harder than getting started with working out is getting started working out for like the second or third time.
So you want to maintain whatever psychological momentum you can -- you don’t want to fall out of the habit. You don’t want to lose strength and/or muscle you’ve worked so hard to get. But you don’t want to make your injury worse.
This post is about how to work around an injury.
I can’t tell you how to cure an injury. An injury could be anything. And different injuries require different approaches. Besides, I’m not a physiotherapist. If you feel like you have something serious, something that doesn’t seem to be getting any better with time, go see a specialist.
Pain is your body giving you feedback. Listen to that feedback because you don’t want to exacerbate those pains and end up in more, longer lasting, pain.
In most cases, you shouldn’t stop exercising entirely. However, you also shouldn’t ignore those signals and push through the pain. The answer is somewhere in the middle.
First off, depending on the severity of the injury, play around with whatever exercise caused the problem and see if there's any way to alter your technique such that it doesn’t make the pain worse. See if the movement alone irritates the injury, or if it’s only when you use a certain amount of weight.
Also, slooooooow down when you’re performing any exercise. It’s hard to listen to your body when you’re racing through your workout. Try taking 3-4 seconds to complete the descent phase of an exercise. So if you’re doing the bench press, it should take 4 Mississippi’s to lower the bar to your chest. Add a 2 second pause at the bottom if you’re feeling sadistic. Note: you will need to significantly lighten the weight to use this technique. Don’t get stuck under a bar. From personal experience, it’s dangerous, embarrassing, and is completely avoidable if you leave your ego at the door.
If none of this works, simply ditch the exercise until the pain goes away. Find a different exercise, ideally one that works similar muscle groups if you can. For example, if back squats are hard on your low back, switch to goblet squats or split squats.
If possible, you want to find a way to keep working every muscle group to ensure a speedy recovery and maintain your strength. Unfortunately this isn’t always possible. So the trick there is lots of trial and error.
Essentially you want to be hyper aware of any exercise that could potentially “rip the bandaid” off the injury too early and avoid those exercises or movements.
The tricky part is that the parts of the body are all connected. It’s not quite as simple as “this muscle works that”. For example, while your back muscles aren’t moving the weight in a bench press, they still have to work hard to stabilise your spine and your shoulders.
This might mean your workouts aren’t structured, that you can’t really follow your program to the T. Your workout might just be a hodgepodge of random exercises you’d otherwise never do because those are the ones that don’t hurt right now. That’s OK because you’ll recover more quickly this way rather than pushing past pain.
Some knowledge of anatomy and biomechanics are certainly helpful.
However, if you don’t know your biceps from your triceps here are some general guidelines to help you figure out what to avoid. Ultimately it comes down to feel and the injury at hand, but this can serve as a basic roadmap for what exercises to avoid for injuries in different body parts.
Instead of Front Squats or Goblet squats, do Back Squats, Hip Thrusts, Leg Extensions, Hamstring Curls, Back Extensions, Split Squats, or Low Box Step Ups.
Technique note: Normally there’s nothing inherently wrong with your knees going past your toes in a squat. However, if you’re dealing with a knee issue, it’s best to do squat and lunge variations with the shins more or less vertical i.e., knees don’t track forward to a large degree.
Instead of Deadlifts, do Bridges or Hip Thrusts. Skip Bent Rows for Chest Supported Rows. I’d also avoid flexion based core exercises like Sit-Ups. Go for the anti-flexion exercises like Deadbugs, Planks, and Pallof Presses.
Technique note: Your core/back is constantly working to stabilize your spine, even in exercises that aren’t low back heavy. Make sure you maintain a neutral/straight spine and brace your abs hard during every single exercise.
Instead of barbell pressing, use dumbbells, kettlebells, or a landmine set up. Or ditch pressing altogether and focus on pulling exercises like Dumbbell Rows.
Technique note: Pay attention to your elbows and your shoulder blades because they influence good shoulder position and movement. The shoulder is complex. Talking about every detail of the shoulder is well beyond the scope of this article. So a good guideline for pressing is to keep the elbow at a 45 degree angle from the body.
Instead of Sumo Deadlifts or Wide Stance Squats, go for narrow stance lifts like Conventional Deadlifts, Romanian Deadlifts and Split Squats. Glute focused lifts are good here (Hip Thrusts and Bridges).
Technique note: the hips, glutes, abs and low back make up what most people call the “core”. As such, they’re all interconnected, so most of the same advice from the back section applies here.
Dumbbells and kettlebells for the win again. Avoid Push-Ups and exercises where you can’t keep your wrist straight.
Technique note: Keep your wrists straight :p
Keep your neck “packed” meaning you’re making a double chin and looking straight ahead like in the latter picture.
Technique note: Be sure to drive your shoulder blades into your back pockets when you do rows. If you feel it in your neck too much, you need to work on your shoulder movement and your neck position when lifting.
Some other tricks:
Shorten the range of motion: Shorten the exercise to the the point where you don’t even think about pain. If you get hip pain at the bottom of a squat, squat ¾ of the way down instead. Tada!
Isolation exercises: While, generally, these don’t give as good a result as compound exercises, it makes life more simple here. Each exercise involves fewer muscle groups so you don’t have to worry about the “interconnectedness” of muscle groups as much. So if your back is pissy and you can’t Deadlift, you can still hammer away at the hamstrings with machine Hamstring Curls.
Journal it: Record how the injury feels before during and after your workouts in your training journal. Sometimes an exercise will feel fine in the moment but make your injury cranky. By comparing notes to the exercises you did you can suss out which exercises you should avoid until the injury clears up.
Once the pain goes away go back to the original exercise and repeating the same process of experimenting, paying tons of attention to your movement and how your body responds to it. Again, go light. You want to discover if that exercise was simply a bad fit for your body or if there was something you did that caused the problem.
I recommend leaning your phone on a dumbbell and filming yourself lift from the side and front view to check your form. Often times this makes the issue pretty obvious. Not always of course, but it’s worth trying. Plus, it helps my online clients develop body awareness so I’m confident it will help you too.
The key is to pump the brakes a bit and figure out what caused the problem in the first place. Here are the main areas to place your attention:
- Intensity: Too heavy
- Volume: Not too heavy, just too much. Too many reps, too many sets, not enough rest in between sets etc.
- Technique: Is your form on point?
- All of the above
It’s always better to work around an obstacle than barrel through it like the Kool-aid guy.
You want to be clear about what you did wrong initially so as to not make that mistake again. If that means avoiding that exercise until a qualified professional can check your form, go for it. You're not a delicate flower who will break at the slightest abberation in technique, but when your body is trying to tell you something, you ought to listen.