As lifters and Athletes injuries are inevitable and the odds are stacked against you, the more you lift/compete the higher the chance that an injury of some degree will arise. The components of an injury are both physical and psychological, my personal experience is that the psychological damage can sometimes be the hardest to repair. All too often I see athletes coming back from injury expecting to handle the same load or perform at the same level, this can sometimes be damaging if your main aim is longevity in a certain sport or even as a recreational lifter. There is a process to follow to ensure your mind and body are healthy and that you can keep doing what you love. The first aspect I will discuss is the physical component post injury.
Depending on what injury you have your recovery will be different. For the purposes of this article we will talk about aspects of an acute injury sustained whilst competing or lifting, and what to do when heading back to resistance training.
The first step is to get medical clearance to be able to head back into a gym, you can only get medical clearance from medical practitioner, your personal trainer or coach does not count. Starting a program can be a little bit daunting and you might ask yourself what exercises should I do. I go by 2 very important factors that determine exercise choices, they are:
- Range of motion
Once you have full range of motion and no pain you can build your work capacity and strength back up in a periodised plan. If you don’t have full range of motion it can be safe to resume training as long as there is no pain and you choose exercises that only stress the range you are capable of and work to progressively increase that range.
High rep work is preferred in the beginning as you need to reinforce muscles, tendons and ligaments and also to allow for neuromuscular adaptation of more compound movements.
Doing the high rep work at lower intensity will also help identify any imbalances in motor patterning that may have developed because of the Injury. Using myself as an example, I suffered a medial meniscal tear and had an arthroscopy to help clean out the debris. After regaining ROM I noticed that while I was squatting my vastus medialis wasn’t activating efficiently on the leg I had suffered the injury. Through plenty of single leg work which allowed muscle in the injured leg to grow and fire efficiently the issue was resolved. The lighter workloads allowed me to tackle this issue early and prevented any further issues from arising as other muscle groups (hamstrings, glutes and adductors) were taking on a larger workload and causing discomfort from fatigue.
When your work capacity and muscle mass gain is on the rise, typically after blocks of hypertrophy training, you can start to implement strength blocks to push yourself back into the driver seat and be where you want to be physically. This takes time and must be treated as a process and not an event. Writing this and being 6 months post arthroscopy my squats and deadlifts are on track with no pain in my knee. Although the process explained sounds pretty straight forward it’s not all sunshine and rainbows. One of the most difficult things to overcome after an injury is the confidence and mental game that comes with training and pushing yourself to new limits.
Your perception and outlook on training will directly affect your training progress and achievements. The initial and most important step is to set yourself realistic goals with realistic time frames, a coach or personal trainer can assist you here. Goal setting is a great tool to use and will help map out your progress. Setting up smaller hurdles to tackle will build motivation and instil confidence as you accomplish goal after goal. Being involved in the fitness industry it’s very common to see lifters and athletes attempting to fast forward the above process and not really considering the risks involved. Athletes re-injuring themselves is one of the most damaging events that can happen psychologically as it dampers longevity in their sport or hobby. The correct process of returning to the gym will take time, re-injuring yourself will take much longer.
Motivation for most people is not constant and has its ups and downs, some weeks you may feel completely uninterested in training and other weeks you may feel like chasing Usain Bolt’s world record. I believe enjoying your training and having fun will form a great foundation for future training cycles, get the important stuff done and have fun along the way. You can do this by trying exercises that you’ve never done before but would love to try, maybe you’ve always wanted to do battle ropes or weighted pull-ups, whatever it may be just have fun with it, the worst thing that could happen is that you improve your general strength.
Building motivation after injury is not easy and your training program must reflect your realistic approach. Some athletes and gym members will attempt programs that are too aggressive or push too hard past the capability of the athlete. I’ve had athletes, specifically powerlifters, try to squat with back Injuries and started to regress with their rehabilitation. Believe it or not you don’t need to squat to get bigger legs, you don’t need to deadlift to get a stronger back or hamstrings. By taking these compound movements out and replacing them with exercises with no spinal loading such as leg press and leg curls then transition them back into full powerlifting strength blocks. Using this strategy we have effectively returned these athletes back into competition and watched them break all time PBs in a matter of months. Also keep in mind that we never advise athletes to do meets or compete if they are injured and that is a personal choice after weighing up the risks. There are clear cut reasons to pull athletes from events due to injury which weigh in more on the serious side.
- Must be medically clear to return to training
- You should regain at least some ROM before handling any resistance
- You should pick exercises that do not cause pain
- Your initial training program post injury should focus on motor pattern, muscle gain, reinforcing tendons and ligaments and regaining motivation
- Set realistic goals and time frames for rehabilitation to instil confidence and build motivation so you can enjoy training and have fun along the way
- Do not rush the process and aim for longevity in the sport
Getting injured during sport and exercise is not uncommon, keeping your mind healthy and getting your body strong with the proper guidance will make you a better lifter and athlete.