If you work out long enough, sooner or later you’re going to suffer some kind of injury. When that happens, the safest advice for both of us is to go see a doctor. If it’s a serious injury or emergency, I recommend doing just that or going straight to the ER, but for common injuries like muscle strains or inflamed tendons, the reality is a doctor can’t do much for you. More often than not, after applying RICE (rest, ice, compression, elevation) for the first 48 hours you’ll be told to take 3-6 weeks off from weight lifting and other strenuous activity and may be given a prescription dosage of Ibuprofen (same as 4 Advil) or stronger drugs. After your first few trips to the doctor, you should realize you can save yourself the trip and give yourself the same advice.
As a strength competitor and exercise junkie, I also realized that if I sat out for 3-6 weeks every time I had a pain I might as well put the weights away and take up checkers instead. After some research and speaking with other competitors I eventually discovered more aggressive and effective approaches for speeding up recovery and getting back into the game, which I will pass on to you. Please follow any advice at your own risk – the safest thing is to listen to your doctor.
Tip 1: Pain is your friend, so listen to it. Thank God our bodies were blessed with an alarm system to let us know when it’s being harmed. The alarm even has different levels of volume: mild pain is a warning, and severe pain means damage is being done, so stop what you’re doing! Unfortunately, many of us are too stupid or stubborn to listen to the alarm, and some even take pain killers to cover it up. That’s like covering up your car’s temperature and oil pressure gauges because you don’t want to know when it’s about to blow up – not smart! Pain killers are only justifiable when the pain is unbearable and keeps you from sleeping and recovering. Learn the difference between muscle soreness and injury pain, and use injury pain as your guide for resuming exercise and knowing how hard to push yourself. The best rule of thumb is that mild pain that diminishes as you continue your workout is fine, but pain that gets worse during the workout is a no-no and means you’re over doing it and making the injury worse.
Tip 2: Work around the injury. After getting past the initial phase of injury and some of the pain and swelling subside, with some creativity you can find ways to work around the injury. What I mean by work around is find exercises for the area in question that you’re able to do with little to no pain. You might need to try new exercises and/or start with really light weights, but the point is to do something to help you stay in shape and give you a post injury starting point to build off of. For example, if you have a mild low back strain and can’t do barbell squats without pain, in all likelihood you can still do some body weight squats and then go on to train legs using leg extensions, leg curls, and possibly hack squats, leg presses, or pushing the sled. If you hurt your shoulder and it’s painful to do overhead barbell presses, you may find you can press dumbbells with palms facing each other or do upright rows, lateral raises, or a machine to work the shoulders pain free. If one shoulder, elbow, or knee hurts so badly that you can’t do any exercises for that area, you can still exercise the other side of the body with a dumbbell or machine. Studies have shown that working one side of the body prevents loss of strength on the other side.
Tip 3: Blood flow heals. After initial swelling subsides (normally about 48 hrs and aided by ice, compression, and elevation), the best thing you can do is get blood flowing through the injured area to promote healing. Blood flow brings nutrients to the damaged area and removes waste products. The most effective way to get the blood flowing is by light exercise for the injured area. Using pain as your guide as described in the previous tip, do several sets of high reps, like 15-30. If you go light enough, you can do the exercises every day or even multiple times per day for maximum healing speed. Other ways to get the blood flowing are massage therapy, ultrasound, heat (e.g. hot water bottle), and alternating hot and cold like 10 minutes in a hot tub / 10 minutes in pool.
Tip 4: Don’t push too hard too soon. While I encourage resuming light exercise as soon as possible, you need to take your time getting back to 100% workout intensity or you risk getting re-injured and doubling or tripling your recovery time. A strained muscle or tendon is analogous to a partially torn piece of fabric that needs to be glued back together. If you pull on the fabric too hard before the glue dries, it will re-tear in the same place and the repair process will have to start over again. Continuing the same analogy, some light stretching or massage prevents the fabric from drying all bunched up and leaving you inflexible and more prone to re-injury. A good rule of thumb is to spend the same amount of time transitioning back to full intensity as it takes for the initial injury pain to subside. For example, if you have a hamstring strain that prevents you from doing any deadlifts without pain for 3 weeks, spend the following 3 weeks gradually getting back to your normal deadlift weights.
Tip 5: Turn the injury into a positive experience. It’s never fun to get hurt, but if you learn from it and use the down time to improve other areas, it can turn out to be a blessing in disguise. I’ll give you an example using the time I tore my calf muscle. I had been doing the farmer’s walk exercise (walking while carry a heavy weight in each hand) every week in my back yard and stepped in a hole, causing the tear. It was awful, but I learned to do the exercise less frequently to let my calves recover more completely and always do it on a flat surface to avoid a re-tear. While working around the injury, I discovered Romanian deadlifts with my body weight balanced over my heels – a great exercise for the hamstrings that I still use today. While my calf was healing, I did extra upper body work and managed to hit a personal record on the bench press. Lastly, healing from the injury taught me patience and made me better appreciate being injury free. So while the injury derailed my training plans and caused me to limp around for a while, in the long run it made me a better strength athlete. The bottom line is that with the right attitude and work ethic, facing adversity can make you stronger – true for exercise and life in general.
I hope these tips help you and provide some encouragement if you happen to be injured. If your injury is more severe than the typical strained muscle or tendon, or it doesn’t improve after several weeks of following my tips, then I’d advise going to a professional who specializes in sports injuries. At Spring Hill Fitness we also have an excellent massage therapist on site, and we work with a terrific chiropractor at In Motion Spine and Joint Center that can help you figure out what’s going on with any stubborn injuries and help get you healthy again. In a future post I’ll provide some practical tips for avoiding injury in the first place. Thanks for reading!