We all get them: inflammation, pain, injuries, or a mere “tweak” in a joint or muscle. These are roadblocks to our goals, motivation, and all that we’re striving for. So we don’t like to think about them.
Ironically, the choices we make about how to train around injuries can impact us as much as the actual problem. Continuing to ignore a small, chronic pain can result in a more serious, acute one, so seeing a doctor early on is always a good idea.
The upside to this potentially depressing subject is that we have choices on how to proceed when something hurts. It’s obviously not best to continue as you are; it’s time to change your workout in a fundamental way so that you can truly heal. But is rest always the answer?
Recently this issue hit me over the head, so to speak. I’ve been seeing a physical therapist for a couple of weeks about tennis elbow in my right arm and she finally recommended a temporary cease and desist to my upper-body training. I wasn’t too happy to hear this, obviously – I love making progress on my upper body. Plus my right side is already smaller and weaker due to a whiplash injury years ago, so not training it gives me a slight dread feeling. But I knew it was coming.
I tweeted this development to my online community last week and a wise Twitter friend responded with this:
We gotta be safe & smart but often find the “easy” answer is rest – but not the ONLY answer. I know you’ll be smart!”
This innocuous comment sparked something in me that was already brewing below the surface: Just because I had to stop my usual upper body routine didn’t mean I had to now only train lower body and abs. There are actually lots of options that can keep me strong.
Have you thought about how you would deal with a potential roadblock? Take a look at these options seldom mentioned by doctors or the popular media.
Giving deconditioned clients bodyweight exercises is something I do all the time. They provide muscle stimulation without much risk of injury, especially for someone not used to exercising. But me? Hell no. I lift heavy and that is all. Right?
But my perspective changed last week when my physical therapist gave me an upper trap exercise that would help strengthen that weak right side of mine. In fact, it’s one I give my clients:
After actually doing this exercise for reps (I demonstrate it all the time, but doing 12-15 reps is a different matter!), I found my upper trap and my elbow felt deliciously better. I need a way to challenge my upper body without picking up weights, so I was happy that this exercise really did burn!
Bodyweight exercises can help you heal while keeping you strong. They also have a lot of prehab value – strengthening the supporting muscles to prevent injury. Here are more ideas.
Another idea from my physical therapist is actual cross training. I say actual because I rarely think of it – besides hiking and occasional cycling, I don’t do too much other than weight lifting. The reason? I’m so active in my job and my metabolism is so high that I tend to lose weight easily (translation: lose muscle). So I avoid any type of metabolic training and even cardio. Not good for my cardiorespiratory health!
My physical therapist recommended cardio and swimming, though we’re not sure if it’ll aggravate my elbow yet. But the idea excited me – I’ve always wanted to swim because it’s arguably the best full-body conditioning exercise you can do. And if swimming doesn’t hurt my elbow, I can certainly strengthen my upper body that way!
Cross training for you might mean concentrating on cardio instead of weights, cycling instead of running, or weights instead of plyometrics. It can only serve to make you healthier and more well-rounded. Read: more injury proof.
This idea of improvising is straight from Bret Contreras, who wrote this article about how to work around injuries. He points out that you if you can find alternative exercises that don’t hurt, you can continue to make progress in another area while allowing yourself to heal. For example:
If your knees always hurt when you squat, stop squatting and see if you can get away with reverse sled dragging for the quads. If you can’t, then avoid training the quads altogether and stick to posterior chain lifts for a few weeks. Your quads won’t shrivel up if you stick with conventional deadlifts, hip thrusts, back extensions, and glute ham raises (or even leg curls) for a few weeks. First, you’ll give the knees a chance to recuperate. And second, you’ll strengthen the hips which can positively impact mechanics toward a more knee-friendly manner which will help spare the knees over time.”
Another option is to do high reps with lighter weight. A recent study determined that this method does indeed build muscle after all.
Yet another way to improve is unilateral training for the uninjured side. This is a temporary solution, as having one side a lot stronger than the other can cause new problems (symmetry would be affected as well!). Unilateral training utilizes your core to the max while your body tries to stabilize itself, so it can be a very practice to integrate regularly on both sides. My friend and biomechanics expert Scott Dueball recommends using isolation exercises when training one side only to prevent injury.
All these ideas give me renewed energy and help me stay strong. What are your ideas?