Got Injury? Choices for Continuing Training

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.

Bodyweight Training

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:

[embedit cf=”CorePerformance_Video”]

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.

Cross Training

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?

30 thoughts on “Got Injury? Choices for Continuing Training

  1. I’m sorry you are still battling that injury!! Do you think weight lifting caused the tennis elbow?

    When I got a running injury 2 years ago, I was discouraged and upset. But then I realized I needed to find something else to do while I couldn’t run. That’s when I started weight training!!!


    • Thanks Lisa. You are super at cross training. You bike, swim, run, strength train – you’re amazing. My elbow was “tweaky” for years, especially during bicep curls. I have weak forearms and tiny wrists and was probably compensating. Finally during bicep curls a few weeks ago the tendon became more acutely strained. The lesson (which I knew already, really): Ignore tweaks at your own peril!


  2. I was just having the injury discussion today with a potential client. It’s so hard to sit still when you are an active person. You are so right, there are always choice, always something else you can do.


    • That’s such a good idea Tracy. Ankle sprains seem minor at the time… after all, it’s just a “sprain.” But as you know, it has lots of ramifications up the chain, causing muscle imbalances in your knee and hip. Sending healing mojo your way!


  3. Suzanne – these are great ideas. When I broke my little toe about four years ago, I remember being told that I couldn’t do the intense cardio that used to mark my workouts for a while. So instead, I would so pilates mat floor work on my back that didn’t impact that foot and also became good friends with the hand-crank cardio machine at the gym. Whenever injury strikes or the early warning signs appear, I now try to listen and adjust. Your blog has also given me good ideas like warming up with foam rollers before training that helped when I couldn’t blast out the cardio. Happy healing for your upper body!


  4. GREAT GREAT POST!!!! So sorry you are going thru this though! I love the options you provide & letting others know how to think about it in a different way!

    On a different note – I am so opposite you in the weight thing. I look at food & the weight comes on – even when I was young. I still had to do lots of cardio – even when I was lifting super heavy.

    Hope you are better soon!!!!!


  5. Brilliant! I completely empathize with you about the tennis elbow. For me, the recurring problem is tweaking my lower back . . . but I’ve also had fun with tendinitis, shoulder issues, ankle sprains . . .

    These are such great suggestions to encourage creativity in our training. OK, so we can’t do _____________ for a while. There are still oodles of things we *can* do. When barbell bench-pressing hurt my left shoulder, I found I could press dumbbells with no pain. When I was in a cast after surgery last fall, I could still work my upper body and left leg. And so on.


  6. As you know, I too suffer from a chronic injury (herniated disc in my C5-6, bulges in C6-7, L3-4, L4-5, L5-S1). The mental challenge of “how do i stay in the game” is harder than the physical healing sometimes. My epiphany came when it dawned on me that the injury wasn’t this thing outside of me that I could fight. It was part of me, part of my whole self and it needed compassion, love, and care. When I decided to “forgive the injury,” it opened up the door to working with the injury, not against it.

    I still have good days and bad, but now that I don’t the injury as an opposing force, i don’t waste the energy trying to overcome it. I ask my body, “well, what *can* you do?” and I heed the reply. It’s a much friendlier relationship. Less angsty.


    • You’ve got it so right Robby. It’s not only insightful to take on this attitude but wise self-preservation. It makes me glad to hear you’re suffering less. I’ve had some scary health issues myself that I treated as the enemy, avoiding and trying not to think about. I suffered a great deal of stress as a consequence. When I accepted the condition as part of my body I was able to rid myself of much angst and feel more at peace.


  7. Well we are twins in the injury department! I haven’t healed up yet, but one thing I haven’t done is gone to the Physical Therapy. I feel like they won’t help. The doctor will be sending me for an MRI this next visit, I hope they do not find any tares.

    Good luck on your healing and trying to find something to replace weights. I stopped all together just because I am afraid I will hurt myself further. I do like that video you have listed I need to strengthen my back, so I will be giving that a try!


    • Please keep me updated Sheri! So sorry you’ve been suffering. I’ve been going to PT for three weeks and it’s helping! They give me massage, ice, ultrasound, the steroid patch, and stretches/exercises. I’ve had PT for past shoulder, knee, and neck issues so I knew what to expect. I think accepting the condition has helped me a ton. Love ya!


      • Thank you my friend! Its been such a struggle for me to keep positive through all this, but I must keep going! WOW, your PT sounds great! I hope when I start I can get the same treatment. I made an appointment yesterday, so I will let you know how things go! xoxo


      • Glad to hear it Sheri! I’m definitely feeling better but this particular injury takes a long time to heal. Acceptance… that’s really the key. Do let me know how it goes…


  8. I’m dealing with this EXACT problem right now, and after a 15lb weight loss & more to lose I’m heartbroken about having to indefinitely pause my weight training. I’m going to try the move on the ball you posted–do you have any other suggestions? I work out at home, so I don’t have the benefit of a trainer at a gym. My cardio is TurboFire, so I think that’s on track, I just don’t want to lose the muscle I’ve worked so hard to build!
    Thanks in advance for any more moves! =)


    • Sorry to hear Jen! I added a link for more of those types of exercises – This web site is great for finding this kind of thing. I find that lateral shoulder raises and shoulder presses – face down on the stability ball (no weight) – provide a burn with higher reps. It’s just that angle of working that muscle that’s more challenging. For chest I’m going to try the pec dec machine at the gym. For you, try wall push ups or push ups at a steeper angle if it doesn’t hurt. My physical therapist’s mantra is “stay out of the pain.” So if it doesn’t hurt you can do it!

      When it comes to an injury, *maintaining* muscle is the name of the game. If you can maintain muscle you’re doing great. I am probably losing some muscle right now, but honestly it’s worth it. If I don’t get better I’m really screwed!


  9. I admit it, bodyweight training is the best and most secure way to avoid injuries. I know that it doesn’t work with for bodybuilding, but for fat-burning it’s okay.


  10. Great information and tips!
    I absolutely HATE the “R word”. Ummm…that would be “rest”. Unfortunately I’ve had to deal with a few minor injuries over the last year or so.

    The first was a rotator cuff injury that was the result of “overuse” in the words of my physician. A couple weeks rest, and some light exercises with cables specifically focusing on the rotator cuff, and I was back in business.

    The second relatively major one occurred when I started to really focus on pull-ups. On the days following my workouts I’d notice a shooting pain (like tennis elbow) in my right arm. I naturally assumed that the workouts were some how injuring my arm, so imagine my surprise when bowling was in fact the cause (Yeah, I’m on a league…BIG nerd). After the season ended the pain disappeared and my workouts have gone better than ever. I guess it’s goodbye bowling. 🙂

    This does bring up an interesting distinction between causation and correlation. Sometimes the pains and injuries we experience while working out can really be caused by other things we do in our lives, such as bowling (in my case), or being hunched over a desk for 10+ hours a day. Just a thought.

    Best wishes!



    • Absolutely!! Love your insight Matt. I do not blame weight lifting 100% for my overuse injury. It’s complicated – I have an old whiplash injury on that side… I have tiny, weak wrists and forearms… It’s a culmination of things that probably resulted in my overcompensating with the wrong muscles. In the end, weights will help my arms because I’m going to make them stronger. Incidentally, it’s oddly comforting when you know others have injuries too (thought I’m glad you’re doing well now) :).


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