So it’s a new year. You’re hitting the gym hard, working out, starting to get in shape, and YEOWCH! You’ve hurt yourself. Shit. Now what happens?
January 2017 marks the 6 year anniversary of my own first workout injury. My buddy Greg had taught me the cable tricep pushdown, which felt great until I went 2 reps further than I should have. I felt something tear in my left arm on that last rep. By the next morning, I couldn’t raise my arm above elbow level without excruciating pain. I sidelined myself for a full week and didn’t try any tricep exercises again until Fall 2011.
If you’re new to working out like I was, I’m here to tell you: the whole fitness game doesn’t have to end because of a minor injury (i.e., doesn’t require a doctor visit). These stumbles are going to happen on the road to better health. Here’s 3 strategies on getting back in the workout saddle:
1) Rest what needs resting.
I’m all about bringing the pain in the gym—I’m a self-proclaimed fitness sadist, after all. When recovering, though, listen to your body before listening to your trainer. If you’re nursing a cold, then stay your ass at home. If your brain says, “Hit the weights” but your body says, “Lemme sit this one out for another day,” then you take a rest day.
This is an intuition that comes with time. Most of us aren’t really taught how to listen to our bodies, so we have to learn this very important skill. Thankfully, getting active helps us to tune in for this little voice that determines whether it’s time to hit the weights once again. This rings especially true when recovering from minor illness. By all means, rest until the fever breaks and strength begins to return; trying to workout while sick usually ends up being an exercise in futility, no pun intended.
2) Train what you can.
Hurt your arm like I did? Train your legs and back. Got blisters on your feet from running like my friend in Tupelo? Looks like it’s chest day! Does a shoulder injury make overhead movements difficult for you? Practice moves from a seated position (dumbbell tricep extensions), incline (DB incline chest flyes), or on your back (bench press).
Let the injured parts take a back seat while you take the healthy limbs for a spin. The continued exercise will let your body keep working towards a goal, and your new self-image as a fitness badass will continue to grow along with your muscles.
3) Keep going.
Want to know the real reason to keep working out in spite of injury? Once you interrupt the training process, it’s really easy to just stop the whole thing and go back to the inactive life. I’ve seen people new to fitness just stop cold with their training after a muscle strain or pesky virus.
Be aware of this tendency to quit after adversity. “Why go back if I’ll just hurt myself again?” you might ask. We go back because we can learn and improve and do better. We didn’t quit school after a failed test. We didn’t ditch our partner after a single argument. Greatness takes time and effort and, occasionally, hurting yourself. Persist.
The final point to understand here is the importance of scaling your return after injury. After you recover from illness or hurt limb, attempt 80% of your previous workload. If you’d run for 30 minutes before your illness, scale back to 24 minutes for a week or two. If that’s too aggressive, aim for 50% of your pre-injury load. Whatever your training regimen, fall back to a plan that’s still challenging but doable. Build up again to where you were. Even 50% of your best effort will beat out 100% of giving up on trying again. So get to it.