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Best Practices For Returning To Exercise After Injury

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If you’re recovering from injury and hope to get back into exercising, it’s important to understand that, when you return, your ability will be significantly different compared to your pre-injury self.

One of the easiest times to hurt yourself again, (or even to a pick up a worse injury than before), is when your motivation is high as you recommence training. Just as with a beginner, having a sensible way to re-incorporate movements and muscle groups is very important for avoiding further injury.

In this article, I’ll discuss a few tips you need to consider if you’re looking to begin working out again after an injury.

Injuries Happen

If there is an inevitability of exercise, it’s that you’ll eventually have some sort of injury, sooner or later. As I have already written about in a recent blog post, finding ways to avoid injury in the first place is, of course, the best thing you can do for yourself … but, life happens and injuries occur.

Once you’ve injured yourself, you first need to assess the damage and stop working the affected area. By avoiding further stress to the injured area you really help to expedite the healing process so that you can continue to exercise and build muscle definition.

After you’ve spent a significant amount of time away from exercising the injured area, it will then be time for you to consider re-incorporating movements that work those target muscles. However, you need to do so after careful consideration and planning, since your ability will likely be drastically different.

If you return to exercise as normal without additional thought, you run the risk of re-injuring yourself or injuring yourself even worse than the first time.

Bottom Line: Before jumping back into an exercise routine, remember that your performance will change. You don’t want to re-injure yourself so special care must be taken.

Plan Your Return

Simply jumping back into a full exercise routine involving the injured area is the wrong move. Just as when you were a beginner, the risk of injuring yourself after an injury is pretty high.

Further, you have to consider that if you’ve been continuing to exercise around the injury, you may have a false sense of ability. Don’t be fooled; even if you’ve been working out regularly, it’s still possible for you to re-injure yourself.

Additionally, coming off an injury is often coupled with high motivation and drive to work the injured area since you’ve spent so much time avoiding using those muscles. While motivation is always great, you need to separate the difference between motivation and an actual ability to perform well.

When you have an injured area that you’re beginning to re-incorporate, I suggest planning out exactly which exercises you’ll do. It is also a wise move to make a decision on a maximum amount of repetitions and weight that you’ll perform ahead of time. This can really help prevent overuse, and will avoid you getting carried away.

Bottom Line: Planning your return to exercise is a great idea to ensure that you’re not doing too much or risking further injury to yourself. Remember that this is really important if you’ve continued to exercise around the affected area.

Start Light And Easy

When you’re coming off an injury, you need to realize that you won’t have the same ability as you did before the injury. Depending on the duration of your hiatus and the extent of the injury, you could be significantly behind the rest of your body.

When you stop using certain muscles, you have to consider two things. First, the actual ability of the muscle has not been practiced. This means that the ability of your muscle to contract will be weaker after the injury.

Second, it’s very likely that if you’ve taken a month or more off from working the affected area, the size of your muscle has decreased. This too can significantly impact how and how well the muscle contracts.

All together, this means that you’re probably weaker than you were before the injury and you’ll need to accommodate this change.

In terms of weight being used, start very light. This is not an opportunity for you to hit a new personal record, rather an opportunity to slowly bring the injured area back up to speed. Just as you wouldn’t go full throttle the first time you step in a gym, this is no different.

Since the weight you’re using is quite light, having slightly higher numbers of repetitions is warranted. However, since you’re getting back into things, it’s not recommended you train to failure.

Lastly, consider using easy, non-technical exercises, preferably with dumbbells. If you’ve incurred a shoulder injury, for example, it’s probably not a great idea to immediately attempt a snatch or clean and press.

The same suggestion goes for other body parts as well. Using the leg press after a hamstring injury is a much better idea than immediately deciding to barbell back squat.

Bottom Line: When you return to exercising after an injury, start light and slow. Further, try to avoid technical movements until you feel you’ve fully recovered. Even then, slowly increase weight, reps and sets.

Try Resistance Bands

One of my favorite methods for re-incorporating resistance is to use resistance bands. Overall, they provide progressive resistance and are extremely low impact. Further, the nature of the bands prevents wild and erratic movements of joints, which can help to reduce the risk of injury.

For example, if you injured a pec muscle, you could use bands to simulate a chest press movement or wrap around your back and arms for a resisted push-up. If you’re coming from a shoulder injury, you could stand on the band and pull on it for front or side raises.

If you had a leg injury, you could stand on one end of a band and wrap around your back for a resisted squat.

Resistance bands are so useful in this situation primarily because they are cheap and low impact, but also progressively add resistance in a safe manner.  Resistance bands are a great method for slowly re-incorporating movements into your routine, with little risk to further injury.

Bottom Line: Resistance bands are a great way to re-incorporate injured muscle groups because they are extremely low impact but also provide progressive resistance. This allows a bit of leeway and safety when reintroducing movements and exercises.

Pay Attention

Lastly, and most importantly, you need to pay close attention to your body when re-incorporating movements and injured muscle groups into your routine. As I mentioned, returning to exercise is one of the easiest times to re-injure yourself, so you need to pay attention.

If you’re working out and begin to feel irritation, stop. Even though you’re motivated and have taken some time off, it’s possible that the injury isn’t completely healed yet or you’ve simply gone too far.

While it can sometimes be a tough pill to swallow, if you have to cease after only a set or two, so as to prevent further injury, then that should be your number one goal. Remember, there’s always tomorrow to workout, but not if you keep injuring yourself.

If you find you simply haven’t given yourself enough time, bite the bullet and properly recover. Losing 1 month of squatting is much better than losing 3 because you were impatient.

Bottom Line: Pay attention to your body. You may have overestimated your time in injury repair. If you feel irritation, stop immediately. 1 month away from exercise is far superior to 3. 

training injuries

Best Practices For Returning To Exercise After Injury 

Coming off an injury is primetime for you to become re-injured or to succumb to even further injury. Avoiding the most common mistakes will be imperative for you to get back to exercising.

Remember that when you come off an injury, your ability will be significantly reduced. Returning straight to previous movements, and weight and rep scheme, is a recipe for disaster.

Start light and small and pay close attention to your body. Losing 1 month to injury is far superior to losing three, so take things slowly and cautiously. 

About the author

Rudy Mawer, MSc, CISSN

Rudy has a 1st class BSc in Exercise, Nutrition & Health and a Masters in Exercise & Nutrition Science from the University of Tampa. Rudy currently works as a Human Performance Researcher, Sports Nutritionist and Physique Coach. Over 7 years he has helped over 500 people around the world achieve long last physique transformations.

He now works closely with a variety of professional athletes and teams, including the NBA, USA Athletics, World Triathlon Gold Medalists, Hollywood Celebrities and IFBB Pro Bodybuilders. If you would like to get in contact or work with Rudy please contact him on social media.

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