For anyone who pushes the body for performance or professions, injuries are inevitable. This is especially true for athletes in their late 20’s and 30’s - you can keep up with the young bucks, but you’re probably going to feel it more than they do the next day.
What can be difficult to determine is how to prevent it, how to work around it, when to scale back, and when to push through.
First, lets broadly classify injuries into two categories:
Traumatic Musculoskeletal Injury - This includes broken bones, torn ligaments and muscles, severely strained ligaments/muscles, muscle contusions due to impact, and dislocated joints. These are the kinds of injuries that send you to the Emergency Room or to the Orthopedic doctor.
Overuse Injuries -These are the injuries that catch up to you. These are moderate muscular strains, various forms of inflammation (inflammation is a natural byproduct of traumatic injury), and arthritis. Some injuries might occur at one sudden moment but are due to a growing overuse injury.
Before we go further, I need to make the disclaimer that I am not a doctor or physical therapist. The items below are from my own anecdotal experience dealing with athletes and my own injuries.
Solutions to Injuries
Train the Other Limb
Single limb injuries are a pain in the ass, but it’s not a prescription for 8 weeks of bed rest. Work around the injured appendage. Mike Boyle is a well-known strength and conditioning coach who has had great success with collegiate and professional hockey players. He is a big proponent of single limb training, claiming it has greater carryover to developing strength and power. I’ve tested this with athletes, and we did see come incredible strength/power gains using a basic strength progression.
If you broke your arm, train the other arm. Single arm dumbbell bench press, military press, and push press won’t make you look like a one-sided Popeye. The training carries over to both limbs so that even the injured limb will maintain, or at least reduce the amount of atrophy that would naturally occur when the limb is unused. It’s a strange relationship, but it works. The same principles apply to the legs - train the healthy leg and the injured leg won’t lose as much musculature.
Make sure your movement is squared away
This can be the most troublesome in high-intensity conditioning circuits. These circuits are a great conditioning tool, but if the form of your movement deteriorates at the 7th minute of a 12-minute circuit, even the very lightweight utilized can mess you up. This applies to the basic air squat to the most technical movements (Olympic lifts, gymnastics movements, high-intensity plyometrics).
You should by no means integrate advanced movements into a conditioning circuit unless you have completed them in isolation to a high standard. Think muscle ups, kipping pull-ups, handstand walking, etc. Everyone wants to do what the Crossfit Games athletes are doing, but you don’t see the hours of technique work that goes into developing the safe completion of those movements.
Change your Movement Pattern
If you’re one of the folks with consistent joint pain associated with a certain movement, even with perfect form, change the movement. Traditional barbell bench pressing hurts my shoulder, probably because I chased a super heavy Bench Press for a lot of years.
I hardly do it now. Instead, I use dumbbell, kettlebell, and bodyweight variations of the bench press - pain-free. Even with hardly touching a barbell for benching, I still managed to max out at a 345 lbs bench press at 200-205 lbs bodyweight a month ago. That would be nothing at a powerlifting meet, but it’s plenty for performance-related strength and conditioning.
Make sure your programming squared away
Overuse injuries are most common in the shoulder, low back, knees and ankles. First, understand if your programming is screwed up. Do a lot of overhead pressing? This works the middle and back of your shoulder (lateral and posterior deltoid), but places no demand on the front of the shoulder (anterior deltoid). You’re developing a muscular imbalance.
The same applies to the low back. If you love to go heavy on Back Squats/Deadlifts and wear a belt to protect the low back, that’s fine - but keep in mind that you need to do accessory work for your low back, and the ‘core’ of the abdomen. Otherwise, you’re asking for a pulled back.
When to Push It
This is where we start to wander from traditional advice. If you experience a joint/muscular injury (strains, pulls, sprains), you need to rest that joint. However, I’ve pushed the traditional advice in terms of recovery time. With various injuries, to include major surgeries, once I’ve recovered some (not all) range of motion, I push it.
Push the range of motion. Start with bodyweight induced range of motion, and then start to add some form of external load. I’ve found that while painful, it doesn’t exacerbate the injury. In fact, it heals faster. The fresh blood flow removes some of the nasty byproducts which cause inflammation.
This will hurt. Don’t push yourself to the point of tears, but you can push harder than you think you can.
Your first step is preventative. Make sure your programming, movements, and musculature are solid.
If you are injured, the first step is to work around it. Use single limb exercises with your healthy arm/leg. Don’t just sit on your ass - keep moving while keeping your injury ‘guarded’.
Get a feel for the injury, and understand when to push it. This might be before your doctor/physical therapist recommends it. Be safe and be smart, but the protocols from your medical professional is likely conservative. Push the envelope - with common sense.
The final note: Unless you are a competitive power lifter, competitive olympic weightlifter, or competitive Crossfitter, you should not ever be getting injured in the gym. The gym is a sterile environment - no one is looking to spear you or punch you or shoot you.
I’ll say again, you should not be getting injured in the gym. The gym is where you train for everything outside of the gym, whether that’s for a sport, profession, or just generally staying healthy and fit. If you find yourself repeatedly injuring yourself in the gym, you need to re-evaluate how you’re training and who is training you.