In all long term pursuits there are obstacles that define you. The path to success isn’t exactly linear. In the realm of iron, often times these obstacles are pain or injury related. And believe it or not…working through pain and/or injury usually isn’t your best option.
Way too often I see people loose their hard earned gains over an injury, and it’s sickening.
It’s important to understand that there are certain phases of an injury where it may not be in your best interest to train around it, however, there are certainly instances where an athlete can continue to make strategic progress toward their goal while rehabilitating an injury.
In essence, an injury doesn’t mean it’s time to stop training, it just means you have to be very smart in the way you approach training.
When it comes to making a full recovery, step one is to not let the injury define you:
You can still be a good deadlifter even if your lower back isn't allowing you to pull.
That national title can still be in your hands even with a tender ankle.
Ultimately, assuming an athlete isn't completely restricted by their injury, you can still implement certain modalities that'll get a training effect and boost performance.
Look at the Adaptations at Jeopardy
Cardiac output, blood pressure, and aerobic enzymes can drop in as little as a week, meaning aerobic adaptations quickly deplete. However, this can be combated with three lower intensity or two higher intensity aerobic sessions a week.
Anaerobic adaptations, on the other hand, tend to stick around a little longer and can be maintained with one to two moderate to vigorous training sessions per week. That means missing one or two heavy sessions a month won't kill your strength.
While this is outside the scope of this article, it's also important to understand the relationship between anaerobic and aerobic adaptations. They are very much intertwined and play important roles in the functioning of each other. To learn more about this, I'd recommend checking out our energy systems webinar by clicking here.
The next step is to objectively classify the functional capabilities surrounding the injury:
“How much pain free volume can you handle?
What are the restrictions in range of motion?
Are there external limitations (splint, casts, harness etc)?
Does the site of pain exhibit impaired recovery?”
Taking a deeper look at the adaptations at jeopardy, and classifying the scope of the problem are both absolutely critical to the success of your program.
Aerobic Strength Training
Aerobic strength training protocols are very effective and very underutilized training methods, especially in strength sports. Aerobic adaptations are incredibly important for strength athletes for a multitude of reasons, but here are a few to get your head spinning
1. Decrease in resting heart rate helps balance the autonomic nervous system via increased vagal tone
2. Increases in stroke volume have a direct effect on the creation of pressure throughout the organism, and both of these (#1 and #2), in turn, increase cardiac output
3. Increases in resting calcium levels and enzymes lead to much more powerful contractions
4. VEGF (vascular endothelial growth factor, which leads to growth hormone further down the cascade) increases in response to metabolic waste built up during training, and has a profound effect on recovery over time.
Some of my favorite protocols include: Charlie Francis style tempos paired bodyweight exercises, low impact unilateral plyometrics, and volume unilateral resistance training (rear foot elevated, half kneeling press, get-ups, etc).
Another very important tool to utilize is unilateral work, especially in those with one limb out of commission. The myth of ignoring it due to the creation of muscle imbalances isn't true. Motor program adaptations, especially if there's a lack of sensory-motor feedback to one limb, are spread to both arms.
Meaning if you have a broken ankle, doing unilateral plyometrics on the non injured ankle will benefit the injured side. This is essential in rehabilitating and maintaining adaptations on the affected side.
To help visualize what a program would look like I have attached two very different programs for two very different athletes with very different situations.
The first is Nick. He is amongst the most elite amateur strongmen in the nation, and has a fractured ring finger and torn ligament on his right side. He has severe swelling in the finger, along with some daily pain and goes to physical therapy twice a week. Currently, he cannot grasp much in his right hand or overly extend his wrist, and he trains three days a week. His longterm goal is to get his Light Weight Pro Card in strongman, however, his current goal is to maintain his strength while improving movement quality and work capacity until the finger is completely healed. Due to this being his long term goal, most of his volume and time are spent in his movement prep. His resistance training, on the other hand, leans more toward aerobic strength to assist with recovery and to avoid over fatiguing his nervous system due to his limited move pool.
The next athlete’s program I will share with you is Summer--a high level strongman athlete herself. She's been dealing with chronic and debilitating foot pain in her right foot due to an ineffective surgery several years ago. Thus, she cannot perform much running or load the foot frequently, and struggles with dorsiflexion. To make matters even more complicated, she's currently in a boot trying to resolve the issue.
With all of that in mind, here are Summer's primary goals right now: increase upper body muscle mass and strength. In order to help facilitate that goal, her movement prep and resistance training are geared toward upper body volume. Also, seeing as her injury may be longer in its healing process, she will go through multiple blocks with a similar template.
Here's a sample day of her training (If you're interested in hearing more about Summer’s story, click here).
Perhaps the most important part of programming for an injured athlete, besides keeping them as healthy as possible, is to keep their levels of motivation high. Work hard to narrow their focus, and find things they can still work on despite their limitations. For example, this could be an ideal time to set short term goals that aren’t always a priority, such as improving body composition or focusing on movement quality.
Lastly, be sure to take into consideration the impact a limited movement pool will have on programming volumes and intensity. You cannot vary their routines to the extent you do a healthy athletes, so be sure to monitor volume and intensity very closely to avoid overtraining.
Hope you enjoyed the article, and post any questions or comments you have below.
about the author
Andrew Triana “The Leucine Frog” is a promising young coach who has an intense passion for his clients success and writing. It is evident in his work that he is relentless in his pursuit of excellence. At 20 years old Andrew has produced National champions, World champions, Pro strongmen, and has helped many others reach their goals. Follow him on Twitter (@AndrewTriana) and Instagram (@andtriana).