Ominous warning aside, let’s discuss the taboo of training while injured. Modern medical advice is to employ the RICE principle (Rest, Ice, Compression, Elevation) to address injures. 2 big flaws here: the first being that the first time someone told me “RICE” when I said I was injured, I put on about 20lbs from eating way too much Panda Express, thinking that would solve my problems, but the more substantial one is the fact that the medical community isn’t interested in making you stronger. Health is about maintaining your body’s status quo, while getting stronger is about performing the unnatural to force your body to conform to your will.
Have you ever seen anything more healthy than this?
The pursuit of strength is not a healthy one, and likewise, the pursuit of health does not make you stronger. We read time and again studies that confirm that reduced calorie diets promote longevity, and how maintaining a lighter bodyweight means having a longer lifespan (along with better joint health), but we also know that attempting to follow these protocols will not make us stronger. We have to make our peace with the fact that, to get stronger, we’re going to need to get unhealthy, and if we aren’t willing to make that sacrifice, we will never be great.
Once we come to terms with this reality though, we are now able to still progress even while injured. Those worried about health will employ RICE, lay on their backs for months, and come back to the gym and still be hurt because not training made them weak. This is basic logic at work here, as you will not gain strength from avoiding training, but it seems to elude many trainees. Many are in fact shocked to discover that, after days, weeks, or even months of not training, their previous injury still exists and it still hurts them to train. You cannot wish yourself stronger or better, leave this for faith healers and charlatans.
By the power of the Lord Jesus, I cast out the demons of weak grip. Dropped deadlifts be gone!
To actually become stronger while injured, it becomes necessary to assess what your capabilities are. Injuries tend to only partially limit your ability, as those injuries which 100% limit your ability to perform are generally referred to as “paralysis” rather than “injury”. If, for example, you badly pulled your hamstring, you may find that the pain does not manifest itself until you are about 3 inches above depth. This means that the ROM prior to this point is still trainable, for you are not experiencing any sort of pain in this location. This calls into place a need to train partial ROM work, which also necessitates very heavy loading, due to the fact that the decreased ROM means you can handle more weight. This is a positive, because this will be your chance to develop strength in the injured limb along with the motor pattern of your lift. In the case of the squat, it would mean suspending the bar with chains or pins and performing partial ROM squats, while deadlifts would mean mat, block or rack pulls. Creativity is key here, just know that the goal is to ensure that you are still training hard and heavy with as much ROM as your injury will permit.
To compliment your heavy partial work, it is necessary to also include full ROM training while injured. The key here though is that the loading will be minimal, as the goal is just to get blood flow and maintain function in the injured part rather than actively train it to get stronger. Bodyweight work goes a long way here, as do reverse bands/chains. Basically, being able to lighten the load at the injured portion of the ROM while still loading the injured part will go a long way in aiding your recovery and improving your strength. Going with the above referenced hamstring example, reverse band squats would go a long way here, especially if you choke the bands to the point that you have almost zero loading at the injured portion while experiencing heavy loading at the top.
Creativity is also key when it comes to training injured. Sometimes, our staple movements are no longer an option due to the nature of the injury. The key principle to remember here is that training is better than not training when it comes to getting stronger, and sometimes sacrifices need to be made. If the choice is between leg press or nothing, pick leg press. If you have 1 arm in a cast, train the other arm. Machines are a blessing here, as are specialty barbells like the safety squat bar, cambered/buffalo bar, swiss bar, etc. One of the best things about being injured is that your gameplan has gone to shit, which means it’s impossible to make mistakes in your training. You are free to experiment and find out what works for you, and sometimes you may discover something that will carryover into your non-injured training. When in doubt, work it out.
Not pictured: Excuses
The point of this method isn’t to be painfree, but to still get stronger. Realistically, you will still encounter pain, both in and out of training, while utilizing this method. In some cases, the pain will eventually go away, and you will be stronger when you return to the gym uninjured. In other cases, the pain will persist, but you will be used to it and still be able to get bigger and stronger. It is up to you to decide how much you will put up with, but know that the potential to get stronger is always there.