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Strength Training While Injured

One of the most valuable lessons I learned in my time working on the strength and conditioning staff of the Minnesota Vikings in the late 90s and early 2000’s was the importance of strength training while injured.  As professional football players, our athletes were often injured.  But just because the athlete couldn’t play football (or even practice) due to an injury, that didn’t preclude them from getting stronger with sensible strength training.  Our injured players never missed a workout.  

Here are the key lessons I learned about strength training when injured that apply not only to NFL football players but more importantly, to all of us (and these lessons continue to be supported by so much new scientific research over the last 20 years):

Train the healthy muscles/structures.  If a player had a broken left ankle, we could still train the chest, lats, neck, traps, abs, low back, glutes, adductors, abductors, quads, hamstrings, and all of the musculature of the right leg.  We can usually still strengthen 95% of our body.  Once the player returned from the injury, they didn’t experience a loss of total body strength commonly seen post-injury.

Train as much healthy musculature as possible to drive resting metabolic rate (the number of calories we burn when we aren’t working out).  For example, doing leg press alone (and no upper body exercises) would increase your calorie expenditure for the next three days.  We simply can’t afford to miss out on this metabolic rate benefit. 

Limit the range of motion or change the range of motion to a pain-free range of motion.  Research shows that working through a partial range of motion will provide near full range benefits.  If your joint or muscle hurts in a specific position, avoid that position. 

Utilize single joint movements.  Often a broken finger or hand prevented a pulling or pushing movement.  In such cases, single joint movements such as pullover, pec fly, and lateral raise can effectively train all of the upper body musculature.  This is one of the major advantages of machines over free weights. 

Train as much healthy musculature as possible to maintain lean muscle mass.  Atrophy (muscle loss) occurs quickly so we are wise to avoid more than 14 days of no strength training.  Muscle is not only our engine but is viewed as an endocrine organ; we want to fight to maintain as much of it as possible. 

Train the healthy limb and receive the benefits of bilateral or contralateral transfer.  Training your right limb actually makes your left limb stronger. 

Slow down the speed of movement.  The slower we move, the less force our joints are exposed to. 

Get strong pre-surgery.  Going into a major surgery, we always focused on getting as strong as possible.  Surgery and the inactivity that generally accompanies it can lead to muscle atrophy.  Our goal was to make the injured area (and the entire body) as strong as possible preceding the surgery. 

Change the mindset: Just because we can’t perform our sport (in this case football), doesn’t mean we can’t keep preparing our body for our sport when we return.  I routinely apply this to my own marathon running.  Often an injury prevents me from running but it never prevents me from strength training.

Don’t push through the pain.  If a muscle, joint, or connective tissue hurts, stop.  Acute pain should not be pushed through. 

Bottom line: Don’t let an injury prevent you from reaping the powerful benefits of resistance exercise. 

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