Training Through Injury (The Smart Way)

By on November 18, 2021

In it, an alpha chimpanzee, called David, is starting to lose his authority as he gets older. Eventually, he is overthrown in a harrowing scene; assaulted by a gang of younger chimps that bite and strike him and leave him for dead.

Even the camera crew find this upsetting but, like Uatu, they cannot interfere. They continue to film him as he lies on the ground, motionless. For days.

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But amazingly, David starts to move again. And, slowly, he regains his strength. In fact, he regains his strength enough that he’s able to return to his group and retake the throne by force. It’s like The Lion King. Except Mufasa never dies.

I’m not sure to what extent these stories are fabricated, but there is clearly some truth here. Most likely, stories like David’s will play out time and time again.

Dumbbell Curl

And what really struck me, is the way in which David was able to recover his strength. I can’t imagine a human being left for dead in the wilderness and recovering to such an extent.

For many of us, a twisted ankle is a life sentence!

For many of us, a twisted ankle is a life sentence! Issues like bad shoulders or knees can end up haunting us for years or even decades. In the wild, a limp would severely hamper our ability to hunt for food, procreate, and survive.

Why Training Through Injury is Important

Here in the 21st century, tennis elbow or a shoulder impingement can hamper our training to the point that we lose all our gains and possibly even our enthusiasm for training. Moreover, such issues can make regular movement painful and difficult; impacting our sleep, mood, and wellbeing.

Goku Healing

But that’s precisely the difference. David didn’t have the option to take it easy. He didn’t have any means to elevate his injuries, or apply ice. He just had to get on with it.

See also: Batman Training: Injury Prevention and Recovery – Part 1

If you have a bad knee, so you completely stop using your knee, what message do you think you’re sending to your body? Simple: that you don’t need to use your knee, and so it’s not worth the resources to repair it.

Not only that, but you will invite a cascade of compensatory movement patterns and imbalances that can lead to further issues down the line.

Bicep

Counter-intuitively, the best way to heal is actually to keep training. Training through injury is good for you! But you need to be smart about it.

And at the same time, this will help to mitigate any loss of gains. In fact, you might just find you gain entirely new skills and abilities you’d never thought of!

(Gentle) Movement is Medicine

So, how do you train smart when injured?

Let’s start with what you don’t do: move through pain. If a particular range of motion causes you pain, you should simply avoid that range of motion. Pain is your body’s warning signal and if you don’t heed it, you will do more damage.

If you imagine a muscle tear as being like fraying on an elastic band, it certainly wouldn’t be a good idea to then keep stretching said band to the point of further fraying.

It’s also important that you visit a doctor or someone else who knows what they’re talking about and can inspect you in person. I will not be responsible for you seriously injuring your back! A doctor can advise on the cause of pain, and in some cases there may be specific treatment that you need to follow and couldn’t have known about.

Woods Crawling

But that is not to say that you shouldn’t move the affected area at all if you have a regular training injury. In fact, moving the affected area is the best way to get blood flowing to said area and to encourage healing. When you move the affected area, you send blood to that area and that, in turn, sends nutrients and building blocks that are necessary for tissue repair. This occurs in the short term but, in the long term, it can even lead to an increased capillary-to-muscle ratio (study) meaning a permanent increase in blood supply to the region. What do you think happens, conversely, when you completely stop using the joint?

(Of course, this doesn’t apply for all kinds of injuries – if your doctor put you in a cast, you better follow that advice!)

Inflammation is Not Your Enemy!

Another way to think about a muscle tear is as being similar to the kind of muscle damage caused by regular training but to the point of being maladaptive.

If you have delayed onset muscle soreness (DOMS) from regular training, one of the best ways to combat this is by training the same area with light weights and high repetitions. The same is true for some types of injury – as long as you move through a ROM that doesn’t cause you any additional pain.

See also: Wolverine Healing – Supplements, Strategies, and Future Science for Faster Healing and Regeneration

This is why a lot of studies now suggest that icing and elevating an injury – as has been recommended for the longest time – can actually slow down recovery. Inflammation is not the enemy: normal inflammation is actually critical for recovery. Inflammation fights infection via neutrophils, and it kickstarts the healing process: bringing fibroblasts to produce collagen and increasing growth hormone production.  

Bicep Pain

In fact, the use of anti-inflammatory drugs may even inhibit hypertrophy following a workout! Don’t take aspirin for that DOMS (reference)! And studies now suggest that icing a wound can not only slow healing, but even reduce the total amount of recovery (study). This is still a controversial point (reference), however, it makes a lot of intuitive sense.

Inflammation is a natural response of the body and so of course it has a useful purpose. It is not the enemy. And the best way to prevent excessive, damage-causing inflammation? Keep moving. Like David.

Walking and other forms of gentle cardio can be similarly beneficial by encouraging bloodflow around the entire body.

Keep it Moving

The takeaway: now might be the time to try training with very light weights or no weights at all and/or a smaller range of motion. You can also use slower movements. Overtime, you should strengthen the affected area and be able to gradually increase the weight and return to normal movement. But take it slowly.

Don’t stop all movement!

You can also try using blood flow restriction training. This is the correct application for this particular protocol and allows you to increase blood in the target area, while getting more hypertrophy with lighter weights. Studies show that this accelerates recovery (study).

Blood Flow Restriction

Either way, don’t completely stop all movement!

Contralateral Training

There are more things you can do during your down-time, too.

For injuries affecting one limb, it’s important to continue training the opposite limb. This might seem like a recipe for imbalance, but fortunately that’s not the case thanks to something called the “cross-education” effect.

Cross Education Contralateral

Simply, this shows us that training one limb will promote strength gains in the contralateral limb – even when that limb isn’t being trained directly (reference)! This is due to the fact that you are still training the skill and building the neural pathways, and these can be referenced when moving the opposite limb. This won’t necessarily promote hypertrophy but you’ll be able to regain the lost strength quicker by maintaining some strength.

Exploring Options

Of course, you can also use this time to focus on other areas of your training. For example, there is no reason not to continue training your upper body if you have injured a leg. You might, though, find it’s useful to use resistance machines or bands/cables if you struggle with picking up heavy weights.

Better yet, train things that you otherwise wouldn’t have the opportunity to train. For example, you might benefit from taking the opportunity to work on your mobility. Or to train your grip strength. Or to work on cardio. We have a tendency to do a lot of what we’re already good at, so this is the prime time to work on weak points.

See also: Beyond Training Part 2: The Batman Diet (+ Supplement Regime)

Now, rather than simply losing gains and moving backwards, you are just redirecting your energy. You’re adding to your arsenal. The best part is that, thanks to adaptations like increased myonuclei, better motor unit recruitment, and stronger tendons, your weakened muscles will recover quickly and get to the same point. In other words, once you recover, you’ll be back to full strength but now with the added mobility and grip strength. That’s how you turn a setback into a win!

Knee Training

For athletes, whether you’re a martial artist, a tracer, or a footballer, you might find you’re unable to practice the specific skills you need. Maybe you can’t jump or throw or run. But you can still go back to basics and work on some foundational strength, or even take the time to train your brain.

Take it Easy

With all that said, I would also recommend against training too intensively in any capacity when training through injury. Even if you are still able to train hard while avoiding the damaged area, it’s still a good idea to scale things back a little. You really don’t have to stop, but it’s wise just to go a little easier on yourself than usual.

The reason for this is simply that recovery itself is something of a stressor and is resource heavy. If you keep piling more muscle damage and challenge onto your body, it will need to share resources between those new adaptations and the healing.

Chill After Training

Sleep well, get lots of sunlight, and eat LOTS.

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About Adam Sinicki

Adam Sinicki, AKA The Bioneer, is a writer, personal trainer, author, entrepreneur, and web developer. I've been writing about health, psychology, and fitness for the past 10+ years and have a fascination with the limits of human performance. When I'm not running my online businesses or training, I love sandwiches, computer games, comics, and hanging out with my family.

One Comment

  1. Ryan says:

    I’ve read your articles on training like batman which I enjoyed because of the intensity and functionality of the workout. I wanted to know if you would do a batman fight training routine.

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