Training When Injured, the Ultimate Guide

Injuries are frustrating. 

But that doesn’t mean you should let a small set back turn into a ruined season, maintaining at least some of your training load to stay strong and fit while you are injured is crucial.

Here are five crucial tips to staying fit while you recover from an injury.

NB: Before running head first into these programming tips, remember that injury rehabilitation is a team sport. As a trainer or coach our job is not to diagnose injuries or prescribe rehabilitation but instead to work in collaboration with physios, sports doctors and other specialists to help athletes and clients return to performance, always work within your scope of practice.

Modify or mimic as much similar training as possible

The goal should be to have the modified program mimic the original as closely as possible.

That means (given the athlete has had their injury checked by the Physio and is cleared for light duties) try and maintain as many exercises as possible.

Can’t squat? Maybe try a shorter range of motion, a different stance, splits squats, or using a heel wedge for ankle injuries

Can’t deadlift? Try a rack pull, changing bars, or swap out for Hip Thrusts instead.


Athletes can often still do their resilience type exercises when they have an acute injury, so isolated movements, non weight bearing exercises (think non ground based) and isometrics can usually still be done in many cases.

Train the other end of your body.

Upper body injury? You can still hit legs.

Lower body injured? Time to double down on the guns.

Certain compound movements may become difficult, and exercise set up can also prove to be a bit tricky, but being a little creative here is highly valuable. Some of our favourites are:

Lower body:

  • Safety squat bar: Minimal grip demands, while still chasing the big weights

  • Vests: Zero grip issues and great for lunges, step up, etc

  • Dumbbells: Asymmetrical loading on lower body unilateral exercises is actually a great challenge whether you are injured or not.

  • Torsinator for landmine variations: Great to take some of the stability demands out, making for easier exercise set up.

Upper body:

  • Most upper body exercises can still be done with a lower body injury, you just might have to move to sitting or half kneeling, and may not be able to go as heavy given you won’t be able to brace as well through the hips and feet.

Train the other side of your body

There exists a phenomena in the human body known as cross-education, where the training done on one side of the body leads to strength adaptations in the non-trained limb.

There seems to be a neural re-wiring and overflow that occurs in both sides of the brain despite only ever training one limb.

The effects of this have been very well studied and seem to work best if the following criteria are met:

  • Heavier is better, heavy loads will challenge the nervous system best

  • High levels of focus and concentration. This helps create the neural environment to maximise cross transfer

  • Eccentrics might also be better (#)

  • And power training might also be beneficial, especially for athletes who need to move explosively. Which makes sense given the importance of neural drive and neural adaptability to high velocity training.

Some of our favourites for this include:

  • Single arm DB bench

  • Landmine press

  • Band assisted one arm chins (you might need a thick band!)

  • Single arm rows (dumbbell or cable)

  • Single leg RDL

  • Single leg squat

  • Single leg calf raises

Cardio

Every athletes favourite thing in the world, high intensity intervals.

Bike, arm cycles and cross trainer are often the staples, but for some injuries you might need to get a little creative.

Boxing is great, although too much bouncing and moving around might mean seated boxing could be safer.

Battle ropes are great as you can do them on one leg, kneeling, seated and you stay in one place.

Sled drags with rope is another great option for lower body injuries. Coaches may just need to help between reps.

Hit your core.

Whether it is an upper or lower body injury there is almost always some form of core training that can be done, you just need to do some trial and error based on the specific injury and the difficulty of getting set up for each movement.

No matter what the injury, there is always something that we can do, instead of focusing on what we can’t do, put a positive spin on the situation and create an opportunity to turn old weaknesses into new strengths.