Injuries happen. If you play hard and train hard, chances are you’ll sustain an injury at some point. “No risk, no reward,” as they say. And while injuries should be managed conservatively so you can get back to 100 percent as quickly as possible, rarely should you do nothing at all. If you receive advice from a medical professional, you should certainly follow it, but there’s almost always something you can do to keep getting better.
In the case of an upper-body injury, all it takes is patience and a little creativity to keep having productive workouts. Keep in mind, this advice isn’t going to fix an existing injury, but simply allow you to keep training around an injury so you can still make progress as you heal.
And most importantly, focus on what you can do when injured rather than dwelling on what you can’t do. That simple fact will make a huge difference for your physical and mental health. With that in mind, here are five ways to keep training hard despite an upper body injury.
1. Train the Uninjured Side
Upper-body injuries typically happen on one side, not both. Luckily, most of us have another limb we can train. So if you’ve got one wing on the shelf, keep training the other side.
In fact, training the uninjured side can provide a significant benefit to the injured side, as well. This phenomena is called cross education, and studies suggest that by training the uninjured side, you enhance the neurological pathways of the exercise you’re doing. When your injured side is healthy again, you’ll “remember” how to perform the movement better than you would have if you didn’t exercise at all, resulting in less strength loss or even modest strength gains on the non-working side.
For example, athletes who have undergone ulnar collateral ligament (UCL) reconstruction (commonly known as Tommy John surgery) must stay in an elbow brace for several weeks. However, once cleared by a doctor, the athlete can return to exercise and train the uninjured side. Common low-risk exercises for the uninjured side include the following:
These one-sided exercises can preserve strength on the injured side via cross education.
2. Find What Doesn’t Hurt
An injury doesn’t always mean you have to rest the affected area completely. Sometimes, pain only results from certain movements or from loading the area too heavily. In this case, as long as your doctor gives you the OK, feel free to perform movements that don’t cause pain to the area.
For example, someone who experiences shoulder or elbow pain with the barbell Bench Press or Overhead Press might simply need to change the grip position or bar they’re using. Switching to dumbbells or a neutral grip bar often allows you to press pain-free.
Similarly, someone with a pectoralis major strain (the largest chest muscle) might experience pain while performing a Bench Press or Push-Up, but can perform Triceps Pushdowns and Overhead Presses without any issues. While you might not be able to work the chest directly, you can still train the triceps and shoulders (two of the three muscles involved in the Bench Press and Push-Up) to keep the gains coming.
3. Build a Beastly Lower Body
An upper-body injury is often the perfect opportunity to double down on training your lower body. For many athletes, lower-body strength and power is arguably more important than upper-body strength because of the lower body’s role in sprinting, jumping, changing direction and generating power.
Many athletes perform full-body workouts or split their sessions into upper- and lower-body workouts. In this case, it makes sense to train the lower body 3-4 times per week, alternating the focus of each workout. For example:
Day 1 – Sprinting and Knee-Dominant Strength
- Preparatory Drills (Marches, Skips, Pogo Jumps)
- Sprints with Full Rest (Various starting positions, hill sprints, sled sprints)
- Anti-Extension Core (Planks, Rollouts, Body Saws)
Day 2 – Jumps, Change of Direction and Hip-Dominant Strength
- Preparatory Drills (Shuffles, Medial/Lateral Hops)
- Jumps (Box Jumps, Depth Drops, Broad Jumps)
- Hip Thrusts
- Anti-Rotation Core (Side Planks, Pallof Presses, Chops and Lifts)
Alternating between workouts like this allows you to still train 3-4 days per week. Keep in mind that you should keep the volume per workout lower than you would if you were training your lower body 1-2 days a week.
4. Go Hands-Free
What if your injury has put you in a state where you can’t even hold a barbell? Luckily, with the right exercises and equipment, you can go hands-free and still get a great workout.
The Safety Squat Bar is one of the most versatile tools you can use to work around an upper-body injury because it allows you to perform barbell movements without having to hold the bar in a Back Squat or Front Squat position. As long as you can gently hold the handles in front of the body (even with just one hand), you can still safely perform Squats, Split Squats and Lunges.
Can’t deadlift because you can’t hold onto the bar? No worries. Movements like Glute Ham Raises and Hip Thrusts can load the posterior chain (all the muscles on the back side of the body) without stressing the upper half.
And don’t forget that bodyweight-only movement like Squats, Lunges and Step-Ups can be plenty challenging if you use a slow tempo (e.g., take 5 seconds to lower yourself to the bottom of each rep) and perform enough reps.
Do What You Can
Remember, training around an injury is about focusing on what you CAN do, not what you CAN’T do. When you approach an injury with that mindset, you’ll often find an injury isn’t nearly as limiting as you might think.
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