There is never a good time to suffer a major injury like a muscle or tendon tear that requires surgery. Some athletes may never have to deal with this type of potentially devastating event, but if they do, how do they recover and get back to where they were? I’m not talking about the physical repair aspect, that’s for the surgeons to worry about. I’m talking about the mental game involved in over-coming and even improving from a major set-back. How did I deal with the frustration and disappointment and get back on with the process? Part of the key to getting over something like this is keeping a positive attitude. Looking forwards and not backwards is important to keep you moving in the right direction. You can’t afford to dwell on what happened. It happened. You can’t reverse time and wish you’d done something differently… read your body better, used a different training method, listened to what people were telling you. Yes, you can, and should, learn from past mistakes, but beating yourself up over it now isn’t going to help your healing process. You need to let go of where you were and focus on the road ahead. Depending on your injury there are going to be a number of steps between where you are now and where you need to be, which is back in the gym or doing the activity/sport you love. Once you accept what has happened you should have two immediate goals. 1. To get your injury fixed (surgery if required) and 2. To get as much information about what is involved in terms of getting back to training. Information about what your injury was/ what physically has occurred, how it will be fixed, what to expect along the way and how long will the rehab take. All of this will allow you to mentally prepare and make a plan. This plan should be one that gives you a series of mini-goals to keep you focussed and on track. Without a plan and a series of goals it is very easy to get discouraged, frustrated and basically lost.
From my own experience with a major injury, my tricep tear, thinking back to the moment the injury happened, I must admit I had a short phase of denial when I tried to convince myself (despite what my gut told me when it happened) that I’d be able to train through with some cortisone and make it to the show. I was 6 weeks out from my competition when it happened so I even stayed on my contest diet 3 more days until the Ultrasound report confirmed that there was no longer a triceps tendon attached where it should be!, this is all part of the road to recovery and a natural human reaction. Don’t allow yourself to get caught at this point or you’ll find it hard to move forward and recover.
I want to stress the importance of building the plan around what the surgeon or specialist advises and NOT what you might want after hearing what they had to say. It sort of froze my heart to hear, “No weights for 4 months after the surgery.” Oh, so you mean I’ll be back to normal training in 4 months? “No, that’s when you start to train again and take another 4 months to get back to where you were.” What?? While that sounds like a long time, trust me, it went fast. Well, maybe not month 3-4, but the rest does. The reason it did is because of those little goals and focussing my mind on what I COULD do, not what I COULDN’T do. First thing out of surgery and they hit me with some more news… “You can’t actually bend your arm more than about 40 o without stressing the repair… well, actually, you can’t bend your arm more than 40o period… even if you wanted to, it just won’t!!” Ok, having never had surgery for an injury before I wasn’t aware this would happen. I figured they’d stitch and bolt the tendon back on and away we’d go… In hindsight, this is actually a blessing and it gave me those little mini goals to achieve. With any injury, the situation will be the same. There will be a period of time before you regain normal movement of the area, and there will be a series of milestones that you need to achieve to get full and normal movement. Getting back to what I COULD do… “The good news is, to help get movement back, do 10 sets of 3 reps of bending your arm in the 40o range of motion.” Immediately I had something I could do. Whether it is a triceps, bicep, quad or any other kind of muscle injury, there will always be something you need to do to get the range of motion back in the joint. Doing exactly the exercises and movements I was told optimised my chance of a 100% recovery. Never doubt that you will have a 100% recovery, and by doing everything you should, it will ensure you do.
There are many things to consider when working out what to do to rehab. You can opt to do nothing except the movements prescribed by your therapist to rehab the injury. However, you need to consider the impact of this on the rest of your body? On the one hand, the rest of your body is still working, but you can’t afford to create an imbalance by training the heck out of the parts of your body that aren’t affected. But on the other hand, you don’t want to lose all your fitness and you (your appetite and metabolism) are used to the extra energy burnt during training.
SO AGAIN, WHAT CAN YOU DO? FIRSTLY EVALUATE YOUR MOVEMENT SITUATION. WHAT MOVEMENTS CAN BE DONE WITH MY INJURED BODYPART?
In my case; anything that didn’t involve bending my arm! I could do lateral raise and front raise movement for my delts and a cross up and pec-fly machine for my chest. So that’s what I did. I created a little routine where with one arm I used no weight and the other I used a low weight (trust me, you don’t realise how much you need the counter weight of both sides to be able to do your normal weight on the good side!!). Obviously, 10 reps on low weight isn’t going to keep much fitness, so I chose to go to failure… which in this case meant up to 100 reps! 4 sets of 50-100 reps, no weight on the injured side, 3kg – 6kg on the non-injured side for shoulders definitely pumps some blood into the working muscle! I’m not saying I didn’t drop a pile of size like this, but the muscles maintained a degree of fitness and made the transition back to full training a lot quicker and easier. On the body-parts where it was impossible to use the injured side, I used the same high-rep, low weight program and selected exercises that could be performed on one side at a time. Most equipment can be used with one arm, from the back machines like iso-rows or cable rows to pushdowns for triceps and seated triceps machines. Again, the weight you can use on one side is very limited compared to both sides of your body so there is little risk of creating a major imbalance. Putting it all together I came up with a little program that consisted of training the same body parts I normally would, and selected 2-3 exercises that were feasible and repped the hell out of them. By the time I’d done a few hundred reps per exercise, I discovered I’d been in the gym about the same amount of time as when I was doing more exercises and less reps, so mentally I felt a lot more satisfied than if I hadn’t gone to the gym at all. I started this program about a week after the surgery, as soon as I felt recovered from the anaesthetic and stress of the operation. Each workout I pushed for more reps, not more weight. After a month when I was allowed to take the protective cast off and start to use the arm for basic things like lifting a coffee cup (even if I still couldn’t get it, or a spoon to my mouth!! Lol). I was amazed at how the bicep muscle, which had totally wasted through lack of movement) started to come back from these basic tasks. The focus at this time was also to regain the full range of motion… to be able to eat, brush my hair or even clean my teeth using my right arm. Each day seeing a small improvement made time go so quickly. By the 3 month mark, everything felt normal and range of movement was 100%, so I was able to perform some un-weighted movements alongside the good arm during my weights routine. As I said, this month 3-4 is the hardest, simply because I felt ready to be able to lift again, but knew that in order to have the best chance of a permanent recovery, I had to listen to the surgeon and wait until the correct amount of time had passed. I kept thinking, “Is returning the weights a couple of weeks too soon worth potentially ending my bodybuilding career permanently?” And of course the answer was NO!
Even though, like me, you may choose to be in the gym, which allows you to satisfy that need to train, you still need to be extremely aware that you most likely won’t be able to burn anywhere near the amount of energy you normally were prior to the injury. So here you will have to make another very important and conscious decision, and that is to reduce your food intake.
I HAD TO TAKE MY FOOD INTAKE LOWER THAN WHAT I’D BEEN DIETING ON FOR THE SHOW, WHICH REALLY SUCKS, I MIGHT ADD, BUT I DECIDED IT WAS GOING TO BE HARD ENOUGH GETTING MY FULL FITNESS BACK ONCE I COULD START TRAINING, WITHOUT HAVING TO ALSO SHED A PILE OF EXTRA WEIGHT.
The goal of this type of calorie restriction is by no means to stay in the ‘contest shape’, the goal is just to not to let too many extra kg’s creep up, further stressing your already compromised fitness! I believe that while calorie restriction is mentally tough, it is a lot easier than dealing with body image issues, reduced confidence and depression that can be associated with excess weight gain at a time when you’re mentally vulnerable. And while I hope this article has been informative to anyone who has suffered an injury, I truly hope that you never have to implement it yourself!