In Part 1 we talked about reframing the outlook of an injury for the better. We discussed how to make the best of your time out by healing up old, chronic issues, identifying and strengthening potential future injury sites, studying tape, and cleaning up your diet.
These are great strategies and a good place to start when you’ve first sustained an injury. However, if you’re on the mend but not fully cleared for action, there are a few ways to train around your injury to maintain, at least, some of your gains.
First, as a good rule of thumb, if any of the following strategies hurt or bother your current injury, stop immediately! Your intentions may be pure, but you’re only delaying the healing process.
TRAIN AROUND YOUR INJURY
This is a simple idea but often difficult to implement, depending on the injury and its severity. Let’s say you injured your knee, which is all too common in combat sports. Chances are, your upper body is capable of exercise. If it doesn’t bring pain to your knee, then by all means train your upper body. Lower the weight a bit from your normal load, but experiment with horizontal presses and pulls, and vertical presses and pulls. Obviously, if your knee is injured, do these from a seated position.
Now, a more central injury, like one to the lower back, may influence the entire body. Most likely, any type of lower body exercise, like squatting or hinging, is out of the question, and often, overhead pressing can cause pain from spinal compression. Sometimes although, after a few weeks of rest, lunging is tolerable as long as a neutral spine is maintained throughout each set. Again, don’t go into pain. As mentioned, vertical pressing may put too much pressure on the spine, but horizontal pressing, like the floor or bench press, can be attempted.
You’ll likely have to experiment with what you can tolerate, and may need to get creative with your exercises and routine. BJJ black belt and Strength & Conditioning guru, Steve Maxwell, has worked around nearly every injury he’s had, and with over 40 years on the mat, he’s dealt with quite a few.
Wrist and hand injuries can be some of the toughest to work around, as most traditional exercises require holding a weight or require some involvement of the hands. Get creative with hand placement. Try Zercher squats, bodyweight lunges and squats, planks from the elbows, YTWL raises with no weight, running, sprinting, etc. You’re only limited by your own creativity.
Start with bodyweight exercises to reduce the risk of making your injury worse. If able, then progress on to light and moderate loads. Training around an injury is also a good time to work qualities you may have been neglecting, like strength endurance and stability.
Work the Uninjured Side
There is a phenomenon in the strength and conditioning world called cross-education. This principle explains that you can minimize strength losses to an injured limb by exercising the opposite uninjured limb. There have been numerous studies to show that unilateral training of an uninjured limb will actually maintain and/or increase strength in the opposite limb. This is believed to happen due to the interconnectedness of the muscles via the neurological system.
All of your muscles are inherently connected to each other via your neurons, which connect muscles to the spinal cord and back to the brain. We can take advantage of this fact when injured, and work our uninjured side to, at least, maintain our strength.
So, if your left elbow is out of commission from that tight arm bar, continue to train your right arm with biceps curls and triceps extensions, etc. The same goes for every other joint and limb in your body ie. wrists, knees, ankles, shoulders, etc. This principle is difficult to apply, however, to back, rib, and torso injuries due to their central location.
Isometrics are an often underutilized form of training that will add to any combat athlete’s arsenal, regardless if injured or not. If you do sustain an injury, they can be a great way to exercise the muscles without requiring repetitive movement of the joints or full range of motion.
There are two types of isometric contractions; overcoming and yielding. Overcoming isometric contractions involve putting static force against an immovable object, like trying to push over a brick wall. Yielding isometrics involve holding a moveable object (a load or your bodyweight) in place while maintaining a contraction of the muscles. Imagine holding a bench press hovering over your chest for time, or holding a bodyweight squat half way down. Both can be of value, however, you’ll probably find more versatility with yielding isometrics.
After a knee injury, you may not be able to fully flex or extend your leg continuously, however, you may be able to hold an air squat against a wall (wall squat) for time. Perhaps the continuous recurring motion of completing successive reps in a set bothers your injury, but holding one rep doesn’t. For example, reps of pull-ups bother your lower back injury, but holding the top position of a pull up doesn’t.
Thus, challenging yourself by maintaining a maximum isometric contraction for time could be a good way to not only build functional strength, but get your heart working as well. Undoubtedly, isometrics will get your blood pumping and increase your oxygen intake.
Train Your Mind
The final method is to train your mind. Concentration, focus, attention, speed, memory, discipline, and willpower are all mental qualities that can be trained and strengthened. Inevitably, you will have some extra time healing up your injury, so train that mind muscle in the meantime. It will transfer over to your performance on the mat and will help you learn and remember new techniques, stay calm under pressure, and make quick decisions.
Meditation is an ancient practice that has been shown to help with many of the qualities mentioned above, as well as lowering blood pressure, stress levels and depression, elongating life expectancy, and improving well-being, mood, and self-confidence. With all of these great qualities why wouldn’t you meditate?
Puzzles and brain games are another great tool for developing mental agility, speed, and memory. There are free app versions of these for download on most phones, as well as online. Take advantage of technology and challenge yourself mentally. Other mental training involves learning a new language and/or instrument. Both will take time but can do wonders for your mental growth.
All of these methods develop neuroplasticity, which is the brains ability to reorganize itself by laying down new neural pathways. This is exactly what we want to stay sharp in life and on the mats. The key is consistency, just like learning a martial art, progress of the mind will only occur with continual practice and effort.
Injuries are inevitable, however, they don’t have to completely halt your progress. Accepting your situation and adopting a positive mindset toward it will allow you to move forward and come back stronger than before. As often in training, you’ll have to experiment with what’s right for your condition and heed the signals from your recovering body. If something is making you feel worse, back off and try a new approach, but don’t allow that annoying injury to have the last laugh.