Few things are more frustrating to an avid exerciser than being sidelined by an injury, so once you’re cleared to start your routine again, it can be too easy to jump back in without thinking. Trouble is, doing so only increases your chances of re-injury.
Get back into exercise safely with these expert tips:
LEARN TO TUNE IN TO YOUR PAIN SIGNALS
First, it’s important to recognize the difference between typical post-workout muscle soreness and actual pain. It’s normal to feel sore the day after running or doing deadlifts, especially when you’re starting your routine again after taking time off. What’s not normal? Feeling the same pain or discomfort that led to your injury in the first place.
If you experience a recurrence of injury symptoms, your body is telling you to dial back the intensity, or even to hit pause on exercise for a little longer. “For example, if you’re doing a deadlift and you start to feel sharp low-back pain, or you start to feel pain going down your leg, that’s a sign this exercise isn’t safe yet,” says Jennifer Joslyn, a physical therapist at Motion Minnesota.
If you feel any acute, sharp, stabbing and/or localized (pain in one spot, such as the calf or shoulder) pain during exercise, you should ease up or stop altogether.
FOCUS ON QUALITY OVER QUANTITY
Instead of trying to get an intense workout as soon as you’re back in the saddle, prioritize honing your form. After all, many injuries occur when people repeatedly perform an exercise with bad form. “It’s better to do an exercise and really focus on the quality of the movement rather than the volume, especially after an injury,” Joslyn says.
If you’re a weightlifter, this might mean dialing back to 3 sets of 5 reps and performing each rep as perfectly as possible, as opposed to banging out 3 sets of 10. You’ll likely reap greater benefits this way, even if you’re not performing that move at a high volume. “You’re going to be activating the appropriate muscles when you pay attention to the quality of the movement,” Joslyn notes.
Don’t be afraid to seek professional help if you’re not sure you’re doing an exercise correctly. You can ask your class instructor, a personal trainer or even a physical therapist for guidance. Even one or two sessions with a physical therapist can go a long way: “We’re always open to reproducing different exercises during your PT session just to make sure you’re doing it correctly,” Joslyn says. “We have no problem having patients jump on a treadmill or bike just to look at the form.”
Once you feel comfortable with the movement — and you’re able to do it pain-free — feel free to progress by adding weight, increasing pace or distance or adding sets or reps. (More on this next.)
RAMP UP SLOWLY
You might be tempted to pick up where you left off before your injury, but the smart move is to start easy and gradually add more (intensity, volume, frequency, density) as your body adapts.
For example, if you could bench press 80 pounds before your injury, don’t expect you’ll be able to jump back in and bench press 80 pounds right away. If you try to force it, you could end up with a re-injury, Joslyn says. Instead, start with a weight that’s comfortable for you and slowly increase.
No matter your activity of choice, start with a weight, mileage or workout duration you can complete pain-free. From there, incrementally increase every week. For example, if you ran 20 miles pain-free one week, you can safely increase to 22 miles the following week. If you were able to squat 100 pounds pain-free one week, try adding another 5–10 pounds the following week. For other activities, try adding 5 minutes to your total workout duration every week.
That said, these are just general guidelines; proceed at your own pace. “Everybody is different as to what they can tolerate and how long it will take them to recover from an injury,” Joslyn notes.
COMMUNICATE WITH INSTRUCTORS
If you’re taking a yoga or group fitness class, be sure to tell your instructor about your injury beforehand. “Just say, ‘Hey, I have this history of low-back pain. Is there any way to modify the exercises?’” Joslyn says. This way, your instructor knows to keep an eye on you during class and can guide you toward safer, gentler options if needed.
If you’ve hired a personal trainer, be sure to share your complete history.