It’s always hard to deal with injuries mentally, but I like to think about it as a new beginning. I can’t change what happened, so the focus needs to go toward healing and coming back stronger than before.
So you went to the gym, you got a little cocky, and a barbell disagreed with you.
Or maybe you had a minor accident at work and the doctor said no heavy lifting for three weeks.
Do you just hide in a corner, crying over the imminent loss of all your gains?
Heck, no. Do all you need to recover, so you can get back to training at your best and pick up from where you left off.
In May 2019, I bruised my sternum, so I had to take two weeks off training. The first few days, it was so painful I could hardly lift my arms, let alone a dumbbell.
Here are my four tips to get better and save muscle, based on my own experience.
#1 – Keep calm and science
When do you start losing strength and when do you start losing muscle mass?
According to Sci-Fit, strength levels in beginners and more advanced lifters don’t seem to decrease until two to three weeks since the last workout.
As for losing muscle mass, the matter appears to be more complex.
Now, you might notice that your muscles decrease in size a few days after you stop training. That’s bad, right?
Unless… Not all that makes you look big is actual muscle.
Your body accumulates carbohydrates in your muscles in the form of glycogen. These glycogen stores grow bigger when you train, so the size of your muscles also seems to increase. Moreover, glycogen molecules contain water, which contributes to this “balloon” effect.
However, if you stop training, your glycogen stores returnto the original size, so your muscles will look a little smaller, too. But you might have only lost glycogen and water weight, which go back to normal when you return to training.
Personally, I lost a little over a pound and my physique “deflated.” After a week since resuming training, both weight and looks normalised.
On the other hand, my girth measurements, taken before and after the injury, didn’t budge, so I don’t believe I lost and regained a bunch of fat over this short time period. In particular, thigh and biceps width stayed the same, therefore it’s also reasonable to believe most of my lean mass stayed intact.
What I think happened is that I dropped water and glycogen and made no gains in terms of muscle mass, which makes sense, because I wasn’t training.
However, muscle glycogen doesn’t make a meaningful contribution to total muscle mass. If you were to lose a considerable amount of weight, then you might lose some actual muscle, too.
Fortunately, eating right and rest can help prevent this.
#2 – Set your calories at maintenance
Injury recovery without training isn’t a productive time to be in an energy deficit.
Why? Because the purpose of a period of caloric restriction is to shed fat while maintaining as much muscle mass as possible.
Research has found that more dietary protein than the current guidelines recommend and regular resistance training can help reduce the rate of muscle mass loss in both overweight and normal-weight individuals of any gender during a few weeks or for up to four months of energy restriction (click, click, click).
Here’s the key part: more protein and resistance training.
If you can’t train, protein alone won’t protect your muscles in a deficit.
Are you good if you’re in a muscle gaining phase then? Well, you may still want to go back to maintenance for some time, or reduce the size of the caloric surplus, to avoid unwanted fat gain.
Depending on how much physical activity your injury allows you to do, your maintenance calories are likely to be lower than usual.
Regardless, you could use your pre-injury maintenance calories for a few days as a starting point, then lower them only if you see a huge jump in scale weight or negative changes in girth measurements.
Ultimately, I wouldn’t worry so much about gaining a bit of fat as I would about losing weight, though.
At this time, the body needs all the energy it can spare to recover. I would prefer the inconvenience of having a little more fat at the end of the recovery period to losing muscle or taking longer to get better because I accidentally put myself in a deficit for fear of fat gain.
If you do choose to reduce your intake, keep in mind that, in average individuals without medical conditions, a daily calorie deficit of 500kcals can result in a loss of about 1lb per week.
So don’t drop calories too much all at once. You can start with a small decrease and see what happens over the course of a few days to a week.
#3 – Consider your macros and micros
What you eat matters just as much as the amount of food you eat.
A higher protein consumption of at least 1gr/lb/day (or 2.2gr/kg/day) may be important for injury recovery (click, click). If you’re bulking and need to go back to maintenance, more protein can also help make you feel more satisfied from a meal and adjust to the decrease in food intake.
In addition to that, you need plenty of fluids as well as vitamins, minerals, and fibre.
So try to minimise high-calorie, nutrient-poor foods and drinks – like cake and coke – and prioritise water, fruit, vegetables, lean protein, complex carbohydrates, and a balance of saturated and unsaturated fat.
Does this sound like the usual general healthy eating guidelines? Yup.
However, your body is under a greater amount of stress than usual, so you want to be a little more vigilant on the nutritional front.
#4 – Don’t stop moving (within reason)
First and foremost, do what your doctor told you to do. Ask them specific questions on what and how much you can do, then follow their suggestions.
My very first question was, “Can I lift weights?”
The doctor’s answer: “Not until it stops hurting.”
He estimated it would take three to four weeks to heal, “maybe less if I were sensible.” He then added it might be fine to do some running and cycling after a week if I felt up to it, but not before.
I asked him if I could walk for the first week, which he agreed was ok. And that’s all I did for the duration of my recovery.
I decided to avoid more intense cardio, despite his suggestion, for two reasons:
By keeping my exercise intensity low, without ceasing activity altogether, I was able to recover fully in two weeks instead of the expected three to four.
What did I do when I started training again?
I had been in a muscle gaining phase before the injury, so I immediately bumped up calories again to give myself an energy boost.
My approach to training was to consider the first week as an introduction to an actual training cycle. The goal was to practise exercise technique, with moderate exertion.
To achieve that, I increased frequency per muscle or muscle group from two to three times per week. Reps went up, too, from the 8-12 range to the 10-15 range. At the same time, I lowered volume and intensity, that is the number of sets and weight on the bar.
It might be obvious, but I was especially careful with chest and shoulders exercises. In certain cases, it might be better to altogether avoid movements for the muscles around the injury site. I only did some because nothing hurt before, during, or after the training sessions.
Following the introductory week, I’m now gradually increasing volume week by week, adding sets, while reps remain within the same range. The overall aims of this cycle are technique and volume for hypertrophy.
I might be erring on the side of excessive caution, but, if a few weeks without training haven’t compromised my gains, neither will a few weeks of “conservative” training.
It’s important to remember that your body just toiled for a few weeks to get you back into shape. Why undo all that hard work for the sake of one single session or one single training block?
In Future Episodes:
Busy professional? No time for super foods and complicated recipes? No problem. Tune in next week for six easy, balanced meals you can make in five minutes or less!
Have you ever been injured? How did you deal with it?
A personal trainer who likes superheroes, bread, lifting weights, and studying “fitness stuff”.
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