Weightlifting injuries are the worst.
“I can’t lift as much as I used to.”
“Ever since I injured my shoulder, I can’t bench press more than 225 lbs.”
We’ve all heard similar statements at some point in our lifting career.
Even worse! We might’ve something like that ourselves!
Are weightlifting injuries bound to happen? How can we avoid them? How long does elbow tendinitis take to heal?
Grab a cup of coffee and read along for the answers.
Disclaimer: This post is not intended to treat or cure any medical cases or injuries. Please consult with your physical practitioner before attempting any of the prescribed treatments here.
What is an injury? How do injuries happen?
This may seem like a stupid question. However, the solution to any problem always starts with defining what the problem is.
An injury is a form of damage to the body caused by external force. In the case of weightlifting, this is usually caused by imposing more stress on the body than it could handle at that specific moment. In the context of weightlifting injuries, an injury is when severe damage to either muscle or connective tissue occurs.
- You forget (i.e. lazy) to warm up and jump straight into your working sets.
- Improper form!
- You get a little excited and decide to lift too heavy too soon.
- Maybe your elbows have been acting up for some time, but you decide to push through the exercises “like a man”.
- Your tendons and/or ligaments are weaker than the surrounding muscles. Your muscles could handle the weight but, your connective tissue gives up on you. Ouch!
- Ego lifting.
We’ve all been there. So, don’t feel ashamed.
99% of all injuries occur due to one of the above reasons, which are mostly preventable. The remaining 1% of injuries may occur due to someone having a serious illness or condition such as osteoporosis. Even then, that’s somewhat preventable if one practices enough caution.
This leads us to the next question; How do you avoid weightlifting injuries?
Weightlifting Injury Prevention
On my question to finding a topic to write about this morning, the following question popped up in Google:
“How to Avoid Lifting Injuries”
Goes to show you that weightlifting injuries are more common than we think. In fact, I’d say that weightlifting injuries are part of any lifter’s journey. You’ve either suffered from one or, unfortunately, will at some point.
To put things in perspective, remember than an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure!
Why go through the pain of being injured, not being to train optimally, not training a specific muscle group, and risking not being 100% ever again for a few seconds of fake glory or an ego boost? Cut that sh*t out and keep longevity in mind.
Ask yourself the following questions:
- Do you want to live long and healthy?
- Would you like to be able to walk and function like a normal human being?
- Do you want a messed-up knee in your 20’s?
- Herniated disc(s) in your 30’s?
- Do you want to keep lifting for the rest of your life or just the next 3-5 years?
- Look good and be healthy for a few years or your whole life?
When you keep those thoughts in your mind, you start considering the risk vs. reward ration. Is attempting a PR you cannot handle right now worth injuring yourself? Let your friend ego-lift all they want and stick to your program. With that said, how do we prevent injuries.
The answer to this is very simple; stop doing too much too soon!
Seriously, cut that crap out. For those not familiar with ego-lifting, it is the act of lifting too heavy with improper form to boost your ego and gain people’s respect. Let me burst your bubble; NO ONE CARES HOW MUCH YOU LIFT, ESPECIALLY WOMEN!
Surprising, isn’t it?
When was the last time a girl approached you, felt your glorious pecs and asked you how much you bench?
Never is correct.
The truth is, if you’re lifting to attract the opposite sex, I’ll tell you right now that women don’t give a flying f*ck about how much you bench. If you have a LEAN physique with a decent amount of muscle mass, you’ll be more than good to go. Focus on your character, that’s a better investment.
I shouldn’t even need to say this. Imagine taking an ice-cold shower and hopping outside your house when it’s 110 degrees. You will either get sick or feel wonky. So, why are you doing the same thing to your muscles? It doesn’t take long to warm up thoroughly and the benefits significantly outweigh the risks.
Warming up increases blood pressure and blood flow to prepare you for physical activity, improves performance, prevents injuries, enhances CNS activation and motor unit recruitment, and gets you a sick pump! Keep in mind that muscle tissue is an elastic one. A cold muscle is a stiff muscle. A warmed-up muscle is elastic and ready-to-go.
To warm up properly, simply get your body temperature up by brisk-walking for 5-10 minutes on the treadmill. Then, work up to your working sets in small increments.
Your first exercise on your leg day is squats. Your working sets will have you squat 315 lbs. The way you would warm-up should look something like this:
- Squat the bar. Yes, just the bar! for 10 reps.
- 135 lbs. (1 plate) for 8 reps.
- 185 lbs. for 6 reps.
- 225 lbs. for 4 reps.
- 275 lbs. for 2 reps.
- Optional: 315 for ONE REP ONLY!
Then, you jump into your working sets. By the time you work your way up to 315 lbs. you will be primed for maximum physical performance and your muscles will be gushing with blood.
Note: the reason why the last warm-up set is optional is because some people, like me, find their performance increases when doing a quick one-rep set with 90-100% of our working sets’ weight. Some people do just fine without it. Find what works best for YOU!
Use Proper Exercise Technique
It doesn’t cost you a penny or any extra effort to execute an exercise with proper form. Moreover, if you want to maximize your gains, you should always use proper technique. Yes, some exercises are more suitable for partial reps and decreased range of motion (ROM) as I’ve discussed here. However, you should use proper technique with full range-of-motion 95% of the time. In addition to maximize your gains, you get the benefit of preventing any weightlifting injuries! Magical, ha?
The whole purpose of executing a specific movement is to induce mechanical tension on the muscle throughout its range of motion. Stimulating the muscle with sufficient resistance will send a signal to the body to strengthen that muscle by inducing hypertrophy and recruiting more motor units in case of future incidents.
Very simple yet, often misunderstood.
Listen to Pain Signals
Don’t push through pain. Ever. I’m guilty of this myself. The truth is, sometimes your body is just going to break down regardless of what you do. You may be warming up or doing a super light set and you will feel as if something is off. It happens to all of us. That’s your body telling to give it a bit more rest.
Additionally, the moment you notice pain anywhere in your body, STOP. You may have done only 2 sets of squats out of the prescribed 3 sets when you noticed that your knees are feeling strange. DO NOT ATTEMPT A 3RD SET. Stop the set short, wrap up your workout for the day, go home, and rest. Monitor how severe the pain is and how long it persists. Usually, if it’s something minor, the pain will subside within 5-7 days.
If the problem persists for 2+ weeks, have your injury looked at by a medical professional.
Use Different Rep Ranges
Lifting heavy all the time is not ideal or healthy. From a primitive perspective, squatting 405 lbs. is not something natural that we were meant to do in nature. Connective tissue such as ligaments and tendons recover much slower than muscle tissue due to limited supply of nutrient-rich blood. Lifting heavy all the time will not elicit any better results than what you could get with a moderate approach. In fact, there is ample research stating that using various rep ranges optimizes performance. In addition, lifting heavy will accumulate over time and will eventually get to you.
Don’t believe me?
Ronnie Coleman is a prime example of this. Ronnie is arguably the best strongest bodybuilder of all time. However, over the past decade, he’s had more surgeries than he could count just to be able to walk.
Lee Priest is another champion that had to quit bodybuilding due to major injuries.
With that said, lifting heavy has its benefits. In fact, connective tissue adapts to imposed stimulus and grows stronger and larger as well. Research has found that to impose enough stress on connective tissue to rebuild and adapt, one should lift 80%+ of their 1-rep max. That’s not to say that you should solely lift 80% of your 1RM all the time. Variation is key.
High reps help accelerate connective tissue recovery by promoting blood flow in those areas. Louie Simmons from Westside Barbell is a big advocate of high reps done with high speed to stimulate connective tissue growth and prevent injuries in his athletes. And those are the strongest and biggest powerlifters on the planet!
Conclusion – There is no point of lifting heavy all the time.
Adjust Frequency, Volume, and Intensity
We are all different. Some people respond best to high intensity, high volume, or high frequency. If you’ve been lifting for 2+ years, you should have an idea of what your body responds best to in terms of hypertrophy and strength gains. In addition, you should also notice when your body starts breaking down more than usual.
For instance, I know if I train my legs very frequently (4+ times a week) even with less volume per session, my knees will be shot. Thus, I make my best gains and feel best when I train my legs with a moderate amount of volume per session 2-3 times a week MAX. At the end of the day, volume is the main predictor of hypertrophy.
Same goes for intensity. If you notice knee pain when consistently squatting with 90% of your 1RM, decrease the load and see what happens. You get the point!
Exercise Selection & Injury history
Just like the above point, you must find what works best for you and helps you feel your best. If you’ve blown out your knee in the past and find back squatting to mess your knees up even more (like me), try a different exercise or try a different stance. Play around with the technique a bit. Still in pain? Ditch back squats and try front squats or leg presses.
Use a variety of exercises. Don’t get married to just ONE exercise. This is more common in the powerlifting community due to training solely for the big 3.
Barbell bench press flares up your shoulder injuries? Try dumbbells, always works! Be wary of your injury history and adjust exercise technique just a little to accommodate your own unique anthropometry.
If you have a serious medical condition that makes you more prone to injuries than your average Joe, I highly recommend you work with a professional to find what works best for you. One condition that comes to mind is osteoporosis which is a bone disease that makes bones very weak and susceptible to fractures. Strength training is known for strengthening bones and reversing osteoporosis, however, practice caution.
With that said, what if you are already injured? Do you stop training altogether to let the body heal? How do you train around an injury? And how do you accelerate weightlifting injuries recovery? Let’s delve into that.
Another cause for weightlifting injuries is the fact that most people are too “scared” to use weight lifting equipment. Weightlifting equipment is not a necessity, however, they come in handy to support you during heavy lifting. This is more common in powerlifting circles where using straps, knee wraps, belts, or shoes is frowned upon in the ultimate debate between equipped vs. “raw”. Only one word could summarize that whole debate; bullsh*t.
If you injured your back before, recovering from an injury, or prone to disc herniation, use a weightlifting belt. If you are maxing out, use the belt as well.
You do squats with perfect form, but they put too much pressure on your lower back due to your physical structure? Use a belt.
Wrists hurt while performing heavy bench and overhead presses? Use wrist wraps.
Do you have weak knees? Use some knee wraps.
It’s simple. Forget about people who seek non-existent superior validation because they train “raw”. You are in this for aesthetics and health, keep that in mind.
Weightlifting Injuries Recovery
Realistically, how long does it take to recover from a lifting injury?
Well, it depends on the following factors:
- Severity of injury
- Tissue type. Muscle or connective tissue?
- Medical conditions
Younger individuals will recovery faster, of course. Males usually recover faster from muscle tissue injuries due to an abundance of testosterone. The more severe an injury is, the longer it’ll take to recover. Predisposed to having knee problems? Well, it’s going to take you some time. Osteoporosis? More problems.
From my experience observing my body and my clients, I noticed the following trends:
Acute muscle injuries such as sprains or strains usually fully recover within 4-6 weeks max if not before. I am talking about 100% recovery here. Granted that you’re eating properly to support tissue regeneration, getting ample rest, and stimulating the tissue just enough to accelerate recovery. Severe muscle injuries such as tears usually take 6-12 weeks to fully recover. 10 weeks is usually the sweet spot for most people.
Connective tissue injuries
Acute injuries usually take 6-12 weeks to fully heal. More chronic injuries could take up to 6 months to fully recover. In super severe cases, it can take up to 1 year to fully recover. However, the latter case is very rare, and most people fully recover within 3-6 months.
How can we accelerate weightlifting injuries recovery?
Some people argue that passive rest is better than active rest. However, the scientific community is shifting more towards active rest than bed rest nowadays.
We’ve all heard it before:
“Apply RICE. Rest, Ice, Compression, Elevation.”
Sorry but, no!
The RICE approach never truly worked for me. For instance, most people think ice decreases inflammation and swelling. The truth is that ice only delays the process. When tissues rewarm, the inflammatory process resumes, and the body sends more than usual amounts of fluids and white blood cells to that specific site. Inflammation is not bad! It’s only bad when it is chronic. Inflammation is the body’s natural response to contain an injury and de-infect the injury site.
How to Speed Up Injury Recovery
Here is the following regimen I did every time I got injured and it never failed me or those whom I told about. In this example, I will assume you sprained/strained pecs while barbell bench pressing. This will also teach you how to train around injuries.
1- Assess severity of injury. If the pain is unbearable, seek immediate professional help. However, this isn’t usually the case.
2- Take a few days off all chest training. Usually 5-7 days is enough.
3- After 5-7 days, you should be experiencing little-to-no pain. However, don’t let this fool you into thinking that you’re fully healed. This stage is detrimental and could mean accelerating or delaying the healing process if you re-injure yourself.
4- Incorporate high-rep barbell presses. 15-20 reps with a controlled tempo is perfect here. Re-assess your form because chances are you got injured due to sub-optimal form to begin with.
5- The whole point here is to stimulate blood flow in your pectoral muscles and to get a nice pump. DO NOT USE HEAVY WEIGHT! Moderate resistance is enough. Moderate resistance will also help you maintain or even improve your progress.
6- Assess pain. If you notice any pain, stop.
7- If you notice pain while doing step 4, try another chest exercise. The sky is the limit here. You want to find an exercise that you can do without any pain. Try dumbbells, machines, and cables.
8- Once you find your go-to exercise, repeat step 4 for 2-3 weeks. You will notice that you’re feeling better over time. Guaranteed.
9- In addition to following this training plan, clean up your diet. You want to focus on eating mostly nutrient-rich foods now. Nutrition has an astounding effect on recovery and cannot be overstated.
10- If you are cutting, stop cutting and increase your calories to maintenance. You’ll recover faster.
11- Increase your protein intake just a tad. 30-50 more grams than usual is plenty.
12- If you are testosterone deficient, optimize your levels.
13- Get ample sleep. 6-9 hours every night is ideal.
14- Walk! Walking has a profound effect on decreasing stress levels and improving blood circulation. Aim for 30-90 minutes of walking per day.
Follow this exact protocol for 4-6 weeks and you’ll be back to normal in no time. The whole point is to get some nutrient-rich blood flowing into the injured sites to promote tissue regeneration.
Note: The exact number of sets doesn’t matter. Assess your tolerance. Usually however many sets you usually do is good. So, if you usually do 12 sets for chest, stick with that. Yes, you will be getting more volume due to doing more reps.
What about supplements?
You might wonder if there are any supplements that could help with weightlifting injuries. The truth is yes and no.
Do you need any supplement? No.
Would any supplement help? Yes.
Here is my recommended list of supplements:
Whey protein. If you get enough protein from your diet, save your money.
Omega-3 fish oil. Will help decrease inflammation levels and promote tissue recovery. If you eat fatty fish such as salmon 2-4 times a week, skip this one.
Creatine. Creatine helps tissue recovery. In addition, creatine is a muscle volumizer and helps store excess fluid in lean tissue. This means more nutrients to the muscles and a better pump. Creatine will also help you maintain and even improve your performance while recovering from your injuries.
Curcumin/turmeric. This is my favorite one. It helps decrease inflammation significantly and promote better cholesterol levels. I have noticed an effect when taking raw turmeric while recovering from my injuries especially connective tissue injuries.
Cissus quadrangularis is decent for pain management but, I didn’t notice any benefits in recovery with or without it.
That’s it! Keep it simple.
Most Common Weightlifting Injuries
Weightlifting injuries fall in two categories:
- Connective tissue injuries
- Muscle tissue injuries
The latter heal much quicker than the former due to better blood flow. The most common weightlifting injuries in both categories are as follows.
Connective Tissue injuries
-Tennis elbow (elbow tendinopathy)
-Rotator cuff tears
-Shoulder impingement/Rotator Cuff Tendinitis.
-Dislocated Shoulder/Shoulder Instability.
-Achilles tendon tears
Muscle tissue injuries
Most muscle tissue injuries are either sprains, strains, or tear in the tissue itself (rare).
Most injuries such as a muscle tear are caused by a muscle being torn off its connecting tendon. This would classify such injuries as connective tissue injuries.
Generally, connective tissue weightlifting injuries take anywhere between 3-6 months to fully heal. 6 months being the absolute max. This also depends on severity of the injury plus other factors that were discussed above (age, gender…etc.).
On the other hand, muscle tissue heals much quicker. Minor muscle strains or sprains usually heal up within 2 weeks. More serious injuries heal within 4-6 weeks with proper nutrition, adequate sleep, and blood flow stimulation. Follow the protocol above.
Prevention is better than cure. Weightlifting injuries such and it’s much better to avoid them in the first place. Longevity must always remain in perspective. People who maintain their physiques over time know it’s a game of longevity. Attempting a 315 lbs. bench press PR when you know you can only handle 300 lbs. is shortsighted, counterproductive, and risky. Don’t be an idiot and listen to your body.