Any experienced athlete will develop aches and pains throughout their career. While this is almost completely unavoidable, the way that we handle these minor set-backs can make or break our progress.
If caught early enough and handled in an intelligent manner, most athletes can be back in action within a few weeks, especially if the pain is associated with overuse. However, if pain is ignored because of ego or stubbornness, this can cost an athlete months or years away from progress towards their goals. (I’m not judging. I have definitely done this a couple of times in my life, which is why I think this article is so important.)
The text below is an exact email I recently sent to one of my off-season athletes who was experiencing some elbow discomfort during curling movements that was worsening over time. It includes five different methods for programming around pain, and a few sentences about what I would recommend if the problem persisted.
Sorry to hear about your elbow. I completely agree that pushing through the pain (especially on single joint hinging movements like that), is not the best idea.
Although I’m not a doctor and can’t explicitly recommend any particular method with certainty that it will help, here are some ways I have seen athletes overcome similar issues in the past:
– You can simply change up your form / grip to a placement that allows for the same (or nearly the same) load, just in different angles for a while until it feels strong and pain free again.
– You can keep the same movements, but volume match at a lower intensity. For example, drop the weight by 20% while you increase the number of reps per set by 20%.
– You can begin implementing a low-load BFR protocol for biceps instead of your regularly-scheduled programming. Here is an article on how to implement that – https://www.biolayne.com/articles/training/blood-flow-restriction-training-the-next-generation-of-anabolic-exercise/
– You can simply give it a couple of weeks away from isolation movements. Feel free to continue all compound movements (even where the bicep is a secondary mover), just don’t do any direct bicep work.
– You can also re-start a volume progression from 50%. The theory here is that by the time you get back up to 100%, your tendons will have had sufficient rest from the decreased loads and can hopefully be pain free by the time you catch back up. So, whatever current weight you are using, you can keep the same sets and reps, but use 50% of the load. Next week use 55%, the following week 60%, the following week 65%, etc.
Any of those are some simple ways to deal with minor injuries in the short term. I’d say that for about 50% of lifters one of the above methods can clear out minor tweaks and strains within 3 to 8 weeks. You’re also more than welcome to come up with some other strategy that aligns with your programming, pain scale, and preferences.
However, if you pick something above (or a combination of those approaches) and do not feel at least 90% better within 8 weeks or so, that’s when I would say it’s out of our hands and you should probably see a doctor. Either a sports chiro, physical therapist, or orthopedic surgeon.
But for now, consider some of those above, and let me know what you decide to begin implementing so we’re on the same page. I’m happy you told me about this early, so we can attempt one of these smaller interventions before getting too beat up.
Now I don’t think anything in that message is rocket science, but I do think the value is in the planning. It is not a lazy answer of “lay off it for a few weeks” that you’ll typically get from old school family doctors who have never worked with serious athletes.
There is purpose and structure to the options presented for my athlete, along with ongoing instructions on what to do if the pain does not go away by a certain date. While we cannot be sure that these things will “cure” anybody of anything, we can definitely give systemized efforts according to a timeline so that we do not over-step our professional boundaries. Rest is an important and useful healing tool, but it is only one of the few I am qualified to recommend.
Fortunately, the athlete receiving the email above checked in about 6 weeks later and his pain was completely gone. He reported using the volume-matching method for the following training cycle which seemed to clear it all up.
However, as stated in my athlete response email, about 8 weeks of continued pain is the point at which I personally believe a medical professional should to step in. I would then insist that my athlete make an appointment with a doctor as soon as possible and report back to me with feedback and instructions on how we are to proceed with the injured area. Staying within my scope of practice is not only professionally and legally ethical of me, it is also a very key tenet of the way we operate at 3D Muscle Journey.