How To Exercise When You’re Injured
An interview with Anthony Mychal, an expert on transforming from “skinny-fat” to the “X” physique
I’ve trained a lot of clients who had joint injuries. Depending on the situation, they needed to either work around the injury, train the injured joint carefully in order to rehab it, or a mixture of the two. Nonetheless, this isn’t my specialty.
When I decided to write an article about training with an injury, I knew I needed to interview Anthony Mychal for it. Why? Partly because I had so much fun interviewing him before, but mostly because when it comes to injuries, he’s seen it all — and experienced much of it himself.
Anthony Mychal is a former skinny-fat nerd who helps other self-taught goonies how to build a body that feels, moves, and thinks just as good as it looks.
He’s also one of the fitness industry’s best-kept secrets. I first learned about him through Steve Kamb of Nerd Fitness, a student of his. I was initially taken in by his sense of humor, which I can only describe as a mix of witty, goofy and surreal. But what got me hooked on him were his articles on mental models and body recomposition– building muscle and lose fat at the same time.
You see, although Anthony tries to focus on helping skinny-fat guys build muscle and lose fat at the same time– his main area of expertise– he also ends up writing a lot about joint rehab, training around and recovering from debilitating injuries, because, well, circumstances keep forcing him to.
Without further ado, here’s Anthony. As always, questions in big text, his answers in normal text, and notes by me are in italics.
Q&A with Anthony Mychal
What major injuries have you suffered, and how did you get them?
Thanks for making me relive some of the worst moments in my life. You’re a real gentleman.
My first major injury: I broke every metatarsal in my foot, save for my third. John: I assume he means the third metatarsal. If he has a third foot, then I wish I’d asked about it.
Did this while “tricking,” which is an underground “sport” often described as freestyle acrobatics. I have a video of the injury. John: It’s at 1:30 in this video if you really want to see it. But really, watch the whole video — it’s peak Anthony.
Thankfully, I didn’t need surgery. I was in a cast for 8 weeks. I was “recovered,” structurally, after those 8 weeks, but I wasn’t really recovered. I had zero control over my foot. It was lifeless.
I remember limping out of the orthopedist’s office thinking, “This can’t be right. How can the doctor let me leave his office like this? How can he let me drive a car?”
I recovered rather quickly, physically. I was back to normal within two months if I remember correctly. But a different story unfolded, mentally. It took me a long time to get back into tricking — around two years.
My second major injury: grade 3 shoulder separation, which was a byproduct of a UTV accident.
The rehab process for this is ongoing. It happened in June 2017, and it’s currently March 2019. I’m not fully healed. I’m not sure if I ever will fully heal, as one of the main ligaments holding my collar bone to my shoulder is gone.
I can do most things. I can throw a ball as hard as I please. I can do push-ups. I just got back into ring muscle-ups. I continue to improve on a daily basis, but it’s slow.
Can you give a very brief description of your normal approach to weight training– say, for someone whose main goal is gaining mass– so readers can get a better idea of how it changes when you’re talking about an injured trainee?
My approach to gaining mass…
First and foremost, gravity. If you don’t use your body to overcome Earth’s gravity, you cripple into dust. Anyone that’s ever been in a cast knows this. Eliminating Earth’s gravity subtracts muscle mass. Adding to Earth’s gravity adds muscle mass. This is why, front and center to any mass program, especially for a noob: subject your body to “supergravity” situations. For the most part, this means lifting barbells and doing bodyweight exercises, with an eye to add more weight to the bar over time. More weight is more gravity, and more gravity is better.
There’s more to the story, of course. Volume matters, too. But volume is misunderstood. Volume is time spent in a supergravity world. It’s not just sets and reps. Weight (load) matters, too, which brings us back to adding more weight and getting stronger.
In general, however, my approach is this: strain against resistance that has you moving sticky, as opposed to springy. If you’re doing this, you’re on the right path. If you can be springy within a resistance, you need to add more resistance.
At what point after an injury do you start training an injured body part again?
As soon as possible, as long the word “train” doesn’t insinuate doing traditional exercises. Something as simple as lifting your arm in the air could be “training,” pending your injury.
How do you train an injured body part, and how does that differ from the way you would normally train?
Personally, my training is basic. I lift weights and look to add weight, sets, and reps when I can, usually in the 5–8 rep range. I also mix in calisthenics and gymnastics ring training.
Rehab training depends on the injury, but, in general, here’s the framework I use:
First, light movement with the aim of (a) getting some blood flow to the area, and (b) regaining normal range of motion. Slow and controlled movements, done for higher repetitions.
The [warning] beacon for this is a sharp pain. Discomfort is okay — necessary, in fact. The discomfort SHOULD subside as the reps increase and blood flushes to the area.
Second, once mobility is restored, add weight and do higher reps. Transition slowly into increasing the weight and decreasing the reps.
Third, absorption and propulsion work, otherwise known as explosive training (if applicable.) John: Explosive training means sudden bursts of power, as in jumping or doing clapping pushups.
How do you train around an injury—that is, how do you prevent, say, an ankle injury from effectively stopping you from training your legs altogether?
If you can find ways to train the injured area that doesn’t make the injury worse, then that’s great. Do those things. If squats hurt (because they require more balance), but leg presses don’t, then you can do leg presses… AS LONG AS YOU DON’T FOREGO YOUR REHAB WORK IN FAVOR OF LEG PRESSES.
First, train the opposite limb (if possible). Training the opposite limb will have some crossover effect, and will maintain strength in the injured limb. John: The crossover effect he’s referring to is the central nervous system. Your left arm and right arm, for example, are controlled by many of the same neurons, so training one limb will have some effect on the other via training your brain.
Second, train the chain. If you hurt your shoulder, for instance, you can do grip training and train your wrist, as you work through your shoulder rehab.
John: He’s referring to the kinetic chain — the sequence of muscles that work together to operate a particular limb or body part. So shoulder-tricep-forearm-hand, or glutes-thighs-calves-ankles, for instance.
Aside from using very light weights, does your exercise selection change at all when injured?
For an injury, you need to consider the function of joints. Most conventional “exercises” don’t, which is why, for rehab purposes, you need to look beyond conventional exercises.
Conventional exercises can be useful to promote blood flow and whatnot, but before you reach that point, you need to ask yourself: can the joint do what the joint SHOULD be able to do? If not, then doing a conventional exercise will probably do more harm than good.
What are the biggest mistakes people make when training while recovering from injuries?
Resting for too long, or expecting rest to be a magic potion. Although there are times when complete rest is a decent idea, more often than not, rest is counterproductive.
Do you think there’s much value in sports massage techniques like Active Release Technique?
I’m sure there is, but I’m not familiar enough with these techniques to comment.
Which styles of training are the most dangerous? Which are least likely to injure someone?
Whatever activities put your body in positions and under loads you aren’t prepared for. Activities with elements of uncertainty (most team sports), then, are most dangerous.
John: This probably goes without saying, but individual contact sports are dangerous too. So can individual non-contact sports with explosive movements or jumps, as Anthony’s tricking injury demonstrates.
As intimidating as it can be to some people, weightlifting is actually one of the safest sports due to the combination of controlled conditions and slow movements, which means any injury will tend to come on slowly. Exercise selection matters here though; for maximum safety, you’d want to avoid high-speed movements like Olympic lifts and kettlebell swings and snatches.
How would you have a client train if they have, say, a bad joint or arthritis, but still want to build strength and muscle mass?
I’d try to fix the joint, if possible, while selecting exercises that don’t provoke pain.
When someone has an injury on one side of the body — say a wrist or knee — how do you prevent this from leading to muscular asymmetries because the person ends up favoring their uninjured side?
I have a newborn. When I burp him, his neck is always turned to the right, because that’s how I’m most comfortable holding him.
The notion of “imbalances” is crazy to me because we’ve been living imbalanced lives since forever.
If you’re talking about imbalanced doing bilateral exercises (one arm doing more work during the bench press, for instance), then you have to see WHY this is happening. Perhaps the injured side isn’t fully healed. Perhaps it’s mental, fear. Perhaps there’s some loss of mind-muscle connection.
Were you able to recover fully from your injuries, or do you still have lingering problems from them that won’t go away?
Both of my injuries were of surgery severity, and I didn’t get surgery for either. My right foot will be different forever. It’s different, structurally. It looks different. It feels different. It’s a different size now, too.
Also, I developed a neuroma in my right foot, as a result of the injury. That’s something I’ve since controlled, but it’s still there.
Despite these things, I’m able to do whatever I want to do. I can run, jump, sprint. No restrictions.
For my shoulder, I’m still learning. I’m missing an important ligament, so my body has to find ways to compensate, to provide stability.
You could say I have lingering problems, but they’re neither lingering nor problems to me — because my rehab isn’t finished. I’m still making incremental progress, regularly. It’s responding to my rehab, so it’s not like I have this injury that won’t go away, that’s befuddling me. It’s under control, it’s just slow.
Training Through An Injury: A Quick Set of Rules
Based on Anthony’s advice, here are a few simple rules for training when you have an injury:
- Do train the injured body part, but keep it light and gentle. The point is to promote blood flow and use a full range of motion, not to build strength or mass.
- Train in the most controlled manner possible. Generally, this means weightlifting with a slow cadence; avoid sports where you have to react to unpredictable movements by the other players.
- Avoid sharp pain. Don’t avoid discomfort, fatigue, or “the burn.”
- If a limb is hurt, keep training the opposite limb for the crossover effect.
- Keep training the whole kinetic chain that the injured body part is part of.
- Remember that “exercise” is relative to your abilities. If simply walking up stairs is difficult, then it’s exercise.
- Don’t let a fear of muscular imbalances stop you from training just because one part of your body is injured.
- As you start to recover, gradually raise the weight until you’re training for strength again. Do this very gradually — over the course of a few weeks for a minor injury, or a few months for a major one.
- Eventually, you’ll probably want to incorporate explosive/plyometric movements again — but don’t rush into it. This should only come after you’re able to lift heavy again without signs of re-aggravating the injury.
There’s obviously a lot more to say about injury rehab depending on the nature of the specific injury and the body part affected, but this gives you the high-level strategy for training through an injury.