If you’ve been training long enough, you’re probably pretty strong and packed on some serious muscle. Unfortunately, you’ve probably experienced a few injuries here and there as well, and there are usually some movements or training protocols that flare them up. I’ve had reconstructive surgery on both knees, a shoulder, and 10 on my hand, so I know how frustrating it is when you’re making progress in the gym, only to have some old issue pop up and seemingly set you back.
Here’s the deal though, there are always things you can do to train and move forward, and training hard doesn’t have to equate to living with cranky knees or a sore back. Here are 13 tips to help you continue to train hard, get stronger, and build muscle if you’re banged up:
1. Hammer Dumbbell Work More Frequently Than Barbells
I love barbell lifts. They’re obviously the tool that allows you to load movements the heaviest, which stimulates strength and growth. When you’re pretty strong, the weight you can handle is obviously higher, and with that extra loading, you’re hammering your system with a lot of stress. In order to mitigate the cumulative wear and tear on the body, try limiting barbell lifts to one per session, and go with a steady dose of dumbbell, kettlebell, and bodyweight work, which allow the joints more freedom to move in more natural ranges of motion, while also decreasing the total systemic stress on your system.
2. Get Volume From More Sets of Fewer Reps
The longer a set goes on, the harder it is to stay tight. This isn’t necessarily new or novel, and it’s part of the reason why training is so effective. If you’re body is beat up, though, perfect technique is absolutely mandatory, so shoot to do more sets in a more moderate rep range, which allows you to keep the loading up, but technique rock solid. Instead of 3-4 sets of 10-12 on your assistance work, try 4-6 sets of 5-8. It seems like a real small difference, and it is on paper, but it goes a long way towards locking in technique with appreciable loads.
3. Prioritize Single Leg Training
Single leg work is important if you want to stay strong and athletic for the long haul. It helps to work on imbalances and challenge stabilizers, and proper single leg training can absolutely build muscle and strength. I’m not on the end of the spectrum that vilifies bilateral squats or deadlifts, but putting a premium on reverse lunges, split squats, single leg squats, and single leg deadlifts will keep your body feeling good while simultaneously building strength and size.
4. Periodize Core Training
Periodizing training programs isn’t just for the big lifts. When it comes to core training, people often just keep working towards harder and more complex variations, or they don’t progress it at all. I think we can all agree that training the musculature of the trunk is of the utmost importance, as this is often the limiting factor in squats and deadlifts.
With that being said, alternate 3-4 week blocks between static core exercises like planks with more dynamic exercises like rollouts. Each time you come back to a block, use a more advanced version of the exercise from the previous block. The options are really endless here, but 4 months of core training could look like this:
Phase 1: planks. side planks, Pallof press iso holds
Phase 2: bodysaws, side plank rows, dynamic Pallof presses
Phase 3: weighted planks, feet elevated side planks, split stance Pallof press holds
Phase 4: ab wheel rollouts, suitcase carries, Pallof presses with overhead reach
By going back through and progressing from static to dynamic, static to dynamic, you’ll make sure that you’re constantly bringing up the weakest links in the chain, which builds a rock solid trunk, so you can continue to move big weights on everything else, and ensure that your back isn’t getting beat up in the process.
5. Be Smart with Plyos
We lose power twice as fast as we lose strength as we age. Jumping, throwing, and sprinting all help to increase our power and keep us athletic, which is great, but do it in moderation. Keep foot contacts on jumping drills down to 15-25 per workout, once or twice a week at most. Try to limit sprinting to only doing so on an incline or with a sled instead of flat surfaces and utilize equipment like the Jacob’s Ladder, Versaclimber, or Assault bike for conditioning.
6. There Are No Sacred Cow Exercises, Unless You Compete
Squats, deadlifts, presses, rows, chins, and lunges should be the backbone of any sound strength training program, but the specific variation you choose needs to be the one that fits you, your needs, and issues. If back squatting irritates your back, hips, or shoulders, try front squatting or using a safety squat bar. Substitute a neutral bar or dumbbells instead of straight bar benching if your shoulders are beat up, or a trap bar or different set up for your deadlifts. The point of training is to be bigger, stronger, more athletic, and ready for whatever activities you enjoy, so being chronically beat up by a particular lift because you feel like it’s mandatory is just silly. Nobody cares how much you lift anyway, so you’re just comparing yourself to arbitrary numbers. Your body doesn’t know the difference between a rock, a barbell, or a kettlebell, it just knows it has to overcome force, so use the right tool and movements that allows your joints to be in the right positions to produce the optimal force necessary to build strength and muscle.
7. Focus on Rep Records Over 1RM’s
There need to be measureables in order to know whether or not your program is working, but that doesn’t mean 1 rep maxes are the only way to gauge whether you’re getting stronger or not. Set rep records on a variety of lifts, track them on a spreadsheet, and try to beat them over time. If you can improve your 5 rep front squat max to 8 reps, you definitely got stronger. There’s less risk inherently the further from max singles you go, so set a variety of records: 5RM, 8RM, bodyweight on the bar for max reps, etc.
8. Prioritize Recovery
You’re only as good as what you can recover from, and the older and more beat up you are, the longer it takes to recover from things that you used to bounce right back from. This might be due to how hard you’re training, your frequency and/or volume, or other lifestyle factors that are bogging you down, but regardless of what they are, they need to be accounted for one way or another.
If you’re relying on pre workout supplements before every session because you need an energy boost, that’s a pretty good sign that your recovery is out of whack. Track your sleep (Sleep Cycle is a great app for this) and you might be horrified by what you find.
Keep a food log for a couple of weeks and see if you notice any trends in energy and training performance, then make necessary adjustments. Try getting on an inversion table regularly to decompress the spine, spend a few minutes each morning on focused mobility work for troubled areas, or start making saunas a regular part of your post workout routine. The point is, when you’ve accumulated a little wear and tear over a lifetime of training, a protein shake after you workout shouldn’t be your only recovery method.
9. Row More Than Chin
Chin ups and all of their variations are great for overall strength and back development, of course, but try to limit them to no more than once per week if you tend to get cranky elbows or shoulders. Instead, replace them with more horizontal rowing variations, which give you a huge bang for your buck but with less joint stress. When you do chin ups, do them with a neutral grip or on gymnastics rings as these tend to be easier on the joints.
10. Move Barbell Lifts to Later In Your Training Session
If you’re able to add load to the bar over time, it doesn’t really matter whether that lift is first or 3rd in your training session, you’re still getting overload. By moving the barbell lifts to a bit later in your workout, you’ll be more warmed up, and you’ll be able to get more out of a little less weight than if it was first, which is a little easier on your joints. Try doing 3-4 sets of 6-8 dumbbell presses before benching, or some reverse lunges before deadlifting to get some blood pumped into the muscles and to make sure the joints are lubed up properly.
11. Leg Curls Before Squatting
To piggyback on the last point, doing a few sets of leg curls before squatting just makes the squats feel much smoother and more stable for a lot of people. You don’t have to go HAM on these, just get a few sets in, focusing on contracting and stretching the hamstrings on each rep. 2-3 sets of 10-15 should do the job.
12. Build Flexibility Into Your Plan
Sometimes, you just don’t have the gas in the tank to do what your program calls for. There’s a fine line between bagging out because you’re being soft and making smart audibles based on your condition on a given day. Warm up, and if you’re still not feeling great, don’t be afraid to cut the intensity, volume, or even the entire workout down a notch or 2. Sometimes, living to fight another day is the right answer for long term success. If this is happening frequently, then look back at your recovery, audit your program, and look at the status of your life outside of the gym.
Try breaking up your programs into 3 blocks: what you need to do, what you want to do, and what would be nice if you get to. The first block is your big, primary stuff, so if you’re low on fuel, just getting through that is better than nothing. Some days, just doing this is all the juice you have, so pack it in and get out of the gym. What you want to do would include the assistance stuff and the last section would be all the auxiliary lifts like single joint movements and whatnot that are important, but if you skip them here or there, it’s not necessarily going to break your program.
Building options into your program allows you to really get after it on the days when you feel freshest and back off when you’re a little less than optimal. You can also buy a hand grip dynamometer pretty inexpensively and test your grip strength before training to get a more objective reading on your nervous system and train accordingly.
13. Utilize Paused Reps
When you use barbell lifts, use a 2 second pause at the bottom of every rep. This might knock a few pounds off the bar, but it keeps technique tight. Rarely does a lifter get nicked up from a perfect rep, it’s usually from the first or the last one when they’re a little loose or slightly out of their groove, so ensuring that you lock each rep in perfectly is imperative. The pause also lowers the load a bit, so you’re able to get more out of a little less.