I was on the phone with James Clear last month. Just as we were about to hang up, he asked me how my training was going.
CAN ‘O WORMS, JAMES. CAN O’ WORMS.
Needless to say, we talked for another half hour.
I told him about the back injury I had in October, and how I rehabbed myself to functional in less than one week.
I mentioned something during the call that I wanted to jot down, maybe expand upon later.
The importance of daily training when you’re injured.
And, often times, more than “daily.”
Multiple times per day.
As long as we’re talking about an acute injury.
When you train the injury often, you’re getting frequent feedback on the recovery process. It’s a lot easier to know and respect your boundaries.
Imagine you hurt my back. You rest for an entire week. You go back and try to deadlift. How much do you lift? What if the empty bar feels okay, but the normal jump to 135 isn’t okay?
So what I did, first, was get my body back to functioning without load. A bunch of static and slow stretching that I slowly transitioned into mobility work.
- MOBILITY = ABILITY TO ACTIVELY CONTROL RANGES OF MOTION.
- FLEXIBILITY = ABILITY TO PASSIVELY ACHIEVE RANGES OF MOTION.
I regained what flexibility and mobility I had through my entire spine by “training” obsessively for four days.
A lot of people want to know what exercises I did, but that’s backwards logic. I focused on the movements that were uncomfortable for me. Lumbar spinal flexion was my death. Your injury might be different.
I knew my max comfortable range of motion post-injury. So every day, I’d probe that boundary. What I found was that, almost every time I probed, I was able to go just a tiny bit further.
I would push my limits of comfort, but I wouldn’t push my limits of pain.
8AM – Hit my comfortable max range, move into a slightly discomforting range.
9AM – Hit my comfortable max range, which just so happened to be 8AM’s slight discomfort range. Then move again into slightly discomforting range.
I couldn’t even do a bodyweight good morning. As soon as bent over at the waist, the torque simple gravity imposed destroyed my lower back. This was my marker for healing.
I would always return to, “Okay, well, how is my bodyweight good morning feeling/doing?”
I started with a lot of drills on the ground. And I found out, immediately after those ground drills, I could do bodyweight good mornings with mild discomfort (read: without sharp pain).
So I got up and did some bodyweight good morning after the ground drills. Always respecting my limits. Never pushing to sharp pain. Discomfort and dull ache, yes. But never sharp pain.
Following this, I was able to return to my old levels of flexibility in about four days. Mobility during the range of motion I was injured in was still…eh…but it was returning slowly.
I still had a lot of work to do to achieve complete health, but for every day movements (like bending down to get a pot out of the bottom drawer for cooking — something you take advantage of unless you have crippling back pain), I was good to go.
The next question was, how can I handle added weight in a simple movement pattern?
So now as I was working on the more extreme range of motion from a mobility standpoint, I was simultaneously working on the simpler movements and smaller ranges of motion with load.
Instead of bodyweight good mornings, it was bodyweight good mornings with a five pound plate hugged to my chest. And romaniad deadlifts with a standard barbell (weighs 20 pounds).
And I’d do a bunch of repetitions. Twenty at minimum. And I’d do 1-5 sets, pending how I felt.
A bunch of repetitions is key for two reasons:
1. Blood flow. Blood heals. High reps flush the area with blood.
2. Your input tells the body how to heal. Let me say that again. YOU TELL YOUR BODY HOW TO HEAL. When you rest while you heal, your body heals assuming you’re going to be resting.
You have to tell your body
- This range of motion is important
- Producing force from this range of motion is important
And I’d do these higher rep sets every day. Sometimes multiple times per day.
If you’re doing things right and respecting the injury curve, the pain will DECREASE as the reps (and blood flow) increases.
This is sort of the beacon of rehab.
If the pain is gradually decreasing during the work you’re doing, you’re doing things right. If the pain increases, hold the phone.
The high frequency and high repetitions are invigorating because, you’re CONSTANTLY improving. You’re gaining range of motion, you’re lowering your pain.
But it’s important to note:
As the blood flow goes away, if you go back down and sit for a while, YOU WILL REGRESS. THIS IS NORMAL.
You’re working on two different levels…
The “COLD” level and the “HOT level.
As you progress through rehab, your “COLD” level should improve alongside your “HOT” level. But the two will never match.
Say you rate your sedentary pain at an 8.
You train and get blood flowing, you might improve to a 5.
But when you stop training, you go back to sitting in your chair, you go back to your shortened and fixed ranges of motion, you go back to a 7.7.
Then you train again, get blood flowing, you improve to a 4.5.
It’s a slow process, but you almost always feel better. Meaning you won’t be at a “COLD” 9 in the morning and then a “COLD” 10 at night…unless something is wrong.
Back to the weight work…
Once the high repetitions feel good with the empty bar, you slap on some weight, maybe 5-10 pounds, and you do them again. If you feel no discomfort, maybe a little more.
The key is to always feel a little uncomfortable. Never sharp pain. Just uncomfortable. And, when you do this, your discomfort will decrease as the reps increase. You’ll unlock new ranges of motion when the discomfort decreases…
With this system rolling, you can then tinker with lifting heavier things once or twice per week using exercises you’d normally do.
Don’t stop the current system. Keep working weird ranges of motion for mobility purposes, keep your high repetition lower weight work.
But then go in and hit slow and controlled singles or doubles, slowly working up in weight. I like stopping at every new 25-45 increment and calling it a day.
I’m now using conventional deadlifts…
So the first day, I might go 2×45, 2×65, 2×75, 2×85, 2×95 and then quit. Then the next time, work to 135. This, of course, assumes you have a decent amount of strength. I’ve deadlifted 555 pounds before, so use that as a frame of reference and adjust.
I keep the reps low to avoid technical breakdown. This phase is all about getting used to the intensity. Kicking your nervous system in gear. Because when you lift heavier things, your technique changes in subtle ways.
Then once you work back up to your old weight levels, you can add the volume you’d normally do.
Every injury is different.
This isn’t a prescription. Just what I did to rehab my back quickly. And, in general, this is my initial approach to ANY injury.
But I’m not afraid to adjust if something feels…off.
So don’t be an idiot. Avoid sharp pain. Embrace a tiny bit of discomfort. And, most importantly, if you can, TELL YOUR BODY HOW TO HEAL.