returning to the gym after an injury

Returning to the Gym After an Injury: 4 Common Programming Errors

by Dr. Michael MashUpdated

So it happened. You tweaked your back in the gym and it felt absolutely terrible for a week. Now you’re starting to feel better and you’re ready to get back to working out. How do you do it safely? Here are 4 programming errors people typically make when returning to the gym after an injury.

Error #1: Starting With the Intensity too High

One of the most common mistakes people make when returning to the gym after an injury, is starting with the intensity too high. Let’s use a back tweak during a deadlift as an example, as it is a fairly common occurrence.

The story usually goes like this: you tweak your back during the deadlift and it feels like the worst pain imaginable for about 4-5 days. So, you decide to take the week off.

Then, as the end of the week approaches, you start to rapidly feel better, so you decide to resume your normal deadlift programming.

You go through your warm-up sets, and start your first, regular intensity working set, and boom. You tweak your back again. It feels like the worst pain imaginable for about 4-5 days. So, you decide to take the week off...see where I’m going?

Getting caught in the "tweak, rest, resume as planned," game can be a never ending vicious cycle that many go through for years! This is something we address in detail in our live and online course. So how do you overcome this?

Drop the Intensity and Linearly Progress Back to Baseline

After sustaining an injury such as back tweak, one of the best interventions you can do to reduce the risk of this happening again, is temporarily dropping the intensity, and slowly working back up to baseline.

Let’s say you’re regular deadlift programming consists of working up to 3 sets of 3 at an RPE 8. Here’s what that may look like:

135 x 5
225 x 5
275 x 3
315 x 3
365 x 3 x 3 @ RPE 8

Instead of resuming this regular programming scheme after tweaking your back, try working up to the same sets and reps scheme but capping the working sets at an RPE 5 the first week. You’ll also increase the frequency to 2x/week.

Now, your program may look like this.

135 x 5
225 x 5
275 x 3
305 x 3 x 3 @ RPE 5

Then, for the next 3-4 weeks, you can add 10lbs to your working sets until your back to baseline 365 for 3 x 3.

This is called a linear progression, or adding weight to the bar every session. THIS is the step that takes time, but will significantly reduce the risk of continued cyclical flare ups.

Example Linear Progression Programming

An overview of your working sets over the next month may look like this

linear progression example

The length of this linear progression and the specific weight increases you take will depend on how much time you took off and what weight you need to work back to.

For longer layoffs and higher loads, this process may  take up to 8-12 weeks or longer. In this scenario, you may also want to start at an even lower intensity, such as an RPE 4.

For minor tweaks, this process may only take a week or two. The important part is making sure you at least do this to some degree vs. just jumping back into high intensities head first.

Error #2: Starting With the Frequency too Low

Now that you know to drop intensity and slowly work back to baseline, let’s talk about the frequency.

Since the intensity is rather low, you’ll need to increase the frequency to 2-3x/week.

Increasing the frequency to 2-3x/week will allow you to get more PRACTICE at lighter loads. This works to bombard your body and brain with a training stimulus that it perceives as healthy.

Think of how you eat after having the stomach flu. You just don’t go back to giant meals 2-3x/day. You have small amounts frequently throughout the day to make sure you can keep it down. Same concept here.

If you were previously training the deadlift once/week, I’d recommend dropping the intensity and increasing the frequency to 2x/week.

If you were deadlifting 2x/week, drop the intensity and increase to 3x/week.

Error #3: Starting With the Reps too High

Another mistake many people make when returning to the gym after an injury is training the aggravating lift with too many reps per set.

Intuitively it makes sense to increase the reps. Since you’re decreasing the intensity, you can naturally perform more reps per set. However, I’ve found that this often complicates things. Here’s why.

Let’s continue with our example of back pain during the deadlift. When you start to deadlift again, there’s inevitably going to be some hesitation and fear of re-injury. So the last thing you want to do is a ton of reps of it!

This can give you too much time to “think” about what could go wrong.  Just get in, do your set of 3-6 reps, and get out! Mission accomplished. No overthinking to do here.

Since you’re reducing the intensity of the lift but maintaining the lower rep range, you can always follow this exercise up with a higher-rep, higher intensity accessory exercise in order to limit detraining.

Error #4: Taking a Linear Progression to Failure

Here’s probably one of the most common mistakes people make with returning to the gym after an injury. While I recommend slowly increasing the load every session via an linear progression, you should NOT take this to failure.

The linear progression often gets a bad rap because people take it too far. This can lead to grinding sets with less than optimal form, missed lifts, and anxiety about lack of progress.

The key to using a linear progression for returning to the gym after an injury is to NOT take it to failure.

Instead, you want to add weight to the bar every session until you start achieving an RPE 8-8.5 on your working sets. Once you’re here...the process is finished! You are now back to baseline and it’s time to reprogram for performance-based goals.

Continuing to see if you can add smaller and smaller increments of weight to the bar after you’re already at an RPE 8-8.5 can just lead to further frustration and anxiety.

Putting it All into Practice

Returning to the gym after an injury can be a daunting task. Fortunately, with the tips mentioned above, you can return safely and stronger than before. As a recap, make sure to

  1. Avoid starting with the intensity too high. Drop the intensity to the RPE 5-6 range and slowly add weight to the bar until you’re back at baseline
  2. Increase the frequency to 2-3/week. Training the lift only 1x/week at a low intensity is not enough of a stimulus to cause the psychological adaptation you’re looking for.
  3. Avoid performing too many reps per set. This can lead to over-analyzing the lift
  4. Avoid taking the linear progression to failure. This can lead to missed lifts, load management errors, and predispose you to restarting this vicious cycle.

Use these 4 tips above to safely return to the gym after an injury!