The role of strength training in injury recovery

Apr 13, 2015
Ashley Ann Lawrie

Rehabilitation strength training

There is no doubt injury can play havoc with your nutrition and training routine. But the trouble, and your recovery, doesn’t end when you have reached a pain-free state.

“Pain-free’ does not mean you are back to your full pre-injury function,” said Free Form Fitness personal trainer Vania Hau. “People often don’t realize an important part of their recovery is post-rehab strength training.”

If an injury left you inactive, or unable to work certain parts of your body, muscles around the injured area may have weakened from lack of use. This means other parts of your body are disproportionately stronger. Those weak muscles may not activate as they should when you call on them.

If you don’t work to correct this imbalance, the result can be reinjury. Correction requires a combination of the right resistance training to strengthen the affected muscles, and neurological training to counteract the brain’s natural defence mechanisms.

“As a protective measure, your brain trained your body to avoid using those muscles,” said Vania. “You have to retrain your brain to use them again.”

The effects can last for years

She has seen first hand with clients how long this kind of imbalance can persist.

One client, who had hip surgery several years ago, still takes a minute to focus and get in position anytime she does an exercise that requires activation of her hip and related muscles.

“She describes it as her brain saying ‘wait, you shouldn’t be doing that,’ even though she has no pain,” said Vania.

Another client, a man in his 50s, always seemed to have balance issues between one leg and the other. After asking him about his history, Vania finally discovered that, when he was in his 20s, this client had sprained his ankle. This left her to conclude that, 30-odd years later, his body was still compensating to protect itself from an injury that had long since healed.

“Even he didn’t realize how much this was still affecting him,” Vania said.

Why physio is not enough

“Physiotherapy is an important part of pain relief and getting the injury healed,” said Vania. “But it will only take you so far.”

In the early stages of treatment, the kinds of exercises people will do through physiotherapy versus strength training will not vary much. In either case, recovery must begin with low-intensity exercises to avoid further damage.

But once a person has reached a pain-free state through physio, the kinds of exercises their therapist will proscribe will no longer be enough to regain lost strength, function and balance.

“The best approach is to consult with a physiotherapist and a strength trainer, so they can each give you exercises that will compliment each other,” said Vania. “This two-pronged approach can accelerate your recovery.”

Safe and effective post-injury recovery

When it comes to rehabilitating an injury to a muscle group like the thigh (quadriceps), it’s just a matter of targeting that muscle with isolation exercises to regain lost strength, said Vania.

But when a joint is involved, like the shoulder, it becomes more complex. There are many smaller muscles and soft tissues in and around the joint that affect each other. While it is important to restore as much mobility and range of motion back to the joint as possible, care must also be taken to stabilize the joint to avoid further injury, and to isolate and exercise the right muscles.

“Otherwise, the body will naturally avoid using the muscles in need of work and just make the strong ones stronger, which could make your condition worse,” said Vania.

So before you pick up the big weights, take the time to consult with a professional for help understanding which exercises you should be doing, and how. Otherwise, you run the risk of injuring yourself all over again.


Personal trainer Vania Hau

Vania Hau is a health and fitness expert and the Director of Free Form Academy.

She holds a Masters in Human Kinetics from the University of Ottawa, specializing in intervention and consultation in sport and physical activity. She is also a Certified Exercise Physiologist through the Canadian Society of Exercise Physiology and certified Personal Trainer at Free Form Fitness.

Vania has taken numerous courses and certifications throughout her career. She hopes to use the knowledge and experience she has gained to bring more quality fitness professionals into the field.

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