Recently, I was asked by a few different athletes how I train to come back to weightlifting after taking time off whether from injury or just a break. In all honestly, I was a little stumped. I’ve had little injuries that I had to work around, but never one serious enough to keep me out of training completely (*knock on wood*), and since I began competing in December of 2003, I’ve never taken more than a week off at any given time. In my case, it’s because I really, really hate being so sore I can’t move right.
Instead, I gave these athletes a little advice on programs I have written for other athletes that have experienced extended time off and I consulted my husband, Jason, on his ideas.
1. Just because you can lift it doesn’t mean you should.
During the Fall Semester at the University of Alabama, Jason is always swamped. Both Football and Women’s Soccer are working in-season programs, and Track & Field is training for the upcoming indoor season. This leaves little room for his own training schedule, thus he almost always ends up taking a month or two off at the least. The challenge then becomes, how do you come back?
His advice to himself is always “just because you can lift it doesn’t mean that you should.” He said that coming back he always feels strong enough to make a lift, especially in the snatch and clean & jerk. The problem is that with that much time off his joints aren’t ready to take the impact of the force generated by the speed of the Olympic Lifts. Instead, keep these lifts using light to moderate intensity at best and increase volume and intensity slowly over time.
Take your time during the generally physical preparation (GPP) phase and include lots of different exercises to prepare yourself for the future of the training program. Also, be intelligent with your guideline for return. If you took time off because you were busy with work or on Christmas vacation, your return may be relatively quicker than someone returning from a major injury. If you suffered an injury, work with your doctor to determine approximately how much time to takes to make a full recovery based on the sport you intend to return to. Also, attempt to pay attention to recovery throughout the process. This article gives good advice on how to improve recovery techniques and helps you adapt to a new training program.
2. Build your base.
This concept is similar to a beginning lifter, and may seem novice, but your joints will thank you for it and you will prevent overuse injuries such as tendonitis from flaring up. Build yourself a solid strength base. Use squats, presses, deadlifts (yuck!), and general body building exercises to prepare your muscles and joints to support the heavier intensity in the Olympic Lifts. The Olympic Lifts can sit in the 3-5 rep range, but the focus on these should be perfecting technique and the main goal should be to improve overall strength. I would possibly even elongate this phase if necessary before pushing the focus towards the 2 rep maxes and 1RMs in the Olympic lifts.
You can also use this time to address any flexibility issues that you had previously or that may have occurred as a result of the time taken off. Increased range of motion can prevent future injuries as you progress back into your normal training routine. You can find some ideas to improve your range of motion here.
3. Work on your imbalances.
In a lot of cases, athletes will be cleared to return to sports before they are completely healed, and even before they complete rehab. Jason and I have seen this in all areas of sport. In collegiate sports, it’s often times because the coach is in a hurry for the athlete to return to competitive performance, and in the private sector it’s often because the insurance companies will only pay for so many follow-ups before deciding they’ve had enough. This is where communication with your coach becomes indescribably important. It’s obvious that there will be soreness upon return. Most likely the athlete hasn’t done any exercise (especially explosive exercise) during the rehab process, but you’ll need to monitor closely for symptoms of re-injury such as bruising or swelling/inflammation.
Once it’s been decided that the athlete is in the clear, work to improve any imbalances that could have caused the initial injury to begin with, or that may have developed due to the injury itself. For example, in an ACL injury, the rehab specialists will have already done exercises to determine the stability of the knee, but they may not have evolved the athlete into the point of sprinting full force or abruptly decelerating and changing directions (which is where the majority of non-contact ACL ruptures occur). Take your time coming back by monitoring the volume you endure daily and slowly building strength back through single leg exercises such as weighted step ups.
4. Return when ready.
If your goal is to return to competitive competition, only step on that platform when you feel ready. If it were me, I feel like I would want a tune up meet with the focus being on making lifts even if they are less than my previous competition maximums. However, I know some athletes that don’t want to settle for anything less than their bests, so maybe they would need more time to bring those tops lifts back to consistency in training before suiting up on the big platform. Either way, I would set yourself a goal and a timeline and don’t rush the return process. Especially in the case of an injury, it’s always better to return slow and in control than to rush the process and risk re-injury.
Editors note: This article is an op-ed. The views expressed herein are the authors and don’t necessarily reflect the views of BarBend. Claims, assertions, opinions, and quotes have been sourced exclusively by the author.