The 5 Emotional Stages Of An Injury (And How To Train Around It)

Side note: The title of this article was inspired by a hilarious post from Pumps and Iron (about furniture). I laughed so hard I decided to ‘borrow’ it for my own post about a very serious topic. Enjoy!

January 2016 started out nicely enough. No hangover (because I didn’t go out), no drama (because I was asleep by midnight), and no worries about losing the holiday weight gain (because I eat the same all year).

So I did what any smart, ambitious woman does this time of year. I signed up for my first powerlifting meet, committed to a teaching more classes in a new facility, accepted a promotion at work and signed up for a number of exams and trainings in February. Talk about overload! Yet this is how I roll….

Needless to say, my body didn’t like this very much. It wanted more recovery, more sleep, less wine, and less stress. What I did outside of the weight room was actually hurting me without me even realizing it. So it shouldn’t have been a surprise when suddenly….my kneecap locked one day and my leg refused to bend.

I don’t know what that’s called in the medical field but when your knee locks out it’s like you’re trapped underneath a boulder. You want to move but you can’t. You can try but you might actually break in half.

And so the emotional roller coaster began.

Stage 1: Denial

Oh, this sucks, I thought. I wonder if I can rub this one out [insert laughs to herself]. Maybe if I foam roll a bit more my kneecap will come loose and I can start my workout. I’ll give it 5 minutes. That should help it.

Denial is a river that runs deep around a new injury. That pain you feel? Maybe it’s a bug bite? Those body aches you feel? Certainly, it must be the flu. Definitely not a sprain. Or a muscle spasm. Or an ACL tear. Definitely not that.

I limped over to my coaches asking “Can you tell me what might be wrong and how to fix it?” I realize now how silly a question like this is because trainers are not medical practitioners. Even if they were, they don’t have X-Ray vision so asking them to diagnose and treat me was setting them up to fail. But I was living in cold, hard denial. I couldn’t bend my leg! I foam rolled and stretched but the pain would not subside. I glanced over at the platform feeling defeated (because it was deadlift day and those are my favorite) and decided to do strict presses instead.

Stage 2: Anger

I woke up the next morning with a throbbing in my leg. Oh crap. This can’t be good.

My first attempt at moving almost sent me crashing to the floor. I couldn’t get out of bed! Who knew one bum knee would make it so difficult to move around! Oh, this really isn’t good. Maybe I can hop on one leg to the bathroom?

Note to self: Hoping around at 6am is really frowned upon when you live among roommates. Or have neighbors. Maybe I can slither across the floor like a snake to the bathroom?

And with that came a rush of angry thoughts: Why is the world conspiring against me knowing I have a meet to train for? Why did coach program so many squats? I have trainings the next two weekends. How am I supposed to move with this leg the way it is? Why me?!

Let’s cut to the chase here. Being angry is a useless emotion in this case. It gets us nowhere. Your injury is your problem and your responsibility. I realized this when I looked back at my programming and remembered 1) I was doing half-ass warm-ups for high-volume squat days 2) I wasn’t recovering properly from them 3) I accidentally did an extra day of squatting because I can’t read directions properly, causing more soreness and irritation 4) I choose not to see a medical professional right away but ‘ride it out’ to see if I could manage it myself with the RICE method.  Everything leading up to my injury and afterwards was my decision and no one else’s.


A workout is a lot like sex (bear with me here). Not a drunk one-night stand but a passionate night with Leonardo DiCaprio (dream man). The warm-up is foreplay. Sex with Leo is, well, your workout (duh), and the cuddling? That’s your cool-down. Basically, I skipped on foreplay and cuddling with Leo at every workout, which is ridiculous when you’re training for a powerlifting meet (or getting frisky with Leo). If there was anyone to be angry at it was me. This was my responsibility.

Stage 3: Bargaining

By week two, I found myself bargaining with my body. If I foam roll tonight maybe I can feel better for a workout tomorrow! What if I do yoga tomorrow morning and make it a weekly habit, maybe I’ll recover faster and won’t get stupid injuries like this? I ended up doing a 5-min Vinyasa flow in my pajamas and eating chocolate. Good enough.

The bargaining stage ain’t all that bad. Once we realize what went wrong leading up to the injury we can make adjustments to our training and address certain weaknesses. For most lifters, athletes and average Janes, common deficiencies in our programming include

– Aerobic conditioning

– Weak posterior chain

– Faulty movement patterns

– Muscular imbalances

(You can also add, crappy warm-up/cool-down but that’s an easy fix).

Stage 4: Depression

The first four days of what is now remembered as  ‘KneeGate’ was like a bad break-up with the barbell. I sat on the couch eating chocolate and drinking wine on the nights I’d normally workout. I Netflixed for hours with an ice pack on my knee and popped Advil like Amy Winehouse reincarnated. I wish I could go run, or lift, or jump. Can I do a burpee on one leg? What about a handstand push-up?

Note: When you start craving burpees, you know you’re depressed.

It’s common to feel down when injury strikes. After all, we’re used to working out at a certain volume or intensity and an injury slows us down. Rather than sit around in a pool of self-pity, why not move? Find an alternative that lets you move your body to some degree without giving up a positive habit you’ve worked so hard to cultivate.

Rather than throw my nighttime routine of heavy lifting and carbs, I’ve peeled myself away off the couch and hit the gym anyway. After all, KneeGate affects only one limb; I still have an entire upper body that can work and my right leg is perfectly capable of exercise.


Stage 5: Acceptance (and let’s do something about it)

This is the real meat and potatoes of this post and it’s all about What in Christ’s name do I do now that I’m injured?

Remember this: You are hurt, not dead. You can still move to some extent. The goal is to find mobility and strength in a pain-free range of motion. You can wallow around and eat your face off, or you can take some responsibility for your injury and use it as a growth opportunity. Work on your weaknesses, address issues in your technique or kinetic chain. Every one, no matter how advanced, has a weakness. Use this time to address exactly that so you can come back stronger than ever. Here a few ways how.

Strengthen your foundation

Every exercise enthusiast or lifter should come back to doing the basics at some point in their training. I often see advanced Olympic weightlifters at my gym work on the split jerk with nothing but a PVC pipe. This allows them to master technique without the stress or load of the barbell. The same applies to runners. Even experienced runners benefit from breathing drills, core training, developing hip stability and strength, or addressing basic running mechanics. It doesn’t make you “less” of an athlete. It’s imperative because our foundation is everything. If your running mechanics is off you’ll develop muscular imbalances that lead to inefficiencies and injury down the line. When we’re injured, we are forced back to square one because that’s all we can manage. This is a good thing. If we can strengthen our foundation we can come back strong again.

Let’s look back at the common deficiencies I mentioned earlier:

Aerobic conditioning:

Lifters, yogis, and computer jockeys don’t do a whole lot of conditioning. When injury strikes, it may very well be a blessing in disguise, and time to focus more on the aerobic side of things.

Aerobic conditioning has a few essential benefits:

– Increases the diameter of the blood vessels, allowing more blood to move around and decreases the chance for blood clots to block out any blood flow

– This increases more blood flow to the muscles and gets more oxygen and nutrients to cells throughout the body. This is good news for an injured site, which needs all the help it can get to heal up

– The heart gets stronger and more efficient, decreasing blood pressure, improving cardiac output and efficiency

– Takes strain off certain joints and ligaments that normally take a beating from consistent running or lifting

– Builds and maintains lean body mass

– Improves overall muscle endurance

Even if your goal is to get stronger or put on more muscle, there is still room for aerobic conditioning. You won’t lose all your #gainz by doing a few sprints here and there.

Movement patterns

The basic movement patterns – hinge, squat, carry, push, pull – get better and better as we train, but it’s never perfect (#progressnotperfection). As it pertains to injury, working on specific movement patterns can get tricky. Lower body injuries are more difficult to work around but there are some modifications we can make. For example, with loaded squats, cleans and deadlifts out of the question, I experimented with basic goblet squats. Using a light load, I could focus on the movement rather than the weight itself, ultimately perfecting my technique so that when I start squatting again, I’ve grooved the pattern and improve my lifts. I also found how simple and fun it is to workout in different ways, even with an injury. Rather than my typical training session that starts with one of the big lifts, I can go right into superset training, addressing certain weaknesses like core strength and hip mobility, while fine tuning my technique in other bodyweight exercises like pull-ups and push-ups.

Training around an injury takes a little planning and sometimes creativity – it just depends on the injury. Sumo deadlifts with light weight allow me to work on the hinge and address muscular imbalances in my posterior chain without hurting my knee, as do Romanian deadlifts, glute bridges and hip thursts do. I benefit from this in multiple ways: 1) I strengthen weaker muscles groups 2) I can continue to train without hurting myself 3) I ‘groove’ the hinge pattern 4) I don’t go insane.

Muscular imbalances

When you’re injured it’s like the scales fall of our eyes and suddenly we can see the light! Muscular imbalances you never noticed before suddenly become very apparent. This is why an injury is a learning opportunity – we uncover our strengths and faults and get to work on them. Recently, I took up a half Turkish get-up as my primary core / full-body exercise before training. It’d been a while since I incorporated TGU into my workouts but it’s an excellent movement I know I can do pain-free. What I realized was how much weaker my left side is compared to my right! At 25lbs, I struggled to press the kettlebell up on one side while the right side moved with ease and control. Clearly something to work on.

With this feedback, I adjusted the day’s programing with supersets of dumbbell chest presses, rows, raises, chin-ups and good mornings. None of these are “corrective” by any means, but I realized how badly certain parts of my body needed attention.

If you find yourself weak in certain lifts, movements or exercises – don’t panic! Take the weight down a little and start light and easy, maybe with a few bodyweight movements. Notice where you struggle, where your form breaks down, or where things get challenging. Stick with that discomfort and ask if it’s a matter of weakness, imbalance or just lack of practice. We often become imbalanced by doing the same workouts or sport without any change in our regimen. This is the perfect time to take up new activities – be it Barre, Pilates, yoga or gymnastics – to get your body to move in different ways and even out the imbalances you had leading up to your injury.


Have you come back from a recent injury? Comment below and share your tips and insights from your recovery.

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