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  • Active recovery

    Published: 01-06-2021

    Recently I had the good fortune of lifting 100kg overhead press whilst weighing 85kg for 2 reps. I was very happy with myself. On the final decentric portion I put the bar down in an uncontrolled manner on the safety rails. I nearly fainted (presumingly from the intense pressure in my head and neck).

    The following day I had no obvious pains so I decided PR a new bench press. That went well too!

    The following morning I had noticeable left shoulder pain. Pinching or sharp in nature. I speculate that my uncontrolled decentric near faint with 100kg was the culprit. The pain was worse in the mornings or certain movements particularly when transitioning to lie on my left side at night. I self diagnosed myself with a shoulder cuff injury. The shoulder cuff is a collection of muscles which move the shoulder joint around.

    For the next week and a bit overhead pressing (but not benching) produced the pain.

    Continous reps at a low weight eventually reduced the pain during excercise but higher weights nearing 75% of my five rep max (5RM) the pain would be exacerbated.

    Active recovery

    I am not too concerned regarding my injury as I had full range of movement in my arm at all times. The pain is largely ignorable too. I speculate I largely have all of my strength but where there is injury to such an intricate joint like the shoulder I would prefer for the tissue to heal before I continue with heavy weights again.

    But how can tissue be healed? Well time is certainly the main factor but what can one do to promote healing? I am an advocate of the process of active recovery. As I understand it active recovery is using the injured muscle to promote blood flow. Where blood flows is where healing can take place with the removal of waste products and the flow of nutrition.

    Essentially this would mean using the injured limb in a way which doesn't promote further injury but promotes blood flow. This means typically higher reps and lower weight. So for me this meant to lots of one-armed dumbbell presses whilst on holiday in Devon.

    • Set 1: One-armed dumbbell press x26 reps
    • Set 2: One-armed dumbbell press x26 reps
    • Set 3: One-armed dumbbell press x26 reps
    • Set 4: One-armed dumbbell press x26 reps
    When undertaking active recovery don't be scared of a bit of pain. The important part should be the pain reducing after a few sets. Note: this may not be the case if the injury is new or severe.

    Doing this daily (which is permitted because of the low intensity) gives the injured tissue more blood flow, and in theory, more capacity for healing.

    Promoting inflammation

    An interesting anectode is the use of forceably inflamming the tissue (pissing it off) promoting its recovery. In my case it was chronic elbow tendonitis. My prior ongoing right elbow pain was exacerbated by the bench press. I would rest for what seemed an excessive amount of time but the pain would return. Eventually I came across Mark Rippetoe 's advise for the recovery of golfers / tennis elbow (elbow tendonitis). He purpotes that sometimes a tissue has an injury but not enough inflammation to never fully heal it. In other words an injury is enough to cause pain and discomfort but never enough to heal fully. Rippetoe's advise (within the context that it is followed by an intelligent adult with decent bodily awareness) is to create more inlammation through over use of that muscle.

    Rippetoe advised for an individual with elbow tendonitis to do an excessive amount of chin ups to exacerbate pain and inflammation to the elbow region. One must do enough chin ups so that your forearm, bicep and tricep feel painfully engorged with blood. Rippetoe in the past reassures listeners that just because something hurts doesn't necessarily mean it doesn't won't work properly (Back Pain and Back Strength by Mark Rippetoe).

    I gave Rippetoe's advice a go. I did 20 reps of 10 sets of chinups. I would do a set and take a walk around the gym then hop back on the chin up bar. Eventually my engorged arm couldn't muster the capacity to do 20 reps. It didn't matter. I rested and did as many as I could vowing to do at least 100. And when I did 100 I did a few extra for good measure. The following evening my arm felt sore but not in agony. The following day again some soreness but something easily ignorable. A few days later I forgot about the pain entirely and have yet to experience the chronic elbow pain since. Months of elbow annoyance gone in a session blasting my elbow full of blood and promoting inflammation.

    "We apply this concept with the use of chin-ups. Chin-ups have a tendency to really piss off the elbows if they are already inflamed." — Jordan Burnett (Elbow Tendonitis: How it Occurs and What to Do About It)

    So why don't I do the same with my shoulder? Well in essence I have done so with my daily high reps of one armed dumbbell work. However it's important to have good bodily intuition to know the limits of your capacity and points of injury. The shoulder feels more like a more complicated machine and therefore I am treating it with a bit more care. Besides I am on holiday too! If the gentler active recovery method doesn't work alongside time I should consider a similar blast of inflammation as I did with my elbow!

    Injury is a natural part of weightlifting. Active recovery is an excellent tool to hasten recovery and to keep you from catastrophizing pain and keep you moving.

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