How to get a full-body workout with an injured knee


In the first half of a roller derby scrimmage on Saturday, I was in the middle of a pile-up on the track. In the tussle, I messed up my MCL, or the ligament on the inside of my knee. If it’s torn, it’s only slightly. It’s Wednesday now, and it already feels 10,000 times better than it did on Saturday.

Of course, it probably wouldn’t have hurt that bad on Saturday if that pesky adrenaline hadn’t encouraged me to ignore it and play the second half at full-throttle. But I digress.

As much as I missed squatting yesterday, I knew skipping out on leg day was the only non-stupid thing to do. I want to give myself the opportunity to recover, and fast.

Still, two of my five gym days involve my fair use of my gams. With them out of commission, what was I supposed to do?

My usual schedule involves a leg day (squats, leg press, extensions, lunges, the whole kit and kaboodle) on Tuesday and an agility/cardio day on Wednesday. I didn’t want to put a lot of weight on my knee joint (obviously) and jumping through painted ladders sounded like a straight path to disaster.

So instead of doing alla that, below are the workouts I did (and am planning) for the week:

Guess what I did on Monday?rested. Like, I didn’t go to the gym. Like, I stayed home and TF off of my legs the entire day. I needed it; even the short walk to the gym seemed like way too much time spent on my right leg.

Tuesday? I felt better—and stir-crazy. I did my usually Monday back and biceps routine. Lat pull-downs, parallel-grip lat pull-downs, close-grip rows, straight-bar rows, hammer-grip bicep curls, Zottman curls, and concentration curls.

In the spare minutes at the end, instead of hopping on the treadmill (usually a nice finisher for me) I went HAM on my back. I focused on really establishing the mind-body connection and activating those muscles. I took the weight down and upped my reps. I kept a close, figurative eye on the rest of my body. When I felt other muscles activate to compensate for my back calling it quits, I paused for 5-10 seconds, then tried for another 4-6 reps.

It felt good, and, crucially, made me wonder how much I was actually working out my back when doing regular, heavy lat pull-downs. The realization that maybe I was lifting too heavy to properly engage the muscles I meant to exercise had me shook. That sudden awareness is very valuable—and something that wouldn’t have happened without my injury. Score.

Wednesday? I moved up my shoulder and abs workout (usually Thursday), and did a lot more with my core than I usually do in a given week. After doing dumbbell shoulder presses, upright rows, and seated lateral raises, I went upstairs and fooled around on the leg raise, using my core and hip flexors (I think?) to bring my legs closer to my chest. I did it with both bent knees and straight legs. Killer!

I also noodled around the hyperextension equipment. With a 25-pound plate on my hugged to my chest, I raised my upper body as high as was comfortable. Around rep 5, I felt a surprising burn in my hamstrings and glutes. That gave me hope. By golly by gosh could I actually work a bit of legs without irritating my knee? I felt a bit of a twinge in my quads doing straight-legged raises, too. I’m going to experiment more tomorrow and (hopefully) come up with a leg-day plan that doesn’t strain our knees. I feel like this will be helpful for a lot of people!

Anywho, after that it was the usual mat fare: plank, russian twists with a medicine ball, V-ups (so bad at these), bent-legged windshield wipers, and reverse crunches.

Thursday? The plan is to do chest and triceps. That means incline dumbbell presses, incline narrow presses (with a single, heavier kettlebell or dumbbell), pec-dec flies (flyes? flys? what?), rope tricep pulls, and a series of overhead tricep extensions to failure. Then I want to play more on unfamiliar equipment, especially the stuff that may secretly work out my legs without using my knee at all. I’ll keep you posted on how that goes.

Friday? Glute activation (to prepare for Saturday’s training, presuming my knee’s good enough to justify attending) and using the research I’ve done earlier in the week to do a non-knee-irritating leg day. Exciting!

Don’t you see? Having a minor injury does not necessitate getting frustrated and standing still. In fact, in so many cases it can lead to more creative programming, more experimentation, more fun in the gym.

Do any of you have a knee injury that flares up and keeps you from exercising? How do you work around it? Please tell me your secrets!


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