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5 Steps Fitness Coaches Use to Get You Back to the Gym After an Injury

Professional fitness coach displays proper form to a client
Professional fitness coach displays proper form to a client
Chris, a professional fitness coach, displays proper form to a client.

Get Back To The Gym In 5 Steps

The inevitable reality of aging is that aches, pains, and injuries occur. Not only are these annoying and disruptive to our daily routines, they can throw our workout programs for a loop. In fact, some of you reading this may have so many aches and pains that they prevent you from exercising in the first place, for fear that you will make things even worse. 

The good news is that a qualified Fitness Coach can help you navigate not only your return to the gym, but also put you in a position to help your aches, pains, and injuries diminish. Let’s find out how, by understanding the five things Fitness Coaches do to make this happen!

Disclaimer About Fitness Coaches

Not all Fitness Coaches are created equal, and you certainly get what you pay for. You’re not necessarily looking for just any run of the mill personal trainer (as I discussed in this article: Why you need a Fitness Coach, not a Personal Trainer). Ultimately, you’re looking for someone who has a four-year degree in Exercise Science, Kinesiology, or a related area of study. This individual should also be certified through an accredited organization, such as the American College of Sports Medicine, and be currently registered on the United States Registry of Exercise Professionals. Long story short is – do your homework and find the right exercise professional.

Additionally, depending on the type of ache, pain, or injury we’re talking about, the Fitness Coach may need to work with other qualified healthcare providers (doctors, physical therapists, etc.) to ensure your plan is appropriate as you resume activity and exercise. 

Highly qualified Fitness Coaches typically have networks of medical and allied health professionals they work with frequently. In fact, you may have been referred to your Fitness Coach from one of these very professionals. Don’t only look for a Fitness Coach with the qualifications I mentioned above, also ensure they have an existing relationship with other healthcare providers that can assist in your care as you return to the gym. 

With that understanding in place, let’s dive into the five steps a qualified Fitness Coach follows to get you back on track after an injury.

Step 1 – Fitness Coaches Understand You

Aches, pains, and injuries are inherently complex. That’s because pain, in and of itself, is complex. To not get too into the weeds, everyone perceives pain differently. This is something most of us understand well. 

Scientists have explored this phenomenon in research on something they call the biopsychosocial model of pain. That name says it all in terms of complexity. There are biological factors, such as the injury itself. Psychological factors, such as how we perceive pain signals in our brain. Finally, there are social factors, like what our social circle and society tell us about what pain means.

All of this to say, pain (have it be chronic pain or pain from an acute injury) is very complex. Two people can have the exact same injury and report very different levels of pain and physical limitations. Because of this it is incumbent for the Fitness Coach to really understand you, before you ever start moving for an evaluation or exercise routine. 

Common questions Fitness Coaches should ask in relation to your aches, pains, and injuries:

  • When did this first occur? What were you doing? How long has it been going on for? 
  • Specifically, where does it hurt? Is it localized or radiating? 
  • What makes it feel worse? What makes it feel better?
  • What are you currently doing to treat this issue?
  • What does having this issue prevent you from doing, that you want to do?

There are certainly any number of follow-up questions that could be asked, but that last question is really the most important. The bottom line is that if your aches, pains, and injuries are preventing you from doing things you really want to do, they need to be addressed. So many people avoid activities that they enjoy (everything from exercising to playing with their kids) because it hurts to do them. Avoidance isn’t treatment. Avoiding physical activities you enjoy is the fastest way to lead a less fulfilling and healthy life. 

Step 2 – Fitness Coaches Complete a Comprehensive Evaluation

Understanding you is just the beginning of getting you back to the gym, and the other physical activities that you enjoy. Great Fitness Coaches go much deeper to understand your aches, pains, and injuries. This starts with a comprehensive evaluation.

There are many different components to a comprehensive evaluation. At AFS, as a part of our MY90 program, we perform the following assessments:

  • Body Composition
  • Movement & Mobility Screening 
  • Muscular Strength & Endurance
  • Aerobic Capacity

The movement and mobility screening is what I want to zero in on. Movement screens are basically dynamic musculoskeletal evaluations that assess the intersection of stability, mobility, and strength. These types of assessments give Fitness Coaches a significant amount of important information about how to design an exercise program that is both safe and effective. 

Let’s define stability, mobility, and strength in the context we’re talking about here – just so we’re on the same page:

  • Stability: the ability to contract muscles on both sides of a joint, to hold that area stationary. 
  • Mobility: the ability to go through a full range of motion while producing force.
  • Strength: the ability to produce adequate amounts of force for the task at hand.

There are some important things to highlight from these definitions. 

First, stability is the foundation of movement. It doesn’t matter if it’s movement performed in the gym, or during activities of daily life; movement is actually based on stability. I know that might seem odd, but let me explain.

I’ll use the simple example of walking. In order to effectively walk you need stability of your pelvis, your spine and your shoulder blades to maintain good, upright posture. Proper stability in all of these areas allow for the muscles of our limbs to contract to produce forward motion. If you have issues with stability in any of these areas, not only will walking be less efficient, it will also potentially be painful. If stability is important in a simple activity like walking, it’s easy to imagine how it can be even more important during exercises you perform at the gym.

The operative words in the definition of mobility above are “ while producing force.” We want to be mobile in a functional sense. This requires both great range of motion, and force production, at the same time. Being flexible for the sake of being flexible isn’t very functional during daily life. All activities and exercise we do require flexibility (range of motion) and strength (force production). You can’t disentangle the two functionally, so they must be evaluated together. 

Finally, every activity or exercise we do has its roots in our muscles’ ability to produce force. Even cardiovascular activities like running or biking occur at some low percentage of our muscles maximum force production capacity. The higher that capacity, the easier it will be to perform, because it occurs at a lower percentage of maximal muscular effort. 

Using a comprehensive movement screen allows for a systemic evaluation of stability, mobility and strength. New technological tools, such as the Kinotek motion analysis system, used as a part of the AFS MY90, have greatly improved the ability to reliably assess and monitor functional movement capabilities. 

Step 3 – Fitness Coaches Provide Exercises to Address the Root Cause

The interesting thing about most lingering aches, pains, and injuries is that the site of the pain and the cause of the pain tend to be two different things. Certainly, if you roll your ankle, the site and cause of the pain is your ankle. This tends to not be the case with chronic aches, pains, and injuries.

A common area of pain and injury for many people is the lower back. In fact, according to the CDC, in 2019 alone nearly 40% of adults experienced back pain. Although the pain occurs for most people in the lower back, the cause of the pain can be a result of:

  • Tightness in hip flexor muscles
  • Weakness in the gluteal and abductor muscles
  • Weakness in the deep core stabilizers (such as the transverse abdominis and internal obliques)

Qualified Fitness Coaches, performing the appropriate movement and mobility screening can start to ascertain some of these potential root causes, and establish a corrective exercise routine to address the root cause. When done correctly, many of these aches, pains, and injuries occur less frequently. 

At this point, it’s also important to mention (as I alluded to above) that great Fitness Coaches also understand their scope of practice very well, and know when to collaborate with other healthcare providers. None of what is discussed in this article is rehabilitative in nature, that’s what physical therapists do. What we’re talking about here is after an injury has been adequately addressed by a qualified healthcare provider, and you’re looking to return to exercise. 

If anything, great Fitness Coaches will communicate directly with your healthcare providers to ensure continuity of care. This also establishes lines of communication in case something goes wrong when you’re returning to exercise.  

Step 4 – Fitness Coaches Monitor & Modify 

All aches, pains, and injuries are unique like a snowflake. Although presentation of symptoms and the actual injury itself might seem common, the reality is return to exercise is anything but common. This is where a highly qualified Fitness Coach comes in.

Monitoring your symptoms after each workout (even after every rep or exercise, in some cases) is critical to ensuring your return to exercise is successful. Doing a comprehensive movement and mobility screening, and prescribing exercises to address underlying causes is a great first step. From there it’s important to understand how your body actually responds to your workouts.

Fundamentally, a great Fitness Coach will “start low, and go slow.” This is a commonly used adage when exercising with aches, pains, and injuries. 

Start low refers to starting with lower volume (sets, reps, duration), intensity, and technical complexity (easier movement patterns). Go slow refers to progression in volume, intensity, and complexity over time. 

The goal of following this adage is to “first, do no harm.” Indeed, the most precarious part of exercising with aches, pains, and injuries is just getting started. Great Fitness Coaches know how to start you at a level that will not cause anything to flare up. From there, they’ll carefully monitor you to see if any symptoms re-emerge. If so, they’ll scale things back appropriately or make programmatic modifications. 

Great Fitness Coaches know how to make modifications and keep you moving towards your goals. They’re skilled at how to modify speed of movement, range of motion, load/intensity, volume, and other factors in your program to keep you exercising, even when issues arise. This might be the most valuable assistance Fitness Coaches provide. They help you solve minor aches and pains that occur as you resume exercise, to keep you going when you may not have the confidence or knowledge to do so on your own. 

Step 5 – Fitness Coaches Restore Confidence & Empower

With everything above withstanding, ultimately what a great Fitness Coach does is help restore confidence in your body and empower you to do the things you want in life. Fitness gives you the ability to fully engage with everything in life. Aches, pains, and injuries take that engagement away; anyone who’s ever had a significant injury knows that.

Everything that I’ve described above is just essentially a process through which a Fitness Coach takes you through to regain confidence in your body’s ability to perform activities that are meaningful to you. This confidence brings a sense of physical empowerment that allows you to feel in control of your own health. Nothing is more valuable than this. Sadly, when aches, pains, and injuries occur most people become passive participants in the healthcare process, and they don’t have to. There is nothing more disempowering than feeling like you don’t have control over your body and the things you want to do with it physically. This doesn’t have to be the case.

Working with a highly qualified Fitness Coach for guidance on how to resume the activities you enjoy provides a level of empowerment and freedom that everyone deserves. If you want to take control of your health while dealing with aches, pains, and injuries find the right Fitness Coach – you deserve it!

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