Being injured sucks. Almost as rough: Coming back to the gym post-injury. After all, you’re set back from where you were, and even after rehab, the strength in the injured body part won’t be the same. Steve Saunders, founder of Power Train, has coached numerous major league sports players back to playing form post-injury. Whether you’re coming back from a shoulder injury, Illiotibial Band Syndrome, hamstring strain, or another common injury, his advice can help you too. Click through the slides below to find your injury. Then, do each of the recommended moves in three sets of 10, taking a minute rest between sets. Aim to work these into your routine two to three times per week. Injuries and comeback time will be different for everyone so talk to your doctor if you’re still feeling pain or not seeing improvements. And by all means, start easy and be careful! Another setback is way worse than a little wounded weight-room pride.
Shoulder Impingement or Rotator Cuff Tear
The shoulder is one of the most complex regions of the body, and its awesome mobility also means there’s a lot more that can go wrong. “Injuries occur most often in people who repeatedly perform overhead movements,” Saunders says. So for starters, don’t do those.
DO: Isometric Ts and Is
Lying facedown on a bench, raise arms out to a T position and hold it there for at least 10 seconds. Have a partner watch that your arms are level and your shoulder blades are pulled firmly together. From here, turn your arms so they shoot out right in front of you, Superman-style, and hold for another 10 seconds. Rest then repeat. When it’s time to progress, add light dumbbells.
DO: Wide row with rotation
In that same prone position, begin with arms hanging down, then row them back, engaging the shoulder blades and keeping the elbows wide and bent at 90-degree angles. (Again, have a partner check that your elbows are level.) Rotate your arms forward, so the elbows are still bent and your hands are parallel with your head. Slowly rotate back, then lower your hands. Add dumbbells when you’re ready.
DON’T: Heavy pressing exercises
As already noted, heavy overhead pressing exercises are a big no-no. (Pulldowns using a neutral grip are OK as long as they don’t cause pain.) Also off the list for now: Loaded chest or bench presses and even pushups until everything in the shoulder is working properly.
Both painful and annoying, there’s not much to do when this bone breaks but wait it out. Once you’re cleared to exercise, you’ll be itching to start strengthening your chest—but you have to go about it the right way.
DO: Band chest flys
Lie face up on a stability ball. Using a resistance band or cable machine, position yourself so you begin with your arms extended out to the sides with the ends of the band in each hand. Engage through the pecs, then slowly bring the hands together to the front of your body, with a slight bend in the elbows. Release slowly and repeat.
DO: Band reverse flys
This is a great compliment to the chest flys, helping to stabilize the shoulder girdle. You’ll need a band or cable machine and a bench at a 45-degree angle. Position yourself so that your chest is against the bench, and the point of tension is directly underneath you. Holding the ends of the band in each hand, activate the muscles between the shoulder blades to fly the arms up and out to the sides, elbows soft, and shoulder blades pinching together. Hold for three seconds at the top then slowly release.
DON’TS: Bench press or shoulder press
These heavily loaded pushing exercises are best avoided, at least until you’ve developed greater shoulder stability.
“Hamstring strains are both common and painful and can strike athletes of all sorts,” Saunders says. “Unfortunately, they also can continue to recur if not taken care of properly.” To that end, you want to strengthen the muscle in a controlled way.
DO: Unilateral pendulum Romanian deadlift
This balancing move is surprisingly strengthening. Shift your weight into one foot. Slowly hinge your hips forward while extending the non-supporting leg back behind you, keeping your torso and leg in line with each other. Keep the knee of the standing leg locked at 10 degrees and work up to holding the pendulum position for 30 or 40 seconds.
DO: Supine knee flexion
Weak hip flexors can be a culprit in hamstring strains. Lie on your back with a looped band anchored in front of your body at your feet. Place one foot in the band’s loop and bend your knee in toward your chest (pulling the band to tension). Hold at the top, then slowly release the leg. Repeat on the other side.
DON’TS: Running and heavy lower-body lifting (Deadlifts, Squats). That damaged ham needs a lot of strengthening before attempting these high-intensity activities.
Illiotibial Band Syndrome (ITBS)
Common to runners and athletes who often move laterally (soccer, tennis), this inflammation or tightness of the IT band can cause crazy pain in the knee. When coming back post-rehab, it’s important to keep improving your hip stability, while not stressing out the ITB.
DO: Side step-ups
Stand next to a box that’s just below knee height. Place one foot (the foot closest to the box) on top of it, and use that leg only to step up, fully extending the hips at the top. The key is to completely unload the foot on the ground and resist the inclination to jump up. “I’ve had powerlifters who can squat 800 pounds, but can’t do this controlled step-up with body weight,” Saunders says. Once you’ve mastered the bodyweight version, add dumbbells hanging at your sides.
DO: Single-leg bridges
Lie down on the floor on your back. Place your arms out like a T, and bend your knees up, heels flat on the floor close to your butt. Extend one leg out so your thighs are parallel, then lift your hips up so thighs are in line with the torso, using your glutes and hamstrings to power the movement. Hold for three counts before releasing down. Do all the reps on that side before switching sides. To make it harder, move the arms down by the sides, then across the chest.
DON’TS: Squats or forward lunges
“There are too many things that can go wrong with these moves when crucial muscles may not be working properly yet,” Saunders says.
This one almost always happens from trauma—a fall, a missed step, or a wrong move on the court and you’re down for the count. Notoriously tricky, if you come back too soon, too quickly, you could end up with a “bad ankle” for life.
DO: Quarter squats with heel raise
Start with feet hip-width apart. Sit back into a squat but only travel about a quarter of the usual distance, as if you’re aiming to sit on a tall bar stool. Press down into the feet to stand up, then raise yourself up onto your toes. Lower down to flat feet before squatting again. Add a barbell on your back to progress the exercise.
DO: Front-leg elevated split squats
Place your front leg on a pad, balance disc, or bosu ball (anything to create some instability). The back foot should be a fair distance behind it, so you’re in a lunge position. With upright posture, bend both knees to lower down the torso. Press in to the front leg to bring yourself back to stand. Dumbbells held at your sides make the move tougher.
DON’TS: Running or plyometrics
Both put far too much stress and pounding on a joint that isn’t ready to take it.