If you participate in mountain biking long enough then odds are you will end up with an injury at some point. The injury scale varies, ranging from surgery and intense physical therapy to simply needing time off with some ice. However, what almost all injuries have in common is that there is usually a gap between where rehabbing the injury leaves off and the level of strength and coordination needed to safely and effectively return to your sport.
In order to best bridge that gap you need to undertake a well thought out strength and conditioning plan. Both scientific studies and real world results show us that without this added approach the odds of re-injury are much higher and the level of performance upon return is lower. Simply going into the weight room and randomly doing some exercises is not the best way, though, and may in fact make the situation worse without the right approach. In order to maximize your strength training program for injury rehab you must follow these four components when planning out your workouts:
-Train Unilaterally: It is extremely important that when you start your post rehab training that you train each limb separately. When you do bilateral exercises such as bench press or squats the stronger side will take over the movement and try to protect the weaker side. This just reinforces the strength imbalance that usually accompanies an injury.
If you do not force the weaker limb to work just as hard as the stronger limb then you will never fully address the strength imbalance, making it practically impossible to return to pre-injury performance levels. For the lower body this means doing exercises such as split squats, step ups and lunges (just to name a few) and for the upper body this means doing single arm dumbbell bench press, pullovers, rows and shoulder press. Incorporating this strategy right off the bat will ensure that balance is restored as quickly as possible.
-Follow the Weak Side Rule: This one ties in with training unilaterally. Since the injured side is usually weaker, it is important that you do not unknowingly continue to reinforce the strength imbalance. To make sure that you do not fall into this trap do your weaker side first in order to let it dictate the load and reps for the stronger side. Once you have completed your first set on the weaker side do that same load and number of reps for the stronger side, no matter how easy it may feel. In fact, if it is a major imbalance then you will want to add in one extra set for the weaker side until it starts to catch up. Only by using this approach can you guarantee the success of your post-rehab program.
-Emphasize the Eccentric: Studies have shown that the eccentric, or lowering, portion of an exercise not only yields some of the biggest strength gains, it is also extremely helpful in strengthening tendons and ligaments. Since these structural portions of a joint are usually part of the original injury, they are in a weakened state upon return. That is one of the major reasons that the odds of re-injury are so high upon return. This makes doing everything that we can to strengthen them as quickly and safely as possible a major priority during the post-rehab period.
There are numerous ways to emphasize the eccentric, some more practical than others. So, for most the two easiest ways are to slow down the eccentric portion and by using the 2:1 technique. Slowing down the eccentric means exactly that – lower the weight down to a count of 3-5, really making sure that you keep tension in the muscle on the way down instead of simply turning the muscle off and letting gravity pull the weight down. The 2:1 technique consists of raising a weight with 2 limbs and then lowering the weight down using 1 limb. For example, a great lower body variation of this is the 2:1 bodyweight squat. Set up a bench behind you, lower yourself down using one leg and then use both legs to stand back up. Emphasizing the eccentric portion of your exercises, especially on the injured side, will help you return structural integrity in a safe and effective manner.
-Emphasize Compound Bodyweight and Free Weight Movements: Since one of the major goals with a post rehab program is to restore full function as quickly as possible, it is very important to use exercises that work a lot of muscles in a coordinated effort. Using isolation movements and machines may help return strength to a specific area but unless your body can properly coordinate that area with the rest of the surrounding musculature you will not have the function needed to safely and effectively return to your sport. Remember that your body coordinates itself to create movement patterns, so using bodyweight and free weight exercises to train these movement patterns instead of individual muscles will return full function in the fastest manner possible.
As you can see, there are several potential benefits to incorporating a well structured strength training program into your post rehab strategy. Besides the physical strength and control you will also gain the mental confidence from knowing that you are doing everything that you can to ensure your success. Seeing your injured side performing well in a controlled environment like the gym will do wonders for your confidence in the chaotic environment of the trail, letting you simply perform instead of constantly wondering if you are going to re-injure yourself. Fitter, more confident athletes also tend to have more fun upon their return, which is still what it is all about.