So you injured yourself lifting weights? You're not alone.
I recently suffered a grade three (complete) tear of my pectoralis major tendon while performing a barbell bench press. The weight I was using would put me into the powerlifting category. I had to have surgery and was immobilized in an arm sling for six weeks. If your injury is severe enough to keep you from training for more than two weeks, your body is likely going to respond negatively.
Specifically, you may lose muscle mass, strength and function. And when you lose muscle, protein synthesis decreases and muscle resists anabolic stimulation, or the ability to respond to muscle-growth stimuli.
Here are eight nutrition tips to ensure that you don’t lose too many gains during an extended break from training.
During the initial healing process of an immobilized limb, your caloric intake should remain about the same as usual. It’s not the time to try and cut weight, nor is it the time to bulk up. If you’re burning more calories that consuming, you may not have enough energy to heal wounds properly and stall muscle loss. On the other hand, too many calories while you’re unable to do cardio and/or lift weights can result in decreased insulin sensitivity and an increase in body fat. What matters even more than daily caloric intake during injury is the daily protein intake.
Aim for 25-30 grams of protein per meal for a total of at 1.0-1.5 grams of protein per pound of bodyweight per day. This is an amount similar to what most male and female weightlifters would consume during intense training. While injured, a sudden and dramatic decrease in protein intake will lead to negative nitrogen balance resulting in impaired wound healing and/or increased muscle loss. The best way to track protein intake is to use a food scale to measure the weight (in ounces or grams) of the fresh protein you’re eating (ex: chicken, fish, quinoa) and do the math to calculate how many grams of protein are in that serving.
Being unable to walk, drive, or cook with two hands may seem like the perfect excuse to eat at restaurants every night but this is not the time. If you’re stuck at home with your injury, think of this as a time to experiment with new recipes. If the injury hasn’t driven you from working, consider using a prepared meal delivery/grocery service so you can save time and energy by not having to cook like usual. You don’t want to eat something at a restaurant that might interact negatively with any medications you’re taking and not even know what the ingredient is. Now more than ever, try to limit fast food and bar food. And of course, avoid alcohol as much as possible since that will add the catabolism (breaking down of protein) that you already have.
Our bodies have 20 amino acids, these amino acids are classified as: nonessential, essential, and conditionally essential. Nonessential amino acids can be produced by the body. Essential amino acids must be consumed in the diet. Conditionally essential amino acids become essential during illness and stress. Of the nine essential amino acids, there are three called branched chain amino acids (BCAAs) that have been studied in a number of disorders, injuries and in regards to exercise performance. The BCAA that does the most is leucine: it stimulates protein synthesis through the mTOR signaling pathway and stimulates insulin secretion. There are numerous studies showing exercise performance benefits of BCAAs, but studies looking at the effect of BCAAs on muscles following an injury in humans just aren’t there yet. Nonetheless, it’s smart to make sure your BCAA supplement has at least two grams leucine per serving because we know that in healthy individuals, leucine works.
I took (and continue to take) Cellucor Alpha Amino nearly every day to prevent a negative nitrogen balance. This product has five grams of BCAAs, with 2.5 grams of leucine per scoop. It also has BetaPower® Betaine, a natural and scientifically studied ingredient that maintains muscle cell hydration, protects against cell stress during intense activity, and even boosts physical performance – especially strength, power, and muscle endurance.*
Collagen are protein structures that act as a natural glue in our bodies, holding together joints, bones and skin tissue. When we slow cook animal bones, the cooked collagen on the meat bones is called gelatin. Collagen supplements are typically sourced from pig or cow skin. Hydrolyzed collagen (type 1 and 3) is a processed gelatin that’s broken down into amino acids using high heat. Undenatured type II collagen (UCII) has larger peptides and is absorbed as is. Type 1 and 3 collagen are for skin health and help with sagginess, wrinkles and wound healing. Type 2 collagen is for joint health and may help relieve joint pain, swelling and stiffness.
If you had an invasive surgery like me, take all three types of collagen daily if possible until your wound has completely turned into a scar and not a cut. During my recovery, I’ve been taking one type of collagen daily whether it be type 1 and 3 or UCII.
Glutamine is one of the aforementioned conditionally essential amino acids. It’s hard to tell just when glutamine becomes “essential” or necessary to be consumed via the diet but it’s usually major surgeries, multiple trauma and burns. Glutamine serves many functions in our bodies including maintaining a healthy gut, transporting nitrogen and aiding in the creation of glucose, arginine, and glutathione (an antioxidant). Patients with severe injuries are often given glutamine via feeding tubes to help them prevent infection and restore immune system function.
During catabolic periods such as being immobilized, glutamine is released in larger quantities than normal to perform essential bodily functions. To compensate for the increased glutamine demand, it may be beneficial to take it as a supplement. Post pectoral reconstruction surgery, I took one serving of Cellucor Glutamine 4-5 times per week. This product is unflavored so it can mix well with orange juice, protein powder, and of course, water.
For the first few weeks after your injury, it may be wise to go from drinking out of your usual gallon to a smaller container. I’m usually a gallon-in-hand person but I had to start buying cases of small (16.9 oz) water bottles because I didn’t want to strain myself carrying gallons of water. Try to drink eight 16.9oz water bottles daily for a total of a little over a gallon per day. Your new form of exercise during injury recovery will be using the bathroom. It’s essential to stay hydrated while you’re dealing with the inflammation of a muscular injury. Dehydration combined with a lack of nutrients and a physical injury equals a bad time.
Two root vegetables can have significant positive effects on health: beet root and turmeric root. A Nutrition Journal study found that 80mg of curcumin, the active compound in turmeric, decreased triglycerides and increases nitric oxide in healthy people. Nitric oxide helps blood circulation which is key while part of your body may not be able to move. Keeping triglycerides and cholesterol at bay while you’re exercising less is also important for overall health. Beets are fibrous plants that have a reddish color. Beets have been shown to improve endurance performance by allowing athletes to last longer during workouts. The benefit of beets also include increasing nitric oxide production but at a higher scale than curcumin. If you’re able to do cardio, add beets to your diet to get more out of those workouts.
Pick your usual “hangry” and midnight snacks as these are going to be the things that keep you happy during an injury that sucks. My go-to snacks are dark chocolate, pork rinds, Greek Yogurt (flavored), nut butter, fruit and crackers. The key with these snacks is to limit their consumption. Don’t get in the habit of making what’s usually a snack your entire meal just because you’re not working out. In terms of alcohol, I didn’t drink at all until three weeks after my surgery. Remember that a usual night out with friends might not be the same because you have to leave due to overcrowded situations. I left my friends early while in a sling because I was afraid people would keep bumping into my arm and chest.
Overall, yes it’s rare that you got injured lifting weights. However, it’s common that you’ll recover with the same function and strength that you had before. Stay productive and healthy while on the shelf.