Health / Expert Advice

How to Work Out With a Leg Injury

Get moving—at your own speed.

A pulled ligament, a tear in your ACL, a sprain in your calf muscle—all of these feel like a death sentence for your workout routine. However, Certified Personal Trainer and Certified Orthopedic Exercise Specialist Cary Raffle says that a leg injury doesn’t have to mean the end of your exercise program. It just means that you have to get crafty. “You can work the rest of your body, including the limb or joint on the opposite side of your body from the injury,” he explains. “When you exercise one side of the body, you get about 20 percent of the benefit on the opposite side, because you continue to train your brain and nervous system.”

Your left leg might not be quite as fit as your right and vice versa. However, Raffle reminds that as long as your doctor gives you the seal of approval to be on your feet (or, er, foot), don’t let a soreness or strain prevent you from your active lifestyle. Instead, try these new training modalities, that provide effective work-arounds.

Try single-leg exercises.

One of the most common leg injuries is around the knee. Whether incurred from long distance running or an unintentional twist while training, this part of our body is supremely sensitive. This makes it more likely to suffer the brunt of a negative impact.

It’s important to give your body enough recovery post-injury before applying pressure. But, once your doctor gives you clearance, it’s also important to balance out your right and left sides. Physical Therapist Lauren Lobert, DPT, OMPT, CSCS recommends trying single-leg exercises to help remedy any asymmetries. These might be reverse lunges, step-ups, and single leg sit to stand movements.

Set up shop in one part of the gym.

Hey, if you need an extra hand because you’re down one leg—don’t sweat it. Raffle says that a leg injury can slow you down and make it difficult to use any cardio machine or equipment. Due to this, you may get frustrated and feel like you’re dragging around the injured leg behind you. To combat this, he suggests asking for help at the gym to set up shop in one spot. Here, you can focus on bodyweight movements that you’re able to execute. Plus, you can use dumbbells or kettlebells, and more. Once you’ve laid everything out, you can work out on your own, without having to commute back and forth to the weight rack.

Go swimming.

Therapeutic Yoga Specialist Diane Malaspina, Ph.D. says that a knee or leg injury can seem quite limiting to your active endeavors. But, with an open mind, it is possible to find some activities that will keep you nimble and fit. All you have to do is dive in—literally. “If you live near a body of water, canoeing or kayaking is a great way to work the upper body and core while in a seated position. Benefits include improved cardiovascular health; increased strength in the arms, upper back, and torso; and increased endurance,” she says. And, depending on the severity of your leg injury, you could even try swimming. Just check in with your pain level before doing laps.

Use foam rollers.

One way to relieve pain and maintain mobility according to Malaspina is through the use of foam rollers and balls. You don’t want to apply pressure directly to the site of the injury. However, this common recovery technique can do wonders for a bulky leg ailment. “Rolling above, below, and adjacent to the injury increases blood flow. [It] aids in reducing inflammation, and releases biochemicals that help us feel good and relax,” she explains. Sure, it might not help you lose weight. However, it could ensure a speedier recovery process that gets you up and at ‘em that much faster.

Focus on upper body movements.

Just because your below-the-belt mobility is limited, Certified Personal Trainer and Nutritional Coach Jill McKay says that your upper body is definitely not off-limits. A fun way to go about this is to give yourself different challenges. Perhaps it’s how much you can improve your bench press. Or how much weight can you work up to when you’re exercising your biceps. Even if you can’t do push-ups on the ground with a sore leg, you could do them against the wall, offering the same benefits as the floor. Always wanted those firm under-arms? Set yourself up with a 30-day tricep goal. Whatever it is, McKay says that staying engaged and competitive will take you further.

Consider boxing.

You might not be able to kickbox like you did pre-injury. But, your arms are still ready to tackle whatever is ahead of them. If you can’t stand, see about lowering the heavy bag to a level that allows you to punch from a seated position. The point here is to get a cardio workout without actually being on your feet. As McKay explains, leg injuries can put a major damper in your heart rate, since you can’t run, cycle, or sprint. But with this modification, trust us, you’ll work up quite the sweat!

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