There’s nothing quite like getting into a fitness groove. You’re maintaining a habit, looking forward to your sweat sessions, seeing results, and then—boom! A slip here or a fall there, and you find yourself—seemingly—out of commission with an arm injury. As therapeutic yoga expert Diane Malaspina explains, recovering from an arm injury (or any injury) is a process and can be disappointing when you have to take a break from your workout routine.
However, there’s a silver lining. Having a strained or hurt arm forces you to think about exercise through a different lens. “Try a different type of workout to help you maintain your health goals and embrace the parts of your body that are not injured,” she encourages. “Be willing to back off in intensity and opt for slower, more mindful movements.”
If you find yourself battling elbow or shoulder pain, you can still remain active with a few modifications. Here, fitness professionals offer their best advice on how to work out when you have an arm injury.
Ease away from weight—including bodyweight.
Depending on what part of your arm is currently healing, lifting and gripping could prove nearly impossible, says physical therapist Lauren Lobert, D.P.T., O.M.P.T., C.S.C.S. This means movements such as push-ups or burpees will put unnecessary strain on your body. If the culprit behind your pain is your shoulder, it’s not smart to lift a dumbbell—or any sort of weight—above your head. Instead, Lobert suggests strengthening your rotator cuff via internal and external rotations at your side. Plus, you likely have full range of lower-body moves, including squats, lunges, and step-ups.
Once you start to regain endurance, you can gradually add pounds, but remember to proceed with caution. “To supplement upper-body activities, decrease the weight and do more repetitions in order to ensure your arm isn’t irritated by the movements. Focus on moving in a slow and controlled manner. [This] may require you to shorten your range of motion to avoid pain,” Lobert advises.
Consider wearing a brace.
According to Orthopedic Exercise Specialist Cary Raffle, C.P.T., the most common arm injuries include tennis elbow and golfer’s elbow, when either the outside or inside portion of the elbow and forearm are wonky. It’s important to speak with a trusted medical professional before exerting too much effort. However, Raffle says a brace that applies pressure to the forearm extensors (the outside part of the arm) may provide some symptom relief. With this little bit of TLC, you can continue to work out your arm but with modified, slow, weight-free movements until you properly heal and no longer feel the strain.
Burn calories on the machines.
You probably won’t beat your latest deadlift or bench press record. But Malaspina says you can still burn major calories and get your heart rate up by spending time on the cardio machines at the gym. In fact, because you may not be able to hold on to the elliptical or the sides of the treadmill, you’ll have to work even harder to move the belt and maintain speed. If you still want to work on building muscle, look up—or rather, start walking up. “Stair climbing targets the large muscle groups of the lower body and the core, burning calories and developing endurance. Stair climbing is low impact and easier on the joints,” Malaspina explains.
After your cardio routine, see if your local gym features a Pilates reformer. This, Malaspina says, can be beneficial for those with an arm injury. “There are many Pilates exercises that target the abdominals, glutes, and inner thighs,” she says. “You will also be supported by the reformer, so you won’t have to bear weight in the arms.”
Depending on the nature of the injury, motion work can do your body (and arms) some good, says Jill McKay, C.P.T. One place to start is a wall slide. Stand with your back against the wall, and put your arms straight out in front of you. Then, McKay says to slide your hands over your head with elbows as close to the wall as possible before returning your arms to the starting position. Another way to improve your range of motion is by creating I’s, Y’s, and T’s and performing “clock arms” to strengthen your weak shoulders.
Modify your schedule.
Fitness professional Kyra Williams says that while those with painful shoulder or elbow injuries may be bummed to miss out on arm workouts, it’s important not to neglect your core or lower body in the process. This requires some restructuring of your workout routine but will still maintain your weight and vitality. Here’s what a revised schedule may look like:
Monday: leg day
Tuesday: running sprints and core work
Wednesday: walking and physical therapy for the arm, if you need it
Thursday: machine and core work
Friday: leg day, take two
Saturday: running or machine sprints and core work
Don’t let a simple arm injury get in the way of your workouts. Be aware of your injury, though, and be careful not to overwork it and exacerbate the injury. Skip the weights or weight-bearing exercises and focus on cardio and the other major areas of your body.