Returning to Training After an Upper Body Injury

MMA is an inherently rough sport that requires both physical and mental toughness. Recreational and competitive fighters both receive their fair share of injuries, but contrary to popular belief, most of these injuries do not occur during the actual fight. Just like any other sport, injuries are common in training, especially overuse injuries that turn into a nagging problem.

One thing that predisposes MMA to a higher frequency of injuries is that the entire body is under stress. You can be maneuvering on the mat trying to wrestle your sparring partner around, lending yourself to more awkward injuries, stand-up striking, in the gym lifting weights, and performing explosive exercises that place a huge amount of stress on the musculoskeletal system.

In this article, we are going to provide some information about returning to training from an injury, specifically an upper body injury. In my experience, these types of injuries are commonly re-injured, incurring setback along the way. Simply put, it’s tough for fighters to stay away from bag work and working the focus mitts with a trainer. Here a few ways you can balance returning to training while still focusing on injury recovery.

  1. Don’t rely on one day of being pain-free! If you are nearing the point where you have the go-ahead to start training again, remember that waiting one additional week could save you months in setbacks. If you wake up one day feeling good with decent mobility, it can be really easy to trick yourself into thinking you’re ready to hit the heavy bag again. If you do feel great, give it at least another few days to make sure this keeps up.
  2. It’s totally understandable to worry about losing strength, speed, and power during the injury recovery process, especially in terms of striking. This can drive a fighter crazy, and it’s easy to understand why they want to get back to their training regimes as soon as possible. Assuming you followed our first tip, once you return to your training (especially if it involves hitting the heavy bag), don’t go 100%. Your body simply won’t be ready for that, and it can be really easy to over-do it, even if you feel fine at first. Focus on technique and maybe go 50-75% at first and gradually work your way back up. This can save you a lot of time in the long run, and you will be surprised at how quickly your strength will return if you’re careful about not aggravating your injury.
  3. For joint or muscle injuries, you can actually get a lot of external support apparel that can help reduce the risk of re-injury. Many people think these are limited to the legs and for post-operative care, but in reality, most bracing systems available are for athletes who need a little extra stability. Braces for shoulder injuries are becoming increasingly popular and are now being optimized for different sports. Wrist braces have always been fairly common, especially in MMA, as a quick mental lapse when hitting the heavy bag can lead to a significant wrist injury, not to mention those that can occur when grappling, wrestling, and sparring in general. The more bulky braces that you see tend to be better for added joint stability, while compression sleeves are more for pain reduction in muscle injuries and don’t really provide much support for a joint.
  4. Stretching can be a great way to try and stay in shape and reduce your risk of re-injury. Many fighters I’ve spoken to feel that stretching may make them a little too loose or soft while they are away from the gym; however, the opposite is true. Stretching is a great way to maintain neuromuscular coordination, and it also helps with injury recovery, so long as you aren’t applying too much stress on your joints. One thing most people don’t realize is that stretching one muscle group can have a downstream effect on other muscle groups. It’s amazing how you can speed up your recovery and really prevent re-injury through simple stretching exercises, while still allowing your body to remain somewhat in a training mode.
  5. If you have been seeing a doctor or physiotherapist, follow their recommendations! This is especially true for physiotherapists. Often times they will recommend various stretching or strengthening exercises that are quite tedious. They may also seem to soft at times to have any noticeable effect, but this isn’t the case. Physiotherapists are extensively trained and they understand the human body, especially in terms of injuries, to a degree that many people haven’t reached. In my own personal experience, I’ve always found that forcing myself to stick with their program has benefited me immensely.

Those are all our tips for now. There is no one standard way to rehabilitate an upper body injury, and everybody will have a different strategy for returning to their training regime. MMA fighters need to be extra careful though. It’s easy to incorporate mental toughness and “work through” an injury, but mental toughness shouldn’t come at the cost of being smart about it. MMA training involves a lot of explosive exercises, jarring actions like hitting a heavy bag, and even slow but highly forceful movements such as those that occur when wrestling. In any case, as long as you are careful and listen to your body, take things slow at first, and slowly ease yourself back into it, then you’re well on your way to recovery!

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