Ask Stew: Recovery and Building Back a Fitness Program

An instructor leads a class in biceps curls at Twentynine Palms, California.
Marlena McGuire leads a class in biceps curls during a cardio strength session hosted at the Community Center at Twentynine Palms, California, June 9, 2014.

When recovering from injuries, it is imperative to get clearance from your doctor before embarking on a fitness recovery program. Working out before you are healed completely can delay your recovery or, worse yet, cause further injury.

Hi, Stew. I’m finally cleared by the doctor from my whiplash injury and able to work out again. I am starting from scratch as I have been restricted with no activity for the last two months. Thank you and I look forward to getting back on the fitness wagon again. It has been too long.

Have a nice day. Ryan

Ryan, I am sure with the doctor’s clearance, you have spent the last few months not stimulating the brain or doing anything to stress your mind or body. Sleeping is the best cure, and letting the brain naturally heal itself in a calm atmosphere is the way to go. Now, once given the full OK to begin normal activities, the last thing you want to do is start off where you left off.

Having some really easy days of training, focusing on mobility, a full range of motion with lower weight, lower repetitions and very light cardio, is the way to go for at least a month. Treating yourself like a beginner is a good idea.

Stay away from exercises where you have fast head movements, like fast push-ups, burpees, sit-ups and crunches. Maybe replace all core exercises with plank poses until you are recovered fully. Do slower repetitions of any movement that makes the head move (pull-ups, dips, push-ups and even squats). 

A trick you can do is similar to avoiding seasickness while on a ship -- looking at the horizon. Have a fixed point of vision instead of scanning the sky, floor or the ceiling when moving your head and torso quickly. This can lead to a feeling of motion sickness in anyone, especially someone recovering from a head/neck injury.

It is recommended to focus first on building a calisthenics/mobility base, with dumbbell work, then push into heavier weight in a month or two after you have rebuilt the foundation of fitness.

Then after 4-6 weeks, start to test yourself with more movements that may have made you feel “seasick” previously or challenge your balance.

For related information from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and WedMD:

Recovery from Head Injury, Concussions, or TBI

Teens and Concussions

Other articles and information from fitness:

Recovering After Injury

Training After Injury or Illness

Rebuild the Foundation of Fitness Program

Stew Smith is a former Navy SEAL and fitness author certified as a Strength and Conditioning Specialist (CSCS) with the National Strength and Conditioning Association. Visit his Fitness eBook store if you’re looking to start a workout program to create a healthy lifestyle. Send your fitness questions to

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