How to Begin Training After Injury or Illness

Petty officer 2nd class leads a stretching class.
Petty Officer 2nd Class Adam P. Hunter, an instructor with PACTACLET, leads a team from the Japanese Maritime Self Defense Force in stretching exercises at Mission Beach, Calif., during a two-week training process, June 5, 2008. (Petty Officer 3rd Class Jetta H. Disco/U.S. Coast Guard photo)

After a week or more of recovery from illness, injury or general lack of physical training, consider giving yourself a “systems check,” versus starting back up where you left off prior to time off of training.

I recently came down with an upper respiratory infection, which turned into bronchitis because I pushed myself too hard and misdiagnosed my symptoms as allergies. This caused an immediate shutdown of training, antibiotics and rest.

After about 10 days of relative inactivity, I started feeling better, so I gave myself a systems check. Here is the program that tested flexibility, mobility, cardio function, strength and muscle stamina:

Start off with the mobility day but add in a few elements each set:

Set 1: Easy warmup cardio/mobility check

Bike or elliptical 5 minutes

Stretch and foam roll 5 minutes

Set 2: Moderate cardio/mobility/calisthenics check

Bike or elliptical 5 minutes -- test how it feels to get your heart rate higher than 100-120 (especially if recently congested in the lungs)

5 minutes of back and hips. Stretch and do a set of pull-ups, push-ups, dips, squats and lunges to test out joints with a moderate repetition range of 10-20 reps of each exercise.

Set 3: Jog test/weights added

Jog 5 minutes -- testing lungs as well as impact of running on joints and muscles of the leg, hip and lower back.

5 minutes of a variety of lifts: bench press, rows, squats, overhead press, deadlift, leg press 5-10 reps

Set 4: Swim test/tread/mobility

Swim 5 minutes, tread 5 minutes, 5 minutes of dynamic stretches in chest-deep water.

5 minutes of final stretching

· Full body movements in zero gravity is a good way to loosen up any stiff joints and work well-rested muscles when you start getting back to it.

· Swimming and treading water have a cardio component to it as well as helping with the flexibility and mobility of stiff joints.

· The dynamic stretches in chest-deep water tops off the systems check and will have you walking out of the gym fully assessed as well as feeling pretty good that you did something and are just about ready to go, depending on your assessment.

Systems checks -- what to look for

My personal assessment: Still a little congested, pull back on full running/swimming workouts a few more days. Got a little winded on higher repetition calisthenics events, too. Hips are tight when doing squats and lunges -- stretch more.

What to look for during the assessment. After illnesses where lung congestion played a part in you having to stop training, make sure your lungs are clear before starting again. A few quick cardio events typically will tell you that, and if you start coughing more after the cardio events, you are not quite ready to start back up with more cardio work yet.

But, you may be able to get in the gym and do some resistance training and stretching each day as you fully recover. You may have seen a loss of mobility or general stiffness, especially if you were bedridden for several days or longer. The goal here is to take your time, work out the kinks slowly with similar mobility-day workouts as above and slowly start to add in more sets and repetitions to the program.

Don’t do this

Where most people make the mistake is, they start back up where they left off with their program. This will cause pain in muscles and joints and likely aggravate the lungs again. The aggravation could bring back inflammation in the bronchial passages and may lead to pneumonia if you are not careful. Sometimes with illnesses where you are dehydrated severely from digestive disorders (flu, food poisoning, etc.), the soreness of starting again is similar to having never trained before, so be gentle with your first few workouts after any time off of training. It may take you twice as long to get back to where you were before being ill. So be a good patient -- and be patient.

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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