Hurt Your Arm? Caught the Injury Bug? Can You Train with One Arm?

Hurt Your Arm? Caught the Injury Bug? Can You Train with One Arm?

Last week I posted an interesting article on my Facebook Page and Twitter that talked about the benefits of training with just one of your extremities (arms). The link to the abstract of that article is here if you’re a little geeky like me and want some more details.

This study looked at the effects of doing maximal resistance strength training on just one arm for the span of 2 months. The results added to the growing amount of evidence that exercising and engaging just one limb still provides gains for the side that wasn’t used.

Popeye ArmsWhen people are introduced to the concept of doing more work on one compared to the other, many people think their arms will look like this goofy guy on the left. It’s even funny to have the conversation with people, because a lot of people will go out of their way to make sure that each arm gets the exact same number of reps so that they don’t become asymetrical.

The evidence points to the fact that our bodies are not designed for that. Any repetitions you do on one arm are going to have a partial affect on the opposite side. While this should provide you with great relief that you won’t have to worry about having one popeye arm, and one bad arm, studies like this have wider implications for training and injury rehabilitation.

So you just caught the injury bug…..

So let’s say that you’re an olympic weight lifter, Crossfitter, or all around gym rat. There are no shortage of injuries that can occur in your upper extremity, and let’s be honest. No matter how good your form is, when you train as often and as hard as you do, you can’t be perfect all of the time. It just takes a weight that is a little heavy to sit on a bad shoulder position at the wrong time to cause an injury. Here are some of the common problems:

  • Rotator Cuff Tendonitis
  • Elbow tendonitis
  • Pec strain
  • Trap strain
  • Bicep tendonitis
  • Labrum tear
  • Sprained wrist
  • Shoulder dislocation

Some of these injuries are more severe than others, but they are all variations of things people seek help with from a PT, Chiropractor, or Orthopedist. The danger is in the expectation that pain relief should be the main concern.

Anti inflammatories and prophylactic shots can take the edge of some of the pain, but the dysfunction is still going to remain. While there are certainly therapies and movement strategies you can use to address the dysfunction, the pain may still remain for a weeks or months. Ultimately, the truth is this:

Some injuries rest to heal

Rest the joint, Work the Body

When patients come to see me  with one of these types of injuries, I try to have a frank conversation with them about what to expect. While I try my hardest to help people maintain their normal routine with in injury, there are times when rest is really the only solution.

A prescription for time off is usually a plan doomed to fail for someone who is very passionate about their fitness. They’re usually going to load up on anti-inflammatories until they can’t feel their shoulder anymore, and they push through their workouts. Why? Because when there’s no pain , there’s no problem.

My alternative plan for gym warriors is to stop the use of the injured extremity, and start customizing an athlete’s workout for single arm variations.

How I Worked with an Injured Wrist

2 months ago, I injured my right wrist while I was at the gym. I could not grip a bar over head, I couldn’t press over head, pretty much any exercise that involved gripping with my right hand was a no-go.

So what did I do?

1. I took the opportunity to get stronger with my lower body. Lots of back squatting, box jumps, pistol squats, etc.

2. For every upper body exercise, I found a single arm alternative. Dumb bell thrusters, single armed kettle bell swings, dumb bell cleans, and dumb bell snatches.

I did programmed these movements into my workouts for 1 month while my right wrist recovered.

2 months later, my wrist had healed and I was able to jump back into my normal routine without any loss of production on my lifts.

In fact, because of my new focus on squatting, you could actually make the case that I was stronger after the injury than I was before.

How Does that Rested Arm Get Stronger?

The verdict is out on exactly what happens when working out 1 arm causes strength gains in both arms. What is certain is that strength is coming from more efficient connection of the brain and spinal cord.

Here’s a fun fact: Most of your strength gains when you start working out has almost nothing to do with muscle growth.

Read that again just to be clear. You are getting stronger without changing anything about the size of your muscles.

Strength gains are found through a combination of muscle growth and neurological function. While muscle growth is certainly an important source of LONG TERM gains, it is actually our brain and nervous system that does a lot of the heavy lifting in the short term.

The more you do an exercise, the greater the number of connections your nerves make to that pathway. The more synapses form for an exercise, the easier and more efficiently you will perform a given movement. The cool thing is, your brain does not care if just one side is doing work or if both sides are doing work. All it knows is that the body is doing work and creating movement.

This tells the central nervous system to build stronger connections with your muscles so that the work will become easier over time.

Does that mean I don’t need to see a doctor?

Maybe you do, maybe you don’t. It’s not to say that a doctor or therapist can’t help you improve your mechanics and treat damaged tissue in the injured extremity, because many of them can. However, there is no substitute for allotting your body enough time to heal from injury.

I’ve seen it too many times where someone has an injury in one joint, they workout in spite of the pain, then other parts of the body start getting injured because of the bad compensatory movement strategies that you take to cover for the bad joint. Proper care, improved movement, and appropriate rest is a recipe for success.

In my view, resting doesn’t mean losing your fitness, it means being STRATEGIC about your workouts to maximize your results even while injured.

Did you like this article? Feel free to share it with the people you care about and see if a Complimentary Consultation is the next step to regain their health.

Dr. Chung is a practicing Structural Chiropractor in the West Palm Beach area. He has been published in peer reviewed scientific journals and is a sought after speaker in health and wellness. Follow his blog at or find him on twitter at @drjonathanchung

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