Bouncing back from Sickness & Injury Article by Marty Gallagher

Bouncing back from Sickness & Injury

Embracing the concept of creeping incrementalism

As a competitive athlete with 60 years in the saddle, I have dealt with my share of injuries, mild to career-ending. I riddled strategies to accelerate my own recovery. My prescriptions for rebounding from my own injuries, proved effective for other athletes and those recovering from illness and surgery. The overarching strategy is to strengthen the musculature, improve stamina and endurance while manipulating body composition via the expert use of regular food.  

Most recently, my training partner, Don Berry, had to have a considerable amount of his intestines removed. For six weeks leading up to the surgery, he was not allowed to eat solid food. The medical professionals indicated that, post-surgery it would be six weeks before he would be able to work. He dropped in bodyweight from 200-pounds to 170-pounds in the no-food lead-up. The surgery was successful. To make a long story short, because he was strong and resilient going into the surgery, instead of being out of work six weeks, he was out of work one week. This past weekend, 90 days post-surgery, Don bench pressed 235x5 and deadlifted 405x3, this is 98% of where he was prior to surgery. 

In Don’s case, the severe deprivation leading up to the surgery and the post-surgery combination of progressive resistance training, power nutrition, and sustained-strength cardio drills, created an extended anabolic burst. An anabolic burst is a perfect storm of exercise and nutrition. If a delicate balance between resistance training, cardio and nutrition is attained and maintained, physical synergy occurs, results exceed realistic expectations.

The success of an anabolic burst is dependent on the depth of the depletion headed into the supercompensation phase and the skill with which the post-surgery, post-rehab phase is undertaken. You can’t get much more depleted than not eating solid food for six weeks.

  • kettlebell drills were used to create a cardio effect three times a week.
  • the Core Four lifts were done on Sunday, light dumbbell benching, and arm work mid-week.
  • exercise volume & intensity post-surgery was purposefully low, each week volume & intensity increased.
  • food volume post-surgery was purposefully low; each week volume was increased ever-so-slightly.

In 90-days his bodyweight shot up to 200, 10-pounds a month for three straight months. The principles Don used can be expropriated by those recovering from severe injury or illness.

Build back better: The goal is to rebuild and re-strengthen a battered and weakened body. In addition to rebuilding and strengthening, non-existent cardio capacity needs to be rebuilt. To optimize the rate of healing, growth, and recovery, nutrition underpins the consistent exercise effort. Food and exercise are synchronized. Precision nutrition amplifies and accelerates the process. Conversely, poor nutrition is like a boat anchor dragging down the exercise and recovery efforts. One ironic advantage to being completely broken down and out of condition is, handled right, progress occurs rapidly, steadily, and readily. What is the magical prescription, the remedy that jump starts the process?

The core disciplines: Three separate and distinct strategies are used for three separate and distinct disciplines: resistance training strengthens a weakened body; cardiovascular training rebuilds non-existent aerobic capacity, endurance, and stamina. Precision nutrition provides the body with the nutrients needed to accelerate recovery and fuel new muscle growth. The expert combination of the right exercise “dose” underpinned with quality nutrients ingested in appropriate amounts at just the right time, combine to optimize the healing and rebuilding process. What is the proper exercise dose? What is the definition of quality nutrients? And what are the right times to ingest these quality nutrients? Each of the three disciplines need be put in place and pursued simultaneously. Periodized resistance training and cardiovascular training programs are created. The nutrition is synchronized with the training. When all three elements are in place and practiced with the requisite regularity and intensities, a physical synergy occurs wherein results exceed realistic expectations. Results occur in an accelerated timeframe. There are different flavors of Don Berry’s anabolic burst. 

Logging results: Workout results need to be logged. Each successive week, the goal is to exceed the previous week’s exercise benchmarks and attain the specified bodyweight goal. Once columnized categories are established and weekly results logged, the trainee has benchmarks to be improved upon. Decades of empirical experience working with the injured and the heath afflicted have enabled us to devise a strategy for having the trainee “buy into” and become excited by the “process.”

Enthusiasm for the process occurs when the afflicted or injured, obtain tangible, measurable, results on a consistent and reoccurring weekly basis. Nothing fires up a trainee’s enthusiasm like consistent weekly increases in strength, measurable improvements in cardio capacity, and the consistent attainment of weekly bodyweight goal. Enthusiasm for the process is regenerated on a weekly basis as results are logged and limits exceeded.

Resistance training sets, reps and poundage are recorded; body weight increases or decreases noted; cardiovascular stats (generated by a heart rate monitor) logged. The idea is to create a wide range of expectations, all obtainable, slightly more than the previous week. The periodized elephant is eaten one bite at a time.

Exercise “jump in” strategies

The most elemental form of cardiovascular exercise is walking. This is the usual first exercise for the injured, or for those coming off surgery or illness. Walking is underrated as an aerobic exercise. The overweight, out-of-shape, the unfit, can easily generate an 80% of maximum heart rate simply by walking with purpose, intent and using coordinated arm motion. Don’t just carry your arms around when walking, make them help power the effort. Transform Mall Walking into Power Walking. If you can walk, make walking the entry-level cardio exercise. If, by way of example, on day one, in session one, you can walk say four minutes, to the end of the block, before tiring, turn around, walk back home. Your “cardio jump in” is 8 minutes.  In session II the next day you can either, choose to walk faster, go to the end of the block and back in less than 8 minutes – or you can choose to extend the session duration: walk for five minutes, then turn around and walk back, creating a ten-minute elapsed time. Increase the walking pace or increase the duration, do so ever so slightly every session. This is the definition of creeping incrementalism.

Resistance training: there are strategies for implementing resistance training for those that cannot lift the lightest dumbbell. There are four key resistance training exercises that to be practiced: squat, bench press, deadlift, and overhead press.


  • Partial repetitions: How does a person that cannot squat down and stand up once under their own power create a squat regimen? The trainee begins by standing erect and assuming a shoulder width squat stance. Allow the hands and arms to rise, up and forward, as counterbalance as you squat down with control. Lower to the point where the first hint of discomfort appears. Reverse direction. Do as many repetitions as you can. Even if it is a single repetition, that becomes your “jump-in” benchmark. Your goal is to try and add a single partial repetition per session. When you can do 10 reps, start anew with 2 sets of 7 reps. build that to 2 sets of 10. Now 3 sets of 7 on the way to 3 sets of 10. Guess what? With each daily session, that stunted range-of-motion will naturally increase. Optimally you work up to 3 sets of 10 reps, ultra-deep squats. Then you are ready for kettlebell goblet squats.

  • Lighten the weight of your torso: Another way for those coming off injury or debilitating weakness to get leg strength back is to lighten the payload of the body as you squat. There are several ways to do this: using a suspension trainer such as a TRX or a CrossCore allows the squatter to pull upward with their arms during the descent and the ascent portion of the squat. This tactic reduces the squatter’s payload by as much as 70%, thereby enabling the weak to attain deeper squat depth and perform more squat reps. Those lacking a suspension trainer can create their own by looping a rope over a chin bar or simply tugging upward on a door frame or pole while squatting.

Bench Press-Overhead Press  

  • Incline pushups-pushups: The entry-level pressing exercise for those in recovery is the steep incline press with no weight. Think of doing a push-up while standing up and leaning forward while planked. Position yourself 2-3 feet from a countertop, place your hands on the edge of the counter and inhale as you break the elbows and lower the torso to the counter. Hold for a beat before pushing erect, exhale as you push to a full and complete lockout. The higher the push surface, the easier the pushing. Over time, increase reps and lower the push surface until you can perform classical floor pushups. The transition is an easy and gradual one; work up to 3 sets of 10 reps at a particular incline height, then lower that height a few inches. Jump in at the new, more difficult, lowered surface with 3 sets of 5 reps. Over time work up to 3 x 10. Lower yet again. Once on the floor doing pushups, start off doing pushups on the knees before graduating to pushups on the toes. Once pushups have been mastered, begin dumbbell work.


  • The ability to bend over or squat down and pick up objects, some heavy, is a critical aspect of life and living. The deadlift, done right, teaches the ideal biomechanics for hoisting objects. Whereas in the squat the payload presses downward, in the deadlift the trainee pulls the weight upward. The best entry-level exercise for those enfeebled or brand new to progressive resistance training is the partial deadlift done using a sumo-stance deadlift technique. A kettlebell, dumbbell set on its end, or a paint can or case of bottled water, can provide the payload. The payload is elevated to shorten the rep stroke. Assume a sumo deadlift stance, torso upright, shins vertical and squat down to the payload: do not bend over to grab it – squat down. Once the elevated kettlebell, dumbbell or weighted object is grasped, stand straight up. Inhale at the top of the rep, exhale as a rep approaches lockout. Think of the sumo deadlift as a reverse squat. Jump in light. Establish perfect technique using a short rep stroke. Over time work up to 3 sets of 8 reps. When 3x8 is attained with a particular poundage, increase the length of the sumo rep stroke by lowering the support. Eventually the trainee is performing 3 sets of 8 reps with the payload on the floor. Make haste slowly.

RAW Podcast with Marty Gallagher, J.P. Brice and Jim Steel


About the Author
As an athlete Marty Gallagher is a national and world champion in Olympic lifting and powerlifting. He was a world champion team coach in 1991 and coached Black's Gym to five national team titles. He's also coached some of the strongest men on the planet including Kirk Karwoski when he completed his world record 1,003 lb. squat. Today he teaches the US Secret Service and Tier 1 Spec Ops on how to maximize their strength in minimal time. As a writer since 1978 he’s written for Powerlifting USA, Milo, Flex Magazine, Muscle & Fitness, Prime Fitness, Washington Post, Dragon Door and now IRON COMPANY. He’s also the author of multiple books including Purposeful Primitive, Strong Medicine, Ed Coan’s book “Coan, The Man, the Myth, the Method" and numerous others. Read the Marty Gallagher biography here.