Training Around Serious Injury article by Marty Gallagher

Training Around A (serious) Injury

In 1983 I broke my leg. I brought my bench press up fifty pounds during the recovery period.

Identify any injury and an elite coach will be able to outline a regimen to train around the injured body part

In 1983 at age 33 while coming erect with the 3rd rep of a 5-rep set of squats, I had a 705-pound barbell slip down my back. It was hot, I was sweaty. I was lifting alone and was about to throw the barbell off my back, letting it crash to the weightlifting platform, when a friend ran over from across the room, grabbed me from behind and tried to lift me upward in a bear hug. I lost my balance and the three of us, me, my friend, and the 700-pound barbell, all went down him a heap. I suffered a compound fracture of my lower left leg.

The previous week I had squatted 845 in a formal training session at Mark Chaillet’s gym. This with world champions Mark Dimiduk, Don Mills, Mark, and Hugh Cassidy watching and spotting. I weighed 245. At the time, the world record in the 242-pound class was 871-pounds, a longstanding record set by power legend Danny Wohleber.

Dan set the mark when he beat my training partner, Mark Chaillet, at the 1980 national championships. I had my eyes set on the world record. The Junior Nationals were to be held in four weeks and I would seek to exceed the world record at the Juniors. That was the plan. I never got that record but, ironically and poetically, my star pupil, Kirk Karwoski, shattered Dan’s mark ten years later with an astounding 911-pound effort.

I was not even supposed to squat on that day. I was visiting a Gold’s gym near my house and was just doing a bit of light squatting on a Tuesday, not a formal training session, spontaneous, likely showing off a bit for the inhabitants of this weak-ass bodybuilding gym. I did my serious lifting at Mark’s power palace.

I was rep squatting 700, raw, when the heat and sweatiness and my cockiness (“Big Poundage teaches with a Big Stick”) caused the barbell to slip down my back. Had Tim not interceded, I was a split second from throwing it off my back. Which I have done in the past. Bob, the Gold’s Gym owner, would have had a conniption fit and chewed me out, but I would not have broken my leg.

Three months after breaking my leg, they had to rebreak the leg; it wasn’t ‘knitting’ right. I had to have a long metal plate installed on my lower left leg with a dozen screws holding it in place. From first break to total healing took eighteen months. I moved my bench press up 50-pounds during that period.

I had been feeling sorry for myself right after the accident and everyone was feeling sorry for me. That ended with a visit from Hugh Cassidy. While everyone else was offering condolences and “How tragic,” Cassidy sized my up as I lay there, pathetic, with my new cast. He said, “Time for an upper body specialization program! You could use it!” He was bitch-slapping me, like Patton slapping shell-shocked soldiers.

After suffering a major injury, an athlete has two choices: quit altogether or “train around” the injury. With Cassidy’s help, I made mental lemons into psychological lemonade: I got fired up about the idea of having a protracted period to specialize. I would use this “opportunity” to “bring up” my (relatively speaking) skinny upper body and pathetic low-400-pound bench press.

I was a good squatter and deadlifter, but I sucked in the bench press. I had no real muscle to bench with. I was a no-bench ex-Olympic lifer that took up powerlifting with a big squat and big dead. Now I had all the time in the world to bring up my worst lift and most glaring physical weakness. I would train three times a week….

Day 1

Exercise Details Execution
Barbell bench press wide grip paused   work up to a static poundage 3 sets of 5 reps
Barbell bench press narrow-grip, touch-and-go reduce poundage 25%, one set to failure
Dumbbell flyes “just like Arnold” super light weight, emphasize stretch, purposefully slow
Narrow grip bench tricep exercise  one dumbbell, big stretch, hard lockout three set of 8-reps
Seated overhead DB tricep exercise one dumbbell, big stretch, hard lockout three set of 8-reps


Day 1: two types of flat bench are worked on day one. The idea is to work up to a poundage that you can handle, paused, for three sets of 5-reps. Each week that you successfully make 3x5 with a poundage, bump up ten pounds the following week. Cut the poundage 15-25% for the narrow-grip, shoulder-width bench press. Perform one set to failure (we don’t fail – we know we don’t have another rep left and rack it.) Onto some light, stretchy, flat dumbbell flyes. Get a huge stretch on every rep and use a slowed rep speed. Finish day one with triceps: nose-breakers, narrow-grip tricep bench presses, a couple of sets, with perhaps 50-60% of what was used on the barbell bench that led the session. The idea is rep out twice, using a weight that allows you to get 10 reps on set one before adding 10-20 pounds and “repping out” a second set. Make sure to lock the elbows out fully and completely on both sets.

Day 2

Exercise Details Execution
Dumbbell press seated, overhead braced back, hard lockout, 3 sets of 5, static poundage
Lateral raises front, side   seated, slowed reps, held at top, four total sets to failure
Dumbbell curls    seated, upright work up a several all out sets of 8 reps
Dumbbell curls steep incline  slash poundage, work up to several all-out sets of 8 reps


Day 2: shoulder day, dumbbell day. Dumbbells are fabulous tools in that they force each limb to carry its fair share. Dumbbells are also a great way to “get away” from barbell training and factually increases barbell strength as a result. After long periods of “dumbbell only” training, returning to the barbell makes BB training fresh once again. Start with seated overhead dumbbell presses. Used a braced back set at the steepest of angles, just below vertical. After a warm-up set or two, perform three sets of 5-reps with a static poundage: if you successfully handle (say) a pair of 40s for three sets of 5, push to a pair of 45s the following week. After exhausting the push function, move onto front and side lateral raises. Done seated, raise the bells to shoulder height and hold them at their apogee for a beat before lowering. Keep reps high. Finish with six sets of two types of bicep curls.

Day 3

Exercise Details Execution
Barbell incline press 45-degree (BB or DB) three sets, 5-8 reps, static poundage
Dumbbell bench  flat bench touch and go: set 1, 10 reps; set 2, 8 reps; set 3, 6 reps
Dumbbell flyes  flat bench (or pec-dec) stretch is paramount, slow the rep speed, 2 sets to failure
Dips weighted or no weight no dip bars? substitute overhead tricep press, 4 sets to fail
Curls   any type or kind four sets of curls, rep out on every poundage


Day 3: heavy incline presses, with either barbell or dumbbells. Use the classic 45-degree angle. Pause the bar or dumbbells on the chest for a beat before pushing to a full and complete lockout. Make sure the lower back stays in contact with the bench: don’t arch and turn the 45-degree incline into a flat bench. Use the same “static set” strategy, i.e., warmup and work to a poundage you can handle for three sets of 5-reps. When successful with a poundage, kick the 3x5 poundage up slightly the following week. Dumbbell bench presses follow: three sets, 10, 8 and 6 reps. Dumbbell benching will be somewhat fatigued following the heavy incline presses. Concentrate on technique and full ROM. Can you dip? If doable and possible, please commence. When you can do three sets of 10 reps, you are ready to start doing weighted dips. 3-4 sets of dips are an ideal way to end the 3rd training session of the week. If you cannot dip, substitute another triceps exercise. Alternate triceps with curl sets.

I could not have maneuvered the barbells and dumbbells into place without the continual help of my training partners. There was no way I could manhandle dumbbells and barbells, load, and unload weight plates on one leg. Help was indispensable. Hopefully you are as lucky as I was to have regular training partners. What if you do not have any burly training partners to help muscle plates, barbells and dumbbells into position?

Head to the local YMCA or the local chain gym and use their resistance machines. Most resistance training devices require adjusting a pin, no lifting of plates or relying on others. While machines are inferior to free-weights (for a variety of reasons) machines can be invaluable for the injured. Injured right shoulder? Here is how you train the other three limbs and the torso while avoiding the injured right arm…

Leg press (using a pin not plates)

Leg extension            

Leg curl

Calf raises

Do you have access to other leg machines that use pins not plates?? Hack squat? Squat device? Smith Machine? Abductor/adductor? Feel free to try them all. When using a machine, use a full range-of-motion, go for isolation and contraction, forget about how much weight you use.

With your uninjured arm perform the following machine exercises…



Seated chest press

Pec dec


Triceps extensions

Lateral raises

Congratulations! You have just trained three limbs and the torso while totally avoiding the injured arm.

If you find a resistance machine that you can sit in, without pain or discomfort, use it and master it! Machines allow the injured person to work the uninjured body parts. Don’t let a bad injury throw you down the black hole of depression. Don’t quit. Use the enforced recovery period to systematically train the uninjured body parts. Psychologically, the best natural stress reliever known to man is intense resistance training. I brought my lagging bench up (somewhat) during my year and a half recovery period. Which was a hell of a lot better than quitting, which had been my first thought and natural inclination. Coach Cassidy threw cold-water on my thoughts of quitting. Thank God. Perhaps this article can throw some cold water on someone else’s thoughts of quitting.

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About the Author - Marty Gallagher
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 for a more in depth look at his credentials as an athlete, coach and writer.