One armed in the gym – things you CAN do with a broken elbow

Since writing about my accident here I’ve had a few people get in touch who have found this blog via search engines as they are in a similar situation. So for anyone out there searching, I thought I would write up my experiences with trying to keep fit with a less than fully functional right arm. I have tried, throughout my recovery, not to dwell on all the things I can’t do, and instead find things I can do and maximise those. There are a surprising amount of things that you can do, even with one arm in a sling!

x-ray images and a photo of my arm.

I am now 8 months since the injury, my recent x-rays and a photo showing how straight I can get that arm are above as some context for this post. I had my initial surgery and one further one to remove two pins. I am awaiting further surgery to remove some more of the metal. I’m still limited in terms of range of movement and stability of my elbow. I can hold my body weight in push up position at this point. In general doing things in a controlled manner is fine, however sudden movements can be excruciating. The hope is that pain will reduce with removal of some of the metal in my arm.

Disclaimer

I’m not a phyiso or personal trainer, I’m just a person with a broken elbow sharing what has worked for me. I was also at a pretty decent level of fitness before I injured myself, importantly as an ex-dancer I have very good balance. Some of the stuff I have been doing would have been more scary had I been someone else! I am posting this however as I spent so much time when I was in hospital searching for information as to what I would be able to do. If it helps another person who finds themselves at the beginning of this road then that would be fantastic. If you’ve had a similar experience and have ideas to share, please leave a comment.

Early days

As soon as I was out of plaster, 3 weeks after shattering my elbow, I was keen to get back to doing something and was in a spin class after four weeks, one arm in a sling. A couple of weeks later I started working with my personal trainer again. She was an absolute star, going round the gym one handed to work out what I could feasibly do.

Things you can do with one arm in a sling

Ideally you will have someone to work with you in the gym, a lot of machines need two hands to adjust, and having someone to hand you equipment and steady you during exercises really helps with confidence.

Cardio

Static bikes will become your best friend. I was quite happy on a regular spin bike, but if you feel wobbly the recumbent bikes are excellent.

You can walk on the treadmill but I’d rather walk outside. I did quite enjoy ramping up the incline and hiking up a massive hill for a while. I have a FitBit, which is really useful to see that you are at least getting out and moving enough each day.

Weights

Learn to love the machines! You can do all your squats, leg curls, extensions and so on on the machines with an arm immobilised. I’m a fan of free weights and classes like Body Pump (in combination with heavier lifting in the gym) but I still can’t lift a bar with a decent amount of weight on over my head onto my shoulders.

In this early stage upper body work is likely to be pretty limited, the most important thing you can do is concentrate on not compensating too much with your shoulder and be guided by your physio in terms of what you can do. The physio exercises are the most important thing.

Core/Circuits

My trainer devised a bit of a circuit of squats against the gym balls, wall sits, climbing up and down on the steps and doing lunges. I could hold a kettle bell in my good hand to add a bit of weight for lunges. It will depend on your balance and core strength how happy you are to jump up and down on the steps or do lunges.

Core is hard work with one arm immobilised. Essentially you’ll be doing a lot of crunches as planks and anything that involves your arms or danger of falling is out. You will find you have to use your core a lot more to balance, one armed anyway so you are getting something of a workout whatever you do.

Things you can do once cleared to use your arm

Obviously be guided by your physio and surgeon. I have found the physio far happier about my doing things than the surgeon is, I think he would rather I sat on my sofa and looked after his metalwork! Not an option, so here are the things I have been doing over the last three months or so.

Cardio

At three months, I got back to running. I am still not allowed on my bike so I have continued to do a couple of spin sessions a week along with the running. I’m back to running half marathons. I’ve found distance to be fine, however any speed work is still very painful, I think mostly due to the sheer amount of metal in my arm. I also have taken to tensing up my shoulder when I run fast, so am trying to work on not doing that.

I have also started doing some rowing on the rowing machine in the gym. Very carefully and building up the distance. Between being allowed to use my arm and being allowed to run again I started using the cross trainer sometimes using my arm and sometimes not.

Swimming

I find swimming very boring, but it is a good way to gently work your arm and shoulder. At first I would do one length of gentle (and rather weird) breaststroke, then one length holding a float in front of me. I fairly quickly built up to be able to swim 800 metres or so breaststroke. I get bored after that.

Weights

Over the last couple of months I have been building up strength using the free weights. The worst part was accepting I would need to use those small weights at the top of the rack for a while! The physio explained to me that had I a leg injury they would have been getting to to do weight bearing exercises so there is no reason not to do that with an elbow, and it would help strengthen the muscles and encourage bone growth.

My restricted range of motion is the biggest problem and trying to avoid shortening my bicep further as that is not going to help in trying to improve the extension of my arm. However I’ve been really working at improving the strength of my tricep on that arm as it had naturally become fairly weak, and also working on my shoulders. I’m very pleased that I’ve not ended up with shoulder problems as a result of my arm being at a weird angle, and I put a lot of that down to the work I’ve been doing in the gym.

Most free weight exercises are fine, just with lighter weights than you might be used to. I’ve also found that things like a seated row, lat pull down and trip pulldown is achievable even with limited range of movement. Take lots of care that you are not compensating with your shoulder when doing any exercise – or even just when walking around.

Core/Circuits

As the weeks have gone by I’ve been able to start adding to bodyweight exercises by holding a weight while doing squats and lunges. I have found the best weight to hold is the medicine balls that have two handles. My right hand is mostly ok but I sometimes drop things so having the two handles to hold firmly helps.

Recently I found I can do the plank again if I put something soft under my elbow. The main problem I have there is the metal just under the skin, but strength wise I can hold a plank for a couple of minutes quite happily before my elbow starts to complain.

Something that my trainer suggested and has worked really well is bouncing a medicine ball off the wall at just above head height. You need to be quite close to the wall and try and really bounce it hard and catch it. This seems to activate my triceps really well and catching the ball over my head helps with improving my range of flexion.

I can do most things in a Pilates class now. There are a few core exercises that just don’t work out one armed however a good teacher will be able to suggest an alternative. The best advice I can give with classes is to let the instructor know at the start what your limitation is, most will be happy to give you an alternative suggestion as you go through the class. I have even been back to Body Pump, however it isn’t always possible to do all of the moves with a barbell, and my gym get cross if you take alternate weights from the gym to use instead. If you have a better equipped gym it is possible to do a lot of the exercises with dumbbells or holding a medicine ball instead. If your gym has the new Body Pump weights with the handles they would be a good option.

There is a lot you CAN do

I hope these notes give anyone in a similar situation some hope that they won’t be consigned to the couch for months. Get advice from everyone that you can and learn what is possible for you to do. It will change as you develop strength and movement. In the early days you will feel fragile and a bit afraid to use your arm, however getting back into the gym gave me a huge amount of confidence so I would recommend doing everything that you can, just as soon as it is safe to do so.

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