Six Rules For Injury Free Fitness

The older you get, or the more intensely you exercise, the more important your recovery period becomes. We build muscle and exercise capacity during the rest periods — not while exercising — so rest well and smart.  Here’s my “six rules” for exercising injury free, and what happened to me when I ignored them.  (Video at the end of the post.)

I’VE WRITTEN before about fitness + aging = be more careful.  Whether you’re a stud or exercise neophyte, the hard reality is the same:

The same attention must be paid to when you are exercising as when you’re not, or you’ll soon be injured.

To consistently exercise vigorously, particularly as you age, requires the discipline of these six rules for injury free fitness:

  1. Get plenty of recovery time,
  2. Activate muscles before and stretch after every workout,
  3. Increase mobility,
  4. Ingest proper nutrition,
  5. Cycle between intense and gentle exercise regimes, and
  6. Listen to your body.

And you know what?  If you do these six things, you probably still will not sail throughout your long, fit, vigorous life without injury.

Don’t wish to put any ju ju on you, but the stats are the stats.  Certainly, I’m a data point.

Through my many years of pounding weights, riding bikes, running and yoga, I’ve been served more than my fair share of injuries.  I won’t bore you with them all here, but suffice to say that the latest injury is my right leg Achilles tendon.

It’s sore, makes me limp, is (I think) related to hip joint soreness, keeps me from sprinting the stairs for my high intensity interval training, and pisses me off!

How I severed my Achilles tendon on my left leg

About twenty years ago, I popped the left leg’s Achilles tendon while playing basketball.  “Pop” is the right word for it, cause that’s exactly the sound it made, like a bat slamming a fast-pitched hardball.

I had the basketball, took a fast step to the right, intending to drive to the basket, and heard the “pop”.  I had no idea what happened, but immediately stopped, dropped the ball, and actually twirled around to face the nearby baseball field with my arms up and fists clenched.

Yes, in that instant I actually thought that someone had hit my lower leg with a baseball bat.  Actually, it wasn’t a thought, but a reaction.  Of course, no one was there.

For three days, I flopped around trying to convince myself that this was another of my awful ankle twists that playing competitive basketball so generously provided.  Finally, common sense prevailed and I went to an orthopedic surgeon who showed me the simple test for discovering if your Achilles tendon is still working.

If you have a friend handy, lie on your stomach and bend the offending leg. Your friend places his hand around your lower legs so the thumb is against the tendon, an inch or two below where the calf seems to begin.  Squeeze.  If your foot moves, your Achilles tendon is intact, although it could be partially severed or otherwise compromised.

If you don’t have a friend handy, kneel on a sofa with your feet dangling off it behind you.  Reach back and do as described above.

Now, the right Achilles tendon is acting up

I’m thinking that maybe I have some congenital Achilles tendon defect.

Looking back to assess how I got this long lingering (three weeks now) sore Achilles tendon, it becomes clear that I violated two of my “six rules”; namely, numbers five and six:

#5  Cycle between intense and gentle exercise regimes, and

#6  Listen to your body.

I was so intoxicated about how much I was improving with my stair sprinting that I did not cycle in and out of this intense routine, nor did I stop when I got my first twinge that something was wrong.  I slowed down, but did not stop.

So the tendon got worse and now I’m not even walking up stairs much, just hobbling along like an old man. (Although I am working on healing the thing, as I show you in the video below.)

With that overlong prelude, let’s now dive into each of the “six rules”.

Six Rules for Injury Free Fitness

1. Recovery time must relate to exercise intensity.

The more intense an exercise session, the longer and more thoughtful must be the recovery period before you can duplicate the effort again.

The length of recovery is dependent on conditioning and age.  Generally, the more fit and better conditioned you are, the less recovery you need; however, as you age you need more recovery time, even if very fit.

When I say “thoughtful” I refer to what you’re doing during the recovery phase.  Athletes who work out intensively must actively recover.  By “actively” recovering, I mean applying rules number two, three and four during the recovery period:

#2 Activate muscles before and stretch after every workout,
#3 Increase mobility, and
#4 Ingest proper nutrition.

Consider what NBA players do in order to quickly recover between games.  They stretch, get stretched, massaged and fed proper nutrition.

2. Activate muscles before and stretch after workouts.

Prior to exercising, it’s very helpful to move all the major muscles in the body, paying particular attention and time to those muscles you’re about to exercise.  At this point – before exercising – you’re not stretching per se, where you hold a static stretch for a minute or more.  No, before exercise, rather than stretch, you articulate the joints.

By “articulate the joints”, I mean to slowly move each body part that hinges to a joint. Rotate the ankles, knees, hips, shoulders and neck.  After this, you can put some body weight “load” on the joints as you continue to rotate them.

For some muscle activation routines, see the videos in “Section 1” of Get Strong, Muscular and Mobile (Fast).

Another good muscle warm up is to use a foam roller, as I demonstrate in the video below.

After exercising, you get static.  At this point your muscles are very warm, which is the ideal time to go into deep stretches that you hold.  Here’s where you gain new ground – a deeper stretch.

Although it’s a bit of a goofy video, I suggest you view a video of me doing my after-workout stretches in “Section 6” of Get Strong, Muscular and Mobile (Fast).

3. Increase your mobility.

When you’re doing your pre-exercise joint articulation, you’re increasing your mobility in preparation for the work your body’s about to perform.  But with Rule #3 (“Increase mobility”), you’re spending more time at it, doing more complicated movements, going deeper and increasing the range of motion around your joints… in effect, increasing your mobility.

And if you think you’re doing just fine with your mobility, I suggest you watch a child romping around. My niece is nine years old. During any ten-minute time slot, she’s sitting in the lotus position, or sitting on with her butt on the floor, both legs alongside.

If you can still do this as effortlessly, I salute you. For most of us, this type of mobility wanes year by year till we become forward slumping, shuffling immobile oldsters.

All of us have particular problem areas: Stiff shoulders, tight hip flexors, immobile ankles that compromise the quality of our workouts. Now is the time to heel this stuff. If not addressed, these become the weak “Achilles heel” that takes you down.

I have another perfect example that points to the mobility-challenged.

Have you ever tried to do the Olympic lift called the “Snatch”?  If so, you get a real quick insight about immobility.

Check out the picture below.  In order to be able to even hold a broomstick over your head while in a full squat with your buttocks nearly on your heels requires a combination of wrist, shoulder, hip and ankle mobility that few of us have. (Including me.) Imagine what it takes to do what the fella below is doing.

(Watch how the Snatch is performed here.)

Naturally, I’d like you to read the rest of this post, but once you’re satiated with this site, check out Kelly Starrett over at and get educated about mobility.  Search for what ails you, and do what Kelly suggests.  (I do.)

4. Get proper nutrition.

The more muscle tissue you break down during your exercise (the “catabolic” phase), the more of the proper nutrition you must ingest to build the muscle back up, plus a small increment more that results in larger and stronger muscles (the “anabolic” phase).

The proper nutrition depends on a host of factors, such as the type of exercise, the intensity level performed, and your body type.  Suffice to say that if you’re exercising to build muscle and strength, you need plenty of protein, and if you’re training to run a marathon you need plenty of high quality carbs.

Protein supplement quality is very important.  A favorite kind among weight lifters and nutritionists is whey protein.  The whey should be “denatured” and cold processed. Among the few brands that fit the bill are Dr. Mercola’s Miracle Whey Protein Powder, and Prohealth’s ImmunPlex Undenatured Whey Protein. I use and like both.

If your a vegetarian, good protein supplement selections include pea, hemp and various sprouted grains that usually come in a combination of grain, legume and bean sprouts. There are many choices. The one I like and use is Garden of Life Garden of Life Raw Organic Protein

Carbs should generally be low glycemic, meaning that they’re slowly absorbed into your blood stream.  Low glycemic candidates are vegetables, beans, legumes, and sweet potatoes.  High glycemic foods are white grains, white rice, potatoes, most packaged food and most fruit.

High glycemic foods are OK to eat right before a workout, but the amount and digestibility is key.

For instance, before an intense one-hour workout, eating something like dates is good because it provides immediately usable energy in the form of simple (aka: high glycemic) carbs without making you full.  For longer, less intense aerobic exercise, you would be better off eating something with more complex (aka: low glycemic) carbs in it because they will feed your body longer.

When Is Protein Necessary?

Unless you’re a big-time weight lifter, you typically need not worry about a pre-work out ingestion of protein.  I think that highly regarded strength coach Charles Poliquin (link below) would dispute this assertion, but keep in mind that he primarily trains weight lifters and athletes who train to be strong and explosive (I think), not lithe and enduring.

The reason that most exercise does not require protein loading prior to the work out is that exercise requires fuel, and protein is a poor fuel source.  Carbs are a good fuel source.

Soon after a work out, however, protein should be ingested, along with high quality fats (omega-3 fatty acids like flax seed and fish oil) and carbs.  How much of each macronutrient you eat depends on the intensity, length of and type of exercise you did.

The more your exercise breaks down muscle tissue, the more protein should be consumed relative to your norm. In this case you might want to take up to 40 grams of protein, along with some fruit and fish oil or flax seed oil subsequent to an exercise session that is designed to tax muscle with the objective of gaining size and strength.  The carbs (fruit) will help transport the protein to the cells via the blood glucose uptake response to them, and the fat will help quell inflammation and the inevitable cell oxidation that occurs during and after exercise.

If the exercise was long (+1 hour) and of moderate or light intensity, the mix of macronutrient in your post-exercise meal or drink should favor carbs rather than protein, along with the omega-3 type fats mentioned above.  In this case, the carbs should be of the low glycemic variety, given that you’re not looking to fuel your body for exercise, but to feed and restore it post exercise.

For an insightful post about pre and post workout nutrition, I highly recommend that you read Charles Poliquin’s blog.  You can find summaries of posts about exercise nutrition on his blog here.

5. Cycle between intense and gentle exercise regimes.

Few people can consistently workout intensely day after day without overstressing their bodies and eventually getting burned out and/or injured.

Professional athletes get all the guidance, recuperative potions and assistance that money can buy, and yet those who play intense, tightly scheduled sports such as basketball often tweak, rupture, break or bend something that forces them to stop and repair.

As I’ve written in Boost Your Human Growth Hormone in 20 Minutes, there’s much value in performing high intensity interval training (“HIIT”). By doing HIIT, you can increase the body’s own production of human growth hormone, stimulate fast muscle growth, increase both anaerobic and aerobic capacity, quickly reduce body fat, and get a fast workout.

But as just mentioned, there is a downside to HIIT given the higher probability of injury or plain old fatigue.  So, be smart about intense exercise sessions by making sure that in between them you do “gentle” exercise sessions.

By “gentle” I don’t mean the way you carry a baby.  What I do mean is that you stimulate rather than tax the muscles that you previously worked intensely.  This will bring blood into them and help them repair.

There’s one important thing to know about exercise that must be underscored here, and that is:

You build muscle after the workout out, not during it, and therefore how you recover is essential to how well your training will progress.

(See #4 “Get proper nutrition” above.)

Thus, if you do not give your body adequate time and nutrition to recover from intense workouts, you’re progress will be anemic and an injury will be lurking around the corner.

In practice, then, the day after a sprint workout you could choose to jog and at a slow pace, or do yoga.  Or the day after heavy squats and dead lifts, you could walk some stairs, or do yoga.

(Yes, I’m a proponent of yoga.)

6. Listen to your body.

There’s that old adage, “No Pain, No Gain”.  We remember it because it rhymes and resonates, and who hasn’t exercised hard without feeling pain from time to time?

Pain is memorable.

But what should be obvious is that when it comes to exercise, there’s “good” pain and “bad” pain.  The good pain emanates from the muscular and cardiovascular systems. The bad pain emanates from nearly everything else, such as overstressed tendons, cartilage, joints and bone.

You need to discern the difference, as you can learn to handle the good pain, but must stop what you’re doing when the bad pain happens.

Bad Pain = No Gain + Injury.

This is a lesson that I had to relearn once again. 

My HIIT is often stair sprinting which is easier on my body than sprinting on flat ground.  Nonetheless, as mentioned, about three weeks ago my Achilles tendon started to protest.

I eased up some, but kept at it, which for me meant doing this HIIT workout twice a week, with gentler exercise workouts in between as described in #5 above.

Not good enough: My Achilles “protest” became a jail sentence that I’m still serving three weeks later.

If I had stopped sprinting after the first twinge, and walked the rest of my stair circuits and then took some time off, I might have been able to return to this exercise full throttle.  Because I didn’t, I’m still limping – and certainly not sprinting stairs.

You can imagine what’s happened to my fitness relative to stair sprinting these last three weeks.  I’d guess that I’m nearly back to where I began when I first took up this exercise.

So what did I gain by not listening to my body?


In the video below, I show you how I’m treating my Achilles tendon issue.  As you’ll see, my assumption is that my issue resides not only in the tendon itself, but also along the whole leg and hip.

Yes, links in a chain, all connected.

Take a look…

Am happy to report that I’ll soon be on the stairs again.


Last Updated on March 1, 2022 by Joe Garma

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Joe Garma

I help people live with more vitality and strength. I'm a big believer in sustainability, and am a bit nutty about optimizing my diet, supplements, hormones and exercise. To get exclusive Updates, tips and be on your way to a stronger, more youthful body, join my weekly Newsletter. You can also find me on LinkedIn, Twitter and Instagram.

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