Training safely with an injury: Use the Traffic Light Method

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Whether it's a short term niggle or chronic injury, having to stop training is frustrating, and in many cases actually slows your recovery. But how can you train safely with an injury without risking more damage? In clinic we use a super simple model to teach you how to approach your training when injured. Using the Traffic Light Method makes it easy to train safely with an injury and gives you some hard and fast rules to know what exercises are safe, and which to leave till later in your recovery.

What is the Traffic Light Method?!

Just as it sounds, exercises get categorised as either Red, Amber or Green light exercises.

The categories stay fixed, but over time exercises can shift status depending on how your recovery is going, or if you get any relapses. Exercises are designated Red, Amber or Green light exercises based upon any pain or symptoms they may cause.

The beauty with the Traffic Light Method is you can't cheat the system!!

If you try to shift the category of an exercise, by ignoring or denying that it causes you symptoms then you'll either get pain, or see a decline in your recovery. So, before you read on prepare to be brutally honest with yourself! Your body will be telling you if something is causing more damage. If you're going to train whilst injured, then make sure that you train safely with an injury rather than causing even more damage to the structures.

Red Light exercises

These exercises cause you immediate pain or symptoms

If squatting hurts your lower back, and you're dealing with a disc injury then stop. If you've had a severe ankle sprain and standing performing a strict press hurts, stop.

It doesn't mean you can perform the exercises at all - but it does mean you have to look for variations. Does a front squat elicit the same pain as a back squat? Can you perform a seated dumbbell press and get no ankle pain?

If your injury is causing you pain just performing daily activities, like walking, sitting, driving, getting dressed etc - then don't perform any Red Light exercises. NONE AT ALL!!!

With a mild short term injury, literally just find other exercises or avoid working that body part altogether. For more severe or chronic injuries, look for easier progressions. Move to bodyweight exercises, or isolated rather than compound movements.

Red Light exercises should always be avoided when you are injured - never actively participate in something that immediately exacerbated your pain or symptoms.

Amber Light exercises

These exercises cause you pain/symptoms either after training or only occasionally during training

Now this is the category that you need some help with. Work with a coach, experienced Sports Massage Therapist, Physiotherapist etc to establish whether these exercises are helping you train safely with an injury, or just causing you more damage.

There could be a number of reasons why you are getting symptoms the day or two after training. The pain could be delayed onset; inflammation that builds around the damaged tissue over time. Or a result of training weakened and stressed tissue, but entirely necessary to rebuild the muscle around a damaged area.

Back pain is a really good example of this - most patients either make the mistake of continuing to perform Red Light exercises (injuring the structures over and over again) or regressing and only performing Green Light exercises and never stressing the muscle enough to stimulate muscle growth, causing more weakness to develop around the joint.

Amber Light exercises are the movements or exercises that you feel you can just about 'get away with'. So on some occasions the movements may actually make you feel better, but on others they can cause a flareup and take you back to square 1. Amber Light exercises are also movements that at lower weight are pain/symptom free, but that as the weight increase the symptoms return. This is a sign that these exercises are loading the body in a way that is causing too much stress through the structure - either your mechanics are poor, or because the tissue simply hasn't had enough time to heal sufficiently yet.

Get the advice of a specialist about Amber Light exercises - in most cases you can perform these, but with limited sets/reps and always being prepared to stop halfway through if symptoms start to reappear.


Green Light exercises

These exercises cause you no pain - either at the time or after training

As a Sports Massage Therapist these are my favourite types of exercises!!! After any injury I always, always, always advise you to get as many Green Light exercises/training sessions under your belt as possible before reattempting an Amber, or Red Light movement.

Bodies are designed to heal through movement, and Green Light exercises (completely pain free) are the perfect category of movements to help you train safely with an injury. This could be just as simple as gentle knee drops or pelvis rotations if you have a back spasm. Or doing a hang power clean if you find that pulls from the floor are causing you problems but your mechanics are pain free working above the knee.

For pretty much any injury we always advise as much pain free movement as possible; which are Green Light exercises to you and I.  Movement improves blood flow, clears swelling, helps manage inflammation, lubricates joints, induces stretch through soft tissues, affects nociceptors and nervous system sensitivity.....to name but a few benefits!

How do I know when to attempt an Amber or Red Light exercise?

Firstly get as many Green Light training sessions completed as possible. If you have no timescale for recovery then don't rush this phase. There's no benefit to rushing back to exercises that cause symptoms and if anything spend the time filling in gaps in your training, mobility or posture work that you've been meaning to do but never get round to! And even if you do have a competition coming up, be brave - the more Green Light sessions you get in, the more robust your body will be by the time you reattempt a risky exercise.

Next (this is where the beauty of the Traffic Light system comes in!) reintroduce Amber Light exercises. If you can perform an exercise for more than two sessions and it doesn't cause any pain/symptoms, move it to the Green Light category. If it still causes pain then leave it as an Amber exercise.

Red Light exercises should never be attempted. You should always have a legitimate rationale for downgrading it before attempting a Red Light exercise. An exercise can be downgraded from the Red Light to Amber category if you have managed to safely perform a lower or similar progression. Examples include:

  • Back Squat - Downgrade to Amber when similar movements like Front squat, Split squats, Deadlifts etc are safe.
  • Running - Downgrade to Amber when walking, skipping, box jumps etc are safe.


Tcly with an injury using the Traffic Light Method


Red light exercises -  Cause immediate pain/symptoms - Avoid these exercises

Amber Light exercises - Cause pain/symptoms after or occasionally during training - Get the advice of a professional

Green Light exercises -  Cause no pain/symptoms - Perform as many Green Light exercises/training sessions as you can before attempting Amber Light exercises


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Follow Vicki:

Sports Massage Therapist

Vicki Marsh MSc BA (hons) studied at Oxford University before training as a Sports Massage Therapist. With over 12 years experience she specialises in chronic pain & complex cases as well as coaching Crossfit & Weightlifters. She runs specialist workshops, creates online courses and has spoken at events such as COPA on how to grow a successful business.

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