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Working Out and Getting Back to the Gym After Surgery

“No pain, no gain.”

That’s what they say, but working out or returning to the gym following surgery needs to be done carefully and correctly, or there could be a lot of pain (and complications). As an orthopedic sports medicine surgeon, I’m often asked by my patients when they can get back to their normal routine. As active individuals, bed rest isn’t in their vocabulary, and they’re often itching to exercise. While the ability to get active—whether it’s running, riding, lifting, or lunging—will depend on your particular surgery, there are a number of things to keep in mind.

Dr. Cole’s “Five Ways To Make a Comeback Following Surgery”

1. Prepare and Plan

This is best done before surgery, but oftentimes it’s not thought of until after your procedure. No matter when planning occurs, however, it’s important to set yourself up for post-surgery success and develop a goal. A well-thought-out plan on how to get there helps keep you on track and keeps you in line so you don’t overexert yourself. Over time, and as you heal, you may need to make some adjustments to your plan, but it’s still important to have one. Whether you’re working with a coach or physical therapist, or just going off of your surgeon’s direction, your plan should include a schedule of which activities are appropriate over a period of time. This also helps to avoid the frustration of feeling you’re not doing enough on any particular day.

2. Maintain (or Improve) Your Diet

When you’re highly active, you can get away with maintaining a less than ideal diet (not that I recommend that). That can’t happen when you’re mostly sedentary, or your ripped or well-defined body may wind up looking more like Thor in Endgame. Good nutrition will help keep you in shape, even if you’re feeling out of shape, and it can also aid in the healing process. Eating the right foods gives your body the raw materials it needs to boost your immune system, protect against infection, and help heal skin, nerves, blood vessels, muscle, and even bone. A nutrition coach can help, but otherwise, nature provides some pretty good direction on what you should eat to promote recovery. Check out BandGrip’s 8 Powerful Foods That Can Help Your Recover After Surgery.

3. Follow Doctor’s Orders

Sometimes, we take our doctor’s orders (or the orders of our surgeon, physical therapist, or nutritionist) with a grain of salt. Don’t do it. They’re not conspiring to keep you down, they’re looking out for your best interests. Even if you feel ready to roll, follow the schedule that you’ve been given. If you do feel you’re absolutely ready to level up, talk with them. They can let you know whether or not adjusting your post-operative activity plan is an option and may be able to recommend some form of “pre-hab” to work you up to higher activity levels.

4. Don’t Push Yourself 

You’ve been a patient, and now it’s time to be patient. As you ease back into exercise routines and other activities, you may be tempted to push yourself further than your body is ready for. This can result in injury, or re-injury, and even wound dehiscence. I understand as an athlete or active individual you’re probably used to pushing through pain—going the extra mile, lifting that extra weight—but when your body is in recovery, listen to it and stop if you’re feeling the hurt. Pushing yourself too far, too fast, can put you back in the hospital and delay your recovery even longer. 

5. Stay Positive

Some people bask in the ability to do nothing as they recuperate following surgery. Most of my patients, however, are used to being active. So, any period of inactivity following a surgery leaves them feeling irritated and anxious—and then feeling bad about themselves and their body. Don’t let recovery get you down. You need to give your body time to heal so you can then get back out there at give it your all. If you eat right you can maintain your weight level, and it’s going to take a lot longer than your recovery for muscle atrophy to kick in (they’ll still be there when you’re ready). Stay positive and focus on the future, and if you’re really feeling depressed, reach out to a doctor that can help.

I know that surgery is no fun, and it can be even more difficult for athletes and active individuals. But it’s important to remember, this is just a temporary setback. In most cases, you’ll be up and on your feet again, breaking records and winning games. These five comeback tips are just a few general things to keep in mind following your surgery, but I’ve also put together some postoperative instructions that are procedure-specific and should answer the majority of the questions that you might have in the early postoperative period. This applies to surgeries of the shoulder, elbow, knee, foot, and ankle. While this should in no way be a substitute for your physician’s orders, you may wish to share them with him or her. They’re available on my website for download here.

One final recommendation that has made a lot of my patients happy: request BandGrip for wound closure following surgery. Surgeons can close wounds about 70% faster with BandGrip versus traditional sutures, so patients spend less time under anesthesia and often recover with less scarring. The risk of infection is reduced, and patients can move about and shower just 24 hours after application. Check out the video here to learn more.

Dr. Brian Cole


Dr. Cole is a world-renowned orthopedic sports medicine surgeon and managing partner at Midwest Orthopaedics at Rush in Chicago.

He is the Chairman of Surgery at Rush Oak Park Hospital and a professor of orthopedics, anatomy, and cell biology at Rush University Medical Center. Named one of the “Best Doctors in America,” Dr. Cole has also been selected as NBA Team Physician of the Year for his work as team physician for the Chicago Bulls and others.

Dr. Cole serves as co-host on the talk-show Sports Medicine Weekly The Score radio, formally on ESPN Radio.