If you’re an active person, there is a good chance you have to deal with the dreaded setback. We push our bodies hard, trying to get in better shape, to sharpen our competitive edge, to get stronger. But then something comes along, and boom – you’re flat on your back, or walking with a limp, or something else that shows you’re not quite right.
Though I try to be athletic, it’s not a natural talent for me. What I lack in natural ability I make up for in effort. Unfortunately, that can land me in trouble. A few knee and ankle sprains from basketball, for example. A series of nasty neck tweaks from jujitsu. A back injury from weight training.
The last of those three is the one that comes back to haunt me the most. A little more than 10 years ago, I was squatting pretty heavy – too heavy, as it turns out, given my actual strength and subpar form. My back seized on me mid-rep, forcing me to drop the weight off my back and crash to the floor. Fortunately, this was in my garage gym, so no one else got hurt or startled by the crash, but the injury was there just the same.
As the years have gone by, I’ve done my best to avoid reinjuring my back. But every now and then, it flares up, most recently about two months ago. Again, I was lifting hard – careful on the squats, but really trying to get after it on my deadlifts. One day at the gym, I was getting under the bar for my first set of back squats, and at the bottom of the lift, that familiar, painful twinge seized me. The workout was pretty much over before it began. I backed off the squats for awhile, but within a week, I felt good enough to resume heavy deadlifts.
A month later, after finishing off a particularly grueling round of deadlifts, it happened again: while doing a set of snatch-grip deadlifts, my back freaked out. This time, I had to stop doing my favorite lift altogether.
It’s frustrating to see progress halted so abruptly by the body you’re working so hard to improve, but it happens. The “down time” – days and weeks following such a setback, when you’re figuring out what you can and should do as you heal – can be really important. For me, this last mishap helped teach me a good number of things, so I’m going to share them with you:
Back off and heal. No pain, no gain, right? Wrong. Soreness is one thing. Injury is another. Pain is not weakness leaving the body. It’s your body trying to tell you something’s amiss. If you’re running hard but battling severe knee pain to the point where your speeds and distances are falling off, maybe you need some time off, or find an alternative for your endurance training for a period of time (swimming or cycling, for example). If you’re bench-pressing like a madman but your shoulder sockets are on fire, perhaps you’re pressing your way to a serious injury. You can’t outwork an injury by going harder. Swallow your pride and heal.
Re-evaluate how you’re training. This is key, as it may reveal what’s causing the injury in the first place. For me, I needed to think hard about how I was doing two different exercises, and I was able to identify what was going wrong. Bad form was to blame in both cases, causing my already janky back to work extra hard to make up for weaknesses elsewhere. Load enough weight on that dicey platform and it’s no wonder I got hurt. My advice: have someone watch you lift and give you feedback. Have that person record you doing some reps, then watch the replay. Be ruthless in critiquing your form and fix it. In the short-term, that probably means backing off the weight for a time until you get your form right. Lifting lighter with good form is far better than lifting heavier with poor form. Same goes with running. Plenty of running shops offer stride analysis, and good coaching can fix bad running form. It may take awhile to get used to the changes, but in the long run you’ll benefit. Ask any reformed heel-striker, they’ll tell you the same.
Find alternative exercises. Back squats may have been out, but I could still do lighter front squats. And I came to love/hate the Bulgarian split squat. These didn’t replace anything, but they kept me working vital muscle groups while I was unable to load up on the back squats.
Embrace the warm-up. I’ve become a fan of corrective exercises and the foam roller. I don’t spend a huge amount of time on either, but enough to make sure I’m ready for the work to come. And before a hard lift (especially on days where I’m doing the big lifts), I do things to warm up before walking up to/getting under the bar. Sumo squats with a 60-pound kettlebell? Dang right. Three sets of them at the beginning of my leg day before I even sniff the squat rack. Smirk if you want to, but neglecting those light warmup sets is a mistake I’ve often regretted.
Take your rest day. God rested on Day 7, so if it’s good enough for The Almighty, it’s good enough for you. One day a week, you need to chill. Eat right, or course. But spend a day not running, not lifting, not crushing a ride or ballin’ so hard. Enjoy some Netflix or a football game on the tube. Relax. Your body needs it.
Reevaluate periodically. If your workout is working, cool. If it’s not? Maybe it’s time to change things up. And if you’re finding yourself getting too run down, or battling through too many nagging injuries, it’s definitely time to make changes. Don’t get stuck in a training routine that takes you nowhere, or worse, keeps getting you hurt. Embracing change in these situations is a good thing.
Fast-forward to the present, I’m gradually working back into my older routines, with an eye on the lessons I most recently learned. Surprisingly, the gains are coming, and showing up in new ways – faster, more powerful running, for example. Here’s to getting fitter, stronger and faster while staying injury-free.
What injuries have you dealt with? What did you do to get back on track? Let’s hear about it in the comments.