I was a teenager and coming off my first bodybuilding competition. I vividly remember that day when I was in the gym training heavy. I was doing barbell shrugs, but deadlifting the weight off the floor because the squat racks were being used and I didn’t want to wait (I know what you’re thinking). Anyway, on the final set of heavy shrugs, I was picking the weight off the floor and felt “something” different in my low back. I had never experienced a lifting related injury before and I didn’t think much of it at the time.
Later that night and into the next day my back was really bothering me. Thinking it was just “muscular strain” and being a young kid, not knowing any better, I was in the gym the very next day squatting. Needless to say, this was a big mistake. What exactly was the mistake? Well, there were several. Not listening to my body, pushing through pain, and being too stubborn to take any time off from my training, just for starters.
About two months later, I ended up having surgery on my low back at level L4-L5. Surgery is not fun and injuries are not fun. I had a quick surgery because I had an extreme disc herniation that required immediate action. Here I was a nineteen-year-old kid and I was totally immobile within a few weeks of sustaining the initial injury. To be transparent, it was hell.
I can’t tell you how hard that was, because not only did I kiss my training goodbye for the entire summer, but all I could do was lie flat on my back for the next several months due to the worst, most constant pain you could imagine. I had sciatic scoliosis with pain in my back that radiated into my right leg. I couldn’t even stand up straight because of the pressure on the nerve root causing constant, severe pain, regardless of body position. It was one of the worst things I’ve ever gone through, but there were actually many great things that came from a really bad situation.
The surgery was successful and I came back strong to compete in bodybuilding again. Today, I’m fitter, stronger, and train at a higher level than I ever have in my life. I also demand proper biomechanically efficient lifting technique – from myself and the people I work with. It was out of that bad experience that I eventually became an orthopedic physical therapist and have many helped others to successfully rehab from and prevent injuries like mine.
It was through that experience that I always teach that the most important goal of every single training session must be to minimize the risk for injury. Preventing injury has to be the primary goal of each and every training session, because if we injure ourselves, there is no training, especially with spine related injuries.
How do we minimize risk of injury? There are several ways to do this, but here’s three simple strategies to use:
The most obvious way (excuse the bluntness here) is to not do “dumb stuff.” What does that mean? It means really focusing on ourselves, knowing our limits, and listening to the signals our bodies tell us when there’s something going wrong. Be honest with yourself and don’t do things you know you shouldn’t do. Yes, train hard and push it to the limit, but understand and really know that limit. Something I have asked myself in the past is, “Would my injury have been as bad if I had not been in there the next day squatting?” That’s something I’ll never know the answer to, but what is important is that I learned from it. I totally admit that’s an example of doing “dumb stuff.” These days, I am extremely focused on paying attention to how my body responds to each training session and making sure my technique is rock solid.
The next thing we need to do is to make sure we understand what good movement is. Not only do we need to understand good movement, we need to make sure we have a baseline of good movement before we do certain lifts like squatting, snatching, or pressing. By understanding proper movement and the biomechanics of exercise technique, whether with a barbell, kettlebell, our own bodyweight, or anything else, we will minimize risk for injury. If we understand the physiology of human movement and apply that to our lifts, so that we lift with maximal safety and efficiency, we will optimize our training in every way possible. We must assess if we have a proper baseline of movement and pre-requisite mobility, stability, and motor control to perform certain lifts. In other words, we have to establish a baseline of quality movement before we lift heavy things or our risk is increased.
And, finally, we need to be constant learners. We need to constantly refine our techniques and improve our skills. Injuries are very common, but surprisingly very avoidable by using proper technique and not getting sloppy with our form. Whether it’s spine, shoulder, knee, ankle, or wrist, we need to make sure we understand how our bodies work and how to use key principles during training sessions. Key principles such as spinal stabilization, muscular tension, and optimal joint positioning, to name a few.
Each of these areas goes much deeper and requires much more education and training, of course. Ultimately, good and safe movement requires fundamental understanding and the best way to do this is to obtain good coaching. Then, constant practice will be required to reinforce and build motor control patterns that become conditioned and automatic over time. A great coach can help you to improve your skills and see the things you can’t. This is invaluable. You can constantly refine and improve your skills to train safer and more efficiently, no matter your level of experience.
So, no matter what you’re training goals are, whether you’re training for competition, strength, conditioning, weight loss, fat loss, muscular gain, or whatever it is, the most important thing to remember is that minimizing the risk for injury is the most important training goal in every session.
Don’t do “dumb stuff,” understand and practice good movement skills, and constantly learn and refine your techniques. Train hard, but always train smart and continue your journey safely.
Photos courtesy of Shutterstock.