Strength in the Face of Injury: 5 Lessons Learned
Almost two years ago I started having chronic headaches as well as neck and shoulder pain. Unsure why, I sought the help of a physical therapist who was able to diagnose my problem, and in fact, there were three. I had some cervical spine (neck) issues going on, as well as a shoulder impingement, and also an angry thoracic spine (upper back) joint that was ultimately the root cause of my headaches.
The only problem was that in order to get the thoracic joint to stop being so pissed off, I had to sort the neck and shoulder issues out first - essentially reverse engineering the order of my injury. In order to do that, I had to stop all of the exercises I enjoyed training (pull ups, rows, any kind of press, even goblet squats for a while). I had to give my body the chance to heal. Now, with the guidance of an excellent physical therapist, I am almost there.
It has been a long time coming, but below I have developed a list of the five most important lessons learned as a result of this injury. My hope is that if the time comes for you to deal with an injury, you can reflect upon the wisdom of injured trainees like myself and keep yourself from losing too much ground.
Lesson #1: The Meaning of Patience
There are two approaches to an injury: training through it or doing everything necessary to get it healed up and prevent it from happening again. Unless you are Lebron James leading the Heat to a game seven in the NBA playoffs, you probably should adjust your training program to reflect your injury.
This means if a movement causes pain, then don’t do it. Training through an injury will only lead to further compensation, which will lead to yet another injury down the road. The human body is a clever beast. If you push it, it will find a way to do something, even if it is the wrong way of doing it. Find the sweet spot in your training where you can work on strengthening the areas that don’t hurt, while removing anything that will give you problems until your injury has healed.
Lesson #2: Focus on Things You Can Do, and Eliminate Those You Cannot
Keeping a positive attitude can be hard when you get injured, especially if it is your first injury. All of a sudden, that feeling of invincibility is gone. It’s easy to be like a turtle and retract back into your shell, fearful of doing anything. But you don’t need to be afraid, because unless you have a back injury, it’s likely that you will be able to keep training something.
Figure out what you can safely do by focusing on one training variable at a time. Test an exercise, and remove it if there is pain during the movement or if your body gets sore in a bad way later on. Listen to the signs your body sends you. In a few training sessions you should be able to narrow down the exercises that work and keep them organized in a way that will promote balance in your body. If you have trouble letting go of your favorite exercises (I’m looking at you, squats and bench press), then move on to lesson number three and then come back to this one.
Lesson #3: Remain Humble and Switch Off the Ego
When I developed my neck and shoulder issue, I fought it at first. I thought I could push through and was determined not to back off on training for fear of losing my strength. When my problem continued to worsen, I knew I had to stop and seek help.
I remember saying to myself, “I used to be able to do this [insert exercise/weight here], but I did it unsafely. I need to back off, re-learn the correct way, and start the strength-building process again.” I took my advice. I stopped doing the things that hurt me, and focused all of my energy on the movements I could still do without pain, even though my brain fought me every step of the way. Humbling myself was hard, but I can honestly that I am stronger now because of it - both physically and mentally.
Lesson #4: Train at Your True Level, Not Where You Want to Be
Many people enjoy training in groups. Boot camps, CrossFit, and various group personal training sessions are offered everywhere. The presence of friends and training partners can be excellent motivation, but they can also act as pressure to push your body harder than it is physically ready to go.
If your form breaks down under heavier load, it’s too much. If you are so sore you can’t move the next day, it’s too much. I am quite guilty of this, too. In college I was a 400m sprinter on the track team. I was pretty good, but when it came to strength in the weight room, I couldn’t compete with some of the bigger, older, and stronger sprinters. I still tried to keep up and I developed some bad habits in my squats, deadlifts, bench presses, and pull-ups that contributed to my shoulder and neck problems down the road.
To combat this tendency, I started tracking every set, rep, weight, rest period, and sometimes my emotions in my journal. That way I could mine it for information later on, to remind me what worked and what didn’t. Only then did I truly learn how to train at my level, and not where I wanted to be - or where I used to be for that matter.
Lesson #5: Trust in the Process
In this case, the “process” refers primarily to the healing process. When healing, I learned it wasn’t necessary to do a lot of different exercises. In fact, the fewer exercises I did, the better I became. Chalk one up to the “great at few versus mediocre at many” theory. Due to the laser-like focus on healing in my personal programming, identifying the hurtful training variables became that much easier. Ultimately, this knowledge allowed me to improve upon even those movements that were not counter to my healing process.
As awesome as it would be to live life injury-free 100% of the time, we don’t live in a bubble. If you fall victim to an injury, whether in the gym, in a car, or stepping off a curb wrong, don’t push through it. Find quality help, follow through the healing process, and learn what you can do in order to prevent it from happening again.
Photos courtesy of Shutterstock.