Acute, catastrophic injuries resulting from weight training are thankfully, rare. For those of us with chronic, painful, “non-descript” injuries however, that fact is less than comforting. There’s nothing more frustrating than that all-too-familiar “it doesn’t hurt until I lift” pain.
Sometimes, these injuries take the form of chronic inflammatory problems such as medialepichondialitis (tennis elbow), a shoulder that clicks, low back spasm, heel pain, the list goes on and on. Often, these injuries are unnoticed during normal day to day activities, but as soon as you try to run or lift, or anything else, there it is again. This leads to the observation that weight training doesn’t cause injuries, it reveals them.
In this post I’m going to outline a training method that, more times than not, will allow you to re-establish your training without flaring up those injuries. I call it the “boil the frog” method. But first, let’s look at a few things you really should consider if the opening paragraphs of this post sound like you…
1. Get a complete physical. Blood work, the whole nine yards. Make sure your hormones are balanced, that you don’t have any glaring nutritional deficiencies, stuff like that. Incidentally, very few people seem to appreciate that health SCREENING is not preventative: screening by itself won’t improve your health. It just tells you what’s wrong. Nevertheless, it’s important to rule out as many factors as possible before you start examining things in more detail.
2. Massage does a lot more than “relieve tired muscels,” as the miss-spelled sign at my local 24-Hour Fitness Center states. A good soft-tissue therapist can assess your “basic” soft-tissue health- is your muscle tissue healthy, or is it loaded with spasm and trigger points? This is an important step because if you’ve got spasmed tissue, your training efforts will just lead to further spasm and scar tissue. Here’s what happens: a spasm is basically a hyper-contracted chunk of muscle- in other words, it’s contracting on it’s own volition, not because you’re asking it to contract. Over time, that little chunk of muscle becomes ischemic- meaning, it’s not getting sufficient oxygen.
Eventually, that leads to tissue death and ultimately, a scar. Now you’re screwed, because when you train that muscle, there’s less tissue available to do the same job, and the borders of that scar tend to tear, then spasm, then lose oxygen, then scar, etc., etc. Bottom line- if you don’t have spasmed tissue addressed with massage, it just gets bigger and bigger.
3. Seek to achieve an “anti-inflammatory diet.” Avoid processed carbohydrates, and make sure you’re getting adequate protein, water, and EFA’s.
4. Don’t ignore flexibility and aerobic exercise. You don’t have to make a career out of it, but resistance training tends to be “anti-circulatory” (when you contract a muscle more than about 75% of it’s maximum force, it actually shuts off it’s own blood supply) as well as “procontracture” (meaning, tends to shorten muscle tissue).
Now It’s Time to Boil That Frog
There“s an old parable about what happens when you throw a frog into a pot of boiling water- it jumps out! However, as the parable teaches us, if you put the frog in some warm water, it just sits there fat and happy. Now what you do is slowly, ever so slowly, turn up the temperature until the water boils, and the frog never knows the difference.
OK, I know, probably at some point the frog will jump out, but don’t miss the point of the story: if you apply a stress very consistently and gradually, and provide adequate resources for recovery, the organism (body, muscle, tendon, whatever), will learn to tolerate it.
Now keep in mind, some problems are not fixable, no matter what you do. For example, if you have no meniscus cartilage in your knee, you’ll probably never become a marathon runner (on the other hand, I know of at least one instance of a one-legged athlete squatting over 600 pounds in official competition!) But if your injuries have ANY possibility of healing, I have a way to do that.
Why Charles Couldn’t Squat, And How He Fixed It
Here’s a practical example of how this principle actually worked for me: In 1986 I had a total open synovectomy on my right knee to (hopefully) solve a nasty case of synovial osteo-chondramotosis. In plain English, the synovial lining of my knee was, for whatever reason, producing little pieces of calcium that would break off and start wandering around in my knee joint.
Anyway, to make a long story short, the surgery worked, but left me with only about 110 degrees of flexion in that knee. So after about 5-6 years of weight training, I created a hip imbalance that over time, rendered me unable to squat without constantly tearing my left adductor muscle(s).
You cannot imagine (OK, maybe you can) the frustration I experienced, not being able to squat, deadlift, or perform any lower body movement without having 4-5 days of massive soreness in my left adductor (if it was both adductors, I probably would have been happy!). In any event, I initiated an experiment. One day, I squatted the empty bar for 3 sets of 5 reps, confident that this ridiculously minor load would have no adverse effect.
I was wrong. The next morning, I lightly tore my left adductor sitting down on the toilet. I was livid and frustrated beyond description. But I persevered. Six days later, my adductor felt fine, so I grabbed that bar and did one single set of 5 reps- 1/3 the load of the previous workout.
Next day, hmmm. A little bit of soreness in the left adductor. As soon as that soreness was gone (about 2 days later), I did 45 for 2 sets of 5. Again, this resulted in light soreness. So 2 days later I did 2×5 again, and FINALLY, this load did not injure me at all.
Gradually, I worked my way up, and to reach the conclusion of the story, today I can squat 450. I won’t win too many power meets with that squat, but for a 44 year old geek with a knee that (according to my surgeon) shouldn’t permit me to even walk, I consider it a victory.
10 Steps For Training Pain-Free
If your goals mean enough to you can you can delay gratification, I believe you can experience similar results in your own training. There are a number of ways you can set up your training cycle. You can use whatever your favorite weekly training split, but consider these suggestions:
1. Use the widest possible variety of exercises, stressing varied positions and joint angles. Especially stress positions that you don’t tend to use for fear of injury.
2. At the beginning use loads that you’re SURE will not provoke your injury. This might in some cases mean doing stuff like curling no weight for 5 sets of 5 (yes, I’m serious).
3. Progress VERY gradually. In the case of the empty curls, work up to 5×6, then 5×7, etc. When you hit 5×10, start curling a 2.5 pound plate for 5×5. Then 5×6, etc., etc.
4. Because the loads are so light, you won’t really need to rest between sets much at all.
5. Because the loads are so light, you should be able to train frequently- probably every day. The body’s most unique feature is it’s ability to adapt- more frequent training “teaches” the body to accept constant challenge.
6. If at any time you re-injure yourself, wait until your symptoms subside and drop the previous workout’s volume by 1/2. In other words, if 4×6 caused re-injury, wait for it to heal and then do 4×3. If that goes OK, start climbing your way back up.
7. Be flexible and creative. If something on your schedule hurts right at the outset, make a pain-free substitution right then, on the fly.
8. Understanding pain symptomology: Sometimes you’ll know if you’re hurting yourself right when you’re performing the offending exercise. Sometimes you won’t know until the next day. Pay attention and become sensitive to these issues.
9. Despite my earlier advice about stretching, don’t stretch a sore, torn or “tweaked” muscle- you’ll only injure it further.
10. Start right, finish right: Light aerobic activity before and after the workout will make tissues warm and more pliable (pre-workout), and will enhance circulatory oxygenation and cellular nutrition (post-workout). Don’t cut corners, EVER.
The Tortoise and The Hare
Ever wondered why parables always involve animals? Me too. Anyway, the slow but steady approach must be your constant mantra if you want to keep training in the wake of chronic injuries. The guy squatting 800 on the rack across the gym might be mere moments from an injury anyway. Seek slow, continuous, steady challenge every day- your injured tissues don’t like big surprises, they like predictability. Treat your body with a velvet glove instead of an iron fist, and you’ll be rewarded for your efforts.