by Robert Maxwell
Injuries are an inevitable part of the strength training lifestyle. If all you do is lift 15 pound dumbbells a couple times per week, chances are you’ll be fine. But if you’ve truly been bitten by the iron bug, and have a deep-seeded need to do barbell training hard and regularly, you will get hurt. It’s only a matter of time. Your long-term success or failure in the gym largely depends on your ability to come back from these injuries. In my own strength training journey, I’ve dealt with many injuries – some minor and some significant. It’s happened often enough that I’ve felt qualified to write articles and make videos advising less experienced trainees on how to deal with getting hurt in the gym. Despite this, dealing with training related injury is one area I don’t feel fully secure in my knowledge and practices. It’s something I definitely need to improve, since training related injury is so common for guys who train as hard as I do. My personal difficulty dealing with training injuries boils down to a few areas where the struggle is most acute.
Difficulty 1): Understanding Why the Injury Happened
Just because injury is inevitable for dedicated long term strength trainees, doesn’t mean you should just accept it when it happens and move on. A vital part of strength training success is understanding why the injury happened in the first place, then taking steps to make it less likely to happen again. Trouble is, this isn’t easy. Sometimes lifting injuries happen suddenly, and the cause is obvious. Other times it’s not obvious at all. Most of the injuries I’ve dealt with haven’t happened in the middle of a workout. More often than not, the pain begins gradually, making it tricky to determine which exercise caused the problem. Often, the only option with such injuries is an educated guess. The problem with guessing is that you might guess wrong, and end up changing your training in the wrong way for the wrong reason. To complicate the issue further, some lifting injuries aren’t a result of any one specific exercise, done wrong or otherwise. They’re the result of overtraining. When your body has been pushed to its limits for weeks and weeks without adequate recovery time, spontaneous, bizarre injuries become more likely. This is a problem for dedicated strength athletes, who are in the business of pushing their bodies to the limit. The trick is knowing when to ease off and went to push through, and this is something no lifter gets right 100% of the time. This brings me to the next difficulty.
Difficulty 2): Knowing When and How to Ease Off on Training
I know experienced lifters who have a zero-tolerance policy for pain, meaning if something’s hurting, they don’t train at all until it stops hurting. At first glance, this might seem like the best way to avoid serious injury. It certainly is the safest. Trouble is, serious lifetime lifters who never train when something hurts will spend a great deal of time not training. Enough that in the long run, they’ll lose a significant portion of their potential strength training years. For guys interested in getting and staying as strong as possible, this is a tough pill to swallow. The other approach is to do your best to evaluate pain on a case by case basis, and adapt your training accordingly. Most elite athletes will tell you they don’t avoid training just because something’s sore, since there’s a decent chance it’s nothing major, and taking time off would harm their future performances. The challenge with this approach is that it’s often quite difficult to tell when pain is serious, or only a passing ache caused by lifting heavy weights. Take the cautious route and stop training for a while, and you might be wasting time you could have used to get stronger. Forge boldly ahead in the face of pain, and you could do serious and lasting damage. Seeing a doctor rarely helps with this dilemma, unless they specialize in sports injuries. Most regular doctors will simply tell you to take time off, but are often unsure of exactly what is hurting you, unless the damage is obvious and severe.
Difficulty 3) Not Getting Depressed and Going into a Tailspin
It’s hard for non-lifters to understand just how difficult it can be for a dedicated strength athlete to stop training. Some trainees have a tougher time with this than others, but I don’t think it’s easy for any of us. Taking time off from a sport you love can feel like taking time off from breathing. Besides the physical benefits of lifting, pumping iron has a proven antidepressant effect. Suddenly removing this from a dedicated trainee is more traumatic than non-lifters realize. When a strength athlete gets hurt and determines that time off from the gym is a must, it can be extremely tough to adapt mentally. Constant, insatiable hunger for strength gains is what keeps elite strength athletes going for years at a time. As any serious lifter will tell you, losing this hunger for any reason is detrimental to progress. Unless you maintain the deep-seeded desire to get monstrously strong, you won’t have the mental fortitude necessary to push through brutal workouts. That’s why debilitating injuries put strength athletes in such a tough place mentally. Maintaining the hunger to succeed is extremely difficult when you can no longer act on it for a time because of injury.
Apologies if this article seems depressing. This is just me being real with you. I’ve helped a lot of people improve their strength and fitness, but I’d be lying if I said I have all the answers. Dealing with injury as a strength athlete is one area I need to work on, both physically and mentally. My tendency, as you may have guessed, is to train through most pain until it becomes unbearable. I know this is a dumb approach, but it seems every time I try to do things differently, my desire to get strong overcomes my good sense. If any of you have suggestions on how to deal with this issue, particularly if you have strength training experience, I’m all ears.