It was four years ago, and it was my first time trying to bench 100 lb dumbbells at the gym. On rep three, I decided that my head was too far off the bench, so I tried sliding down while holding the dumbbells at lockout. My shoulder popped out of the socket and the dumbbell bounced off my chest like Snuggles the teddy bear bouncing off the pile of towels in the old Tide commercials…only I didn’t feel all warm and fuzzy on the inside.
I suppose I should backtrack a little further and let you know that I’ve got hypermobility in many of the joints of my body. My shoulders are looser than multiple orifices of a 24/7 pro-bono hooker.
After an MRI, the doc told me I had a torn labrum. I underwent surgery and was forced to take time off from training my shoulder for six weeks or so.
Given that this was my first real layoff from lifting, I was devastated. I felt the depression starting to set in as I wondered what would get my mind worked up in the same way that lifting did. I’m not the only lifter who has ever had this dilemma. Minor or major injuries often get in the way a lifter’s progress, and damn it, it’s always when “things seemed to be going so well”. In fact, I’m convinced that many of the used-to’s fell off the wagon because of this very scenario. “Used-to” is my name for those people who “used to” do anything; they used to bench 315, deadlift 600, have 18 inch arms, or any number of other things until they had an injury that threw them off the wagon and dragged them behind it for the first half of the Oregon trail.
It was this first real injury that gave me the philosophy that I carry with me today.
“Always be the best you’ve ever been at something”
Rather than moping around, whining, and letting everything fall to crap while recovering, most lifters need a new goal to focus on. One that challenges them, lets them work hard, and continues to sharpen their skills of dedication and discipline. In many ways, it’s too cliché to state, but we all know that the mind is the most important factor in building the best physique and the strongest body possible. Sure, having my arm in a sling would be a good excuse to take a few months off from lifting, and many guys might have done that. But this approach is the equivalent of the kid that throws a fit and refuses to eat anything because the ice cream store ran out of his favorite flavor.
My advice is to grow a pair, pull your tail out from behind your legs (or wherever else it ended up), and find what you actually can work on. Much of society will empathize with your pain, “I took a few months off from working out because I hurt my back.” Not many people will call you out on that, and most will just nod and tell you what a shame it is.
During his competitive career, Louie Simmons has broken his fifth vertebra twice, ruptured his left patella tendon, and detached his right biceps from the bone. At still at the age of over 50, he squatted as much as 920 pounds and totaled over 2100 pounds – now that’s the definition of growing a pair and persevering.
Unless you’re a saint, you’ve probably been neglecting some part of your training or nutrition. In fact, sometimes this is the reason that you ended up injured in the first place. Doing only what’s fun, what comes easy, and what we want to do is usually a problem waiting to happen. The injury time is not an excuse to throw everything out the window. It’s time to find that thing that you’ve been neglecting and start considering yourself a specialist in that area.
Around the time of my shoulder injury, I was the typical recreational bodybuilder; I only cared about getting as big as possible, neglected max strength work, and put a much greater focus on building my upper body. I decided to use my recovery period as a chance to really focus on training my legs. Because of the injury, I couldn’t get my arm behind the bar for back squats, so I ordered the Top Squat from Dave Draper’s side (a safety squat bar would work well here too – check out Westside Barbells Speciality Bars) and started squatting twice a week instead of once a week or every other week.
I thought about what else I could do without abusing my shoulder: the leg press, most lower body machine work, a good deal of core work, and some light direct arm work. Rather than considering myself “benched” for the duration of my recovery, I saw some very good progress in my squat and leg development and moved my strength ahead of where it had been previously. My self-discipline and mental toughness benefitted because I started to step outside of what made me comfortable.
Perhaps you have an injury to the spine that prevents any loading at all. Perhaps it’s time to begin an upper body specialization routine and put some extra size on where it’s been lagging, or perhaps your eating hasn’t been as consistent and regimented as it could have been, so you decide that you’re going to up your cardio, clean up your diet and drop some extra body fat. That way, when you’re fully recovered, you have a blank slate to start from, and it’ll make your next building phase more efficient. Let’s take it to the extreme and say that you’ve ended up in a full-body cast. You can’t train, do cardio, or pretty much anything physical. Now is the time to clean up the diet and focus on education. Whatever energy you had been putting into lifting needs to be channeled into dietary discipline or your education as a lifter. Read anything that you can get your hands on so that when you’re healthy again, you’ll get even better results during your comeback.
I think that recovery from injuries can be a time of incredible growth, both mentally and physically. This is the time to step outside yourself and get out of that comfort zone that you’ve been in for so long. Find that challenge and face it head on. When you’re back and healthy again, you’ll find that the new mental attitude you’ve developed from the new goals will carry over greatly when you’re healthy again. Plus, you’ll have gained a solid self-demonstration of how you can turn bad situations into good ones.
I’m going to give you a few case studies, some of which may remind you of yourself. These are going to be like those choose-your-own-adventure books about wizards and dragons that I read, I mean…used to read…as a child.
Hartley – The Picture Perfect Squatter
With short legs and a long torso, Hartley has always been a natural. At 200 lbs, he’s got a beltless squat of 480 lbs with a mediocre deadlift and a bench that isn’t much better. In fact, he’s built much of his confidence as a lifter in his squat ability and he relies on it for building a big powerlifting total. After he tears his quad in a big meet, he gets extremely depressed and realizes that he has a few options:
1. Hartley starts collecting Happy Meal toys because of all the crap that he’s going to stuff in his face while he wears out the springs on his couch.
2. Hartley takes some photos of himself and gets his bodyfat tested, measuring at 15% bodyfat. He’s not fat for a powerlifter, but he could be leaner. He decides to do some reading on nutrition since it’s been an area that he’s neglected during most of his training. For the first time ever, he introduces cardio into his training regimen. He loses 20 lbs of over the course of the next 15 weeks, dropping to 8% bodyfat. His quad is starting to heal up, and he’s now a full weight class lower and much more competitive as he builds back up to his previous levels of strength. With a much lower bodyfat level, his body is primed for growth into a new, leaner 200 lbs as he works his way up the weight classes. All things being equal, more muscle mass in his weight class ultimately means that he’ll be stronger. Not only that, but his health and energy has improved along with his recovery levels.
3. After years of struggling with the bench and deadlift and delegating much of his energy to the squat, he decides that it’s time to focus on his upper body training as well as bringing up the posterior chain. He begins a program to add some size to his upper body, glutes, and hamstrings. With some more volume added to his upper body work and an assload (excuse the pun) of pull-throughs, RDLs, glute ham raises, good mornings, etc., he ends up packing on a solid 7 lbs over the next 15 weeks. As he gets back to squatting, he finds that his deadlift and bench are now bigger contributors to his total than ever before and that they can pick up some of the slack while he rebuilds his squat.
Lower body injury? Perhaps it’s time to redirect your efforts into adding some size to his upper body?
Jason - The Recreational Bodybuilder
After deciding to try a new shoulder program that has him focusing on the delts three times per week, Jason ends up with some serious pain in the form of impingement in his left shoulder. The training cycle was going really well and he was really starting to see some improved growth, but now, he has pain during most vertical pressing and with a good deal of horizontal pressing. In addition to any overhead pressing, back squatting and front squatting cause a ton of pain as well.
1. Jason destroys his computer from downloading too much free internet porn in place of the time he used to spend lifting. Soon, the eating falls apart as well, and he ends up while doing some rehab and waiting for the problem to get better.
2. He’s finally honest with himself. Despite always hearing that he shouldn’t give more attention to his beloved pressing muscles than to his much neglected pulling muscles, he decides to acknowledge the issue and do something about it. He begins a back specialization program focusing on building the width of the lats using a neutral grip on vertical pulling, but he really focuses on row variations, rotator cuff work, and various “pre-hab” drills for the lower traps. With years of untapped potential, he puts slabs of muscle on his back and improves his shoulder range of motion and thoracic mobility.
3. His second most popular nickname (aside from “Internally Rotated Humerus, Downwardly Rotated Scapula Jason”) is “Martini” because he looks like a human martini glass, with legs so small and an upper body so big that you wonder how he stands on one leg without snapping in half. He decides to figure out what lower body work he can do without pain, and hammers it hard. He starts using a safety squat bar or a Top Squat bar to keep the stress off the shoulder. Deadlifts don’t bother him, so he decides to start training legs twice per week, with one day starting with the squat and the other with the deadlift. He’s always hated lunges but decides to man up and start working them consistently to preserve his mental edge, and even grow a few sack hairs while he’s at it. He can hold dumbbells, so he’s got a lot of single-leg exercise options and he can use the SSB to do most exercises that he previously could do with a barbell on his back, like good mornings, step-ups, lunge variations, etc.
4. Because he doesn’t feel like losing ground, Jason decides to clean up his diet. He’s always been naturally pretty lean and has had a hard time putting on size because he’s not consistent enough with his caloric intake. He decides to spend his extra time learning how to prepare meals, takes a healthy cooking class, and starts cooking in bulk and bringing his food to work with him. He loses a little bit of size in his shoulders and chest while fighting off the pain, but gains much more size in his legs and back and actually ends up being bigger and more proportionate than before the pain started.
5. Instead of trying to work through the pain and use his favorite exercises that still wreck his shoulder, he explores some new options. He switches to a neutral grip on the dumbbell bench press (palms facing each other), and even plays around with some machines that allow him to work around the injury pain-free. This gives his pressing muscles enough stimulation to keep a bit of the size, but he keeps the volume low enough to allow his back some catch-up time to fix the imbalances he’s created over the years.
6. Maybe after 12 weeks of adding some size to his weak areas, Jason decides to finally take the big step. He signs up for a bodybuilding competition and starts dieting. He takes a negative in his lifting career and makes it a catalyst to do the best thing he’s done so far.
And lastly, Bruce
Bruce ended up severely injuring his back while doing good mornings, and wasn’t able to do much other than stay in his bed for six months. The doctor told him that he’d never be physically active at the same level ever again, so he spent the next six months educating himself and working on the mental aspect of his game. Within a year, he was back to doing what he loved and better than ever because he’d spent his time wisely. That was Bruce Lee, by the way. True story.
Injuries are awful, there’s no doubt about it, but it’s something that almost every lifter ends up experiencing at some point in life. You can make the recovery time the most productive training phase you’ve ever had, or you can act like the kid in the ice cream store, complaining about how they didn’t have the specific flavor that you wanted, and screaming that then you don’t want any ice cream. They may not have the chocolate chip cookie dough, but the pistachio is still pretty good. Walk out of that ice cream store empty-handed, and you know that you’ll regret it.
Written by Matt McGorry
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