What my injury taught me
Injuries are rarely considered to be something positive.
After all, they cause us pain and usually require some level of regression in our training.
I regularly coach athletes and clients who’ve suffered an injury, yet it’s not often that I discuss my own.
My injury is one of the most important factors in my development. While being one of the most frustrating processes of my life, my injury and subsequent rehabilitation has given me more knowledge and experience than I ever would have imagined, so for those of you who don’t know, I’d like to share with you here.
The fact is, I should have been injured long before I actually was.
I first started training when I was 15. I specifically remember the day when I first tried doing deadlifts, or what I thought were deadlifts – some straight leg, round back abomination. I had never seen one in real life before, I’d definitely never seen one performed in my gym.
I remember thinking it didn’t feel right, and noticing that a lot of people in the gym were looking at me funny, but not saying anything. I thought they were just impressed by this kid doing a badass exercise, but really they were waiting to call the ambulance.
It wasn’t until I started training at Elite Physique in 2006 and got some guidance from the King Ape Billy Giampaolo on how to deadlift properly, that things really started to accelerate for me.
In 2007 I had my first powerlifting comp. About 2 weeks out from that was when it happened. I was doing a deadlift variation raised on plates. In the middle of the set, I bounced awkwardly off one of the plates and twisted my back. I thought that my life was over.
At the time, I didn’t know anything about injuries or recovery. All I knew for certain was that I’d already bought my plane tickets and cut a bunch of weight for the competition, so I was definitely going. I rested completely (zero training) for two weeks, and actually felt about 80% better by the time I got there.
I made weight when I arrived, and everything seemed to be looking up.
Things felt good during warm ups and even during my first squat. Then, on my second attempt, I twisted in the bottom position and injured my back again so badly that I could barely walk. I was devastated, but I finished the comp – benching about 50% of my best and deadlifting about 25% of my best.
This was the start of my learning process, where I started to think about things in more detail. This re-injury was a pretty clear indication that just because you might feel better, doesn’t mean that you are better. I realised I needed a more accurate way to assess my recovery.
I saw a lot of different therapists, physio, chiro, osteo, sports doctor, massage therapist, acupuncturist, voodoo shaman, etc, with varying degrees of success. Sometimes nothing would change at all, sometimes I would be completely cured for around 24 hours before my symptoms slowly crept back in.
It was about this time that I journeyed to Florida to do an internship at a holiday resort for about six months, where I hardly trained. My back pain gradually disappeared as I wasn’t placing any stress through it, and after I finished up I travelled to Ohio to visit the famous Westside Barbell powerlifting club, and the godfather of powerlifting, Louie Simmons. It was here that, on the very first squat session, after 4 months pain free, I injured my back again.
It was a blessing in disguise, because it gave me the perfect reason to talk to Louie about it. We briefly discussed what had happened, he gave me an exercise protocol to complete, which I religiously followed.
I did a heap of core, single leg, and posterior chain work, and by the time I left two weeks later, my back was completely fine.
It was a light bulb moment for me – I’d always been told to rest an injury, yet here I was, training twice a day for six or seven consecutive days and feeling reductions in pain that had taken 3 months of resting previously. I began to understand the concept of ‘movement as therapy’ Showing the body that its reaction of shutting-down range for protection may be an over-reaction, and that we can re-gain strength and range of motion far quicker if we know what information to give to the body to interrupt the panic cycle.
I came home feeling great, and went back to lifting heavy again. However, it didn’t take long for the pain to return, and about six months later the pain was almost as bad as before I went to Ohio.
The problem with the shotgun approach is that when you try a few different things at once, you might get better – but you won’t necessarily know what it was that made you better. With that information in mind, I started to analyse things a little more closely.
I started seeing a massage therapist and having muscles released every week. I learned a lot during this process – it was literally how I learned about anatomy: staring at the charts while I was getting massaged. Knowing how the body works became important to me all of a sudden.
I started testing out some single leg strength work in the gym, and I was shocked to find that my right glute had about 50% of the strength of my left glute. I couldn’t believe it was so out of whack, and I became a little bit obsessed, doing single leg work almost every day.
After about six weeks my pain was pretty much gone, and my deadlift went up 20 kilos
For me, that was a bit of a revelation. It cemented the idea that something as simple as a single leg deadlift as a corrective could be quite powerful in terms of increasing your bilateral strength. Purely because if that is your weakest link, your body is going to shut down power to all the other structures in the chain. It became clear to me that the brain controls everything and it’s absolutely essential to strive for balance –both front to back and left to right.
Fortunately, that bought me two years of pain free training where I made really good strength gains. Unfortunately, in this game you are always at risk of injury, and after about 2 years of feeling great, I injured myself squatting again.
After that, something changed with my squat. The body is amazing at adapting and compensating, and in an effort to avoid painful positions, my body had learned a new way to move in the squat pattern, the issue with this was, while I had no pain at the time, a few days after squatting I always had a severe delayed onset lower back pain. My training partner was the first one to point out this new ‘adaptation’ in my squat, and after I saw the video evidence it was undeniable, I had completely changed my pattern.
Once I realised this, I started a process of filming every set of my squats, and taking it right back to the bar. I was stuck between the empty bar and 80 kilos for about six months, purely trying to focus on correcting this squat pattern I’d formed. I’d completely lost feeling and control of my hips, it was incredibly frustrating. I ended up live-streaming an external camera to my phone so that I could watch myself squatting in real time, which allowed me to finally break the pattern.
Was it frustrating to drop my squat down from 220 to 60 kilos for almost a year? Yes – but that was also what allowed me to correct the faulty pattern, and finally beat my 5 year old record on the squat.
The thing with injury is that you can let it depress you, or you can let it be your guide. It forces you to revaluate. If you’re getting hurt, then you’re doing something wrong.
You can admit that and be willing to break things down and rebuild them again, but that means checking your ego.
I find myself much happier to do that now, because every time I have torn down and rebuilt my strength, I always end up stronger than before.