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Is an Injury a Blessing in Disguise?
by Coach Travis Mash, USAW Senior International Coach
In early 2004 I started experiencing major low back pain. The pain was shooting down my leg. I was also experiencing some major weakness in my right leg. None of these symptoms were advantageous to a powerlifter trying to set world records. The pain and weakness had me on the sideline for the first time in my career. At 31-years-old I was experiencing my first real injury.
31-years of being injury free is a big reason that I was able to amass that amount of strength. If you can train for long amounts of time without injury, eventually you will be stronger than everyone else. That’s just simple math. Genetically my body was very durable. I say genetics because it sure wasn’t that I was so smart in my training. I simply used the max effort method everyday, so there wasn’t a lot of thought that went into my programming.
This lack of thought in my programming along with the heavy weight had finally led to a major injury. One of my buddies at the time was a very gifted orthopedic doctor. He sent me for an MRI, so that a proper diagnosis could be made. When he received the images back, he called me in to discuss the findings. I went in assuming that he was going to tell me to rest 3-4 weeks, take a few pills, and then back to training. However that was not what he told me.
Now before I tell you exactly what he said, it’s important that you realize that this doctor was a powerlifter too. He wasn’t some fat guy in a white coat telling me that powerlifting is a bad sport. He wanted to see me crush records as badly as I wanted to crush those records. I tell you that because most doctors are going to have a biased opinion regarding putting 1,000lb on your back.
Anyways I go into his office in high spirits because I just wanted to get the news and get back to training. However, he looked me dead in the eyes and told me that I was at risk of paralysis. Pretty darn scary! I had two discs in my lumbar spine that were majorly herniated.
I was going to have to make some major decisions. Was I really going to retire at a point right before breaking the all-time world record? There was more to the diagnosis as well. I would also be at risk of impotency. I mean that normally goes along with paralysis, but sadly that’s what scared me the most. I was 31-years-old and single, but did imagine a life after sports with a wife to share that life.
I took a week to think about things and do my own research. My research led me to two individuals: Dr. Lawrence Gray and Dr. Stuart McGill. Dr. Gray is the leading sport chiropractor in my area, and Dr. Stuart McGill is the leading spine and hip researcher in the world. After speaking to them both, I at least had some hope. It was going to take a lot of attention to detail for once, but these changes are the very reason that I broke the records.
Here’s what I did:
1. Dr. Gray became my Chiro- I started seeing Dr. Gray on a weekly basis whether I was in pain or not. He kept me aligned. He also worked on any soft tissue area that seemed to be causing issues. His office is filled with instruments geared towards recovery. We started strengthening weak muscles and lengthening tight muscles based on his assessments.
2. McGill Core Work- Dr. McGill taught me that the hips need to be mobile and the low back needs to be stable. He recommended lots of core work. That core work didn’t involve any sit-ups ironically. Here’s what it did involve-
• Bilateral Carries- the key is to monitor total volume with carries just like anything else. Most people make a big mistake by using the same weight week in and week out. Guess what? Nothing is improving that way. I suggest starting with 3-5 sets of 60 feet, and then each week either increase weight, distance, or sets.
• Unilateral Carries- I like these the best because they address asymmetries. You will also wake up that lazy quadratus lumborum muscle (QL).
• Zercher Carries
• Bird Dogs and all there variations.
• The McGill Curl Up- you can Google most of these.
• Planks and all of the variations.
3. Implemented proper warm ups- before my injury I would simply get under the bar and start squatting. After the injury, I would mobilize the hips and wake up the glutes. I wouldn’t touch the bar until I could perform a pain free air squat. By pain free I am talking about the achy joints that all strength athletes experience when they first walk in the gym. Basically I would shake off the cobwebs first.
4. Focused on Nutrition- If you want optimal recover, you have to focus on nutrition and sleep, which brings me to my next point.
5. Proper Sleep- too many people don’t take sleep seriously. That’s a big mistake for anybody especially an athlete. I started getting off the computer two hours prior to bed. The last hour was reserved for reading, and I am not talking about powerlifting magazines. I wanted to read literature that would relax me not excite me. I made sure the room was completely dark and cold around 68 degrees. All of these changes were miracles towards my recovery and performance.
Here’s the point to the entire article. An injury is often times a crossroads that all athletes are going to find themselves. You can take the most common path, which is simply quit your sport and move on with life. That’s the road most often taken, and I totally understand. You can also take the other road, overcome your injury, and finish out your sport. For me, that led to two more world championships and two more all-time world records in the total. That doesn’t mean that you will win a world championship. It just means that you will maximize your potential. Therefore you will finish your journey and leave your sport with zero regrets. That’s all any of us can ever ask for.
My injuries eventually made me into an even better athlete than before. They also taught me to master the mundane tasks that most people ignore. I became a better athlete, and these life lessons left me better at coaching. I learned things that would help athletes for many years to come. I also learned a lot of things not to do, so my athletes can avoid certain pitfalls that led to my injuries.
If you are injured right now, I encourage you to look at it as a necessary step that most all athletes will have to take. The goal needs to be to come out the other side stronger than ever with an even better mindset. Injuries are normally a blessing in disguise, and are simply wake up calls for crazy athletes like me. I recommend embracing that blessing and becoming a wise and fearless athlete.
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