Injuries happen. They really are just part of the game. Even as physical therapist, I experience injury from time to time. Being involved in athletics, or other recreational activity like CrossFit, we spend a great deal of time pushing our bodies and testing our limits. Honestly, if don’t train with intent and intensity, you will never progress to achieve your full potential. Eventually, you will find a limit where your body fights back or gives up. This is where you flirt with injury, yet are stressing enough to progress. Like any good relationship, dealing with an injury takes a lot of commitment and focus. The real question then becomes, how do you handle injury?
A couple of years ago, after 15 years of weightlifting, I experienced my first low back injury while dead lifting. I was training at an all time high, getting stronger, and producing many new personal records. Suddenly, I was forced to take a step back and reevaluate my own training. Any movement that involved bending forward or backward at the hips was extremely uncomfortable. To keep training, I had to make some major movement and programming modifications.
A low back injury is devastating for a manual physical therapist that is also obsessed with banging some heavy weights. Squats, dead lifts, snatches, and clean and jerks were all out of the question. I had to get creative with my training. I also had to remind myself that I am a physical therapist first. Being able to treat my patients always needed to be my number one priority. What good am I as a clinician if I can’t examine and treat my patients effectively?
A Blessing in Disguise
An injury neither signals the end of a lifting career, nor does it mean I was a bad physical therapist just because “I should know better.” Injuries happen to the best of us and are never fully preventable. It is our mindset that determines how we respond. The attitude you possess following an injury is key to how you emerge at the other end of the recovery process. Sometimes you need to realize that this particular injury may be a blessing in disguise. Take it as an opportunity to focus on aspects of your training that you didn’t have the energy for, or didn’t prioritize in the first place. Take a step back and look at what impairments, along with what other variables in your environment could have contributed to the injury at hand.
Of course, training for mobility and motor control are not as glamorous or sexy as Instagramming a 350-pound clean and jerk. However, these are key aspects of a well-rounded training program that are often neglected. The thought of getting weaker and losing progress made me feel a little depressed, but I realized that didn’t have to be a reality. There were plenty of things I could do to maintain strength and stay in shape while working on my weaknesses. After all, I didn’t’ want to go through this again. I made my movement practice fun and refreshing by trying new, challenging, and unfamiliar exercises. After all, our movement practice should be just that – something that makes us happy and improves our health.
I first decided to maintain my schedule throughout the week. I already dedicated a certain amount of time to train, so I made it a point to show up and find ways to improve myself. I did whatever I could that didn’t provoke my back pain. I ended up focusing on lumbar and pelvic stability while progressing unilateral movement patterns. Here are a few examples of what my program looked like:
- Deadbugs/Bird Dogs
- Turkish Get-Ups (broken down into segmental patterns)
- Various Chopping and Lifting Patterns Using Weights and Bands
- Multiple Plank Positions
- Single Leg Dead Lifts, Step Ups, and Bridges
- Mobility Drills for the Shoulders, Hips, and Ankles
- Yoga (Modified)
- Bracing Drills with Purposeful Breathing
The Nocebo Effect
I wasn’t hitting new personal records in the Olympic lifts, but I was definitely improving positional control and mobility. I was, in a sense, training my body to realize there was no reason to be defensive about movement anymore. The threat of injury was over. After a few short weeks, my back pain subsided. I believe this to be a direct result of my frame of mind. I went into every training session with intent and purpose, as if I was never injured in the first place. Whether you are training alone or in a group, do not bring a bad attitude into the environment. Try to avoid dwelling on the negative. After all, your attitude will affect others around you. This phenomenon is known as the “Nocebo Effect.” It is an ill effect caused by the suggestion or belief that something is harmful. Instead, create a positive environment through careful choice of your language, thoughts, and actions.
It’s a Mental Game
Mindset is everything. Being injured is not an ideal situation, but when it happens you need to know how to handle it properly. It is essential to stay positive. Balancing a busy work schedule, family, healthy lifestyle, and exercise routine is hard mentally and physically. Injury is also a signal that your body needs some time to unload stress. This is a hint to unwind and reset. As the days and weeks go by, life moves forward. The time off from training is really minuscule in the grand scheme of things. One day you will return to making progress towards your goals. That fire in your belly will translate into newfound motivation and maybe even a different perspective on why you exercise. For me, it is to be able to do the things I love with my family and friends. After all, we as humans were built to move. We live to move and we move to live.
Please feel free to leave any questions about injury, recovery, or how to modify your training and lifestyle in my email at email@example.com