If It’s Sketchy……

Back pain

When I was younger, I would push myself through soreness and fatigue. It didn’t matter whether I was in the gym, on a run, or on the basketball court. I didn’t listen to my body much.  I had a delusion in my young mind that I was indestructible. Consequently, I had my share of injuries. One of the memories that comes to mind was the time I injured my knee playing rec center basketball at University of Oregon. I had put myself through a tough lower body strength training session the day before the injury. Heavy squats and lunges had left my legs extremely sore and fatigued. I remember thinking to myself that I probably should take it easy, but my love for pick up basketball games was too intense at that time. I ended up out on the court and I dislocated my knee cap during the first game. Did the intense weight lifting session the day before lead to my injury? I can’t say with all certainty that it did, but I am sure it didn’t help my cause. It was just one example of the many times in my youth when I didn’t listen to my body and the signals it was trying to convey. When an older adult would caution me to take care of my body and tell me that these injuries would catch up to me when I was older, I typically dismissed the advice. Now that I am older and possibly a little bit wiser, I am more in tune with my body.

I have been following an easy strength weight lifting program based off of Dan John and Pavel Tsatsouline’s work. It’s a simple workout with four exercises total, that utilize pretty much every muscle in the body. The exercises I chose for this round of workouts include the bench press, sumo stance deadlift, back squat, and suitcase carry. It’s a low volume, heavy weight routine. There are small variations in the number of sets and repetitions from day to day, and also in the frequency of workouts for the week.  Yesterday, my deadlifts just weren’t feeling right. I got to my last set and felt a small twinge in my back, and I just shut the workout down. I have a little soreness today in my back but I feel like I made a good choice to shut down the workout and not fight for the rest of the prescribed reps. In the old days, it might have killed me to leave reps on the table like that. Who knows what the problem was. Maybe it was doing heavy deadlifts with more frequency, or the fact it was in the early morning and I had to rush my warm-up, or maybe it had to do with my right hamstring being sore and I compensated, or maybe the sumo variation is not a good fit for me. There are so many possible reasons, but I do know this, by ending the workout right there, I will live to lift another day.

My advice for everyone who may read this article, is to listen to the signals your body is giving you. There is no shame in ending a workout early if your body isn’t feeling right, or substituting one exercise for another. It’s much better to give your body a break until things feel right than to push through warning signals and pick up a chronic injury. The same goes for a specific exercise. There have been recent articles showing that the ideal squat form will be different for each individual based on differences in anatomy. I think it’s safe to say that some exercises just won’t be a good fit based on a person’s anatomy, and if it doesn’t feel right, it’s time for an alternative exercise. Here are a few tips for training safely and attempting to minimize the risk of injury.

  •  If an exercise or activity feels sketchy, then it’s probably sketchy. I believe I heard Physical Therapist Kelly Starrett of Mobility WOD say this, so I am not taking credit. This piece of advice has stuck with me. The deadlift wasn’t feeling good from the start, and if I had really took this advice to heart, I could have avoided a strain of my back altogether. This doesn’t just hold true for weight room exercises, in other sports, the same rule applies. Let’s use an endurance sport as an example, let’s say running. If I head out on my planned run for the day and let’s say that my knee just isn’t feeling right, it’s probably best to call it a day. However, how many of us keep pushing through a rough run like that because it’s on our training calendar? Admit it, many do! Of course, we all have bad days where we don’t feel our best and we can “gut out” a workout without any long term negative consequences, but now that I’m 40, I’d rather err on the side of being too conservative. If it feels sketchy, don’t do it!
  • Warm-up before you workout. There are many studies including this one from 2008 that show the benefits of a dynamic warm-up in comparison to a static stretching protocol. A dynamic warm-up helps increase the temperature of the tissue, increases range of motion, and improves performance.  Just make sure to include dynamic warm-up drills that attend to the whole body. The inclusion of a solid dynamic warm-up in my training plans has greatly diminished the amount of muscle strains I see, making them a very rare occurrence indeed.
  • Have an exercise professional critique your exercise technique. There is always a possibility that our exercise form isn’t up to par. Having an exercise professional with solid credentials take a look at your form can be a huge help. They may have tips to improve your form and that can save you from an injury in the long run. If you see me in the gym, I am always willing to take a quick look at exercise form and give you some tips if needed.
  • If you have pain, see a medical professional. Often times, people seek me out to tell me about their aches and pains, but injury diagnosis and treatment is not a part of my scope of practice. If you are suffering with pain, seek out the advice of a trusted medical professional. You can check out my past blog about this topic right here.
  • Weigh the risk versus reward. Obviously, when we work with heavier weights, the risk increases. The same could be said for overuse injuries in long distance endurance events. Maybe it’s not necessary for you to lift heavy weights or to cover long distances. I enjoy heavy deadlifting and I know that there is some risk involved in doing so. All I can do is try to minimize that risk as completely as possibly by only attempting it when my body is functioning properly, and I know my technique and focus is sharp. That being said, we can be healthy and strong without going for personal records.

With any physical activity we perform, there are some risks involved. Listening to our body can help keep us healthy and strong. I hope those tips help. Remember, if something doesn’t feel right, don’t do it. It’s best to go on to lift, run, bike, swim, or play another day!

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