As a strength/physique athlete there are many challenges. Dieting and training are two that most know well. These are challenges that we are all well aware of and, in a sense, we enjoy them. But on the other hand, there are challenges that we don’t necessarily “sign up” for. One that took me by surprise was the difficulty of post contest dieting. I thought I was prepared, but a week after the last show of my first season there were 3 cheeseburgers left over after a family dinner. I had already had two, so I volunteered to eat one more. I didn’t want to waste food and I figured if I had one more so would some other people. They didn’t. After the last two burgers and half a tray of brownies, I knew I was in trouble. That realization helped me get back on track and not gain 25 pounds in a month after my show like some have done.
The other unexpected challenge I’ve faced, maybe more than most, is injury. Over the past six years injury has caused me to miss more training than I haven’t. I won’t get into my full injury history, because the exact details are not exactly necessary, but I will say that I have learned something specific from each injury. However, more importantly I want to discuss the bigger picture lessons I’ve learned. In no particular order:
1. INJURIES HAPPEN
Most people will face some sort of injury. It may be something as small as an ingrown toenail, something more severe like a torn muscle, or much worse like a car accident. But it will happen. And it will affect your training. I’m not suggesting locking yourself in a bubble and never venturing outside again. But just like post contest depression, being aware is the first step in being prepared.
2. INJURIES AREN’T JUST PHYSICAL
There is an extremely large psychological component of injury. As athletes there is a ton of emotional investment in our training. For many it is a source of confidence. It is a means to accomplish our athletic goals. It is how we identify ourselves and others identify us.
As a strength and conditioning coach people very much identify me as someone who is fit. I felt like a fraud telling clients what to do when I hadn’t trained consistently for more than 8 weeks in a row for years. It was difficult for me to want new clients. I questioned if being a coach was something I even wanted to do anymore.
Not to mention the fact that I had gained and lost weight/size during my cycles of training and not training to the point that one friend joked that people at my gym must have thought I was on steroids. I’d gain 10 pounds in 4-6 weeks upon resuming training and lose it just as quickly after having to stop again.
At one point during the process I was 1 pound over stage weight which doesn’t sound too bad, right? Well at 16-18% body fat it was a pretty depressing feeling.
3. STAY INVOLVED
Most strength/physique sports are individual in nature, but we all have our friends and workout partners. These days it’s common to post on forums or have Facebook groups of people with similar interests. When you’re hurt and don’t feel like yourself it is too easy to pull away from these individuals. It can make it even harder when you watch them progress in strength or size while you are shrinking and getting weaker. But staying around these people will be what helps you get back into it. They will be the ones who encourage you when you’re down and their support helps you stay in the gym training what you can while doing the rehab for what’s injured.
4. A PERIODIZED, EVIDENCE-BASED TRAINING AND NUTRITION PLAN IS A MUST
Whether you do your own training plans or you hire the services of a coach, if you don’t have planned periods that allow for recovery you will get injured over time. I don’t like to speak in absolutes, but this is one absolute that I’m pretty comfortable with.
In 2009 I competed in two bodybuilding competitions. I dieted for 24 weeks in total. I achieved pretty decent conditioning for my first season of competing, especially considering that I trained through the whole prep with a strained hamstring (more on that later).
We know contest prep can be grueling. Again that’s one of the challenges we know and accept. For my prep I “planned” my own training for the 24 weeks but hired a nutrition coach. Looking back my prep was not ideal. I had no recovery periods. No diet breaks, no deloads, multiple intensity techniques per workout and took almost every set to failure. On top of that my nutrition coach had prescribed 8 sessions of cardio per week of which 3-4 were HIIT.
I somehow made it through all 24 weeks. Then, a week and a half later, right after the burger incident I mentioned earlier, I strained my hamstring again and developed tennis elbow that severely limited my upper body training for the next 10 months.
Some people can get away without planned recovery periods. They are usually those who don’t train hard enough to see any real changes.
5. TAKE AN ACTIVE ROLE IN YOUR RECOVERY
After an injury most people will advise rest or to avoid movements that hurt. And that’s it. That’s all they say. I doubt if you broke your leg they’d give the same advice. Soft tissue injuries (the type we are most likely to see as strength athletes) need to be actively treated as well.
Rest may be the first part of your recovery plan. But there needs to be steps of rehabilitation after that. After all, for a soft tissue injury there are many likely causes, whether it is muscular imbalance, technique, tightness, or weakness. Likewise as a result of the injury these same issues can arise. In most cases they don’t just go away either.
I strained my hamstring in 2008. I avoided everything that caused me pain. I didn’t deadlift. I didn’t sprint. I didn’t do bent over rows. I eventually stopped squatting. And the pain went away. But that did nothing to address the tissue quality issues that either were part of the cause or sequelae to the injury. I re-injured it my very first workout back.
Eventually, I learned my lesson. It took much longer than it should have, but I did finally address the injury. For me, in this case it was through foam rolling, PNF, eccentrics, and some technique changes for some lifts.
While I feel that I’m pretty good at addressing these issues now after all my injuries, it is outside my scope as an S&C coach to advise anyone how to rehabilitate an injury. I will always suggest seeing a qualified therapist to address pain or injury.
6. TRAIN WHAT YOU CAN
This point goes hand in hand with the above point in a lot of cases. The rehab is training. Rehab brings with it its own unique struggles, but just being in the environment can help with the mental challenges. It is something I’ve done well at times and very poorly at others. I dislocated my shoulder once. For about 4 days, I couldn’t extend my shoulder without it dislocating. But I still trained lower body. I didn’t need my shoulder for that. I squatted on the smith machine with only my left hand on the bar, used the leg press and other machine based work. It let me keep a training effect. My most recent issue and perhaps biggest has been femoroacetabular impingement (FAI). It had me very mentally defeated. I had dealt with it for a long time and it got to me. I had a lot of back pain (SI joint) that went with it and any time I tried to get back to training it would flare up. I should have at least continued training upper body and doing the machine based lower body work that I could do.
7. DO IT NOW
Like I said, doing nothing is not the answer. Don’t wait! Find a qualified therapist sooner rather than later. Some people think FAI is something that can be managed. Depending on severity I probably would agree with that. I had pain for about 5 years before I sought a professional’s opinion. At that point, I had a labrum that had been crushed so many times it began to calcify. I couldn’t play on the floor with my daughter, train, or do other enjoyable activities. I went to see a doctor, had surgery, and am finally getting back to training. I have now consistently trained for longer than I have for the last 5 years. Finally seeing a doctor was the best thing I’ve ever done. I wish I had done it sooner.
8. LOOK FORWARD
Comparing yourself to what you used to be or do just doesn’t help. Neither does comparing yourself to others. One of my training partners that I like to think I rescued from less than optimal training his freshman year, has since blown me away in strength. Over the last few years while I’ve been dealing with injuries, he has continued to train. There were times I’d be jealous, but that didn’t do anything for me. When I began focusing on improving my situation that is exactly what happened.
9. DON’T GIVE UP HOPE
I was never the biggest or the strongest guy in the world. The last few years haven’t helped, but after 3 months of consistent training I look like I lift again. My strength is about 90% of what it was at my best. And most importantly I will continue to improve and beat my previous best soon.