Some injuries are a good thing. What?! Did I really just say that?
I recently had an MRI on my lumbar spine and found I have 4 herniated discs and a torn annular – the annular is the coating that encases the jelly-like tissue that makes up the spinal disc. As many of you know, I recently became hooked on Crossfit – had been training Crossfit for about 6 months prior to this diagnosis. Some of my anti-Crossfit trainer friends believe the injury is directly related to Crossfit. I’m reluctant to blame Crossfit – I first herniated discs doing weighted squats in 1999. Once you have a disc herniation, the opening is there for the injur to recur. I’ve had several flare-ups – some worse than others – in the 13 years since the initial injury. I have learned and applied all of the spine extension and trunk stabilization exercises to rehab myself back each time. The fact is, my doctor said, if we took MRI’s of most people walking around, we’d find some degree of disc herniation and degeneration, as I have. I just happen to be symptomatic (disc(s) are pressing against a nerve(s) to cause pain and irritation, preventing me from performing at my peak level).
I’m not going to argue whether Crossfit should be vilified for my current injury. The short of it is, yes, Crossfit does have some programming issues such as with Olympic Lifting moves like the snatch and clean and jerk for high reps. These are highly technical lifts that are performed as single rep maxes in competitions. I agree with those who criticize Crossfit saying it is stupid to have workouts where the goal is to do 30 reps of a clean and jerk with 135 pounds as fast as possible. (Crossfit names this workout Grace.) In order to execute that workout as quickly as possible, there most certainly has to be a breakdown in proper technique. Put another way, the fastest Grace times MUST be achieved with sub-par form, increasing the risk for injury. Why reward that and encourage people to do these highly technical lifts at a fast pace?
But, I digress. I said this wasn’t going to be a blog taking shots at Crossfit. I’m still a fan. Crossfit does so much that is right, in terms of building community and making exercise fun, that I still think the pros outweigh the cons. I want to talk about injuries and how they can be a good thing. I’m not talking about traumatic injuries or freak accidents. I’m talking about overuse, cumulative and repetitive motion injuries. I consider my back injury a cumulative injury. It occurred over a long period of time, not just from my original injury in 1999, but from a lifetime of lifting heavy-ish weights, playing football, working blue collar jobs, and from just an all-around active life. It all contributed. Who knows when my discs began to herniate and what was the straw that broke the camel’s back?
I’m restricted from doing loaded flexion exercises – any weighted exercise that puts my spine into flexion: back squats, leg presses. Even seated leg extensions (stupid exercise, anyway, I never do them) are no good because, even though it’s a stable machine, the hips and spine are in a fixed, flexed position. The only legs I can do right now are reverse or stationary lunges and unloaded squats with a corrective band around my knees. Everything is else is physical therapy and core and trunk strengthening and stabilization work. I can do almost everything upper body. I have to be careful with the load (not go too heavy) on military/overhead presses because, with the weight fully extended overhead, there is some spinal compression.
I’m learning how to squat again from ground zero, square one. I have to throw everything I thought I knew about how to squat OUT the window and start over. I now must learn to maintain a neutral spine at the bottom of my squat. That means I need to more fully engage my glute-complex throughout the entire movement. I need my core and trunk to be rock solid and tight throughout the entire movement. And, if I want to compete in Crossfit in the future, I have to learn to do all this while getting deep enough in my squat so that my hips get below my knees at the bottom of every squat movement. That is what constitutes a successful rep for any squat-related movement in Crossfit.
This is the crux of the issue for me and should be for every Crossfit athlete out there. Are you able to maintain a neutral spine at the bottom of any squat movement? Most people cannot because of muscular imbalances and poor flexibility in certain muscle groups. I see a lot of no reps out there that people count as reps. And this is where Crossfit gets another lump: the competitive atmosphere and the human ego create an enticing environment where people (myself, included) are tempted to flirt with the line of too far. And, if you aren’t able to maintain a neutral spine at the bottom of your squat and you continue to perform this action, it is just a matter of time before something gives, most likely a disc.
But I say some degree of risk is a good thing. Testing the boundaries of your capability is better than never coming close to your limits. Every competitive athlete has had an injury of some kind. I’ll go so far to argue that if you’ve never had an injury, you are a) not testing your limits, or b) living in mediocre-land. Now, I’m not saying go out and try to push so hard you hurt yourself or your clients. If your goal is general, average health and wellness then don’t test your limits. But if you are competitive athlete (professional or not), then I believe you want to toy the line of what you are capable of. The limits given to me by my doctor and physical therapist are no loaded exercises with spinal flexion. Fine. But you can be damn sure I’ll do everything else that’s not restricted. Taking time off, laying on the couch and getting fat are simply not an option for me. The way I see it, the choices are to play it safe and be mediocre or live with the ethos of taking yourself out of your comfort zone, facing fears and becoming the best athlete and human being you can possibly be. Living this way involves risk. But the rewards are so great.
An injury is the body’s way of saying, hold it, buddy, you’re taking me too far, I gotta put the brakes on here. It signifies a lack of balance in the mind/body/spirit connection. Injuries reign people in and force them to focus on other things and to train differently. My having to re-learn to squat could make me a better athlete in the long run (remains to be seen, I guess). I do know this: I’ve had 5 orthopedic surgeries and each time I came back as good or better.
There’s a real value in having to recalibrate your workouts, reassess your capabilities and your goals. Relearning your skill or activity as a more mature athlete can be a real blessing. Major league baseball pitchers and pro football players are good examples – I’m thinking of the rotator cuff repair or elbow ligament repair (Tommy John surgery) for baseball pitchers and ACL (knee) reconstruction for football players. These are major surgeries that sideline a player for an entire season – about 9 months to a full recovery. This athlete has a whole season to rest, rebuild and renew. What were once career-ending injuries are now just bumps in the road, thanks to the huge advances in surgical technology and rehabilitation. Just look at Washington Nationals young ace Stephen Strasburg. He was awesome at 22 years old before his elbow reconstruction and he’s just as awesome now. It’ll be interesting to see how he holds up over the next 10-15 years. The Mets’ Johann Santana had major shoulder surgery last year and threw a no-hitter the other day.
These injuries force type-A personalities to SLOW DOWN and build back up from scratch. It forces them to focus on strengthening often-neglected stabilizing muscle groups. After 6-9 months of focusing on strengthening the joint stabilizers, the foundation is STRONGER than it was to begin with. As the adage goes, you are only as strong as your weakest link. If you can take time out from your sport or activity to correct irregular movement patterns and strengthen those small, joint-stabilizing muscle groups, you can very likely come back stronger and better.
It’s not easy. It takes a ton of patience and a lot of time. You can’t overlook the spiritual aspect of what a setback does to an athlete. So much of who they perceive themselves to be is wrapped up in their athletic superiority and success. Take that away and the table is set for a huge test of character, faith, and commitment; traits that separate the good from the best. Look at Mariano Rivera, the Yankees star relief pitcher who tore his ACL shagging fly balls in batting practice last month. He was hinting that he would retire after this season. I’ll put money on Mariano not only not retiring, but getting himself back to top form and pitching for another couple of seasons after that. He’s too great a competitor not to feel compelled to come back.
Competitors can’t say no to a challenge. I can hear my critics now: Dale, you are not a pro athlete and neither are most people doing Crossfit. Is it worth it? Crossfit is a relatively new phenomenon. I predict Crossfit will continue to evolve so as to address some of the higher risk workouts. It all boils down to having proper knowledge and instruction. I’m fortunate to have a great doctor and physical therapist to work with through this injury. I recommend ALL Crossfitters read up on Stuart McGill – he is THE back guy: http://www.backfitpro.com/.
What can I say? I believe in taking risks.