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Accumulative training injuries - Prevention is key Empty Accumulative training injuries - Prevention is key

Post by Canuck Singh on Mon Mar 08, 2010 2:34 am

Weight training was my first great love. My dad bought me a barbell set when I was 13. With my father's encouragement, I would train in our garage every night and he wouldn’t even let my mom put dinner on the table until I was finished working out. As time progressed I moved into high school and college weight lifting in preparation for professional football. From here weight training became a full time career, and for the next ten years I worked as a professional fitness and strength conditioner. During that time I appeared to be the picture of health - big, strong, lean, and very fit. However, in the process I was also slowly, but surely destroying my back.

By the ripe old age of 30 I had literally become a cripple. I was paralyzed with constant lower back pain that had turned into crippling incapacity were I could barely walk or stand long enough to make a sandwich. By this time I had not been able to sit in a chair for nearly two years. The end result was 7-hour operation and complete removal of the lower two disks in my back (L4-5,L5-S1). They were completely ruptured and had been for some time. I also required a two level spinal fusion of the lower two vertebrae involving four titanium "cages" wedged into the disk spaces. This produced permanent, life-altering mechanics to my spine. So, how the <peace> could this happen? Especially to me!

I was meticulous with form. After all, it was my job to analyze exercise movements of my clients and correct them. The last 3-4 years I had also been very, back-careful; no heavy squats, deadlifts or rows and I had stopped spotting the strong athletes I was working with. Stretching became a daily part of life. But the damage was already done. One thing I failed to realize, and I think many people do this, is that back injuries are accumulative.

Many times during my testosterone flooded late teens and early twenties I repeatedly strained and hurt my back doing heavy rows, deadlifts, and squats. But I was a "tough guy". I thought it would heal like any other injury and I’d be right again soon. I ignored the dull ache in the disks in my lower back and all the muscular spasms because it was "leg day" or "back day" and you gotta stick to your training schedule. Right?

Well, during this time I was placing enormous accumulative stresses to ligaments, disk material and fascia in my lower vertebrae. But unlike skin, bone, or muscle tissue these components do not regenerate when injured. They have very poor blood supply and once they are damaged, that’s it. There is no self repair. You cannot regenerate a degenerated disk, and torn fascia does not heal.

This kind of damage leaves a structurally weakened area no matter how much ab strength you have or stabilizing work you perform. In fact, I had been able to survive for so long doing what I was doing because of my excellent abdominal and torso strength. Even with two ruptured disks in my lower back I could complete the most advanced ab-stabilizing exercises. So in essence, I was perpetuating my back injury unknowingly.

At this time I was desperately trying to complete some post graduate studies and I had to complete three exams and an entire thesis lying on a Swiss ball to ease the pain! I could not sit in a chair at all. I could not walk more than a couple of hundred meters. I was unemployable for anything, and life was a misery. I was in enormous pain. Even more frustrating, there was no one that would or could help. To make matters worse, during diagnosis, after I would take my shirt off most surgeons and the spinal experts would dismiss me because I "looked too good" to have such a bad problem.

There are lessons to be learned here. You should be very aware of what you are doing in the gym. The damage may not manifest itself until many years from now! If you lift hard and heavy often, it will have an impact later in life. How early and how severe is up to you and how you smart you train. Performing heavy squats, rows and deadlifts do have their place in the strength and muscle building program. There's no doubt about it. I always was and still am a big advocate of these movements. However, I do think far more care and planning needs to be undertaken when structuring a weight training program. It may also involve far more expertise than your local gym trainer or strength coach possesses. --> Bring in the Physiotherapist.

I look back at the "elite" programs we used to follow only 7-8 years ago, written by some of the more respected strength conditioners, and I am appalled that no one addressed this potential problem. You need to be skeptical and never take weight training programs blindly. Programs that incorporate weekly squats, deadlifts, rows, power-cleans, and shoulder presses for prolonged periods could very well be too much stress on vital areas.

Squatting and deadlifting heavy once every two weeks might also be too much. It's important to listen to your body at all times and don't be afraid to alter your program accordingly. Structure your squatting programs with equal periods of assistant/stabilizer exercises such as Swiss ball one-leg squats and lunges, barbell step-downs and one-leg presses. Maintain balanced quadriceps-lower back muscle strength and use various forms of deadlifts and extension exercises.

Also, don’t get locked into thinking that these exercises have to be taken to the max every week. You should have extended periods in your program that involve little compression on your lumbar vertebrae. Exercises like heavy, arched bench presses, leg presses, shoulder presses, and even one-arm dumbbell rows all create enormous pressure on the lumbar spine. Even something so unassuming as spotting your training partner can cause enormous strain on this area. It's important to realize that even if an exercise does not directly involve your lower back, you still need to be aware that virtually everything you do depends on this area for support.

Training with intensity, but with long term preservation in mind is a skill to be learned and perfected over years of training. Because of the training I loved to do I always thought I would have a little back pain later in my life, but I had no idea how much damage I had actually created until it was too late. Don't let this happen to you.


1. First and foremost, the major reason most people suffer lower back pain when they weight train is due to weak abdominal muscles. I’m not taking about doing “ab crunches” I’m talking about real abdominal strength. “Stabilizing” core strength that turns your “jello-like” midsection into one rock-solid, dynamic muscular unit that allows maximal force transfer from one part of your body to the other. Take a look at an elite level gymnast perform and you will see the finest example of real abdominal strength.

2. Now I will give you one technique you can use to build your thighs. If you can not squat heavy, so be it. Yes, most leg press machines do not possess seats that encourage correct spinal curvature and postural alignment. However this can be completely corrected with a rolled up towell! Place the rolled up towell (only about 3-4 inches thick) across your lumbar region when seated. This will place your lumbar spine in correct curvature (arch) so that maximal force from the weight is placed on your thighs and hip structure, not the lower back.

Before pressing, place your hands on your hips, reverse up so that your thumbs are in front, on the bony part of your hips (iliac crest). Elbows will be flared out and fingers cradling your hips; fingers at the back and thumbs in front. This will provide instantaneous feedback of your pelvic movement during the leg press. Most people round their back and lift their backside out of the seat as the weight comes down. Wrong. Aim to keep your pelvis dead still during the entire movement. Not tilted any further forward or rounded back. By concentrating on this every single rep of every set you will alleviate the force/pressure placed on the lumbar area. Mind you, you will have to leave your ego at home for this one and use substantially light poundages. The benefit being a new found intensity on the thighs that is nothing short of mind blowing. Especially when pushing from the heels and using a slow, continuos, non-lockout tempo.
Canuck Singh
Canuck Singh

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