6 Things I’ve Learned About Life and Training from 1.5 years (and counting) of rehabilitation

X-ray of male body posterior view

This is a bit of a departure from the usual science-based posts I usually write, but I believe every bit as important. In June 2013, a downhill mountain biking crash would change my life for both the worse and the better. I guess it’s hard to call any crash at 60km/h minor, but this one happened to hit me in just the wrong spot, aside from knowing that I had suffered another concussion, this one was different; this time I couldn’t see out of my right eye and and had a black hole in my vision for 30 plus minutes. Long story short, I had compressed the skull and spine onto important cranial nerves; I went from deadlifting 600lbs in May 2013 to getting dizzy if I lifted a milk jug the wrong way in July, this stress eventually led to a nervous system collapse and adrenal exhaustion. To this day I am trying to recover from this injury and get back to training; however, there is more than just a silver lining to this story, I’ve grown more to be a far more effective trainer and a better person in the last year and a half as I’ve gone through this process. Here are 6 things that I’ve learned along the way that I think apply directly to the training process:

#1 Think beyond your next 8-12 week training block

When I first got injured, all I could think about was getting back to training and towards my powerlifting goal. Like many of you reading this, I had an insane and often blinding passion for personal progress and accomplishment. I had seen too many “no excuses” memes, and preached dedication; I couldn’t afford to take 3 months off training- someone else was chasing that record too! Every day I take off training will make me weaker and it will take forever to regain that strength, let alone start working towards my goal again! I was wrong however, what I really needed to get stronger in the long term was rest and 100% recovery, but I simply could not get out of that 8-week squat cycle mentality. Start thinking of your fitness and training as a lifelong journey, and realize that 3 months is nothing in the career of a lifter. Let me quickly put your mind at ease, if you take time off, you will lose muscle, your physique will change, you will soften and lose strength, but this comes back quicker than you could imagine. In February 2014 I would get back to training and I could barely squat 315lbs and it felt heavier than 565 with a pulled hamstring did. 8 weeks later I was squatting 500lbs for reps with relative ease, this would actually pose a problem, but more on that later.  If you are doing this long enough, and I hope you all do, you will come across a major setback that forces you to take some time off; I hope that you are able to see beyond the short term and do not rush yourself back before you are physically or mentally prepared to do so. The gym, the field, the track, etc. will be still be there waiting for you when you are ready.

#2 Be Honest with Yourself

There are so many ways this applies to training, but let’s take squat depth as an example, as this is probably the number 1 way I see people lie to themselves every single week in the gym. Some people truly cannot squat to parallel or below, their hip anthropometry simply will not allow it to happen, but chances are that you aren’t one of them. There is a guy in my gym who is decently strong, probably around 235-240lbs benches 365 with pretty good form and actually touches his chest, so when he walked over to the squat rack one day, I was intrigued as he loaded up 600lbs and got under it with no belt. I was quickly disappointed when he unracked it, folded into hunchback position, and banged out 2 reps with maybe a 4inch range of motion. The biggest problem? He probably believes that he squats 600lbs. Sure, he could have been using a post-activation potential technique to modulate his nervous system to do more sub maximal work with type IIb muscles fibers (he wasn’t), but more than likely he had hit a rut in his training somewhere around 400lbs, and instead of taking an honest, objective, and holistic look at his life and training over the last few months to determine the best changes to make, he just cut some depth, gave himself a biomechanical lever advantage, and added some more weight, cause that’s progress right? For myself I need to be honest with myself that no, the pre workout supplement I took was not the reason that I had anxiety attacks and trouble focusing after my first heavy exercise of the session and had to lie down in a dark room for 10-20mins before continuing my training session. If I had just been honest with myself then, I may be back training right now.

#3 Enjoy the Process not Just the Achievement

Everyone that gets into fitness usually does so with a specific goal in mind, whether that goal is to gain 20lbs of muscle, lose 10lbs of fat, impress someone at a work function, or play on the varsity team; goals should drive you, but don’t forget to enjoy the process. You have two arms and two legs, a beating heart, and are in control of your own destiny; don’t wait until you lose one of these things to appreciate all they do for you. Jim Wendler has one of my favourite quotes of all time, and here it is right here https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=NN6RVIE2xWA For those of you who aren’t going to watch it, It’s Jim talking about the time he realized he was the wealthiest man alive when he looked down at his legs, and he knew that there was no amount of money in the world that he would take to give one of them up. It’s a pretty powerful, and worth the watch. I never thought I would call walking exercise, or look forward to correctives with mini bands, but after being away from even basic functionality for almost 6 months, I’m learning to enjoy the process and celebrate the small wins as the goals take a backseat. It’s only now that I realized just how much I loved training, the whole process, the wins, the losses, the scraped shins, getting chalk in your eyes, everything. Take a step back and appreciate how lucky we all are to do what we can do with our bodies; it’s truly amazing.

#4 Quantify and Track Everything

I’ve touched on the importance of a written program and tracking your progress, but sometimes when things are going wrong you need to quantify and describe everything. Maybe you have stalled because “you’re not sleeping”, but that doesn’t help you solve anything. If you write down how much you sleep, how many times you woke up, what time you went to bed, and a basic log of what you did that day, all of sudden you may notice that you wake up more on night’s that you work late on the computer or take the cell phone to bed, or maybe it’s after squatting, and it’s worse during periods of high intensity. You’d be amazed at what you can figure out if you just start tracking things. Morning heart rate. Grip strength before training sessions. Use a biometric monitoring system. Do you always need to track this vigorously? It depends on how important your goal is to you, I would argue yes, but the decision is up to you. Once you are in trouble-shooting mode, track more than you think you need; if you think it could be relevant, write it down.

#5 Swallow Pride and Seek Help

I am admittedly an independent person; I work incredibly hard on becoming the absolute best strength coach and trainer I can be. I take pride in the fact that I take on many people with difficult training situations, and that many of my clients are other certified trainers with kinesiology degrees.   I used to view getting help as an admission of weakness, or some sort of subjugated inferiority, but I had never trained somebody with a completely compromised nervous system, and quite honestly, I didn’t know how to manipulate all the variables, what type of feedback was most relevant, or how to manage and integrate the stress of manual therapy, visual retraining, and adrenal treatments into the training process. Fortunately, I was able to swallow my pride, hire one of the world’s best strength coaches and foremost experts on the functionality of the nervous system in an athletic context: James Smith of Power Development Inc. Not only has he been an indispensable resource in helping me to understand the physiology of my unique situation, but I am also to apply my newfound outlook on functional human physiology and apply it with the people I work with day to day. This is information I was never going to get out of a textbook, and would never had access to unless I got over my ego and asked for help.

#6 Every Setback is a Chance to Learn and Come Back a Better Person 

This was a tough sell, actually a really tough sell. When shit isn’t going well and you’re sitting injured on your couch feeling sorry for yourself, or your weight loss goal isn’t on target and may even be regressing, the chances that you’re going to listen to the person that says “you’re going to come out on the other side of this a better person” are slim to none, and you’re probably more inclined to throw a frying pan in their general direction than actually giving them the time of the day.  But once the frying pan settles and your anger subsides, you’ll come to that point where you believe them, and the sooner you can come to this conclusion the happier you will be. I am not even close to finishing my rehabilitation process, but here I am: a better strength coach with a more in-depth understanding of functional physiology, going for walks, looking at my journey in the long term, seeking help, tracking everything, enjoying the process and all the things I am able to do. I’ve still got a long ways to go, but I hope maybe even one of these points rings home with you and your training.

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