I’ve been competing in strength sports for close to a decade now. I have been involved in various forms of strength and power training since I was in elementary school where I used bodyweight training to induce muscular hypertrophy and be able to move quickly and jump higher while competing in Tae Kwon Do. Over all of these years I was extremely fortunate to never incur a serious traumatic injury while training for sports. What finally did rock my ego and drag me back down to earth was more of a slow painful progression of nagging pain transforming into debilitating pain.
In the spring of 2015, I put up my highest total to date in powerlifting. That day was arguably the strongest my squat and deadlift have ever been. I had been experiencing very, very minor knee pain in my right knee and was able to train through and around it during this meet prep. After the meet when I got back into the gym to continue training is when things went south and eventually, I found myself unable to stand up out of a chair or walk up and down staircases without excruciating sharp pain around the medial side of my patella. I definitely wasn’t able to squat against external resistance. I took some time off of knee flexion and extension movements and tried to let whatever was happening calm down and recover. After a couple of months of no improvement, I got an MRI. I was missing 1/3 of the cartilage around my patella. Sometimes people do have missing cartilage yet display no symptoms. I was not one of these cases.
I want to give you the correct things I did in this 4-year long process along with the incorrect things that I did. My goal is to help you speed up any recovery you might have from current injuries and more important, returning back to sport form.
Number 1. Don’t pick the scab.
Meaning if a movement or exercise hurts, do not do it. Find other ways to train with exercise you can do. I did this fairly well once I realized how serious the injury was. I began rehabbing myself after receiving treatment from an orthopedic and practiced body weight elevated single leg squat/touch down squats and squatting with an empty barbell. I slowly added weight over months to the bar as I felt my symptoms reducing.
During this time being a stubborn athlete, I decided to do a push/pull meet which consists of benching and deadlifting. I kept to my word and didn’t pick the scab of the injury by focusing my deadlift training on hip hinges via RDLs. I did not perform knee flexion exercises besides my light rehab. The final 5 or 6 weeks of meet prep I began deadlifting in my competition sumo stance. Sumo deadlifts have more knee flexion than RDLs but still nowhere near the same amount as squats. I felt confident at the time I was ready to advance on safely. The competition went successfully and I hit a bench and deadlift PR injury-free.
With my clients, this is also paramount with programming. If something hurts, we simply adapt and move forward. There is no sense in picking the scabby using improper programming. If something hurts, we find a new variation or movement pattern altogether.
Number 2. Surround yourself with a trusted medical staff.
You must have a reliable medical staff that you can trust to read images like X-ray, MRI, etc. along with performing proper physical assessments. If you have a chronic pain that is explainable or unexplainable please find a sports doctor, physical therapist and/or chiropractors that have experience working with athletes and understand the athlete’s mentality and lifestyle. I found an amazing Orthopedic doctor in Boca with a long history of working with the NBA and Olympic teams. We reviewed my knee images and decided to try PRP in conjunction with stem cell therapy. I was desperate to get out of pain and if you can find a real treatment or even a sham treatment that creates an effective placebo response that will make you improve, then I’m all for it. My knee was filled with 5 CCs of PRP and stem cell and I laid off of it for a couple of days. After this is when I committed to thoughtfully training for the push-pull meet in spring 2016. I began training with no restrictions for about 4 months or so after the successful push-pull meet. Then sometime after this initial surge in progress, I began preparing for my return to a full power meet. I began having pain in my knee again and not moving well at all. My father had passed away and I’m afraid the stress wrecked my body as I pushed through training. I began seeing a physical therapist and a chiropractor to help me keep the progress I had fought so hard to make. I made great strides but once my insurance ran out, my visits to the PT quickly dwindled. If you’re making progress and not fully out of the forest yet then please keep seeing a movement specialist and learning from them as you go. This was a big mistake of mine along with waiting until I was hurting again to begin seeing them. I should have gone immediately after PRP/stem cell but I was cocky and arrogant. I paid for this by tweaking my adductor/ hamstring and shifting all of my weight directly into my right knee while attempting a new squat PR in Fall of 2016 which effectively set me back almost another year and cost another PRP/stem cell treatment.
Number 3. Find things that you can do!
If you break your arm, train legs. If you tear your ACL, train your upper body. If you want to take a break from training and focus on other sports or hobbies while the injury recovers then, by all means, do that. I was unable to separate my identity from my athletic self and my performance. For better or worse that is my personality. I had to get back to training whatever that looked like, ASAP. If that’s not you then do what you must do to help your mind and body recover. Stewing over injury and pain nonstop while comparing your life to your former self is no way to live and will only cause depression and anger. The body and mind must both recover to make a full and healthy come back. Especially with traumatic injuries. Focus on work, school, family, painting, chess I don’t care just do what you must to heal and enjoy the things you are privileged enough to have because it can always be worse.
Number 4. Create small victories.
From 2017 to 2019 I lived off small victories. I thrived there. I would have 16 weeks of crappy squat days in a row but on that 17th week when it looked and felt amazing, I bathed in that glory. I was proud that I could be resilient enough through long weeks and months of terrible training and truly appreciate the fine art of human movement and competition with one’s self. Those small victories let me knew that I could return and be healthy one day and that I just needed to be patient and listen to my staff of medically trained friends and resources, which I could have done better at. I competed in knee wrapped meets during that time which was something I could do and helped me return to my former strength levels and eventually hitting a PR in knee wraps. My bench press also grew to all-time PRs during this time because it did not hurt to train. Well, it didn’t hurt my knee.
Using these mental perspectives and example in training of doing what I could do allowed me to build momentum in training and begin believing in myself again. Recently I began resourcing my training out to a close friend of mine, Tony Rodgers (@rodgersreset), who was someone whom I trusted and had worked with on and off for years. I had put in tons of work for years prior allowing me to be primed and ready for when the opportunity arose and things began to fall in place together. With Tony’s objective third person perspective and qualified help, I was able to complete my first PR total full power meet again without knee wraps. Injury free. It was not without its ups and downs as with 10 weeks of meet prep we had about 4 weeks I would deem successful. But that’s all it took! I was able to maintain my strength levels from previous training blocks and he was able to put together pieces of the puzzle I was missing to create an entire package which allowed me to move well enough to beat my former self.
I still have plenty of work to do and will always look back on this time as a tremendous learning experience that allowed me to grow beyond the meat-head I was just years prior. These years taught me so many valuable lessons that I use in programming for myself and clients today so we can train harder and healthier. At times you’ll get tired and frustrated and want to quit and say screw it all. You will. And it’s ok. Gather your thoughts and emotions, keep your head down and keep pushing the rock up the hill.