“The interconnectivity of the body is phenomenal,” said David Behm, PhD, a university research professor in the School of Human Kinetics and Recreation at the Memorial University of Newfoundland (MUN) in St. John’s, Canada.
“Whether you’re looking at muscle fatigue, resistance training, pain, or stretching, they’re all interconnected, and what we do on one side of the body influences the rest of it. This can be beneficial, in terms of trying to open up and excite new pathways on both sides of the body; it can also be troublesome in that it can inhibit pathways on both sides.”
One of my worst nightmares became a reality at a competition in 2016.
Maya tore her radial ulnar tendon during a lift. She was on pace to make the national team and was attempting a heavy clean and jerk.
I still remember seeing Maya’s face when it happened. It probably felt like her dreams were suddenly taken away from her.
I was in shock and heartbroken, not only because she is one of my athletes, but also because she’s my daughter.
But I stayed positive. It wasn’t easy, it was very emotional.
Ultimately, her coming back to 100%+ was more important.
We told the specialist, “We will take whatever time was necessary to get her back to 110%.” He looked at us with a puzzled look on his face and said, “I’m surprised because most athletes want to rush the process and encounter major setbacks due not taking the time to rehab properly.”
So, our game plan was not to do anything that would cause Maya pain. But that didn’t mean sitting on the couch and doing nothing. Immediately, we were back in the gym training any part of her body that didn’t cause Maya pain.
Component 1: Never Stop Training
Training has a crossover effect and helps accelerate healing and recovery.
If an injured athlete trains throughout their recovery, when the athlete removes the cast or brace, he or she regains strength and full use of the injured limb at a much faster rate.
The key is to avoid causing the injured area pain, but the key is to continue training where you can. For instance, if you can’t bend your elbow, move your fingers instead – squeeze a tennis ball, do wrist curls, or ulna deviations.
You must become obsessed with training any limb that is far away from the injured area and as close to the injured area as possible. Reflect on the areas your athlete needs to improve and help him or her work on those areas as best you can.
I can’t stress how important and overlooked this type of recovery can be. Most athletes feel they can’t do much and just sit at home and play video games all day instead of working on recovery.
Maya and I developed a plan to train every day on body parts that didn’t cause her pain or discomfort. For example, leg strength is important for weightlifting, but Maya only could use one arm, so she learned how to balance the bar with one arm and squatted every day. She also did dumbbell split squats with one dumbbell positioned at the side or front of her body. Step ups, belt squats, I even went out and bought a safety bar so that we could add another variation of squats. We also did box squats, sled pulls, and walks with a belt around her waist. We used exercises to build her glutes, hamstrings, and lower back. Biceps curls and triceps extensions at various angles and wrist curls and ulna deviations. I’m sure you get the idea as I could list exercises all day.
It was well over a year before Maya even did her sport again. She did her very first snatch after a long and patient recovery.
She broke a record at her very first competition back and has broken records at every competition since.
At her third competition someone said “Man, she didn’t skip a beat!,” and I said, “Nah, she’s on a different beat bro!”
This is crucial: never stop training.
Component 2: Rebuild the Full Range of Motion
Once you get the doctor’s go-ahead to remove an athlete’s brace or cast, you can start pushing his or her range of motion. Do everything in your power to break up the scar tissue and regain the full range of motion.
Load the range with the appropriate load little by little and you will see the range come back. It may take weeks or months but be diligent. Train the supporting musculature and get it as strong as possible.
The key is to train your athlete frequently, this is his or her job, so the athlete’s body will know when it needs to rest.
There might be pain, but they must distinguish the difference between injury-related pain and muscle soreness. There is pain that will tell you to stop! And then there is pain that you have to push through and keep going. But there will always be some sort of pain.
When you are coming back from an injury, you should not be loading normal weights but focus on recovery and taking the opportunity to build work capacity. Work capacity means handling a greater volume of work at a higher intensity, cardio means handling a greater volume of work with lower intensities. Give me the athlete who can handle a greater volume of work at higher intensities!
I’m lucky because I’m a bookworm and studied anatomy like any doctor would study his or her medicine. With over six hundred muscles and two hundred plus bones, the human body is complicated and I truly believe there is a lot left to learn about its capability to adapt and recover.
This is one of my favorite anatomy books and my go to when I get stuck. I also enjoy Pierre Roy’s Build whatever contraption needed to get the job done and Charles Poliquin’s If there is a muscle train it! I took these concepts and apply them to my athletes’ training programs.
I will train parts of the lift – the bottom, the top, the side, you name it! I want a training stimulus and response, and with a little imagination, you will be amazed at how many exercises you can create. It’s fun and rewarding to see your athletes progress and improve.
That’s why it drives me crazy when I hear about athletes who are sitting at home waiting until they are fully healed from their injuries. They are actually slowing down the recovery process and getting out of shape, which will take them even longer to get back into training after their recovery.
An athlete must hit the ground running and be in even better shape than when they were before his or her injury!
Component 3: Get the Injured Area as Strong as Steel
If you put twelve weak kids and twelve strong kids on a football field, who do you think would be most likely to get injured? The weak kids. The same applies in hockey, basketball, soccer, downhill skiing, and many other sports.
You have to be STRONG!
Not only strong but also flexible and mobile – this is the key to a long injury-free career.
It blows my mind when I see athletes who are afraid to get strong because they might injure themselves but they are not afraid to go full-tilt in their sport where the forces going through the joints are usually much greater.
But these athletes don’t understand they have to prepare their bodies to handle these forces; unpredictable forces coming at them from every angle. And the only way to protect yourself is to get strong, super strong!
You must get those supporting muscles around the joint to work in a cohesive manner to protect your body parts. That means fast contractions in a creative manner. The sensory mechanisms have to be in tune with the muscles to learn how and when to quickly contract so that this mechanism itself becomes an injury prophylactic.
The three simple steps to recovery are:
- Focus on re-establishing the full range of motion of the joint and break down scar tissue through massage therapy and other therapeutic modalities.
- Load the tissue appropriately with electro muscle stimulation (EMS), weights, bands, and load at whatever range or angle that doesn’t cause pain. Remember get creative!
- Get strong and fast as hell. Strong and slow in a high-velocity sport will lead to sitting on the bench with an injury. The holy grail is the strength, speed, and mobility.
The double bodyweight squat is one of the key performance measurements in our gym and is considered a minimum requirement for athletes of all sports, and obviously, some sports are emphasized over others. Once an athlete achieves this number, we reevaluate to see where the athletes’ time is better spent.
I hear the coaches and parents moaning and groaning about sports like tennis and baseball, saying that players don’t have to be that strong!
I totally disagree.
People forget about force. The stronger your athlete, the greater his or her ability to handle tremendous forces going through their joints. So, if the athlete has to make a quick change of direction, God forbid if he or she is top-heavy with weak legs!
You’re asking for a lower extremity injury because the centrifugal force just went up exponentially.
We get our athletes to squat a minimum of double body weight regardless of sport! Even our golfer’s squat double bodyweight! Why? It’s also an injury prevention tool.
Instead of waddling in one’s sorrows, complaining, and feeling sorry for yourself, take this opportunity to work on your athlete’s weakness!
Eat correctly, as it is also a major factor in recovery. A high-performance machine needs high-performance fuel. Shitty fuel leads to sub-optimal performance.
When you break it down, sports is a game of inches or even millimeters. That crappy meal or restless sleep could be the defining factor between a gold or bronze or that dash to get the puck to stop a losing goal.
Stop and think about this for a second.
Are you doing everything you possibly can to win?
Are you making the sacrifices necessary to win?
Are you doing all the homework your strength coach or therapists programmed for you?
I firmly believe champions are built by what they do in the dark not when the lights are shining. When the lights are shining, these athletes are ready for the light because they have suffered in darkness long enough.
I know social media is the thing right now but give it a break and focus on you instead of your followers. Everyone doesn’t need to know what you’re doing every minute. Surprise your opponents with your comeback, show them your hard work with your performance, and the sweat and pain you put into your comeback.
But everyone can’t because they don’t have or know what it takes – the mindset, the heart, and the ability to sacrifice life’s pleasures and embrace the pain, commitment, and discipline it takes to come back better than before.