He showed up early, he was strong and he was always ready to bring it. I loved training with him. His passion, dedication, consistency (and borderline lunacy) was exactly what I needed in my early twenties.
Eventually our schedules conflicted and we were forced to train on our own.
Sharing a relentless pursuit of strength and muscular size/definition, we mercilessly continued to pound the iron four days per week. Then the day came when I felt myself slip from the state of indestructible youth. Let me explain.
For years, I had benched between 365-425 lbs each and every week, depending on the rep range being utilized.
Then one particular Monday, while I was grinding out a heavy rep, I felt something tear in my shoulder. I took an immediate trip to the orthopedist, and the MRI he gave me confirmed that I had torn my labrum. Being sidelined was devastating, but it gave me a lot of time to rethink my training protocol.
I knew that I didn’t want to suffer an injury like this again, so I was determined to find a better way to train — one that was effective and less injurious. This would require countless hours of deep thought, research, and experimentation.
Through nine years of trial and error (yes its been nine years since my injury), I have come up with many techniques that have proven effective and much less dangerous than traditional training methods. I still train hard, and I feel better than ever.
In some ways, tearing my labrum was a blessing in disguise. It certainly saved me from suffering a host of inevitable and perhaps even more serious injuries. Additionally, my experience has allowed me to help save others from demolishing their joints.
My friend Mike, on the other hand, wasn’t as lucky as I was. While catching up with him, I learned that he had started to accumulate injuries about the same time I did. Unfortunately for him, however, he stubbornly continued down the same old training path.
Because of his inflexibility regarding his training style, he now suffers from debilitating back pain, sore knees and lit up elbows. Additionally, he recently went in for his second shoulder surgery. He pops painkillers, walks with a limp and has trouble throwing a ball to his son.
After seeing the state he was in, I was more convinced than ever that I was did the right thing when I changed the way I train. I’m writing this post in the hopes that you don’t end up like Mike. I hope you take this message to heart.
I will now list some simple guidelines that you should employ if training longevity and long-term health and function are a concern to you:
1) Never train to failure. I’ve said this a thousand times but I can’t say it enough. Each set should end shy of failure, period.
2) Rarely, if ever, bench press. I know, I know, a lot of guys will be calling me out for this recommendation. But I stand by it wholeheartedly.
The only people I allow to bench press are athletes or powerlifters who are tested on it. Occasionally, I may make an exception for someone young and healthy if they need to gain weight in a hurry.
3) Rarely deadlift heavy from the floor. Deadlifting heavy from the floor leads to overtraining and back injuries more than any other exercise.
If your goals involve deadlifting, lighten up and pull from the floor for speed, do the majority of your heavy work from blocks, or use high handle trap bar deads for variety.
4) Use fat grips on everything. Grabbing onto a thin (traditional) bar puts unnecessary stress on the tendons at the elbow and shoulder joints. Grabbing onto a fat implement develops grip strength, relieves tendon stress, and builds much more realistic and natural strength.
5) Only use bars that have revolving sleeves. Just like point number 4, this too decreases unnecessary stress in the tendons.
6) Train for maximal strength for a max of 4-6 months per year. That’s either one 16-week cycle or two 12-week cycles per year. I not only find this to be more effective, but it is dramatically safer long-term.
7) Don’t compete with your training partners every workout. Each training day is not a competition. You should train to get stronger, but you should not have to display your maximal strength each and every workout.
8- Work on mobility. It seems like no one wants to do mobility work until they feel like crap and are forced to do it.
Trust me, work on mobility before you ever have a problem. It’s just as important as your strength training.
9) Do soft tissue work. Foam rolling, lacrosse ball myofacial work, massage, etc. keeps the length and quality of your tissue in an optimal state. Skimping on this will increase your likelihood of tightness and thus unnecessary injuries.
10) Maintain good mechanics. During each exercise, respect the body’s joint alignment and natural movement patterns.
11) Warm up properly. This involves some heart rate elevation, tissue work and rehearsal of what is to be performed during the workout.
12) Take a break. You should take a week off of training several times per year. For most people, vacations or in season sport forces some time out of the weight room.
But for those who don’t travel or play sports, treat yourself to a week off every 12-16 weeks. During this week, light activity, stretching and tissue work is permitted and often recommended.
13) Use specialty bars that are angled to allow a more ergonomic position. Chin ups, curls and presses with a straight bar is unnatural and thus unnecessarily stressful. By performing these exercises at the proper angle for the body, tendon and joint stress is reduced while results are not.
14) Train with structural balance in mind. This requires a sound training program design. In other words, the agonists and antagonists of each joint should possess a relative balance in strength. The majority of exercise classes fail to develop this balance.
15) Listen to your body. If something hurts, don’t do it. I clearly recall the day when I was to do heavy dumbbell tricep extensions. During the warm ups, my elbow was sore.
Instead of being mentally flexible and just doing a different exercise that day, I worked through the pain. This heroic and rigid attitude led to many months of painful and debilitating bursitis.
Learn from my mistakes, and learn from the unfortunate story of my buddy Mike. Start employing these guidelines, and you will be strong, healthy and pain-free for many years to come.
Wishing you a Happy and Healthy New Year!