As a strength and conditioning coach, I maintain a single rule above all others: don’t get hurt in the weight room. This was always my refrain to my athletes. You can get hurt out on the field, the court, the mats, but don’t you dare get hurt in the weight room. An injury in the gym, especially if the gym isn’t your sport, is a sure sign that something about your programming is off. Maybe you’re doing too much volume, maybe the intensity is too high, or maybe it just isn’t the right combination of movements. Over the last 13 or so years of coaching, I can count on two hands the total number of injuries I’ve seen in the weight rooms I’ve coached in, and that includes everything from home-built garage gyms to highly budgeted collegiate facilities.
Well, if I don’t count my injuries.
I’ve always had a real issue admitting my limitations, choosing to live by the old T.S. Eliot quote “Only those who risk going too far can possibly find out how far one can go.” Over the course of this three-part series, I’m going to walk you through my journey of going too far, and how Grindstone finally kept me coloring within the lines. I’m going to highlight symptoms of an addiction to training, an addiction to volume, an addiction to testing my limits. This addiction led me to unsafe and inefficient training methodologies which tore up my body and darkened my mind.
Cause of Injury #1 – Program Mismatched with Sport
I’ve been a martial artist my whole life, only taking a few years off to try my hand at competitive iron sports. Why the time off? Because I broke myself. My first and biggest iron sport distraction was Olympic Weightlifting. As a college kid, I thought I was invincible, and I tried to make a run at competitive Weightlifting while still training Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu several times a week.
The first thing to go was my back. It turns out pulling the heaviest weight you can off the floor 4-5 days a week, paired with getting folded in half by people trying to choke you and break your bones, isn’t the best mix. There were a series of little nagging injuries where I’d tighten up, though I still felt like I could push through. And then one fateful day, the big one showed up. Right after a session of heavy clean deadlifts, I went to roll with some bigger training partners. I locked in a triangle choke and felt something in my back pop. My opponent tapped to the choke, but my elation was short-lived: I couldn’t stand up. When I did get up, I couldn’t really walk. Luckily, I’m friends with a great chiropractor, and a long session in traction pulled my pelvis back into alignment.
Next, my knees. Heavy squats at a significant volume were doing my BJJ battered knees very few favors. I was moving heavy weights nearly every day, usually once or twice a week as a squat, in addition to the steady diet of snatches and cleans that comes with any Olympic lifting program. Knee tendonitis became a regular occurrence, and walking up the stairs felt bad for the first time since I beat childhood/youth obesity.
I’m not a complete idiot, so I realized I needed to make a move somewhere. I stopped training martial arts at the advice of my coach, who urged me to spend some time chasing my weightlifting ambitions. I had been training martial arts for nearly two decades at that point, and we both agreed they would always be there for me. I also decided to spend a little less time Weightlifting and to broaden my scope into another sport that was growing in popularity: CrossFit.
Cause of Injury #2: Too Much Volume
While I’d gotten my CrossFit certification in 2011, it wasn’t until around 2014 that I fully left the martial arts to invest full time into the “Sport of Fitness”. I dove in deeper than most and drank as much of the Kool-Aid as I could…but that’s a story for another time. Let’s just focus on how I tore myself apart. Around this time, I was working 12-13 hour days as a college strength coach, as well as mercenary coaching at several gyms, so my sleep was terrible and my blood type alternated between black coffee and sugar-free Rockstars. Clearly, I should be pulling back on my training volume, so I did the sensible thing and I floored the accelerator as hard as I could.
Around 2007, I had hit my heaviest weight of 315 pounds. I had lost a considerable amount of that as a grappler, competing around 170-185, but as I got into Weightlifting I had steadily put on mass, moving up to around 200-220. I kept at that weight as I did CrossFit, which is a lot of meat to be swinging around on toes to bar and kipping pull-ups. I tore my teres minor in my left shoulder first. That led to issues in that elbow, including tendonitis. Some folks will think that I went into the kipping stuff “too early”, but let me tell you, I could do 15 strict pull-ups and 15 strict leg raises back then at the drop of a hat. It wasn’t a strength issue; it was certainly just too much loading. Never-ending burpees and wall balls turned my knee tendonitis into knee bursitis. I sprained both my wrists. I suffered a partial tear of my left shoulder labrum. In addition to frequent CrossFit competitions, I also entered meets for Weightlifting, Powerlifting, and Strongman. I was convinced that all these issues were just minor setbacks, too engrossed in what I was trying to accomplish and unable to step back and see the bigger picture of my dysfunction.
Cause of Injury #3 – Lack of Recovery
It’s hard to differentiate between what is being caused by lack of recovery and what is being caused by too much training volume, as they often go hand in hand, but I felt the need to add a final block here to explain the darker side of my poor training choices. I was a jerk. Being constantly overtrained and under recovered led to a bunch of insidious side effects that I didn’t fully recognize until years later. I was often a nasty person, snapping at my friends, blowing up at my athletes, and even fighting with my coach. For the years I spent training like this, I have a lot of trouble remembering more than a handful of moments where I felt truly happy and at peace. I was constantly trying to do more, to be better, and the stress beat my body up. The scariest part is, I thought it was all normal. I thought that this was all the price for truly training at the highest level.
Thankfully, with a return to martial arts and a shifting of priorities, I was going to begin my road to understanding how good training could be. However, I’d have to get a few more wake-up calls before I could truly appreciate and understand how disordered my training was.
Blog: Pain: This Shit is Complicated by Matthew Zanis
Blog: Iron Sharpens Everyone: Martial Artists Need Strength Training by John Durrett
Blog: The MMA Diet: Fuel the Fight by Tyler Minton
Blog: MMA Strength & Conditioning: You’re Doing it Wrong by Tyler Minton
Podcast: PA Radio Episode 551 – A Fighter’s Journey with Andrew Craig
Tagged: athlete / athletes / Block One Coach / coach / coaching / Dealing with Athlete Injuries / Grindstone / Injuries and Athletes / Injury / Injury Prevention / Injury Prone / Intelligent Training / Intensity / Martial Arts / MMA / MMA S&C / MMA Strength and Conditioning / MMA Workout / Non-Contact Injury / Outsmart Your Instincts / Principles of Training / specialization / Specificity / Strength Training / train smarter / TrainHeroic / training / Volume / What are you training for?
John is a Coach at Underdog Mixed Martial Arts in West Hartford, CT, where he teaches both martial arts and strength & conditioning. For over a decade, Underdog has built several professional fighters, even sending some to the UFC and Bellator. John began training martial arts at a traditional Karate dojo at the age of 6 years old. This was the start of a lifelong journey which has seen him log countless hours in a myriad of styles, including Muay Thai, Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu, Wrestling, Kali, Eskrima, and Jeet Kune Do. In addition, John has spent over a decade working as a professional strength and conditioning coach, coaching at the High School and D-III Collegiate Level. Along with over a dozen other certifications, he holds the distinction of being a Certified Strength and Conditioning Specialist (CSCS) with the NSCA and is honored to be counted as a Power Athlete Block One Coach. He is intensely passionate about empowering athletes to find their max potential and explore their body’s unique capacity for the martial arts.
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