The Trials of an Injured Former Athlete

As a baby, it was evident from the second I had a ball tossed to me that I preferred using my legs as opposed to my arms. Instead of picking the ball up and tossing it back, I would shoot a foot out in a feeble infant attempt at kicking it. When I was old enough to run, it became clear very quickly that those legs were born to run, and run quickly.

Instead of developing a well balanced, well rounded body around my fast legs, my legs instead came to be what defined me. After years of soccer, karate, and eventually track and field, my legs, and the speed they gave me, were all that mattered. That even came at the cost of maintaining balance elsewhere in my body, as evidenced by the tremendous discrepancy in upper body strength when compared to my lower body.

I guess you could say I was a victim of the "system" for encouraging me to specialize in my talents so early on. My parents didn't know any better--they just wanted what was best for me. I enjoyed karate, soccer, and track, so they tried to support me in those endeavors. My coaches were the same. They saw that I could run fast, so they placed me in the positions and events that would give me the best chance of success. I don't blame any one person for creating a set of legs with some twigs for arms on top, I blame the system for pushing me down a path that eventually led me to become injured to the point where it's taken almost 8 years to rebuild to a state of being "pain free".  I'm not bitter about this, either. Because if I hadn't gotten injured, I wouldn't be in the field or position I'm in now. I would probably be a passionless, bored, and regretful freelance journalist with a degree and nothing to show for it...and for that I am very thankful.

My legs could carry me 40yds in 4.48 seconds in high school. Drop a tenth and a half and that's combine material. Not bad, right? Try picturing a 5'10" 150lb string bean white boy running fast. It was pretty hilarious, actually. I didn't fit the prototypical "sprinter" bill...But I allowed that to work to my advantage when it came to being unsuspectingly "sneaky fast" to my opponents (that's what my ego thought at least) So much so that I steered clear of the weights because I thought they wouldn't help--I was doing well as it was. Man, was I STUPID!!! And I've come to see the light, the way, the beauty of preparing oneself for "life" by training with balance in mind.

The point of this all is that I feel as if I've come to learn the meaning of true strength, and how challenging it is to cultivate it safely. I can honestly say I understand the frustrations of someone who is trying to get stronger, lose fat/weight/, look and feel better, WHILE trying to deal with an old injury. I can't tell you how many people I've worked with that come to me supposedly in a "healthy" sedentary state only to find out that as soon as they start exercising regularly a decade old injury surfaces and bites them in the ass. That person felt "healthy" because their inactivity wasn't causing them to feel pain. As soon as they loaded it, "Oh, crap! That hurts my knee/back/shoulder!" 

Personally, I am dealing with this problem right now with my left shoulder. I mentioned that I came to be a pair of legs with twigs on top. My movement patterns were terrible (My first FMS in 2008 was an 8/21!) And the bigger problem was that until I finished competing in track and field in 2011, I DIDN'T CARE. If it didn't make me faster, I wouldn't do it. I was so geared toward sport performance that it didn't matter how crappy the rest of me felt or performed. If it hurt, I didn't do it. Deadlifting hurt my back, snatching hurt my shoulder, benching hurt my shoulder (after I injured it snatching poorly), and squats hurt my knees. So guess what? While I was training for track, instead of learning my movement patterns sucked and trying to do something about it, I stopped doing all of the above exercises and did leg press, hamstring curls, leg extensions, seated chest presses, and upright rows on a machine. ALL MACHINE WORK. Guess what? If you want to make a bad movement pattern stick, do it seated! I got really damn good at being stuck in the seated position. Gosh, I was SUCH an idiot, and had no one to tell me!

Back to the shoulder. I hurt it attempting a barbell snatch. My coach (who happened to be a former all-American in the decathlon) put it in the track lifting program. I saw him demonstrate (perfectly) a few reps and I tried to emulate it (terribly). Evidently I didn't know that in order to snatch safely you've got to have 1. Excellent shoulder and thoracic mobility (which I didn't) 2. Good hip and ankle mobility (which I didn't) 3. Shoulder stability (nope). Anyways, I hurt it, stopped doing that and a few other exercises. I even got it tested in the athletic training room to see if they could figure out what I heard "pop" when I got the bar overhead, and they couldn't reproduce my pain. I was "fine", they told me...Hmmm.

Well, fast forward 6 or so years and my shoulder is hurting again. Why? Not because it's been hurting me all that time. It actually stopped hurting me as soon as I stopped doing the movements that hurt it (I hear Dan John screaming, "It's not the movements that hurt you, it's the way YOU DID THEM that hurt you). But as soon as I started learning the craft of kettlebells in 2012 that shoulder injury came to the surface again. It's like the first time in my life I try to cultivate some balance in my body, my body comes back with a vengeance to say NO! What gives? Apparently, removing the movements from my program didn't heal my injury. Actually, it just papered over the cracks, and I have had a HELL of a time building strength in my upper body because of it (Don't be 15-22 year old Bret, please. He was REALLY stupid. 25 year old Bret knows better).

To bring this back around to what I mentioned before, it's really hard to gain legit strength safely if you've done it wrong in the past. Take all your old bad habits and throw them out the window, you say? Why not bang my head against a wall repeatedly? That would be easier, at least. It's seriously easier said than done.

The hardest lesson I've had to stomach is how LONG it's taken to work through my dysfunction, and how FREQUENTLY I have to do the exercises needed to manage and improve my symptoms (Every few hours, daily). For a person who has never been injured and was just inactive for a time (most people), results come fast and furiously, and dysfunction literally melts away sometimes. For those like myself, it comes oh-so-slowly.

Everything I have written about up to this point has been the culmination of the lessons I've learned since I began my life as a personal trainer. Be patient, trust in the process, and know your limits. You will be a better balanced, stronger, healthier, happier, and (hopefully) pain-free individual! My follies are your gains.

Yours in strength,