The Real Causes of Injury

Today we’re going to address the controversial topic of injuries.  We can pretend all day long they don’t exist, but that doesn’t make them any less real.

In addition, please forgive me if this article is scattered.  I woke up this morning with no intention to write but it kind of hit me that this would be a good topic to cover so my usual bad grammar will probably be atrocious.

Here we go.

Above all, do no harm.

It’s kind of like the hippocratic oath for personal trainers and coaches in gyms everywhere.  Most abide by it, some don’t but we take this phrase to heart with every training cycle that we program.

It’s why we don’t lift heavy in the same muscle groups in back to back days, why we typically have only one barbell lift per workout, why we very rarely focus on time and never with an Olympic of power lift, and most importantly, why we always make sure beginners are staying within strict boundaries.

As a results of this, we have enjoyed an extremely low rate of injury while also producing multiple 500# and 300# lifters for men and women.

While no one ever sets out to intentionally hurt people, the real reality is that if you want to get amazing results, I mean the kind where you posses strength in the top percentage and change your body from flabby to shredded, you are simply going to have to deal with the very real risk of minor injury along the way.

Runners deal with stress fractures.

Body builders deal with tears and avulsions.

Athletes deal with pulls and strains.

Weight training is no different.

As sure as death, taxes and a fat Kardashian being on TV, the guarantee of Facebook and YouTube commenters is near one hundred percent every time we or anyone else who knows strength posts a video.

“Watch your back!”

“That’s going to hurt!”

“Squat lower!”

“I’m weak, but I took three weight lifting classes and now I’m an expert!”

At least that’s what I hear when I see most comments.

One of the most common fallacies is that your form is directly linked to whether not you get hurt.  We know form and technique.  Not to toot our own horn but we have had our instructional videos featured on blogs and websites all over the country, so we are confident in our ability to teach you safely.

While you always want to have proper form, the truth is that I have never seen someone tweak a back or strain a quad as a result of poor form.  Never.  I have seen and experienced strains with flawless form and seen sloppy pulls performed pain-free.

This is not to be taken to the point where you don’t have your checkpoints, pay attention to neutral spine and other very important things, but the notion that textbook form is required on every pull once you reach a certain level is just untrue, folks.

While you never want to be like this guy, the reality is that once you reach a certain level of proficiency and begin lifting challenging weight, you are going to have limitations and breakdowns in technique.

The key is knowing which are acceptable and which are not.  I am not going to try and impress you with studies nerds did in controlled environments, fancy names for muscles or terms you won’t understand.  My goal here is to break it down in simple terms that you know, actually happen for the common weight lifter in the trenches of hard work.

#1: You Ignored Your Body

You know those days when you look at the website and see a big movement?  And you get pumped up to come in and set a PR for yourself.  You’re all jacked up driving to the gym, you can’t get to the barbell fast enough, only when you pick up that warm-up set of 225# you think to yourself.

“Shit, that was HEAVY.”

Right then and there you have an important training opportunity.

Listen to your body.  Dial it back and focus on quality reps at challenging weight, or ignore it and try and PR anyways.

Most often, we ignore it.

This is typically where the injury list starts and ends and I have been extremely guilty of this to my own detriment before.  We try very hard to convey that not every day is a PR attempt, that many things must be aligned for you to hit a PR such as mobility on that specific day, how much sleep you got, your recovery of the previous day, what you ate, your mood and level of stress cortisol, if you are warmed up, stiffness of opposing muscles, where you are along the lifting curve and many other factors that determine whether or not your body will grant you permission to PR.

You can pay attention to all of those dumb motivational pictures featuring 110 pound girls with a caption of “your body will do what your mind will allow” or some other Yoda type stuff, but that is false.

Except heal you when you've foolishly picked up three hundred pounds because your range of motion was crappy today.

Except heal you when you’ve foolishly picked up three hundred pounds because your range of motion was crappy today.

(Note: This is amazing.  I absolutely did not google this until after I wrote that that 110 lb. girl thing.  I just assumed there was a stupid quote out there that involved the two and I found it in five seconds.)

Your body will do what your body will allow.  Always.

When you ignore red flags and the feeling you don’t have maximum efficiency that day, and when you try and push through it, you’re fucked, and no motivational sticker is going to be there to heal you.

I know, because I did this during our Battle of the Sexes.  If you have seen me deadlift, quite frankly, I have pretty damn good form.  Even when I go heavy the alignment of my spine absolutely never breaks neutral.  I have a strong core and am able to keep tight throughout all points in the lift (my sissy hamstrings are another story), yet I still threw out my back completely lifting only 315#.

And you know what?

I deserved it, because I felt very off that day and my ego wouldn’t let me reduce load.

Had I simply listened to my body I would have backed off, dropped down a weight class and completed the workout smartly.

So if my form is perfect, what happened?

There was no round in my lumbar, no hyperextension in my cervical spine or any other red flag in my technique.  I simply did not pay attention to the signs my body was telling me that day, which was combined with this major underlying issue…

#2: A Hidden Weak Link in the Chain

Weak links are like a virus that lies dormant in your body only to reveal itself one day with complete destruction.  Often times, you may not even know it’s there until it’s too late and bites you in the ass.

Or hamstrings.  Or shoulders.

Compound barbell lifts engage multiple different joints and sets of muscles.  Unlike the barbell curl which works your elbow joint, and subsequently just your bicep, the deadlift works your ankle, knee, hip and shoulder so you have over fifteen muscles that are firing in the process.  Naturally, there are more checkpoints in the technique as opposed to just an isolation exercise.

The major movers in the deadlift are your hamstrings.  They initiate the pull all the way until the bar passes your knee and your glutes and lats take over.

So, for a few seconds your hamstrings are primarily responsible for lifting 300 pounds.

What happens if you have weak hamstrings?

Two things.

One, the weight will not move off the floor, most commonly referred to as the most-frustrating-punch-yourself-in-the-privates-sticking-point.  (Can you tell which one I have?)

Two, the weight will move off the floor but only because another muscle group stepped in, tagged out your hamstrings like the Bushwackers and did all of the work.

Your lumbar.

And your lumbar doesn’t like doing this

In this situation, your back is moving weight it has no business handling.

Understand your back is worked on a deadlift, just like any other set of muscles our back must be trained and strengthened since it’s a vital part of the athletically powered posterior chain.  Too many people freak out on soreness in the lumbar from deadlifts but there is a difference between sore from helping, and strained from completely responsible for the movement.

When your back bears the load because of your weak hamstrings, like what happened to me at Battle of the Sexes, you get hurt.

How Do Weak Links Develop?

Often times, weak links develop by trying to lift too heavy too quickly, also known as I-wanna-be-elite-immediately-itis.  When you jump right into deadlifts and are pulling near maximal weight in your first two months, you bypass the necessary development of your hamstrings that lighter weight tends to accomplish.  In this scenario, your central nervous system (CNS) becomes trained on lifting heavy, but not your actual muscles and you are left with this ticking time bomb combination of an over-developed CNS and under-developed primary movers.

Right now, I am in the process of catching my hamstrings up to the rest of my body.  I am only deadlifting heavy once per month, and the rest of the time I am doing isolated RDLs, hamstring curls and other targeted exercises to minimize my risk of re-occurence.

You have a problem?

Just like anything else in life, diagnose and fix it.

Resist the urge to join those you look up to too early and take time to properly develop your working muscles with perfect sets at lighter weight.

In reality, one is typically ready for heavy lifting at about month three.  It’s why we always walk around the floor during warm-ups assessing weight you guys have on the barbell on squats, jerks, presses and deadlifts.  Some of you have had your load reduced by us, and this is why.

Beginners do not yet have the appropriate motor pattern established, nor do they have the stabilizing muscles or primary movers developed to handle the strenuous act of a heavy lift.

#3: All The Small Things

There are many small areas that can be overlooked, as well.

Cervical Spine

All of the attention is always placed on the lumbar because it’s bigger and more noticeable, but the cervical spine can carry a much greater risk despite it being small in stature.  Located by our neck, it contains many nerves and real, long-term problems can develop when hyperextended.

You never want to look up when squatting or deadlifting.  NEVER.  Why this is taught in some circles is completely beyond me, because when you look up you immediately hyperextend that part of your spine.  It’s uncomfortable to do in real life without an external load.

Seriously, just get up and look straight up real quick.

Terribly awkward, right?

Why would you then do this with two to five hundred pounds involved in the mix?

Range of Motion

Basic range of motion is required for any overhead lift.  If you cannot pass a basic mobility test such as wall angels for push press, jerk, overhead squat and snatch you are simply awaiting a tear in your rotator cuff.   If you can’t straighten your arms overhead without weight, don’t try and do it with weight.  Take the time to develop the mobility.

Additionally, you have good days and  bad days with your range of motion on a micro scale.  If getting to a deep squat on a certain day feels tougher than usual, don’t try and set a PR or do crazy weight that day.  Your lumbar will be stressed and most likely overloaded.  This also goes for getting overhead on a push press or jerk and many other movements that take your body through full range of motion.  When your muscles are tight you have reduced range of motion.

Foam rolling is great because it flattens out the little knots we build up and increases your range of motion.

High Rep Olympic Lifting

More injuries occur from breakdown in stability during high rep power and Olympic lifting than on controlled one to three rep lifts.  For those who have asked us why we don’t do this, it’s because we like you healthy.


Believe it or not, good ole fashioned luck has a lot to do with it.  Sometimes, you can get just get unlucky on a lift.  You can catch a clean in a weird position and strain a wrist, be under a bumper plate when it’s dropped.  Shit just happens sometimes that can be out of your control.  Always minimize it by paying attention to your body and maintaining proper form for as long as you can, but at the end of the day sometimes Lady Luck just gets ya’.

In Conclusion

As much as I hate the bravado of injury ambivalence in some circles, what bothers me equally is the opposing notion that if you get injured then your training must be dangerous and awful and you’re a horrible person and it should be used on Guantanemo Bay prisoners only.

Injuries are not death sentences, guys.  When I threw out my back completely, I was banged up pretty good.  I was sidelined for four weeks with just bodyweight movements.  The next six weeks were all rehab, slowly and steadily rebuilding my injured musculature.  Since then I have become healthy and have PR’d on my deadlift, squat, clean and jerk.

All four post walking like Montgomery Burns for a week.

Proper training lies somewhere in between permanent risk and cozy comfy safety.  It carries the inherent understanding that when weight lifting, the risk of injury is always present, but if you play by the rules and address your deficiencies then you greatly reduce that risk and allow yourself the potential to trend upward uninterrupted.

This is not meant to turn you into a hypochondriac and assume you have a limitation every time you lift, but you need to be aware of your own biofeedback and what’s happening on a daily basis.

If you ever have doubts, always ask your coaches.

Listen to your body, pre-hab yourself by taking the time to correctly develop the primary movers on big lifts and above all always pay attention to biofeedback your body provides day in and day out.

It’s the one and only person you should always let dictate your training protocol.

Dave Thomas is co-owner of Performance360 and is a certified personal trainer and nutritional consultant through the National Strength and Conditioning Association, Russian Kettlebell certified and and a Level-I USA Olympic Weightlifting coach.