We’re all trying to do things perfectly, so it makes good sense to always study perfect examples, right? Sometimes, though, we can learn a lot by studying things that have gone wrong. Consider injuries, for example.
Nobody wants to get hurt training or competing, but unless you’re uncommonly lucky, something is bound to go wrong at some point. Just as you’ll probably pick up a cold here and the flu there, chances are you’ll tweak a bodypart or two along the way when you’re physically active. The important thing is what you do from that point forward.
Let’s start with a couple of extreme examples to get a sense of how the injury thing might play out. Two people are roughly the same age and body type. Both think they’re knowledgeable about good training techniques; both have been training for years. One, however, tries to be scrupulously aware of proper technique, taking progress in small, measured steps, avoiding movements he considers likely to cause injury. The other is also concerned with technique but, from a lifting-efficiency perspective, is perfectly happy to take big jumps in search of personal records and relies on lifts the first fellow wouldn’t touch with a 10-foot pole. If the first person has a byword, it’s caution; for the second it’s go-for-it.
You might think that the first person has a long history of training uninterrupted by injury, while the second has probably paid the price for his apparently riskier training style. Ironically, the opposite is the case. The first person has injured himself so regularly, one wonders if he can comb his hair safely, while the second generally trains without incident, giving the impression that he must have a score of guardian angels. Tellingly, the men respond to injuries very differently. The first backs off from training completely, while the second always finds a way to keep training. Their differences start in the mind. Consider the primordial emotion of fear. Among other things, fear can narrow your psychological perspective and tighten your body. Fear naturally makes you avoid things, and while you might think that means complete avoidance, it also includes reaching out in a very hesitant manner’hence the term avoidance behavior.
Lack of fear, on the other hand, encourages what psychologists call approach behavior, which is just what it sounds like. Someone afraid of the ocean might avoid it altogether or maybe just dunk a toe into it; someone who’s not afraid will jump right in. The irony is that by holding back, you often set yourself up for injury. Although you may not want to admit to fear, you can exhibit the same behavior and call it control: a mind-set in which you must regulate everything meticulously vs. a more easygoing, come-what-may attitude.
It’s commonly believed that even though power cleans are inherently dangerous, they’re much safer than full squat cleans. In fact, although the injury rate among those who perform power cleans properly is negligible, people are more likely to develop aches and pains doing power cleans than full squat cleans. The probable reason? Power cleans require you to hit the brakes in the descent phase of the lift’which sounds like the prudent, controlled style preferred by the first trainee described above. In contrast, on a full squat clean you ride the bar down to a rock-bottom squat before ascending, in what would appear to be the nearly reckless style of the second lifter.
What can happen on the power cleans is that you get a jolt by hitting the brakes, which is even harder if you begin the lift unnaturally tense, and the jarring impact produces the aches and pains. While the second approach might seem kamikaze-like to the first lifter, you execute it in a relaxed style, which enables you to move fluidly and take full advantage of the body’s natural elasticity. As a result you lift bigger weights with no pains afterward.
A closely related but more subtle way these two approaches produce very different outcomes stems from the fact that most injuries occur on the lifts you miss, not the lifts you make. That might sound screamingly obvious, but many people miss a vital implication: When you’re hesitant, when you hold back, when you’re fearful, you’re actually more likely to miss a lift and, therefore, more likely to injure yourself than if you attack it full tilt.
In competitive situations you can easily find parallels. For example, at a recent Olympics a B-session lifter was attempting a weight that, although modest by international standards, was obviously very daunting to him. The result was an amazing scene: The lifter crawled around on all fours and lay on his back groaning and gasping, looking to all the world as if he’d suffered the most grievous injury and would soon expire. An hour later, incidentally, the fellow was perfectly normal. In contrast, former World’s Strongest Man winner Gary Taylor once had a 900-something-pound tire fall back on him, pinning him to the concrete floor. Taylor lay there cracking jokes, even though when they lifted the tire off him, his foot was pointing at a right angle instead of straight ahead. Everything in his knee had been so severely torn that it looked as if a giant had grabbed him with one hand above the knee and one below and twisted with all his might. Taylor’s next stop was emergency surgery.
You don’t need examples as strikingly different as these to understand that a lot of people really don’t like lifting, or are afraid of it, or see that they can’t compete at the level they’d like or are afraid to really try because the outcome is uncertain. In all of those cases injuries’both real and imagined’are the likely outcome, and once a person is injured, withdrawal is the order of the day. On the other hand, if you really love training, embrace the idea of competing and aren’t unduly burdened by thoughts of what might go wrong, you’re actually less apt to get injured. Even if you do, you’ll probably take it in stride. IM
Editor’s note: Randall Strossen, Ph.D., edits the quarterly magazine MILO. He’s also the author of IronMind: Stronger Minds, Stronger Bodies; Super Squats: How to Gain 30 Pounds of Muscle in 6 Weeks and Paul Anderson: The Mightiest Minister. For more information call IronMind Enterprises Inc. at (530) 265-6725 or Home Gym Warehouse at (800) 447-0008, ext. 1. Visit the IronMind Web site at www.ironmind.com.