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Memories of an injury

And how it made me a better trainer

I’m glad to have not been injured much during my athletic life. Especially during the powerlifting days I never really sustained anything more serious than the occasional pulled muscle. While this gave me an advantage of being able to train hard and often, it also made for a very forgiving approach to training. If technique looked good and nothing hurt, the weight went up. That simple. The only problem is that while specializing in certain movements will surely lead to great performance, it also means that many other joint functions will be neglected - and this more than often leads to injury.

photo by @wearebru

It took about eight years of hard training before I got my first serious injury: bursitis in my right shoulder. And it went from nothing to this-fucking-hurts in no time. I knew my pressing technique was solid and I was doing all kinds of fancy prehab exercises, so I was in the dark as to where this injury came from. The first physio that had a look at my shoulder mused that some obscure ligament underneath my humerus (upper arm bone) was damaged, and that I should start getting used to the idea of undergoing surgery sometime soon.

Luckily I was quickly referred to a different therapist that worked a lot with baseball players and other athletes with complex shoulder issues. His verdict: my shoulder blade positioning was terrible. He showed me that I had been doing all those prehab exercises just slightly off position, which had actually caused them to worsen my shoulder instability instead of improving it. There I was with my outstanding anatomy grades and years of training experience, thinking I had been doing everything right.

"Because even though these exercises cover most major functions of the musculoskeletal system, they don't cover all of them."

The problem was that I had the theoretical knowledge, but never bothered to look more closely simply because there was no pain. The years of continuous focus on bread and butter compound lifts like presses and squats had very slowly and very gradually allowed minor strength and mobility deficits to creep into my body. Because even though these exercises cover most major functions of the musculoskeletal system, they don't cover all of them. And you need full joint function in order to keep it healthy, which goes way beyond performing some half-assed general preventive work with questionable technique.

What followed was a renewal of my understanding of shoulder mechanics and a complete overhaul of my idea of what good technique meant. I learned to develop a keen eye for exercises that support healthy shoulders, beyond what was good for growth or strength. Funny thing is, half a year later I was not only pain-free, but I also became a trainer to send people with banged up shoulders to. And a little longer down the road I started teaching these concepts to my students who managed to rehabilitate many cranky shoulders without ever having to resort to therapists. Those six months of injury had probably done more for me as both a professional and an athlete than the whole year of pain free training before that.

"Those six months of injury had probably done more for me as a trainer and athlete than the whole year of pain free training before that."

The reason that I am typing this story is because at the moment I am dealing with a new injury. It's my hip this time. And it seems that in spite of the lessons that I learned when dealing with that cranky shoulder, I have once again been misled by ‘good looking movements’ and ‘proper activation patterns’. Back to the drawing board it is; time to recalibrate my sense of what a healthy hip constitutes and how it should be trained.

It sucks, because I loathe not being able to perform my beloved heavy squats and deadlifts. But even though I might be slightly grumpier when going through my current lower body sessions, deep down I know that I am doing much more than just rehabilitating an aching joint: I am once again going through the process of filling one or two gaps in my understanding of how the body is best trained. I am becoming a better trainer.

Bryan Wolters

MSc. Human Movement Sciences, former powerlifter, and current trainer at Vondelgym Amsterdam.

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