If you want to live a life packed full of meaningful training and sustainable progression without every falling victim to debilitating injuries, here are the 10 commandments of injury prevention that you need to live by. Staying healthy in the iron game isn’t a random coincidence, it’s a choice. Make yours intelligently.
#1 Perfect The Warm Up Process
The pre-training preparatory sequence is not an excuse to BS your way through arbitrary foam rolling and corrective movements, but rather an opportunity to enhance your physical training performances with effective and efficient programming. It’s also rather dubious to skip the warm up all together.
Put as much time into designing a well rounded warm up routine that is specific not only to the training day ahead, but based on your specific weak links as a lifter. If you chose to use an SMR technique, corrective exercise or activation drill, you better damn well see some objective benefit from your practice. If you don’t, move on to something that actually produces results and quit wasting your time.
Make it a goal for yourself to prioritize 6-10 specific drills until you have gained mastery levels of competence on each. As you master a move, switch it out for another more challenging exercise. Quit majoring in the minors, and please, don’t fall into the dangerously slippery slope that is the ritualistic warm up.
Have a definitive reason for using each drill you program. If you can adhere to this simple request, your warm up will be the best 6-minutes you can spend to bulletproof your body long term. Need a simple, efficient AND effective warm up system? Use the 6-Phase Dynamic Warm Up Sequence.
#2 Program For Your Specific Needs and Physical Presentation
Lifters have a hard time pulling their faces out of the latest and greatest programs or exercises. It’s time to actually take a cold hard look at your own physical capacity and not some utopian version of yourself that more closely resembles an Olympia competitor than the reflection in the mirror.
Sure, aspiring to train just like your iron heroes provides one hell of a fire lit under your ass for motivation, but when it comes to staying healthy, knowing what your body needs is priceless. Cookie cutter programs are designed for cookie cutter athletes. And yeah, cookie cutter athletes are the ones with bum shoulders and blown out backs. Whether you like it or not, your unique experiences, both good and bad, have provided you with very unique needs.
Checking your damn ego at the door is tough, but it’s also necessary to stay healthy. Define your strengths and weaknesses as a lifter, and work each training day to improve upon those glaring red flags starting at you in your reflection. Functional weak links eventually break, so before they break you down and leave you hurt, nip them in the ass and live to lift another day.
#3 Train The Spine As A Stable Functional Unit
Your spine was designed to be a strong and stable functional unit built to withstand some serious force, but as soon as things like 6-pack abs and chiseled out V-tapers starts to consume our minds, that simple biomechanical fact of movement gets thrown out the fucking window with endless crunches and side bends.
Want to keep your shoulders, hips and spine healthy? You better perfect the skill of creating massive amounts of internal tension through the stabilizing muscles of the spine, and work hard to keep each region of the spine in a neutral and non-compensated position throughout whatever movement or exercise you are executing.
Just when you start to think that flexing, extending, side bending or rotating your spine under loading isn’t inherently dangerous and you’ve been getting away with it for a while, that’s when injury rears its ugly head. And yeah, every time you stupidly flare up your back, you’re more susceptible to it happening again, but worse next time.
View accessory spinal movement as an advanced progression, and one that should only be used sparingly by advanced athletes with specific goal sets. That means for 99% of the population of there, you do not fit that bill, so start owning a resilient and neutral spine position no matter the activity. Check your ego at the door, and if you’re still worried about your damn 6-pack, see the next commandment.
#4 Match Your Nutrition To Your Training Goals
This one is pretty damn simple, but it’s just another example one of those major aspects of human performance that people just don’t want to come to grips with. There is no out-training a shitty diet, no matter how hard you try.
Sure, endless amounts of mindless cardio and a host of other rather insane tactics can attempt to reverse some caloric surpluses that your emotionally unhealthy binging can cause, but at the end of the day the overall stress to your body as a system is going to be sky rocketed.
If we want to correlate incidence of injuries to something with pretty conclusive data over the course of the past few decades, it is with overuse and overall stress placed on a system. The more stress you place on your body, whether it be physical, mental or emotional, the increased likelihood you will get hurt. It’s that simple.
So instead of punishing yourself or “making up” for your lack of personal integrity in the kitchen with endless exercise, lets try defining the nutritional needs that fit your training and goal set.
Viewing food as fuel for goals instead of creating emotional connections to the stuff on your fork hacking your pleasure centers of the brain, can be a game changer for many. Feed your needs, not your natural tendencies to go off the deep end in your next meal.
#5 Realize That Progressive Overload Is Not The Only Way To Progress
The sooner you realize that adding iron to the bar for a max effort single is only one single way to physically progress your practice, the healthier you will be. Smart lifters who have stood the test of time will tell you that there are hundreds of ways to continuously progress, and prioritizing life long progression in multiple areas of physicality modes well for long-term pain-free success.
Don’t get me wrong, nothing feels better than a well-earned PR that took diligent effort and concentration over a long period of time to achieve, but this cannot be compared to the dubious addition of load to every movement on every training session until one of two things happen.
First, and most often, your performance suffers and weights drop. This is usually followed by the second occurrence, pushing through aimlessly forcing loads until you break down and get hurt. And don’t act like you haven’t done this before, we all have made this mistake.
Find solace in the fact that your strength numbers are only a portion of your holistic performance. Challenge yourself in a myriad of rep ranges, conditioning activities, cardiorespiratory endurance, mobility movements or hell, even your recovery. Being a well-rounded athlete doesn’t mean having to force feed WODs, but rather achieving and maintaining multiple indicators of physical success.
#6 Never Lose Your Ability To Execute Fundamental Movement Patterns
There is no faking the ability to execute clean and crisp movement patterns that look as good as they feel. Moving well takes years of mastery, but once you achieve sound patterns that you’ve worked your ass off to execute properly, don’t ever let them slip.
It’s far easier to maintain a physical ability than it is to create or rebuild one. That’s why placing emphasis and value in programming at least one variation of the six foundational in a training schedule is pivotal to long-term orthopedic success.
Every human being on earth, no matter the goal or skill set should be able to squat, hip hinge, lunge, push, pull and move their bodies through space in a pain-free manor. Use these foundational movement patterns as indicator movements that correlate well with your ability to prevent injuries in your training.
If and when these movements start to feel cranky or even start to cause pain, don’t just shrug it off as the price of doing business, but rather identify the origin of the change before it leads to injury. Use your training to generate data each and every session. And let that data lead you to a long career of pain-free training.
#7 Stop Grinding Out Ugly Compensated Missed Reps
The average lifter can endure an incredible amount of brutality and still stay resilient against injuries, but placing yourself in loaded positions where you are forced to compensate and grind out ugly reps to save face will never be part of any pain-free training program.
A simple rule that I adopted years ago was to never again miss a rep. This seems too simple to be effective without being a pansy and lifting fluffy weights, but when you break it down, you must be that much more strategic with physical preparation and loading schemes to guarantee success than to fly by the seat of your pants.
When you are at the brink of missing a rep, one of two things happens. First, you keep tight, stay the course on your movement pattern and executional technique and miss the rep and the bar comes down on your face. Or secondly, and most commonly, your body goes into strategic sympathetic mode and finds every last compensation pattern to kick in a little extra force output until that rep is grinded out with form that just looks like you’re going to end up broken.
If you are forced to grind out reps with compensation, either you need to fix your technique, or you need to be more strategic about your loading. There are times and places for training through the brink of failure, but for the most part, these types of techniques are sprinkled into programming strategically.
#8 Implement Intensity Intelligently
To get big and strong, you must overload your system, that’s a given. But the way in which you train through the point of failure and physical exhaustion can either be the training variable that streamlines your goals or leaves you injured.
Intensity needs to be respected, plain and simple. And when implementing intensity, your ability to posturally stabilize your spine, hips or shoulders should never be the limiting factor for a supra-maximal set of any exercise. This is the reason why many intensity techniques notoriously break down lifters; they simply choose the wrong setups and positions to work from.
Intensity, not in the percentage based spectrum, but rather the effort based realm needs to target muscles and spare joints. Placing the spine in supported positions, or choosing more posturally friendly setups can shift the focus from stability of the segments of the movement, to the dynamic muscular action.
You should never be worried that your back is going to break during an extended set of shoulder work, but rather the focus should be placed on the actual muscular action of the exercise itself. Take away the doubt in programming intensity by placing the body into a position to work through the point of exhaustion from. That is how you unlock your mental fortitude to push through sets that you never in your life thought you were capable of. And yes, breaking through brinks like that pain-free usually lead to pretty serious gains.
#9 Use Your Off Days To Spark Recovery
If you have goals in front of you that you have not yet achieved, you better not be taking any true “off” days in your programming. Realizing that not every single training session needs to be pushing you balls to the wall and having your head in the garbage can to get insurmountable results.
If the value of a hard training session is defined by the amount of sympathetic stress you can place on your system, your recovery days should be valued by the amount of parasympathetic response you can place on your system to build yourself back up and climb out of that physical deficit training left you in.
If you want to spark recovery, prioritize low level parasympathetic activities like self-myofascial release techniques, bi-phasic stretching, deep diaphragmatic breathing, mobility work, low intensity steady state cardio or other passive recovery techniques. The most effective way to adopt these synergistic strategies together is by utilizing the Performance Recovery System.
Set aside 20-30 minutes every day that you are not scheduled to hit the gym with reckless abandon and get your recovery work in. Overtraining is a myth, and the term should be replaced with under-recovering for the vast majority of people. If you’re serious about staying healthy, don’t under recover. Use these easy methods to spark recovery, not keep digging your hole deeper.
#10 Aspire To Live A Life of Physical Self-Sufficiency
You have one body to live in for the rest of your life, therefore, you need to step the fuck up and be your own best advocate for long-term resilience against injury. It’s not your physical therapists job to keep you healthy, it’s not your chiropractors job to magically crack your spine “back into place” every time you decide to let your ego drive your squat sessions.
And no, it’s not your friends and families jobs to hear you bitch and moan about your highly preventable training injuries that you alone should be preventing with your actions. Injuries are not a noble badge of honor, but rather a likely sign of an amateur who is either too stupid to stay healthy, or in way over his head in training.
If you’re not going to live a physical life that values your ability to stay out of pain, remain injury free and create sustainability in your practices, then you deserve what you have coming to you. And in the worst-case scenarios, injuries can steal from you what you love to do, training hard with meaning and passion.
I understand that injuries do happen, and sometimes, we cannot prevent these things even by living by the 10 commandments, but you know what? If you abide by these rules, the random occurrences in which you hurt yourself become minor compared to the catastrophe, which others dumbly endure.Protect yourself with your brain, protect yourself with your body, and when you combine these two things together you can start to sustain a life of pain-free training.
About The Author
Dr. John Rusin is a sports performance specialist and injury prevention expert that has coached some of the world’s most elite athletes, barbell sport competitors, and over 50,000 clients from all walks of life with his innovative pain-free performance programs and systems, which has gained him the reputation as the go-to industry expert for rebuilding after pain, injuries or plateaus. Dr. Rusin is also the founder of the Pain-Free Performance Specialist Certification (PPSC) that has certified over 2,500 personal trainers, strength coaches and rehab pros from across the globe in the pain-free performance training system over the past two years.