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Part 1: Fix Problems Before They Break You

Mary Kay

My friends and I have an unspoken agreement.  We can brag about our wins, if we confess our mistakes.  It’s not a formal thing, and we don’t judge.  It’s just that we’ve learned over the years when one of us is tripping over something, invariably somebody else is too.  So, when my friend Dave was telling me about how he messed up his back, I started to realize I was headed down a similar path.  Let me explain.

Dave is a 53-year old male with an athlete’s physique and the looks of a 35-year old.  He’s not interested in competition.  He just wants to enjoy life.  So, he eats well and works out hard, but he’s also very aware of what works for his body exercise-wise.  Well, one time when he was at his gym, the workout of the day was 10,000 pounds in 5 minutes.  You can pick the exercise and weight.  You just have to lift the weight continuously until you reach 10,000 pounds.  Since he can deadlift 410 lbs. and he has pretty good muscle endurance, he decided to go with a 165 pound deadlift for roughly 60-61 reps.  It was a reasonable plan.  When he reached 25 reps at 2 minutes, his grip ached, but he still had control of the bar.  At 48 reps though, his arms and lower back burned, and he could feel his body as he describes “straining.”  He was about to let go of the bar when one of the coaches yelled, “Don’t stop.  You’re almost there. Keep going.”  Of course, he pushed himself and finished in just under 5 minutes.  Two days later, he joined a spontaneous game of 2:2 basketball.  All he remembers is going up for any easy layup, then coming down on one foot and collapsing.  He had slipped a disk in his back. 6 months in, his back is much better, but it’s not 100% yet.

Once your body is compromised, you’re either fixing or feeding a problem.”- Julien Pineau

Now Dave is a matter-of-fact guy, and he never plays the victim card.  So, when he told me he knew something was off long before the 10,000 pound challenge, I asked him why he didn’t do anything about it.  He told me because he wasn’t in pain, and he could still do work.  But that’s where he was wrong.  As movement expert Julien Pineau says, “Once your body is compromised, you’re either fixing or feeding a problem.”  In other words, whatever gains you think you’re making in strength, speed, power, endurance, etc., it’s all an illusion because a compromised body can’t sustain those gains.  In fact, keep doing what you’re doing, and eventually you’ll break.

​To be honest, the principle of “fixing or feeding a problem” isn’t something most adults really get.  Even I still struggle with it.  Why?  Most of us are singularly focused on accomplishing a goal…completing a physique competition, 50-mile run, 10,000 lbs. in 5 minutes, etc.  We get or make a workout schedule, blaze forward and accept the risk of dealing with any complications later.  We program ourselves to just “do” because that’s what we were all taught growing up playing sports.  It’s a great strategy for an elite athlete preparing for his next podium win, but not for those of us with issues. That’s what Julien calls feeding a problem, and it’s a bad plan.

​So, what’ do you do? How do you make progress toward a goal when your body doesn’t move as well as it used to?  Well, I’ve learned, like most things in life, it’s better to take the long view.  So, here are a few tips:

  • Tip #1 – Create a New Baseline. One mistake people make with a new fitness or strength goal is starting from their “personal best” (aka I ran a 6-minute mile or squatted 1.5x my body weight) and then moving forward from there.  But those numbers only tell you what you accomplished in the past.  Even if you accomplished your best 3 months ago, those stats tell you nothing about where you are today.  A more realistic approach is to take an inventory of how you’ve lost work capacity since your last goal. Write it all down…the good, the bad, the ugly, but don’t judge it. Instead, just get comfortable with what’s changed.  Now, you have a “real” place to move forward from.
  • Tip #2 – Seek Out an Expert. The truth is you can never see a movement problem in yourself.  Even if you catch a glimpse of a wobble, a collapsed core, an elevated shoulder in a mirror (which we all do), you’ll probably ignore it.  Why?  Once the body compensates for a weakness, the new movement pattern feels normal to us.  Likewise, even if the issue is pointed out to you, you still don’t know if the cause is an imbalance, weakness or deficiency… or some combination thereof.  You can try to figure it out yourself, but chances are you’ll end up chasing one issue after the other and still not make progress toward your goal.  A really good movement specialist, on the other hand, will find the movement hole and tell you exactly how to plug it.
  • Tip #3 – Fix the Problem.  Sometimes, the very thing you want to do is actually what’s causing the body to get weaker…in which case, you need to stop.  This is so hard.  A runner doesn’t want to be told to stop running, nor did I like hearing I needed to stop snatching.  I’d been resisting the notion for a while, but Dave’s story made we realize my problems were getting worse by snatching.  I could keep doing it, but the complexity of the movements with increasing load was creating a level of tension on my body that I knew was not sustainable.  So, I’m taking the long view of my strength journey and changing focus to work on my weaknesses. I still have strength and conditioning elements in my program, and I’m learning gymnastics rings to keep it interesting.  But there’s a dominant focus in my program to get my body to move better. Of course, I still want to do more Olympic lifting, but my body’s not there yet. This is my baseline. I’m moving forward from here.

In short, exercise and strength goals are good, but there’s no shame in taking a detour or even slowing down your program to make sure your body is up to the task.  Next time, we'll talk about how fixing weakness can broaden your strength base.

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