Disable Your Strength Limits
Focus on Pain
The world of lifting can be narrowed down to one criterion for success—focus. We focus on setting new records, getting in the right nutrients, and staying mobile. What happens to a great number of us all too often is that we get so focused on one goal that all other health factors fall by the wayside.
When we’re looking for that PR, the anterior knee pain that flairs up, the shoulder that spasms, or the low back twinges that arise are mere obstacles in the way of the goal. I ask, why do we let these issues get out of hand? If you’re driving your car down the road and the hood flies off, you might keep driving, but if the engine blows, you’re done and it’s time to stop and get a new one. The same goes with lifting. We let little stuff slide until a major issue stops us from lifting all together. The realistic side of this situation is if your hood flew off, odds are you’re gonna stop, pick it up, and get it fixed. This should be true for lifting as well. Focus on your pains. If your knee bugs you days after squats, fix it! If your back keeps you hunched over after getting out of your car the day after you deadlift, fix it! If you can’t get your arm up over your head to wash your hair, fix it!
These are the issues that if you let slide will ultimately hold you back far more than just gaining strength. Throwing on another 45 can happen, but your body has to be ready to handle the load as a unit. There can’t be any weak links in your biomechanical chain. I propose fixing your pains with the drive that we use to increase our lifts. To do this, take 21 days and focus on your issues. Three to four weeks can be considered the minimum time needed to fix soft tissue and tendon issues, depending on the severity of the injury. Increase, but start small (6). Taking three weeks off from intense lifting can be difficult, so changing your mindset is vital to a full recovery.
Moving big numbers gives all of us one thing—confidence. We lift to feel strong and challenge ourselves. We compare ourselves to other people as we walk down the street, greet, and meet new people. We are all guilty of it. We feel strong and prepared. We have accomplishments that we take pride in. The work dedicated to them is something that not everyone sets out to do. It is a very unique accolade. These feelings can drive us to train.
On the downside, training in such a driven and focused manner can create lingering injuries and pain. This directly limits the confidence we work to create. What good is the confidence of a 700-lb squat if you hobble down the street? Yes, you’re strong, but you can’t move outside of the rack. What type of confidence is that? All you have to show for your work is pain and movement disorders. The psychological effects of pain overtime are negatively correlated to quality of life (4, 5). The more we experience pain, the lower our outlook and quality of life becomes (5). We look forward to training because this is where we establish ourselves. It justifies the pain. Ideally, we want to walk pain free and have the confidence of a 700-lb squat. This is the type of confidence that can change lives. There is a brighter outlook on life, and the drive to get in and train is even greater. Letting pain linger and not addressing it can be the biggest detriment to not only your training success but your success in life. Physical pain has a way of affecting everything.
Norepinephrine and serotonin, physiological markers for depression and physical pain, share the same neurotransmitters within the brain. When these transmitters are abnormal, you are put at a higher risk of experiencing some form of physical pain conjoined with depression (1, 2). Lower serotonin hormones are related to depression (1, 3). Simply, if you’re hurt for a long period of time, you can be depressed. When depression hits, it can penetrate every aspect of your life be it lifting, socially, or financially. Avoid this entirely and focus on your aliments with a vengeance. Take three weeks and work on the affected area. You will be rewarded with a platform for new strength and a sounder mental state to boot.
Focus on pain plan of attack
We all have something that hurts. If you lift weights, plain and simple, you will hurt. What area hurts the most after a lift varies. It can be your knee, shoulder, back, hip, or anything in between. Your new focus spot is any area with lingering pain that reappears with each session. Pick the worst one. If it’s all of the above, you have some work to do.
The proposition I throw to you is this—using your focus for success on your main lift, transition it into fixing your problem area. Dan John says, “If it’s worth doing, do it every day.” I say bring the same focus into the reestablishment of safe and effective body mechanics. Take three weeks and focus on that area during every session. For example, let’s take the knee. You have lateral knee pain when you push your knees out. It’s time to fix it. Is it soft tissue or structural? I can’t say, but start with the basics and work your way up the recovery ladder.
Assignment 1: In this case, for the next three weeks, don’t do any more heavy squats. If you reaggravate the area or fall off the plan to recovery, it won’t help.
Assignment 2: You should be doing soft tissue work of the TFL, quads, and other surrounding areas. This could be foam rolling, sticks, or massage, but do it every day.
Assignment 3: Train synergist muscle groups. I’m not a huge proponent of static stretching. I prefer to strengthen and stiffen lagging surrounding muscle groups to develop stability for the injured area. In this case though, the hamstrings, adductors, calves, and glutes need targeted work and proper movement patterns.
Once you start waking up and feeling the difference while walking and living, it’s safe to start working back in some squatting movements. Start slow with body weight and possible light goblet squats. When the pain is gone, return to your squat pain free and you will be amazed at the progress made once everything is working and firing without pain signals being sent to your brain working against you.
Sample focused knee pain program
Take extra time from what would have been your main lift and throw it into extra soft tissue work.
- A1. Glute bridging, 2 X 12
- A2. Single leg lying leg lifts to 90 degrees, 2 X 10
- B1. Bird dogs, 1–2 X 12
- B2. Lying knee to knee, 1–2 X 12
Start the movements unloaded. Progress in difficulty and load slowly as the pain subsides.
- Single leg Romanian deadlift, 3–4 X 10
Perfect form so that the foot drifts directly behind the hips, not out to the side of the other leg. Use a moderate load.
- Tall kneeling cable chops, 3-4 X 10
Use a moderate load and focus on core and hip strength to relieve stress on the knee.
- Assignment 1: Remove heavy loads to the injured area.
- Assignment 2: Perform soft tissue/fascia work to release adhesions in the injured area and surrounding muscles.
- Assignment 3: Train synergists to develop stability in the injured area.
Carving out time in our lives is becoming increasingly difficult. We can only focus on so many things at one time before something gives. If you aren’t making progress, you feel beat down, or you walk in pain, it’s time to shift your focus. We simply can’t keep adding things in. There aren’t enough hours in the day and something has to come out.
Take the time that you would use for your first lift and really take care of the areas that are causing you pain. Foam roll or have manual therapy performed by a trained professional and repair what isn’t working. Follow with strengthening the surrounding areas and consider this your main lift. After that, follow with assistance lifts that don’t produce any pain in the affected area.
If it’s an aching lower back, try side planks. Shoulders and wall angels can work wonders. Knees can benefit tremendously from adductor and glute strength. Once the three weeks are up, return slowly to your lifts. There isn’t any reason to take it 0 to 60 and lose your pain-free state. Having the mental confidence of standing under a weight without any pain and a sound body can change a lift completely. Most of the weight game is mental, and if you don’t have confidence in a body part, you’ve already lost. From the weight room to our daily lives, pain can wreck havoc. We’re too limited on time to lose it to a blown knee or shoulder. Take the time to fix your aliments and you’ll be thanking yourself for those three weeks that gave you continued years of pain-free training.
- Cho Chul-Hyun, Sung-Won Jung, Jin-Young Park, Kwang-Soon Song, Kyeong-Im Yu (2012) “Is Shoulder Pain for Three Months or Longer Correlated with Depression, Anxiety, and Sleep Disturbance?” Journal of Shoulder and Elbow Surgery / American Shoulder and Elbow Surgeons.
- Gayman Mathew D, Brown Robyn Lewis, Cui Ming (2011) “Depressive Symptoms and Bodily Pain: The Role of Physical Disability and Social Stress.” Stress and Health: Journal of the International Society for the Investigation of Stress 27(1):52–53.
- Hawker GA (2011) “A Longitudinal Study to Explain… Arthritis Care Res (Hoboken). Accessed at: http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/20662042.
- Lee Kye Hwa, Cheol Hwan Kim, Ho Cheol Shin, Eun Ju Sung (2011) “Clinical Characteristics of Patients with Medically Unexplained Chronic Widespread Pain: A Primary Care Center Study.” Korean Journal of Family Medicine 32(5):277–84.
- McGuine Timothy A, Winterstein Andrew, Carr Kathleen, Hetzel Scott, Scott Jessica (2012) “Changes in Self-reported Knee Function and Health-related Quality of Life After Knee Injury in Female Athletes.” Clinical Journal of Sport Medicine: Official Journal of the Canadian Academy of Sport Medicine 22(4):334–40.
- Van der Heijden (1997) “Physiotherapy for Patients with Soft Tissue Shoulder Disorders…” BMJ – NCBI 7099:25–30.