Straight out of the gate, this is not a post about how Crossfit is the enemy of healthy bodies and joints. If you’ve read any of my other posts, you know I’m a big fan of Crossfit. That being said, it is not a training method without the risk of some pretty serious injuries.
I’ve been pretty active my whole life. Not that active does not equal being in good shape. But I grew up playing sports, and when I got to college, I did make an effort to go to the gym and run. I’d put the motivation back then at 30% for better health, 20% to impress the ladies, and 50% guilt if I didn’t do it. And I think that recipe for motivation stayed with me until 2009 when I hurt myself in a serious way.
I was at the gym, doing squats (most likely with horrific form) and when I got to the bottom of the squat, by back exploded in pain. I tried to walk it off, stretch it out, but no good. I thought I had a back spasm, which I had experienced in the past. Probably just take it easy for a couple weeks, and I’d be ok. Nope!
After I gingerly walked home and showered, I sat on the couch to plan my next move. My girlfriend (now wife) came out and when I went to get up, I was pretty sure a ninja had stabbed me in the back. For those of you who have not experienced nerve impingement pain, I’m not sure I can adequately describe the sensation. Maybe sort of like the getting a shot, except that needle is six inches wide, rusty, and on fire. I literally collapsed to my knees, and for the rest of the day, transitioning from sitting to standing would require using my hands to climb up a wall while tears of pain would run down my face. I consider my threshold for pain to be pretty high, but I couldn’t handle this.
Turns out I had herniated two disks in my lower back (L4/L5, L5/S1 for all you medical geeks out there), and would require surgery to repair it. Back surgery sucks. Six weeks of being unable to lift more than ten pounds. Next time you go grocery shopping, try loading and unloading your car ten pounds at a time. It’ll take you halfway to forever.
Then came the physical therapy. After so many weeks of essentially doing nothing, it was relief to start doing SOMETHING! I did the prescribed therapy for about 10 weeks, and then I was “cleared” to go back to my normal life, as long as I didn’t go crazy. But now every time I went to the gym, I was terrified that I might hurt myself again. I didn’t do back squats for years. And worse, I convinced myself that this was a good idea, that I was protecting myself. In retrospect, it was a very poor decision. I suffered from various lower back pain for the next few years (exacerbated by my cubicle zombie style job), and it wasn’t until 2011 that I started to get better.
I started meeting with a trainer, and he started working in heavy lifting with squats and deadlift. I voiced my concerns, but he convinced me to give it a try. And it made a world of difference in my back! The pain level went down (although it has never fully disappeared) and it made me a believer in lifting not only for strength, but for health. I’ve been told that the insane strength exhibited by NFL running backs is less about helping them gain yards then it is about keeping their bodies in one piece as they are pummeled by very large men moving very quickly. One might look at Adrian Peterson for a prime example. Going from a season ending knee injury to missing the single season rushing record by 8 yards in a little over a year? Insane. Also, he’s just a freak of nature in terms of raw athletic ability.
I still worry about my back when I lift. And there are WODs where by back kills me afterwords (usually from lots of deadlifts and/or cleans). But I consider that to be mostly my fault. I get caught up in the competition, and I trade technique for speed. Don’t trade technique for speed. Or weight. Or cupcakes. It’s not worth it. Believe me, I know. Sidelined for a week or two because it hurts to bend over and tie my shoes. Yeah, totally a fair trade for one more round on that AMRAP.
So this post has kind of meandered from where I thought it would go, but I’ll try to sum it up here. Take care of your body. Ask questions about lifts. Make sure you have your form perfect (or at least as perfect as you can manage) before you up the weight or speed. Swallow your stupid pride and do less than Rx until you know you can do it safely. Coaches really don’t want you to hurt yourself. And the other people in the gym don’t want to see it happen because they are either nice people, or they’re overly competitive assholes who would rather see the annotation that you used a lighter than Rx weight anyway. And if you have time to work out, you have time to stretch. Budget in an extra 5-10 minutes after your workout to stretch. I’m paying dearly for YEARS of ignoring my flexibility, and it is a slow path back to where I want to be.