That’s me. In a wheelchair. Because the doctors were worried about me having a physically undetectable inguinal hernia that could rot inside of my body and eventually kill me.
(Spoiler alert: I’m fine and I didn’t have a hernia, detectable or otherwise.)
How’d I get there, you may ask?
A lapse in judgement that left me completely unable to train for about 4 weeks.
Let me tell you a little story about the time I got injured…
In 2018, I had experienced some adductor pain on the left side during the squat. After deloading, deconstructing my squat, and building back up, I was squatting in the mid-400s for reps, which was PR territory.
In fact, things were going so well, that it was routine for me to squat 405 for 3 sets of 5 reps, twice a week. It’s now January 2019 and I decided to push hard at the end of my training block and finish with a 5 rep PR.
But, as y’all know, it’s never enough. A few days after my successful 5RM attempt, I got greedy and went with a 1RM of 500lbs.
Now, to contextualize this for everyone, 500 is the mythical number for me. I want a 5-plate squat more than anything else, strength-wise. I know people say don’t get caught up in chasing numbers, but they can all go to hell unless they’ve squatted 500lbs.
Anyway, 2 days after squatting 445×5, I loaded up 500, got under the bar, squatted down, and tore my adductor and groin. Fuck.
Most serious strength trainers say that you should train through an injury with something like the Starr method. I couldn’t hardly walk or get out of bed, much less squat down. I also couldn’t arch my back to bench press or lay back to overhead press. So I was pretty much useless.
Unfortunately, most doctors aren’t strength trainers. Instead, the normal advice you get is to have a layoff for 6–8 weeks and nurse it back to health. Don’t pick up heavy objects, don’t push yourself too hard, don’t do this, don’t do that, on and on. Because I am not a medical doctor, I wouldn’t recommend going against the advice of a trained professional. However, the crew at Barbell Medicine is always quick to point out asking your doctor if being sedentary is worse than light exercise.
Luckily (and completely inadvertently) I had gone to a very good doctor (shout out Emory Hospital). Their advice was as soon as it was comfortable to train, give it two more days just for assurances and ease back into it. So that’s what I did.
It took 4 weeks to get to where walking wasn’t painful, and those were a very boring, very tough 4 weeks for me.
Okay, I kind of lied, I went back to the gym 3 weeks after the injury to bench press and attempt an overhead press. But to be honest, that session was incredibly painful and not very productive.
Everything started off slow, but not totally from scratch. My bench and overhead press hung around better than I thought they would, but they still needed some work. My squat and deadlift, however, started over completely from scratch.
My first squat session back, I had planned on squatting an empty bar for 5 sets of 5. After warming up and realizing that I wasn’t as fragile as I thought, I ended up squatting 185 for a set of 5 and then 4 backoff sets of 135. These weren’t without pain, though. So I hovered around 135 for about two weeks.
With a layoff like that and with my confidence rattled because of the injury, squatting felt like somewhat of a foreign movement. The descent was shaky. The knees were all over the place. I forgot how wide or narrow my stance should be. And honestly, just the mental cues that I had in my mind pre-injury weren’t easy to recall.
But, like learning to squat for the first time, those habits re-developed over time. One plate becomes two; two become three; and eventually (although not yet in my road to recovery), three will once again become four.
Each session, I told myself that I needed to focus on form and doing things the right way, rather than the absolute weight on the bar. I drilled it into my head to listen to my body, feel the stretch reflex, and re-learn what it felt like to hit depth. My squats didn’t look very good at first, but slowly, the muscle memory started to come back.
I didn’t really know what it would take to “come back,” so I tried to find the sweet spot between pushing for growth and re-injuring my previously-torn muscles. In the early stages, I was making 10lb jumps every week. 3 sets of 5 reps, twice a week. When I hit the 315lb mark, I slowed my progress down, only adding 5lb jumps, instead. This allowed me to make sure my form was going to be good at heavier weights.
The other adjustment I’ve made is that if a set hurts (and I mean, HURTS), I will take off weight and complete my 3×5 for the day. That’s okay because it’s better than being injured. But, if I feel a twinge in my groin, I’m not going to call the doctor and I’m not going to stop mid-set. Instead, I take a big, deep breath, focus, make sure this single rep is good, and keep moving.
The harder things I didn’t expect
There were also some other side effects to the layoff that I didn’t really expect would happen to me.
Finding the time to go to the gym for my newly gym-less lifestyle was actually much harder than I thought it would be. The act of picking up my gym bag, getting in the car, and taking the two hours to go to the gym and do the thing was a hard mental obstacle to get over. If you get hurt or have a long layoff from the gym for any reason, you should expect this to be a big hurdle on your road to recovery, too. It sucks. Getting in the car to have a session where you know you’re not going to be at your best is a mentally draining activity.
The other mentally taxing thing is knowing where you were before the injury and then comparing yourself to what comes after. I was squatting 410lbs for 3 sets of 5. Now I’m doing an empty bar?! Are you kidding me?! That feeling is brutal and if there’s one thing I’m good at, it’s self-deprecation. But I know that as long as I am consistent with this, it will come back. I’m still not back to where I was before, but I’m happy to see the progress I’ve made. And at this trajectory I *will* be back there in time.
The final thing that didn’t hit me until it hit me was something I mentioned earlier: Sometime I get aches and pains when I’m squatting. That’s okay. At first, it was kind of scary to think that everything was just going to tear again, but it’s probably not. These are constant reminders to keep everything dialed in, and keep my form as good as it can be. When I do things right, I’m just going to get stronger. Just because I have a split second pain in my adductor doesn’t mean that I’m training incorrectly, though. It’s just part of this healing process, and I have to put that anxiety out of my mind for the short-term.
(To be clear, I’m not talking about ignoring an injury. Hopefully you get that…)