Monday, September 03, 2007

Labor Day Cautionary Tale

Happy Labor Day, everyone; I hope the Labor Day elf is generous to all of you.

I've been off the map for a couple of weeks there because of a certain dirty secret: in addition to being a fitness coach, I'm also an actor. So the reason I've been incommunicado for a couple of weeks is that I was prepping for a gig up here in the Pacific Northwest (Olympia, WA, to be precise), where I'm doing a month-long run of Shakespeare's MACBETH, playing the title character.

So my negligence has been in the service of ART. Anyone who happens to live nearby is welcome to come and see me strut and fret starting October 4th, and closing on the 27th. If you don't know the show, suffice it to say it's a good one to see as a run-up to Halloween.

Anyway, it's lovely up here and nice to exercising my brain trying to figure out what words like "thould'st" mean.

Maybe it's because I'm in the process of playing a character who listens to prophecies about the future and as a result finds himself hurtling headlong towards a gruesome death, but mortality's been on my mind lately. That and the fact that I officially must admit, once again, that my body isn't as resiliant or invulnerable as it once was.

I've already written at length about my neck-shoulder issue, and which I'm still treating, but recently, as luck would have it, something else came up that was another friendly reminder that I'm not 18 anymore. Last Monday I was happily doing some barbell squats, having warmed up thoroughly, done some dynamic flexibility exercises, and pyramided my weights for three or four increasingly challenging sets, just like all the coaches and books and physical therapists say your should.

On rep two of set five, I was in the low position of the exercise and felt a sudden, hot pain in my sacrum. In bizarre slo-mo, I realized that no one was going to help me up, so I gritted my teeth, drove my heels into the ground, and forced myself out of the hole, my low back protesting like a shot transmission the whole way. I'd pulled the bejesus out of my lower back, so much so that I had to lie down on the gym floor for a good 10 minutes, trying to calculate the cost of retro-fitting my house for wheelchair use, before I managed to hobble back to my car, drive home, and proceed to do the alternate ice-heat thing on my back for two solid hours.

I continued the cold/hot treatments for a couple of days, took ibuprofen, slept on my back, modified my workouts, and tried not to do anything, inside or outside the gym, that aggrevated it. Now, a week later, thank heaven, it's doing much better. It's still not 100%, but I'm confident that it WILL be soon.

I used to have a martial arts instructor who talked about injuries as gifts: they make you slow down, analyze your technique, soften up a little and become more conscious of habitual movement patterns. I may be a little too Western to accept the 'gift' idea, but there certainly are things to be gained from injury, if you don't allow the frustration and annoyance to get to you.

For me, although I'm always a stickler for flexibiility, and was careful last Monday about warming up, I realize in retrospect that there were several things I should have done differently in my workout that day.

The very first thing I do as part of my warmup is an external rotation of my right thigh to stretch the hip and glute on that side. That's been part of my warmup for a several years now. Standing, I take a step on my left foot, grab my right ankle, letting the right knee fall to the outside, sort of like a walking half-butterfly stretch. Because I run and lift and generally stay active, that area can get very tight on me, and since it's often the very first thing I do in my workout, I usually give it a pretty good pull to wake it up.

I can't imagine it was a total coincidence that that's the exact area that I injured. In fact, of all the movement patterns I've experimented with in the last week, that's the one that causes me the most pain. Chances are that I'd been pulling the heck out of my leg for months, and this little injury was a wakeup call that hey, maybe I should go a little easier there, Jasper Johns.

So I was dumb in my warmup.

What else? Hindsight, 20/20 and all that, but I HAD noticed that my low-back had been a little twingy that day; I wasn't able to brace my back as completely or firmly as I like to do when I squat. I don't wear a weight belt--something I'll take the time to explain someday for any die-hard weight-belt guys out there--and felt just a tad wobbly under the weight in my warmups, but I figured it would wake up eventually. Poor choice.

The dumbest thing I did to help ensure my own demise was this: though I'm constantly stretching them out, my calves are pretty darn tight. As a result, I'll often put a three-quarter inch board beneath my heels when I squat, or, if such a board isn't available (you'll usually see them lurking around a squat rack for this very purpose), I'll grab two ten-pound Olympic plates and elevate my heels with those. The elevated-heels position is safe, and allows me to squat much lower and with better form than I could if I squatted flat-footed. Purists strenuously object, but it works for me, and many of my clients as well.

But that day I couldn't find the three-quarter inch board. Some karate student had swiped it for practice, or some YMCA termites went to town on it, who knows. It just wasn't there. And, stupidly, I decided that the two-by-four that was sitting there would work just as well.

The thicker board pitched my weight forward when I was squatting. And because it's not an angle I'm used to, it strained my body in a way it's not used to. Sure, variety is important, but when it comes to your form on a basic exercise like a squat, done with a weight that's close to your maximum, you don't want variety, you want stable, predictable, repeatable form. And I didn't have that. The two-by-four was my nemesis as surely as it was Nancy Kerrigan's. Nancy Kerrigan's.

Another possible factor is that I was at the time rehabilitating my forward head syndrome with a series of exercises involving stretching and tensing my neck muscles. This might very well have affected my posture all the way down my spine, and possibly left the sacrum more vulnerable to injury.

So those were the contributing factors: a warmup that wasn't gradual enough, a failure to heed warning signs, a subtle variation in form, and a spine that was in the process of being reconfigured. A veritable perfect storm adding up to one hurtin' gym rat.

Still, I have to give myself some credit for being smart after the injury happened. As I said, after I hurt myself I was very worried that I'd done something major, so I did the ice and heat, took the anti-inflammatory drugs, ate fish-oil pills till I started to molt gills, and was careful about how I moved. As a result, I'm pretty much back in the saddle.

And tomorrow is lower-body day, starting with some squats. Wish me luck.


Madley said...

You mean Macbeth DIES?


(And glad to know you're recovering well. :)

Chris said...

They ARE a gift!

(Coming from a 47 year old with a total of 7 degrees of black belt in three Korean martial arts. LOL)

You won't be young forever, Andrew, and it only changes even more with age. Slow down when necessary and start being smarter NOW. But don't puss out too much. LOL

Siliconwarrior said...

Good Luck on Rehab; go slow and steady...