Praised be….I’m born again!
Five weeks after poor lifting technique and resulting back trouble knocked me out of the gym, I returned to the squat rack with an inspired mission. To help others in a similar post rehab situation regain their lost form and physique – safely, sanely, and effectively.
For any dedicated trainer who has been forced to take a lifting holiday, gaining back all that hard earned muscle mass is priority number one. I was amazed at how my previously strong quads developed the consistency of marshmallow fluff in only a couple of weeks.
Yet the amount of muscle atrophy I saw (and felt), only served to make me work twice as hard – once I got clearance to return to the weights. The challenge was not only to train hard, but more importantly, intelligently. I was determined to use my injury as a learning opportunity to lift right and lift better. Everything, I told myself, happens for a reason. Simply put, my injury was a reason to smarten up.
Based on my experiences, I offer five suggestions for those who are eager to fast forward their lifting gains after a prolonged workout hiatus.
1) Measuring myself against others
My first departure from old habits was to stop measuring myself against what others were doing in the weight room. This was no easy task, given the competitive nature of the gym. I am very conscious, as I think we all are, of the pushing and pulling, heaving, and hoisting in the gym. But only after my injury, did I realize what a disservice my comparisons were doing. As a smaller, shorter guy with a quest to catch up to men bigger, wider, and thicker than me, I would routinely sacrifice good form for more iron. For that effort, I was rewarded with an all expenses paid vacation to Disabled List resort and spa.
But starting after rehab means starting over from scratch, with weights that feel more appropriate for Fisher Price Toys than for Hammer Strength machines. Working with such low poundage, it seemed ridiculous to continue comparing myself to Floyd the Flexer on my left or Gunther the Grunter on my right. If it took having to use Barbie weights to wean my focus away from other lifters’ performances, I’d have to say it was worth that dent to my ego.
I’m certainly not blind to what goes on five, ten, or fifteen feet away from me. Watching men press twice my max weights can sometimes leave me feeling as big as Stan, Kyle, Cartman, and Kenny – our buddies from South Park.
Nonetheless, I’ve learned to swallow my pride and press what I can handle with a steady, slow, and deliberate movement. My ego may be shattered, but better that then my clavicle, my hip, or my spine.
With this focus, I was able to adopt strategy number two…
2) Using the wristwatch secondhand.
While all of us are meticulous about planning out reps, sets, and poundage goals – how many of us pay attention to the time we rest between sets? If we, the recently rehabbed, don’t incorporate dedicated and timed rest intervals into our training, we are missing out on an excellent strategy to boost our gains. Why?
Watching the stop-clock is another great way to enhance the mind-muscle connection. When you pay attention to your time off between sets, you become more mentally engaged and invested in your workout. The rest period is no longer a momentary lull of distraction from your lifting. Your pre-set rest now becomes an active part of your training. The time you’ve determined to recover between sets becomes as much a goal as your reps, sets, and weight load. Instead of taking as much time as you feel like between sets, you know you are restricted to 60, 90, or 120 seconds, etc. That mind-muscle connection will make you work harder and accomplish more.
Compare this strategy to the one some or many of us employ. We finish a hard set, we drop the weights, and then proceed to a) check our cell phone for messages which we promise will not take more than 30 seconds, but winds up lasting more than five minutes, b) start a conversation with someone which we promise will not take more than 30 seconds, but winds up lasting more than five minutes, or c) steal a peak of that night’s major league baseball game on the cardio theatre television screens which we promise will not take more than 30 seconds, but winds up lasting more than five minutes. So, which strategy makes us work harder? It’s easy to see how any rest time distraction takes the focus off of what we should be doing, and on to something completely unrelated to our purpose in the gym. That breaks the mind-muscle connection, and any benefit to our goal that comes with the connection.
But paying attention to the second hand does not have to mean staring passively into a watch dial, waiting for the allotted time to expire. Consider using the interlude to review your set. How did you do? How was your tempo, your form, your breathing? Can you improve anything on your next set? Here is another way how the planned rest can intensify the mind-muscle connection and ultimately your performance.
**One exception to the above rule. The only time attention to the stop watch should be suspended, is when you are asked by another lifter to share your bench. Nobody likes the guy or woman who refuses to let someone else work in. So what if you may have to wait a couple more minutes before you start your next set. Big deal. Better to be a gym gentleman or gentlewoman, than a gym jerk. There are enough of those.
But if you want to minimize the possibility of having to constantly share your bench, strategy number three helps you do that, while simultaneously adding another opportunity to maximize your gains after a long absence.
3) Workout at off-peak hours.
If you have the flexibility in your daily routine, hitting the gym when fewer people are there can significantly help you get back to top form more quickly. Your workouts will take less time when less people are vying for your bench. That means they will be more intense, more focused, and more productive.
4) Speak up!
Gym culture is also and often a ruggedly independent culture. Like guys who think that asking for driving directions is a blemish to their manhood, so too are there men who feel that asking for a spot will brand them a lifting loser for life. Not only is that attitude dumb, it’s dangerous. If you’re returning to the gym after an injury or prolonged hiatus, having a spotter support you on your challenging lifts will ensure you stay safe while trying to get back to your PR levels. Even when you’re fully healthy, a spotter is always the best way to help you bang out that last rep.
5) Know your limits
Getting injured just plain sucks. And once you finally get back in the gym, you’re dealing with the frustration, embarrassment, and even depression because you’re starting from scratch. You’re accustomed to shooting for a “personal best,” and now you’re lifting your “personal worst.”
But pushing yourself beyond what your body can handle only sets you up for the real possibility of re-injury. You don’t want that. Take it easy on the gym floor. This point is so obvious it shouldn’t even have to be mentioned. But invariably there are always those guys who declare themselves fit and ready to tear up the weights again. Not so fast! Just because the afflicted body part feels fine during regular day to day activity, does not mean that it is fine while under a weighted load. I should know. I’ve made this mistake one too many times myself. And I have paid the price by having to rest my injury longer than if I had just left it alone in the first place.
Compared to the decades of weight lifting fun you’ve got ahead of you, waiting an extra week or two should be not be a big deal.
In conclusion, I feel that when it comes to making progress in the gym after an extended time away, lifters have a marked advantage over the general population. And it’s not just because they recover more quickly due to their higher state of physical conditioning. Lifters, by nature, are a disciplined species. The discipline that contributes to achieving superior levels of strength and size, can equally contribute to demonstrating prudence and caution when lifting after injury. To not apply that sense of discipline, intelligence, and patience that are the true markers of a dedicated strength trainer, is to subvert the very qualities that make us unique.
Written by Lorne Opler
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