Thursday, January 28, 2016

That lifting thing we do (even when screwed up)

Regular readers (all two or three of ‘em) may have noticed I’m writing about training less frequently as of late. A bit more than a month ago I partially tore the distal tendon of my left biceps deadlifting, and there are almost no upper body movements I can do without pain (literally, just putting on my gloves to ride the bikes is a friggin’ ordeal, and I have to do it at least twice a day!). As this is the first major injury I have suffered while training with weights (the other serious events I’ve experienced were all either running or playing rugby, which I know for certain are much more dangerous and unpredictable activities, specially the second one), it has forced me to review my belief system around the risks and benefits of using barbells. Some preliminary conclusions:

·         Barbell training is still the most efficient use of your time if you want general health, a modicum of fitness and even a basic level of what, for want of a better word, I’ll call “look-good-nakedness” (which is made of fairly voluminous muscles, a self-assured posture and a manageable amount of body fat). Be it cardiovascular capacity, stability of the joints, prevention of bone matter loss or simple  ability to withstand blows or unexpected impacts (like a sudden crash of your bike against  one of those lumbering four-wheeled monstrosities that populate our roads… believe me, I´ve been there), systematically moving heavy weights is hands down the best way to improve in any of those.

·         Age may be more of a factor than what I believed regarding the optimal way to train. How I trained with 40 may not be the optimal way to train with 46 (even after allowing for the fact that I am much stronger at 46 that what I was at 40). I’m still not sure if I need to spend more time at lower intensities and higher volumes, or if I need to allow for slightly longer recovery periods, but it seems advisable to slightly raise the foot from the gas pedal and be more generous with the reps I leave in the tank in every session.

·         You literally can NEVER relax or allow for sloppy form. I tended to really focus on technique only in the heaviest sets (above 90% of 1RM), and maybe also in the warm-up ones, as I understood being cold as a more dangerous, more fragile status. Well, I tore the tendon in the 5th rep of the 5th set of a session in which I was working with about 70% of my 1RM. And after thinking hard and seriously about it, I think it was because I was so tired that I was slightly jerking the bar off the floor to get it moving, and bending the arms a bit at the elbows when doing it. Just enough to let mean ol’ mr. gravity straighten the arms, thus giving an extra little acceleration to the weight that proved to be just enough to snap a good deal of the muscle fibers attached to the tendon AND tear a good deal of the tendon off its insertion to the bone (I know, exactly the fifth thing I pontificated should never be done in this post: Deadlift things to consider). Do as I say, not as I’ve done. And for the record, as soon as I’m back using my hands for anything more challenging than picking my nose (more on that one later on) I intend to keep a laser-like focus on the right technique in every single friggin’ rep of every single friggin’ set, no matter how light, or how tired, or how inconsequential said rep and set seem to be at the moment. Disaster lurks in any overconfident, nonchalant moment.

·         I can not entirely discard the possibility that being in a caloric deficit may also contribute to being more fragile. I was by no means dieting, or anything like that (I think even ballparking the exact amount of calories you consume is a kind of mental disease, and I once made very firmly the decision to never in my life follow a diet or a food regime, a decision I intend to maintain), but as I was not pushing myself so hard in the gym (being mostly busy with writing articles in philosophical reviews so I was allowed to defend my dissertation once and for all) and in summer I had suffered a frequent swelling of  my reconstructed knee by shot putting while weighing well over 200 pounds, I was just not so obsessed with stuffing myself at every conceivable opportunity, and was not consistently drinking gallons of milk to supplement my regular meals and ensure I kept gaining muscle, so I had shaken off about 20 pounds in the last four to five months, just by not pushing myself to overeat. It may be a silly coincidence that I just happened to tear the tendon weighing  190 instead of 210, as I didn’t feel much weaker (and was training with a tad lower weights, not being able to go to the gym as frequently, and as consistently, as at other more leisurely moments in my life), but it’s difficult not to think that probably eating less somehow makes us more fragile, more prone to injury than safely carrying a bit of extra bulk around.

Be it as it may, the fact of the matter is that the 11th of December I tore the distal biceps tendon of my left arm for good, and I’m still going through the tests to decide if it requires a surgical intervention to reattach it (or a bigger portion of it) to the bone, or if I can count with it healing and strengthening through repose and a bit of PT (but that sounds just silly to me… imposing a measured stress on them is what forces the muscles and tendons to adapt by becoming stronger… how is a tendon then supposed to become more resistant if we do not signal to it that it has to overcome ever greater demands?).
In the meantime, I’m taking it easy, doing a bit more of running (for the first time in three or four years I ran for over an hour during a recent trip to Reading, which allowed me to cover a good portion of the city that I would have otherwise left unknown) and slowly seeing how much squatting I can safely perform. I intend to spend quite some time creating a bigger base from which to get back to intensity in a few months, so I’ll be doing many more repetitions with much less weight. Both back and front. Something like this:

Which seems safe and sensible enough. Of course, the safe and sensible life may not be so much worth living as enduring, so the next time I found myself in the gym (nominally to query some books to find the precise page numbers of some quotations I wanted to use in the defense of my dissertation) I could not avoid to do this:

Well, it felt good, it didn’t hurt (notice I used double overhand grip, I don’t think I’ll be supinating the left hand –or the right one, as a weaker left may overload it and I certainly don’t want to take any risks- any time soon) and it made me think if bad comes to worst and I have to undergo surgery I may still get back to being a semi decent deadlifter (that’s my best lift, after all!) by doing a Steve Goggins and learning to use the hook grip also to DL (I already use it to Oly lift, but even with that training it still hurts like hell when I go above 180 kg -400 pounds- for multiple reps). You know, if life gives you lemons, learn to make lemonade… 

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