I am not a physiotherapist, nor do I engage in work that should be undertaken by a certified professional. But I have come across enough injuries in training to know how to deal with them when they arise and have worked in tandem with sports physiotherapists and other professionals to bring athletes back to the sport as quickly as possible, which is the best method for injury recovery. I started in ABS in 2017 able to bench more than I squat, benching 100kg and squatting 70kg and being unable to perform a deadlift without a considerable amount of pain. This was the beginning of my own journey back to pain-free movement, and pain-free lifting using the A.B.S system. If you want to know more, reach out to me, but today I am going to focus on injuries in powerlifting and risk-management in the sport that sees so many sidelined and out of action for extended periods of time.
As you reach a certain threshold in sport the risk of injury increases as the proximity to maximal exertion becomes closer and closer requiring a much more considered and individualised approach. Nowhere is this more true than in powerlifting, where we can spend 5 long seconds grinding out a squat, reestablishing the bar path after mis-grooving, exposing ourselves to forces far higher than in training and in a manner that is entirely different to what we are used to.
Each individual has different risk levels, some naturally injury resistant, with the ability to expose themselves to consecutive intense training cycles, doing back to back competitions without the fear of running into issues. Some may lift in a way that is clearly disadvantageous from the perspective of injury prevention – with a rounded back in the deadlift, hip shift in the squat or rounded shoulders in the bench press.
What injures one person may not injure you.
This concept of individual variation in resilience or tolerance to certain movements is key in deciding whether or not a movement pattern is inherently injurious to the individual. Rounding your back in the deadlift has always been touted as guaranteeing injury. But it may not be an issue if the position you begin the lift in doesn’t alter throughout the pull, as it is not the rounding that causes injury but the shifting of the position as you go through the lift.
This is something we see in Olympic weightlifting quite often, with lifters demonstrating patterns that are clearly sub-optimal, but succeeding regardless. Even more baffling, and something bad powerlifters replicate, only making their first lifts and scraping a victory or podium finish. This is just poor practice and inevitably leads to a performance decrease and eventual injury. There’s a reason A.B.S lifters have some of the best made:miss lift ratios in Ireland, and it’s not because we are saving ourselves.
“Any involuntary movement during a lift is considered a force leak. Put simply the force you are looking to put through the body is not able to be carried, and results in an alteration of the structure to facilitate that force travelling.” – The CoolGuy Training Method
This can be as a result of bad positioning at the setup, with back rounding often occurring in people who look like they have a straight spine in the deadlift but who are either not bracing hard enough or still have a very slight bit of flexion in the mid back when they begin to pull. I have seen this fault in lifters who deadlift 300kg and those who deadlift 100kg. These are two entirely different populations and in some cases no change or “fix” should actually be implemented for either. Fixing an athletes poor movement pattern can be anything from an immediate cue fix, to a monumental task taking months and should be done only when it is needed and with the help of a coach who has the expertise necessary to facilitate the development of that lifting quality.This expertise is where personal trainers should draw the line, as they are going beyond their scope of practice into domains they know nothing about. That is in itself is its own article – personal trainers who specialize in about ten different things, of which powerlifting is one. Over-coaching can cause neurotic obsessions among lifters, where neither the athlete nor the coach understand the spectrum of good and bad lifting. There are some technical errors that are not going to injure someone, and for the time being, do not need to be addressed.
It is not normal to be carrying an injury, nor is it normal to be experiencing pain. This is generally a sign that something needs to change in programming for you to return to full training. It takes time to figure out what works for you and what doesn’t, the number of exposures needed to produce an adaptation or the amount of volume required to support that endeavour. Running a system allows you to go through each wave, each phase and each cycle of training gathering data on what works, what movements help and what key indicators show you need to pull back.
Fatigue is generated in a non-linear fashion and can come out of nowhere from your work, study, personal life or training itself. Nor is your preparedness from session to session linear. In an environment that shifts and changes from session to session and week to week it is important to understand the goal of a session and make choices to facilitate achieving that, knowing when to push and knowing when to hold back. This allows you to over time generate a bank of good reps that are functional in improving the qualities of lifting that will see you lift greater loads and more efficiently over time.
“It was about enduring the long season… As a football player your whole entire self worth is based on your ability to perform on the field – that’s all, and so I was always trying to overcome some painful obstacle. When you see these guys get injured, they are already hurting, the injury is the final straw.” (Source: Painkillers in the NFL: Nate Jackson on “hurt” vs “injured”)
This quote from Nate Jackson brings us to the most important part of injuries. It is often the case that the lifter is not feeling it on the day they got injured or have been carrying an issue for some time, they knew something felt off. Why do we push when we know it isn’t there? We have this stuck mentality that the competition day can’t be moved so we need to learn to lift in sub-optimal conditions – which to an extent is true, but fails to address the entire picture. You need to be able to lift in sub-optimal conditions when it is called for, as a competition always has at least two things messing you up at any given time. But the quality of your training should be as high as possible, with calls made to maximise the benefit from the movements you are doing, taking things as they appear rather than looking at what you “need” to hit. If you are squatting to a max on a day, a proper max, and things don’t feel right, don’t do it. Go home, maybe come back in the evening, or the morning the next day. In some cases it may be beneficial to entirely skip sessions rather than pushing yourself to do a top set – if you gather too much fatigue you have to eventually dissipate that fatigue, otherwise you may end up kicking the can down the road and inhibiting subsequent training sessions. Sacrificing one session for the improvement of subsequent sessions, as opposed to having 3-4 bad sessions in a row creating negative momentum. You should never miss lifts in training, and if you know it’s just not there, don’t do it.
We are not going to address when you have unrealistic expectations – as this doesn’t happen with A.B.S lifters, the environment doesn’t allow that. At any given moment you have at least one coach and several high level athletes watching what you are doing, who know what phase of training you are in because they’ve been there or are there now, and know how you lift.
You can’t get a better panel of judges.
What are you lifting for?
Powerlifting is an amateur, niche sport. You are more than likely not getting paid, the cost of equipment alone can be prohibitive for many and the level of fame you generate is extremely low. At the end of the day what you get when you push the envelope as hard as possible is a transient feeling of being on top of the world. This passes, quickly.
It is important to put into perspective what it is that powerlifting can do for you, with the understanding of what is realistic to achieve. I have seen many people who are guests in the gym train to a max, grind out a rep, add weight and miss. One specific example stands out. 305kg was placed on the bar, which is below this person’s max by about ~5%, they hit the rep and achieved the goal of that training session, to hit a relatively hard top single. They add another 5kg, which is less than a 2% increase, and fail. During training generating too much fatigue or exposing yourself above 90% too many times too often (for your own capacity) will eventually lead to a decrease in training performance at best and often sees the development of a recurring injury or weakness. When you train in a system you become far more accurate in gauging your RPE/RIR and far more aware of the risks you are taking. If the goal is to hit a top single @9 and your last single was whatever the hell an @8.5 is, then you consider your sets done. You got close enough – don’t let ego dictate your training.
The more times you injure an area the more likely you are to injure it in the future. This will limit the amount of volume you can expose this tissue to before it begins to degrade and will bring down your lifetime peak potential as you will be unable to carry the amount of work needed to generate positive adaptations at that upper end.
Know the risks involved with making certain calls in your training, have a support structure around you of individuals invested in you as well as your training and be in an environment that is conducive to success. Not just in the short term, but for your entire training career, limiting injuries and maximising your training. Nobody walks into A.B.S and leaves without learning something integral to their success in the future or developing bonds and friendships beyond just the barbell.
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A.B.S Powerlifting Coach