So, I have talked a bit about the multiple back injuries that I have dealt with over the past year and half, but I haven’t gone too much into the details. Here’s the post where I dive in… stick with me though, there is a happy ending! Through all of this pain, frustration, and impatience, I have actually learned so much, bettering myself as an athlete, and more importantly, as a CrossFit trainer.
**Also, please note that CrossFit DID NOT cause my injury, a lifetime of poor positions got me to where I am now, and CrossFit has actually saved me from a much worse scenario down the line.
The silver lining here is that I hope that I can help at least one person through my experience.
I won’t bore you by talking too much about myself and my injury, but I WILL put on my coach’s hat here, tell you how you might be able to avoid future pain, and how to keep moving forward even if life deals you some less than ideal circumstances.
So here is a quick explanation of what I am dealing with (the rest of the blog will be about injury prevention, and training through injury to help with recovery).
First, here is my spine…
It doesn’t take a doctor to see that something is not quite right here. Basically, I have a bit of a nasty curve in my thoracic spine.
I am fortunate enough to have the opportunity to go up to San Francisco CrossFit frequently to see Roop Sihota*, a PT guru, who has helped me so much to learn, improve, and strengthen all aspects of my movement and positioning. On occasion, I also get to work with Kelly Starrett, who needs no introduction.
*Note: I HIGHLY recommend you shoot Roop and email and try in get in for an appointment. He is so knowledgeable, and can truly shed light on how position and movement are the root of any aches, pains, or plateaus you might be seeing in the gym.
On my last visit, I brought along these X-rays, and Kelly looked at me, and in so many words, basically said, no sh*t you’re in pain all the time! Another bit of silver lining here is that I know I am not crazy (the pain is very real) and there is a solution. The rough part is, I know now how long of a journey I have to fix the problems… no easy fix here.
After this realization, I spent the next hour and a half with Roop, discussing my movement, all of the compensating my body has been doing over the course of years of bad position to make up for my jagged spine. The words that stick with me every single day are these…
“POSITION IS POWER”
I literally think about this every minute of every day now: on planes, standing at my desk, driving in the car, coaching a class, and MOST importantly, training. It is amazing how much we can actually control our positioning, when we take the time to learn what good position feels like, turn on the right musculature, and think about it every waking moment to retrain our mind-body connection.
This might require some big steps back, followed by some baby steps forward, but over the course of a lifetime, the forward movement will greatly surpass the plateaus created by poor, compensating positioning in workouts and in everyday life.
Here is a Mobility WOD on movement screening and the importance of understanding position:
So this is where my trainer’s advice comes into play:
- the more strict movements the better – until an athlete can do (with proper positioning, meaning no overextending or flexing of the spine, proper external rotation, etc.) a strict pull up, a strict handstand push up, a strict, muscle up, a loaded front/back/OH squat, I believe he or she should NOT be kipping, crashing to the ground in HSPU, or loading up for heavy olympic lifting.
- bodyweight movements are key – wall squats, ring push ups, ring rows, strict pull ups, hand stand hold, slow lowers, ring dip holds; these are my bread and butter right now, and until I can do these in the proper positions, for multiple reps, with confidence, building the strength to sustain the kipping, catching heavy loads, controlled lowering on the HSPU, those things take a back seat.
- patience is a virtue (a crappy one, yes, but necessary) – we see the guys like Jason Khalipa and Rich Froning doing high reps at high intensity for long periods of time without seeming to bat an eye, and we want to get to their level QUICKLY. I get emails all the time asking about what training can be done to get there. Here is the reality, though, it takes time, and A LOT of it. Our goal is to develop fitness and health over time, and by bypassing the time it takes to develop and work through proper positioning and building requisite strength, the potential for injury increases. I know this because this curve in my spine was a result of my own lack of understanding and lack of patience….
Though it’s not for certain, Kelly, Roop, and now I, believe this was a result of irresponsible handstand pushups, which compounded on a lifetime of poor positions. In trying to keep up with the bros, I would consistently do high rep HSPU without taking the time to find proper position and lower myself down between reps. The “crashing” onto my head and constant overextending of my spine with all of that kipping took quite a toll on my thoracic and cervical spine, and that picture up there is proof.
You see why I care so much about this now? I am not trying to be nagging, I just care about you…
So what’s the plan of attack?
STRICT EVERYTHING. My goal for the next 3, maybe even 6, months is to build strength, drive home proper positioning, visit Roop, see a deep tissue masseuse, and go to the chiropractor. Sure it means I’ll be taking time off of reaching high intensity, and yes, this makes me sad on occasion. BUT I know there is light at the end of the tunnel. I know that I won’t be in pain forever.
I can front squat, overhead squat, shoulder press, and do just about every strict bodyweight movement there is. I have also been blessed with the colleagues who are the best trainers in the world, and I have all kinds of programs at my fingertips to strengthen my back. Bent over rows anyone?
As one of my great friends and fellow NorCal coaches told me, “get really good at the things you CAN do.” And that is exactly what I plan on doing…. just wait for some back pictures. I am going to get strong, as strong as it takes to hold my spine in place!
Here are some great links to websites and articles that might be helpful when thinking about how to strengthen specific skills and areas, depending on your need:
- Strict Gymnastics videos, drills, and equipment – Power Monkey with Dave Durante
- gymnastics positioning and skill work – Gymnastics WOD with Carl Paoli
- Neck and Upper Back – Don’t Neglect Your Neck by Bill Starr
- Overall Strict Strength – Tabata Times
- Can’t forget Mobility – great one by Mobility WOD with Kelly Starrett
I have been pain free for 2 weeks now, following the advice of Kelly and Roop, working all strict movements, and I actually have NEVER felt stronger. When I found CrossFit I dove in and never looked back, but what I didn’t do is practice that virtue of patience.
My hope is that those of your reading this, who are just getting started, can learn from my mistakes. CrossFit is the biggest blessing that has ever come into my life. The intensity that can be reached and the power output that results make CrossFit the most effective fitness program anywhere, and I stand by that. But it is important to understand that fitness is a journey, and we must take that journey at our own pace. Take the time to come in early and work on strict gymnastics, talk to your coaches about positioning (that is what we are here for), demand perfection of your mechanics and stay consistent in those positions.
The rest will come…. you will surprise yourself!
Feel free to leave questions in the comments or to shoot me an email!
Keep training hard, working for perfection, and always striving to be the best version of yourself! Happy weekend everyone 🙂