After speaking with a few powerlifters on my Barbell Junction podcast, I noticed one thing most of them have in common - injury. It's as if it's a rite of passage for a powerlifter more so than any other sport perhaps because their aim is to test the physical limits of the human body under load.
Naturally, one of the questions I asked Iqbal, my guest on Episode 18, is injury avoidable. I was alluding to whether proper technique, programming and coaching could help prevent it from happening. His answer was - and I'm paraphrasing here - yes and no.
A major injury, like torn muscle or ACL, that sets an athlete back for months, he said, is avoidable. However, wear and tear injuries, for example muscle pull or joint pains, are not. They're just part and parcel of being a powerlifter.
Interestingly, he doesn't consider his injury - hip flexor impingement - as a major injury although he spent months lifting with an empty bar and adapting his lifts around the injury. When I asked him how it happened, he basically said that it was because he was going at 100% on every session. And funnily enough, this is the main reason that most lifters I've spoken to say why they got injured in the first place.
I'm beginning to think that it's not a question of if anymore, but a question of when. Now, I'll be the first to say that I'm ignorant when I made that statement, just because I don't understand the concept of programming or periodization enough, but it's difficult to see it any other way especially when I watch how powerlifters train every single day in my gym.
It is not my intention to scare people off powerlifting, actually quite the opposite. Injuries happen in any sport. If you do decide to do it, you need to understand what it is and love it. Love the process. Love the training. Love the gains and all that comes with making the commitment of a powerlifter. This includes recovering from, God forbid, injury.
In the interview, Iqbal mentioned a couple of things that piqued my interest. The first was how he felt and second was how some powerlifters faded into obscurity after getting injured. So, I did a ten minute research on the affects of injury on an athlete and how it differs from a non-athlete.
Iqbal mentioned the words sad and depression. I think these are two words commonly associated with the feeling of loss - loss of a loved one, loss of property and in this case, loss of strength, time, and potential. Apparently, injury to an athlete results in lower self-esteem and higher levels of depression due to the recognized psychological benefits of exercising.
It is common knowledge that exercise releases endorphins aka runner's high and other neurotransmitters like dopamine, norepinephrine, and serotonin which are mood regulators. These affect your sense of well-being, appetite, sleep, and if memory serves me, increase your libido too. Take the training away from them and the magnitude of those negative emotions become higher than for a non-athlete, who probably have a lesser overall sense of well-being.
Lifting (or any physical activity of your choice) is a lifestyle. You wake up in the morning for a quick jog. You steal your lunch hour just to hit the gym. You plow through rush hour traffic jams just to be able to lift till the sun comes down. You do it every so often because you love the lifestyle.
In most cases, you'd probably use this time to socialize with like minded individuals who provide you with camaraderie and support, physical and emotional. Not being able to participate in such social gatherings as part of your daily routine exacerbates the sadness and if left unchecked and untreated can spiral down the well of depression.
That's why it is important to first acknowledge the injury and not brush it off as a bump on the road. It is not a sign of weakness to seek help. You must keep your ego in check as Iqbal realized once the pain did not go away. That dawn of realization probably helped him get over his injury and prolong his lifting career, in my opinion, because it prevented that little bump turning into a mountain to overcome later on.
For all intents and purposes, Iqbal did everything right. Not only did he acknowledge the severity of his injury (still not considered a major injury ), he went to see the doctor to understand what was wrong and took steps towards the road to recovery. The latter is what makes all the difference and it has to be accompanied by a certain mental fortitude that's common among top level athletes because the journey will be physically and mentally hard.
In fact, in one of the articles I read, the best way keep the sadness and depression away is to do something related to your chosen sport just to keep yourself engaged. For example, if you're a powerlifter, go to the gym, if it's possible. Be with your mates and support them when they're training even when you're not. Once you are able, start picking up some weights.
Another coping strategy is rehab. Find one that you're comfortable with and follow the prescribed protocols. I believe this will curb your enthusiasm and ensure that you do things right and patiently.
In Iqbal's case, as I've said, he had to train with an empty bar for awhile and change how he squats and deadlifts. He enlisted the help of a coach, physiotherapist and found a way around his injury. He kept himself engaged. Slowly, but surely, with the support of his friends and his own determination, he became stronger and the weights started coming back.
If you're injured, don't be sad. Unless it severely affects your quality of life, I believe any injury can be overcome. You just have to find your own way to deal with it. But before you reach that point, try to find a way not to get injured... please.
That's the best.