My whole business is focused on getting people back to strength after suffering an injury. Many times when dealing with a new client it would be great if that injury never happened in the first place. It sounds a bit counter intuitive, but if there were people out there actively trying to work towards NOT hurting themselves it would make my life a lot easier.
So when we look at the basic causes of an injury, it can be boiled down into a few main factors I see constantly. I would like to address these one by one with the hope that it will allow some of you who might be on your way there (or are quite injury prone) to prevent any recurrence of what you have already done, or also maybe not have an injury happen in the first place.
What does your tissue need in order to be at its peak performance when you shove a bunch of forces through it? It needs to be able to generate (and sometimes sustain) tension across a wide range of motion so that the tissue that is that last line of defense to prevent injury isn’t adversely affected.
What factors come into play therefore to increase the body’s ability to generate and sustain this tension?
Nervous system engagement
The way muscles fire is part of the autonomic nervous system. In simple terms, the brain controls muscular movement through firing something called an action potential across a nerve. This is done in conjunction with the endocrine (hormonal) system. Therefore, a large part of generating tension in muscles is what we refer to in my world as priming the system.
If you are training for a specific movement, then you should be doing a dynamic warmup to support the main movement that you are trying to practice. An example would be if you are planning on training explosive power, you would perform something like a jump in order to get the CNS ready for a fast, powerful movement.
What does this mean for the average person who simply doesn’t want to fall down? Well, a good CNS engagement movement might be as simple as standing on one leg. It forces the brain and muscular system to adapt to a change in centre of mass and therefore fire muscles in a milder way that will support a larger movement. There is also a reactionary component that will help the simple movement become more of a reflex than something that must be rehearsed. In my practice I call this intentional practice.
Any muscle in order to fire properly needs to be hydrated and requires blood to flow through it. One purpose of a general warm up is to move muscles and increase blood flow, which is also why we move them (dynamic warmup) instead of simply stretching (static warmup). There are two good supplements to this method. The first is creating blood flow through pressure or massage to an area. This can be done simply by massaging an area lightly or using an implement like a stick or foam roller to put pressure across an entire area for increased blood flow. As a side note, this often also adds a nervous system component to the body.
The second is using isometric contractions. This means taking muscles through to their end allowable range of motion and contracting them in order to facilitate tension at those end ranges. Typically, muscles are weakest when they are longest or shortest (with a few exceptions). I perform these with the help of my ISOPHIT but you can easily do this on your own.
An example of an isometric I use often would be lateral hip movement. Find a wall, stand sideways to it and lift your leg into the wall and press gently for about 10 seconds. You will feel a contraction in the hip. More often than not my clients report after doing this that they are more stable and able to control their movements during the workout.
Control over the range of motion
Ever watched a Cirque de Soleil show or a gymnastic performance? One thing that any very strong person has master levels of is control over their muscular system. In my practice, my rule is if you can’t control it, you’re not allowed to do it. This means that when you first introduce a movement it needs to be practiced at a low rate of speed and focus needs to be made on every portion of the movement.
Any movement can be broken down into component parts, and when dealing with injured tissue often that control aspect is stunted or never existed in the first place. How you can prevent future injury is to make sure you can perform movements slowly and execute every portion of them. As I mentioned above, high level gymnasts can perform complex movements incredibly slowly. Doing things quickly only means that the body often has to cheat in order to achieve a position and if it does this often enough, then it will adapt in that way to work around a weakness. It’s important for injury prevention to ensure this doesn’t happen.
Use this as your mantra: Control everything. Teach your body to move with precision and then when you need it to it will be able to fire properly to prevent the movement you are trying to avoid.
Practice, Practice, Practice
There is a basic principle for any athletic movement called specificity. It means that whatever you want to be able to do, your training should mimic what is required for that movement. Want to bench a lot? You need to bench press and work on the components of a bench press. Want to be able to jump higher? Run? Throw something hard? These are all things that you need to practice in order to prevent injury while doing the movement.
The one key to this, however, is that most of the practice needs to be sub threshold – or well below the force required for the one individual movement. You will rarely see high level weightlifters maxing out on lifts. You will rarely see golfers trying to rip the cover off the ball. You will see few marathoners running the full marathon distance before a race. Instead, they work within an allowable range in order to repeat the movement repeatedly without having to worry about the forces involved.
Especially right after an injury, take your loads down to levels far below that which you tell yourself you can tolerate and practice the movements for a while instead. Make sure they are perfect before trying to ramp up and you will see that you will be able to return to proper form faster and without risk.
In summary, these four keys are necessary to reduce and prevent injuries to pretty much anyone. The good thing is that they are simple to apply and take very little time added to any workout that you might do. These are things that become gospel to my clients who are looking to recover from a previous injury and prevent future ones. My goal is to always make sure that injury doesn’t happen again.
Feel free to let me know if you have any specific questions about any of these points and as always, I’m happy to help any of you with injury recovery. Good luck with your training and rehabilitation!