The comments received after the publication of last month’s article that focused on the advisability of training or competing were numerous and somewhat surprising. If we summarize the content and intended purpose of the piece, it would be:
If you’re injured to the extent that you have to wonder if you should be training or competing, you probably should not do either and take the appropriate steps to heal, rehabilitate, and progress in reasonable fashion back into the “mainstream of your usual training.”
Commentary included quite a bit of “to be successful in powerlifting you can’t baby yourself” to “I get hurt a lot and do miss quite a bit of training time.” That second comment indicates an absence of appropriate recovery, choice of exercises or resistance used, or any of the various factors that lead to overtraining. Powerlifting should make one stronger, fitter, and more efficient, not “hurt a lot.” Addressing the first type of comment, I agree, you cannot be successful as a powerlifter or in any other field of endeavor if you baby yourself, don’t push to your limits, work as hard as possible, and do what you must do and can do. The last statement is the important one; do what one can do with the additional caveat of “what one can do safely” and that will insure progress. I would request that the readers allow for two personal stories to illustrate an important point. Before college football players remained on campus twelve months of the year, attending summer courses to make for a lighter work load in the fall, to be supervised relative to behavior, and to partake in voluntary and less than voluntary summer, Christmas, and spring season vacations, almost every player arranged for a job at home in order to earn money. Many players were married and often had night time jobs during their college class attendance and active football playing days and others had no financial support from home and thus worked when they did not have class. The standard athletic grant included tuition, books, room and board (with the athlete’s advantage of a training table diet, at least during the competitive season and often throughout the entire year), and a stipend of $15.00 per month to be used as laundry money. Some of the more enterprising fellows and “Don Juan” types would successfully convince a female acquaintance to do their laundry chores so they could pocket the $15.00 and use it for pizza or beer money but working at a real job during time off was a must for almost everyone.
I was fortunate that I had iron working skills, quite limited according to my father but enough to always hold my own in the shop, and had worked during high school vacations and summers on the back of his truck or in the shop cutting and welding from the age of twelve. I would return home during Christmas or spring vacation and while other students might vacation with family or engage in drunken debauchery during spring break in Florida, I worked a usual twelve hour day of manual labor and lifted weights. During one Christmas vacation I fell from a second floor construction project, slipping on a beam due to my own carelessness, falling onto a concrete slab below, and by the grace of carrying a lot of muscle tissue, doing little damage other than breaking bones in one wrist. I was still in a cast although still lifting weights when spring ball rolled around and practiced with an ample pad wrapped around the cast. The injury was “almost healed” and all agreed that there was little risk of more damage. In this case, I could go, it was agreed I should go, thus I did.
In another stroke of stupidity where details would merely confirm my Polish ancestry, I tore the tendon that allowed the thumb to flex (flexor pollicis longus) in the other wrist. With three games remaining in the active season, it was determined that casting and rest for a week or two might allow enough healing to avoid surgery. When it was apparent that I would not heal to any meaningful degree and surgery was then scheduled for the Tuesday following the season’s final game, I asked if I could practice for and play for that game. While there was no question that I was significantly injured, I reasoned that if any further damage was incurred, I was to have surgery and a “down time” for recovery anyway, and that it would make little difference. Obviously, I wanted to practice and play and predictably, I did do further damage to the injured site, necessitating a more complex surgery. In this case, I wanted to go, should not have been allowed to, and should not have gone!
Similarly, one of my son’s training partners throughout their college football careers was local neighbor Stephen Boyd who developed into a Consensus All American linebacker at Boston College and an All Pro linebacker for the Detroit Lions. Stephen was a true warrior, often playing while injured in part because he took seriously his responsibility as defensive team captain, and leading tackler for the Lions in multiple years. Like most pro football players, he often played with injuries. The reader must keep in mind a succinct explanation of the differences among the various levels of football, given to me by a long time Cincinnati Bengals scout many decades ago: “The difference in football from one level to the other and a very real reason why exceptionally talented guys do not make it in the NFL is this. In high school when you’re injured, you’re not expected to play and much of the time it isn’t allowed. In college, your education is being paid for so you’re expected to play when injured. In the pros, well, it’s pro football, you’re expected to play as well when injured as when you’re 100 percent healthy and a lot of guys can’t do that physically or mentally.”
Stephen understood this well and fully accepted it but he missed a few games one season after tearing abdominal muscles off of his pelvis. In addition to the excruciating pain, his movement was extremely limited. He continued to do what strength training he could but after two weeks, requested that he be allowed to practice and play. With limitation to his movement and while ignoring his very real pain, he did play and played well. As the Lions battled for a playoff spot, Stephen silently suffered, would get taped as protectively as possible, and played as hard and well as he could. By the final game of the season, the Lions were eliminated from playoff contention and Stephen opted to sit out the final game. Although team doctors scheduled him for surgery, we decided to attempt a period of rehabilitation to avoid the process and we did this successfully, with no further incident related to this initial injury for the remainder of his career, one that won All Pro and Pro Bowl honors. When we began the rehabilitation work, I asked Stephen about the season’s final game and he replied, “If it had been a playoff game, I would have played, I would have gone all out. I was doing more damage every week but this is my job and I had to do it as well as possible. For what amounted to a meaningless game in our playoff hunt, it just wasn’t worth the additional injury.”
That is the decision one has to make. Is the decision to take time off from training “legitimate” in the sense that an injury needs the dedicated time off and protection or is one being overly cautious? Can other exercises or activity benefit the lifter while not aggravating the existing injury? Is it possible to be “too tough” and not allow an injury that is serious enough to need healing time that time to heal? I am old school and believe that one should as an athlete, professional or amateur, recreational or national level competitor, push to the limit with the limit being sensibly imposed by the necessity of protecting one’s physical plant. I have trained athletes on both ends of that spectrum with some ignoring injuries that required healing and rest time and those that refused to train citing the risk of making worse a rather insignificant physical condition. As a powerlifter one cannot train as “well” as possible if injured and cannot compete at their best, thus, be dedicated but be smart.