Take a stroll with me down memory lane to the early 2000’s and picture in your head a much younger, but still dashingly handsome, Rob Arthur.
We’re going to talk a bit about the formative years in my life as an athlete, and explore the ways a couple of key injuries have shaped my philosophies on training.
I played football my freshman and sophomore years before getting excused from the team for running around the hallways in my jockstrap, I wrestled my freshman through junior years, and I ran (I use that term loosely) cross country my junior and senior years.
There a few minor injuries here and there during football and cross country, but wrestling was another animal.
While I had a variety of injuries on the mat the first couple of years – sprained ankles, hyperextended elbows, and all sorts of twisted joints – one injury in particular would end up playing a significant role in the decades to come.
In the fall of my junior year, 2002, during a preseason wrestling practice, I was drilling with a teammate when things went wrong.
Somebody moved the wrong way and I ended up feeling a sharp pop followed by a dull pain in my left shoulder.
I had things checked out by a doctor who told me at that time that it was a contusion (not sure in retrospect if that was an accurate diagnosis) and that some ice and rest should get the job done getting me back in action.
After a few weeks, things felt better and there didn’t appear to be any lasting problems, so I hopped back on the mat.
Throughout the entire season, things didn’t feel quite right with that left shoulder.
Every once in a while, under the right circumstances, I would feel that shoulder quickly slip out of and back into joint.
Technically, what I was feeling was the head of the humerus – the ball at the top of the arm bone closest to the torso – sliding out of and back into the glenoid fossa – the socket at the shoulder in which the humerus rests.
I’d come to learn years later that these are what are called “subluxations”.
The subluxations continued throughout the season until finally, a couple of weeks before the district wrestling tournament, I was training with my coach when he performed a move that necessitated me reaching out with my left arm to catch my weight as I fell forward onto the mat.
This time, unlike the previous subluxations, the ol’ humerus decided it would be fun to venture out of its home in the fossa and not return.
This was not a subluxation, but a full dislocation, and was anything but humorous.
I laid on the ground for a while, and managed to get to my dad’s car when he arrived, at which point the shoulder returned to its normal position.
I went to a physician and was informed that t I’d torn my labrum and that I’d need surgery to correct it.
Being a short-sighted bonehead, I chose not to get the surgery since I didn’t want to miss driving for that long, and also figured I wouldn’t be able to wrestle my senior year anyway.
Handsome though I was, wise I was not.
For the next three years my shoulder dislocated with increasing frequency.
I knew how to return it to its place, and it hurt less and less each time, so I didn’t really think it was such a big deal.
Finally, after a dislocation while dancing at a party during my freshman year at Virginia Tech, I decided that enough was enough.
I’m a pretty good dancer, by the way.
In April 2005 I had my labrum repaired in hopes that dislocations would become a thing of the past.
I didn’t take my recovery very seriously, only did a couple of weeks of physical therapy, and then got on with my life.
I continued to lift weights and do various physical activity that involved my arms going overhead, but things never felt quite “right”.
In August 2015, after over ten years with no dislocations or subluxations, I was foam rolling my legs out on the floor at a Snap Fitness in Lexington, KY, supporting my weight with my left arm, when my shoulder abruptly popped out of joint.
This time it hurt – bad – and I could not return it to its place on its own.
Worse than the physical pain, though, was the disappointment.
At this point in my life, I’d learned to love training, and I understood that this would be a major setback.
I was heartbroken.
I ended up having to call an ambulance, which I saw as a ridiculous waste of resources, because I was physically incapable of getting off the floor.
After three hours and a ton of X-rays to “make sure it was dislocated” (C.Y.A.), the hospital personnel returned the joint to its normal position and sent me on my way.
I allowed myself one day to feel sorry myself before taking action.
A couple of weeks later, I had my second shoulder surgery and made proper recovery my single goal.
The story following that second surgery differs quite a bit from the story following the first surgery.
With the exception of a few months during which I did not focus on recovery due to changing jobs and moving locations a few times, I’ve been seeing steady consistent improvement in my ability to move my shoulder.
So far I’m pain free, injury free, and am much more confident in my ability to use that shoulder overhead than I was even before the second dislocation.
God willing, this fortune will continue.
Much of my continued progress is the result of actually taking my recovery seriously this time, and that the people I’ve worked with along the way have been unbelievably knowledgeable about the human body.
However, much of this is due to how my perspective on training changed following that second surgery.
Below are some of the realizations I’ve had along the way that might serve you well if you, too, are recovering from or managing an injury.
As a matter of fact, these concepts should be of value even if you aren’t necessarily dealing with any particular injury.
1. Your training isn’t only a means for leaning out, building muscle, or setting PR’s.
Don’t get me wrong, training – and physical activity in general – plays an important role in improving body composition.
However, if you’re recovering from or dealing an injury, there’s a good chance that faulty movement patterns are at least partially to blame.
Since nothing will derail your training faster than another injury, your priority now probably needs to be cleaning up your movement patterns.
While the first shoulder injury was largely the rooted in acute trauma, the second was the result of never restoring normal function and movement to that joint.
Repeated dysfunctional movement eventually wore down the structures involved in keeping that shoulder stable, and it eventually gave out.
As such, strengthening that shoulder only occurs if I know that that I’m strengthening it to move in the right way.
Strength is worthless if built on a foundation of poor position and pathological movement patterns.
Oh, and let’s not forget that physical activity can be a hell of a lot of fun 🙂
2. Your perspective on intensity may need a bit of an adjustment.
Pre-injury, you might not have thought that a training session was “intense enough” unless you were wiped out, breathing heavily, making a sweat angel on the floor.
The injured muscle, joint, bone, or whatever probably doesn’t have the same capacity for intensity as it once did.
Your goal should be to train with the “minimum effective dose” of intensity – the minimum intensity necessary to restore function – at least for the area involved in the injury.
You’ll still “push” things, but you will likely need to re-evaluate what “pushing” things looks like – it’s probably much different from your pre-injury perceptions.
I am still able to “get a good workout”, but when it comes to my shoulder I now recognize that it isn’t quite able to support some of the activities that I once enjoyed – particularly those overhead.
For that shoulder, “intense” is no longer burpees, or high rep overhead presses; rather, it’s holding a downward dog or performing a half inverted bodyweight press.
Something else to consider is that the injury may indicate that the intensity at which you’d been working was a bit too high in the first place – at least in the context of your movement patterns.
3. Your training is not the only factor involved in recovery.
Our bodies are always seeking to adapt to their environments to ensure survival.
Training serves as a stressor – a signal to our bodies to adapt in order to better handle future similar stressors.
Your training isn’t the only environmental factor that plays a role in this stress/adaptation cycle.
How you eat, how you sleep, how you manage stress, and how you move outside the gym matter, too.
You may benefit from taking a step back and asking yourself, “Are these factors contributing to or detracting from my recovery”?
Prioritizing nutrient-dense foods and plenty of water, actively managing stress, and sleeping like a lion may go a long way towards turning your “stress/recovery” dial more towards “recovery”.
Now, I can’t tell you for certain that crappy eating and lifestyle habits played a role in my second dislocation.
I can tell you, though, that on days during which I am not so vigilant about managing the stressors in my life or I sleep poorly, my shoulder is not as strong or as stable as it is on those days that I am mentally and emotionally 100%.
4. Learn to appreciate the small wins.
Throughout this process, you are going to be reprogramming years of neural wiring laid down by faulty movement patterns, and may be learning to use muscles in ways that they’d not been used before – if at all.
If surgery was involved, then you’ll probably be recovering from the physical trauma of the surgery as well as completely relearning how to use the body part in question after weeks of immobility.
This will take a long-ass time, so learn to appreciate every single small step forward in your recovery.
If you’re focused only on some arbitrary end result – like hitting a hitting a PR or restoring performance back to where it was pre-injury, there’s a strong chance it’ll take a lot longer than you anticipate, if it happens at all.
Rather than focus on pounds, sets, reps, or minutes, you may want to teach yourself to appreciate inches and angles, restoring range of motion, and moving to new positions without pain or instability.
Otherwise, your recovery process will be a miserable one, and you may even move faster than you should and end up re-injured (been there, done that).
Don’t get me wrong, I’d be lying if I told you that I didn’t still care about the weight on the bar, or how many reps I can do.
However, I also appreciate looking forward to my training for reasons other than some end result.
I appreciate being able to put on my shirts without pain or worrying about a dislocation.
I appreciate being able to use either arm to get dishes out of the cabinet.
Might as well take your time, do things right, and enjoy the process each step of the way.
5. Find a good coach, trainer, or physical therapist.
You never know what you may or may not be doing wrong, and we can all use a little bit of accountability from time to time to make sure that we’re consistently doing what’s moving our recovery forward.
Find a coach, trainer, or physical therapist who not only emphasizes the points above, but also recognizes that movement-specific injuries are rarely the result of dysfunction immediately at the injury.
That is, they are most often the result of dysfunctional movement throughout the body and not just at the body part involved.
Does this coach look at how you breathe, how you stand, your posture, the position of your ribs, hips, and shoulders – even if the injury was at the knee, ankle, or elbow?
This is a good sign – you want help from somebody who understands the value in building a foundation of proper position and breathing before adding movement or load into the equation.
The sole reason that I am able to train on my own and continue to recover is that I’ve constantly sought out coaches, trainers, and physical therapists who understand movement form a system perspective, and prioritize the foundations of breathing, posture, and position before adding any load or intensity.
They’ve taught me what “right” and “wrong” movement patterns feel like, and have shown me the value in taking things slowly and doing things right the first time.
6. Take ownership of your recovery.
Ask questions. Read. Become an expert in your injury.
If it weren’t for my own drive to understand my body, I wouldn’t have been able to seek out and recognize the people, habits, and routines that have helped me keep my shoulders healthy and shape my philosophy on health and fitness in general.
I’m by NO means “an expert”, but I’m confident that one of the main differences between my recovery from my first shoulder surgery and my second has been my personal investment in the process.
Also, taking ownership will help you drop the victim mentality, and put you in a position of power.
You’ll understand that even though you may have gotten a bad draw, that’s in the past, you are where you are, and where you go is up to you.
As a matter of fact, this point – and the rest of the points above – would serve you well even if you aren’t recovering from or managing any specific injury.
I know this is cliché, but after two shoulder surgeries I cannot emphasize enough how much these shifts in mindset have helped my in me stay healthy and continue to progress without pain or discomfort.
Every time I am able to safely get into a position that I wasn’t able to before, I’m overwhelmed with gratitude, since I know just how miserable the alternative is.
I also can’t help but wonder what potential injuries these lessons have helped me avoid so far, and will help me avoid in the future.
After all, what’s the point in getting leaner, bigger, or stronger if we aren’t able to live the rest of our lives without pain or discomfort?