Staying healthy in the iron game isn't a random coincidence. It's a choice. Make yours intelligently. Follow these rules.
1 – Perfect the Warm-Up Process
The warm-up isn't an excuse to BS your way through arbitrary foam rolling and corrective movements. Instead, it's an opportunity to enhance your training performance with effective programming.
Put some time into designing a well-rounded warm-up routine that's specific not only to the training day ahead, but to your specific weak links as a lifter. If you chose to use a Self-Myofascial Release (SMR) technique, corrective exercise, or activation drill, you better damn well see some objective benefit from your practice. If you don't, move on to something that actually produces results and quit wasting your time.
Make it a goal to prioritize 6-10 specific drills until you've mastered each one. As you master a move, switch it out for another more challenging exercise. Quit majoring in the minors, and please, don't just do a ritualistic warm-up that's done more out of habit than purpose. Have a reason for using each drill. If you can stick to this simple guideline, your warm-up will be the best 6 minutes you can spend to bulletproof your body, long term. Here are some ideas.
2 – Realistically Plan Your Training. Don't Copy Others.
Lifters have a hard time pulling their faces out of the latest and greatest programs or exercises. It's time to take a hard look at your own physical capacity and not some utopian version of yourself that more closely resembles an Olympia competitor than reality.
Sure, aspiring to train just like your iron heroes can provide motivation, but when it comes to staying healthy, knowing what your body needs is priceless. Cookie-cutter programs are designed for cookie-cutter athletes. And cookie-cutter athletes are the ones with bum shoulders and blown-out backs. Whether you like it or not, your unique experiences, both good and bad, have given you unique needs.
Checking your ego at the door is tough, but it's necessary to stay healthy. Define your strengths and weaknesses as a lifter and work each training day to improve upon those red flags. Weak links eventually break. Before they break you down and leave you hurt, nip them in the ass and live to lift another day.
3 – Match Your Nutrition to Your Training Goals
This one is simple, but it's a major aspect of human performance that people just don't want to come to grips with. There is no out-training a shitty diet, no matter how hard you try.
Sure, endless amounts of cardio can reverse some caloric surpluses that your emotionally unhealthy binging can cause, but the overall stress to your body is going to skyrocket. The more stress you place on your body – physical, mental or emotional – the more likely you'll get hurt. It's that simple.
So instead of punishing yourself or "making up" for your lack dietary restraint with endless exercise, let's define the nutritional needs that fit your training and goals. Viewing food as fuel instead of something that hacks the pleasure centers of the brain can be a game changer. Feed your needs, not your natural tendencies to go off the deep end.
4 – Know That Progressive Overload Isn't the Only Way to Progress
The sooner you realize that adding iron to the bar for a max-effort single isn't the only way to make progress, the healthier you'll be. Smart lifters will tell you that there are hundreds of ways to continuously progress, and prioritizing life-long progression in multiple areas bodes well for long-term pain-free success.
Don't get me wrong, nothing feels better than a well-earned PR, but you can't add load to every movement on every training session. If you do, bad things will happen. First, your performance suffers and weights drop. This is usually followed by aimlessly pushing loads until you break down and get hurt. And don't act like you haven't done this before; we've all made this mistake.
Find solace in the fact that your strength numbers are only a portion of your holistic performance. Challenge yourself in a myriad of rep ranges, conditioning activities, cardiorespiratory endurance, mobility movements, or hell, even your recovery.
Being a well-rounded athlete doesn't mean having to force-feed WODs, but rather achieving and maintaining multiple indicators of physical success.
5 – Train the Spine as a Stable Functional Unit
Your spine was designed to be a strong and stable functional unit that can withstand some serious force. But as soon as things like 6-pack abs and chiseled-out V-tapers start to preoccupy our minds, that "strong and stable functional unit" thing gets thrown out the window. Endless crunches and side bends ensue.
Want to keep your shoulders, hips, and spine healthy? You better perfect the skill of creating massive amounts of internal tension through the stabilizing muscles of the spine. Work hard to keep each region of the spine in a neutral and non-compensated position throughout whatever exercise you're doing.
Just when you start to think that flexing, extending, side bending, or rotating your spine under load isn't inherently dangerous and you've been getting away with it for a while is exactly when injury rears its ugly head. And every time you flare up your back, you're more susceptible to it happening again, only worse.
View accessory spinal movement like loaded extensions or rotations as an advanced progression, and one that should only be used sparingly by advanced athletes. That means for 99% of the population, that doesn't fit the bill. Start owning a resilient and neutral spine position instead of doing all that endless rotation work.
6 – Never Lose the Fundamental Movement Patterns
There's no faking the ability to execute clean and crisp movement patterns that look as good as they feel. Moving well takes years of mastery, but once you achieve sound patterns that you've worked your ass off to execute properly, don't ever let them slip.
It's far easier to maintain a physical ability than it is to create or rebuild one. That's why programming at least one variation of the six foundational movements in every training schedule is important to long-term orthopedic success.
Every human being on earth, no matter their goal or skill set, should be able to squat, hip hinge, lunge, push, press, and move their body through space in a pain-free manner.
If and when these movements start to feel cranky or even start to cause pain, don't just shrug it off as the price of doing business, but rather identify the origin of the change before it leads to injury. Use your training to generate data each and every session. And let that data lead you to a long career of pain-free training.
7 – Stop Grinding Out Ugly Reps
Placing yourself in loaded positions where you're forced to compensate and grind out ugly reps to save face will never be part of any pain-free training program.
A simple rule: Never again miss a rep. When you're at the brink of missing a rep, one of two things happens. First, you keep tight and stay the course on your movement pattern and technique, only to miss the rep and have the bar come crashing down.
Or secondly, and more commonly, your body goes into "strategic sympathetic mode." It recruits every last compensation pattern to kick in a little extra force output until you can grind out that rep in the most ugly, horrendous way possible.
If you're forced to grind out reps with compensation, either you need to fix your technique or you need to be more strategic about your loading. There are times and places for training through the brink of failure, but for the most part, these types of techniques need to be strategically sprinkled into your programming.
8 – Use Intensity Intelligently
To get big and strong, you must overload your system. That's a given. But the way in which you train through the point of failure and physical exhaustion can either be the training variable that streamlines your goals, or leaves you injured.
Intensity needs to be respected. When implementing intensity, your ability to posturally stabilize your spine, hips, or shoulders should never be the limiting factor for a supra-maximal set of any exercise. This is the reason why many intensity techniques notoriously break you down: you simply choose the wrong set-ups and positions to work from.
Intensity, not in the percentage-based spectrum, but rather the effort-based realm, needs to target muscles and spare joints. Placing the spine in supported positions, or choosing more posturally friendly set-ups can shift the focus from stability to the dynamic muscular action.
You should never be worried that your back is going to break down during an extended set of shoulder work. Instead, you should focus on the actual muscular action of the exercise itself.
Take away the doubt in programming intensity. Place the body in a position where it's stable so you can work through the point of exhaustion without compromising the spine.
9 – Use Your Off Days to Spark Recovery
If you have goals that you haven't yet achieved, you better not be taking any true "off" days in your programming. If you realize that not every single workout needs to be balls to the wall, it can take you to phenomenal heights.
If the value of a hard training session is defined by the amount of sympathetic stress you place on your system, your recovery days should in turn be valued by the amount of parasympathetic response you can evoke. That's how you build yourself back up and climb out of that physical deficit left by your training.
If you want to spark recovery, prioritize low-level parasympathetic activities like SMR techniques, bi-phasic stretching, deep diaphragmatic breathing, mobility work, low-intensity steady-state cardio, or other passive recovery techniques. (More info Here.)
Set aside 20-30 minutes every day for recovery work. Overtraining is a myth, and for the vast majority, the term should be replaced with "under-recovering." If you're serious about staying healthy, don't under-recover.
10 – Live a Life of Physical Self-Sufficiency
You have one body to live in for the rest of your life, so you need to step up and be your own best advocate for long-term resilience against injury. It's not your physical therapist's job to keep you healthy and it's not your chiropractor's job to magically crack your spine "back into place" every time you decide to let your ego drive your squat sessions.
And no, it's not your friends' and family's job to hear you bitch and moan about your highly preventable training injuries that you alone are responsible for preventing. Injuries aren't a noble badge of honor.
Injuries can take away that what you love to do, which is training hard with meaning and passion. Injuries do happen, and sometimes we can't prevent these things even by living by these ten commandments, but you know what? If you abide by these rules, the random occurrences in which you hurt yourself become minor compared to what could happen.
Protect yourself with your brain, protect yourself with your body, and when you combine these two things together, you can start to sustain a life of pain-free training.