“I’m sorry, honey. I fucked up.”
I was crying and still in shock.
My wife tried to console me. It was an accident, she said. A crazy, unpredictable accident. No one was at fault.
I knew she was right about the first part.
In my last moment with two intact knees, I was walking downstairs. The next thing I knew, I was on the floor with horizontal creases a couple of centimetres above my knees, where my quad tendons used to be.
My best guess is that my left tendon spontaneously ruptured. I went airborne – I’m sure I never touched the last three or four steps – and landed on my right knee, tearing that one.
Nobody could’ve predicted that both knees would blow apart within seconds of each other. But she was wrong about assigning blame. This was on me.
I claim expertise in few things. For example, I don’t pretend to have any special insights about marriage or child-rearing. I’m as surprised as anyone that things have worked out as well as they have with my wife and three children.
But when it comes to exercise, I’m legitimately knowledgeable, experienced and credentialled. I started working out in 1970, when I was 13. I joined my first commercial gym in 1980. Got my first job at a fitness magazine in 1992. Earned my first personal-training certification in 1995. Completed my first book in 2001. Coauthored the New Rules of Lifting series.
And yet there I was, flat on my back in the emergency room with two wrecked knees. I could look at my predicament two different ways:
I suffered a devastating injury despite my history and expertise.
I suffered a devastating injury because of my history and expertise.
Both are true. Thanks to 50 years of training, I had a mental library of exercise modifications I could plug into my program as needed. And thanks to nearly 30 years of writing about fitness, I had a network of experts to help me figure out problems I couldn’t solve on my own.
But it’s the second one I keep coming back to. I think about the toxic blend of stupidity, stubbornness and peer pressure that convinced me to keep doing exercises that left me limping for days after.
We didn’t have Instagram or TikTok when I started training. But we did have gurus, the influencers of that time. Those gurus, through articles on T Nation or videos on their personal sites, established the conventional wisdom. And if the conventional wisdom was “everybody should do X” and “nobody should do Y”, I did X and skipped Y, even when my own body told me the gurus were full of shit.
Even worse, I passed that bullshit advice on to readers in articles and books without adding the simplest and most important caveat: “If any of these exercises hurt, don’t do them!” So not only did I find ways to turn my knowledge and contacts against my own interests, but I may have
put other people at risk.
Let me add a caveat to that caveat. It’s something you’ll rarely hear from a trainer:
to be effective, exercise requires some amount of risk.
You’re elevating your heart rate and blood pressure, straining your muscles and tendons, testing your capacities even as you’re trying to expand them.
You trust your body to let you know when you’re pushing too hard. You labour to breathe. Your muscles shake and burn. Or maybe you just get bored with something because it’s too simple and repetitive.
But while your body is good at telling you when you’re tired, it’s surprisingly bad at
telling you when something is close to the breaking point.
It doesn’t warn you before a chunk of plaque breaks loose from an arterial wall and closes off circulation to your heart or brain. It doesn’t know how to stop you before the transient increase in blood pressure from a max-effort lift exploits a weakness in your aorta and causes it to rip.
And it has no signaling mechanism for a muscle or tendon that’s about to rupture.
Worse, it sometimes seems as if your body wants you to push yourself too far. That’s why the most successful and genetically gifted lifter in the gym is the most likely to get a torn pec while bench-pressing or tear his triceps while deadlifting. People who don’t see results are more likely to become frustrated and quit. But the ones who do see great results will keep pushing themselves to get even bigger and stronger – until they pop something.
It’s only in retrospect that you realise how many clues you dismissed.
Have you lost some of your range of motion? That tightness is your body trying to protect itself from further damage.
Do you have back or shoulder pain that wakes you up in the middle of the night? That’s your body telling you some part of your workout isn’t working, and you need to change it.
Are you swallowing ibuprofen after every workout and sometimes before? That’s your body begging you for less grinding and more recovery.
So how do we get the benefits of training without the damage? The swole without the swollen? The ripped without the torn? This is what I’ve learned the hard way.
Only you can save you from yourself
In The Sun Also Rises, one of Hemingway’s characters asks another how he went bankrupt. “Two ways,” he says. “Gradually and then suddenly.”
He could’ve been talking about my injury.
Gradually was playing basketball in my 30s and 40s, even though each pick-up game left me limping for days. Gradually
was doing squats and other exercises that always made my knees feel worse. Gradually gave me a torn meniscus and a brutally painful cyst in my left knee and severe arthritis in both of them.
Suddenly? I’ve had a lot of time to wonder if any specific thing made my tendons go to the bad place. Was it the quad stretch I now know was ill-advised? Was it the leg extensions I started
doing when squats and lunges were out of the question?
I’ll never know, which is why I focus so much on the gradually part, the damage
I could’ve minimised if I’d adhered to one simple standard: no matter how much you love an exercise, if it leaves you with joint pain a day or two later, that exercise does not love you back.
You probably don’t need to use a barbell
Don’t listen to people who speak in absolutes about exercises or equipment. Especially if they’re talking about barbell lifts.
The barbell is the most restrictive tool in the gym. It’s unforgiving to anyone who has uneven shoulders or asymmetrical hip sockets. To quote my friend Bryan Krahn, a lifelong lifter and physique coach: “Had I never trained with a barbell in my life, I’d never have suffered an injury”.
I’ve given myself the full trifecta: chronic shoulder pain from barbell bench presses. A knee injury from
barbell squats. A lower-back injury from barbell deadlifts.
If you’re a healthy lifter who’s making progress with barbell exercises, I understand why you don’t want to give them up. The three I just mentioned have helped generations of athletes and gym rats gain size and strength. Your max in those lifts is how you measure your prowess in the weight room.
But if you’re just starting out, or you’re closer to Medicare than your first legal drink, or you’re simply agnostic about the barbell, here’s what I recommend: you don’t need to deadlift with a barbell from the floor unless you want to be a powerlifter. The hex bar is a safer option for almost everyone, especially if you use the high handles to shorten the range of motion.
Goblet squats and kettlebell front squats are awesome exercises. They work the same muscles as the barbell version, and most people can do them with less discomfort and a deeper range of motion.
Unless you’ve maxed out the dumbbells in your gym, there’s no good reason to bench-press with a barbell. Nearly everyone who does ends up with aching shoulders. The only solution is to stop doing the thing that made them ache, which brings you back to dumbbells anyway.
The better you feel, the bigger the risk
I had a great workout just a few hours before that fateful walk downstairs. My knees felt better than they had in months – so good I added extra sets to my lower-body exercises.
Did those sets cause my injury?
Doesn’t really matter. If the tendons were that vulnerable, they could’ve blown out anywhere. I’m lucky it happened at home.
But it reminded me of something I’ve learned many times over: you’re most likely to hurt yourself on the days you feel the best. Train accordingly. It just might keep you out of the emergency room.