I have a bone to pick with lifters and athletes who brag about being injured, as if that’s some weird badge of honor that means they’re working hard in the gym. Some people assume that joint pain is just par for the course of being strong, or that the older you get, the more broken you feel. I’ve heard so many people say that the reason their knee or back hurts is because they’re getting “old.” Chances are, the reason you’re hurt is because you have muscular imbalances and dysfunctional movement patterns, not because you train hard or because you’ve crossed some arbitrary age barrier where you’re more susceptible to injury.
Are you getting old, or just moving like garbage?
I can’t even begin to tell you how many 30 or 40-year-olds I’ve heard say that they threw their backs out from getting out of their car or performing some mundane household chore. Instead of trying to figure out why they’re doubled over in pain, they automatically assume it must be an age-related injury. First of all, you should still be mobile and healthy in your 30s and 40s, and second of all, there are plenty of people who are over 70 who live pain-free, active lives. Chances are, the real reason for your pain is poor posture, lack of mobility, or limited stability.
Musculoskeletal pain is typically the body trying to tell us that something isn’t working properly. The body compensates (sometimes for years), until it eventually can no longer keep up with the demands you’re placing on it. That is to say that injuries are seldom the result of one specific incident, but rather the culmination of bad habits over an extended period of time. Just because you felt something go wrong in that moment does not mean that was where the problems began.
Pain should not be an expected or assumed component of high-level performance
Over the last 10 years of my career, I have worked with hundreds of athletes and clients up to the elite level. There are some athletes who maintain that various aches and pains throughout the body is just a necessary evil for competing. From my experience, this is simply not the case. It is absolutely possible to train at high volumes and high intensities without feeling broken.
I have gone the last ~3 years of my athletic career without one single injury, training 5-6x per week and pushing the boundaries of my performance. Regardless of their sport or activity, I work with my clients to ensure they build resilience to minimize injury risk. It doesn’t matter if you are a powerlifter or a soccer player—you can be at the top of your game and stay healthy. It’s amazing to me how many individuals can perform incredible feats of athleticism and then proceed to hobble off of the field in pain. Once their endorphins wear off and they’re not in “game mode” anymore, everything starts to hurt.
Effectively minimizing risk of injury
Of course accidents do happen, and it’s impossible to completely eliminate injury risk. Contact injuries like concussions, ACL tears, etc. will occur, but you can certainly do much to minimize chronic injuries. As far as I’m concerned, proper preparation is a 3-step process:
Designing an intelligent program. Calculating risk vs. reward of exercises, appropriately managing training volume, and moderating workout frequency when needed
Ensuring adequate recovery. Proper sleep, nutrition, hydration, and knowing when you or your athletes need time off.
Addressing individual movement inefficiencies. Dialing in on proper technique, making time for relevant mobility work, and emphasizing muscular imbalances.
With these components in mind, you’ll be able to find the perfect balance of training hard and training smart. While it may seem like an impossibility to accomplish your fitness goals without achy joints, it can be done. Stop training for ego and start training for longevity. It’s not worth pushing through pain to potentially sabotage your training for months to come! Rather, if you train intelligently, you can maximize your gains without missing matches or competitions.