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  • Writer's pictureJulian Molteno

Training Longevity — how to stay injury free

When Dishy Rishi (our brand new Chancellor) unveiled his never-before-seen, eye-watering Coronavirus financial rescue package, he acknowledged that as it had been put together at break-neck speed — it was not perfect. He then used a phrase that I had never heard before, but one that really resonated with me. He said, “Good is not the enemy of perfect.”

In some ways I am a perfectionist. I like things to be neat and tidy, and I like everything to be in its place. My wife Suzy, says I am OCD, but I’m not. I offer in evidence a photo of my sock and underpants draw, everything jumbled-up and shoved in. An OCD-er would feel faint at the sight, but I’m happy so long as when the drawer is closed, it looks neat and tidy. Getting the right balance between “perfection“ and “good enough” is one of life’s skills and trade offs. In fact, this is precisely what my lovely and dear friend Roger D. used to call “The Mechanics of Living”.

In the same manner, one of the main ways we stay injury-free is through compromise, realising that if you don’t want to have sore elbows all the time, you have to avoid stretchy extension stuff and stick with the squeezy extending stuff. It may not be perfect — but it’s good enough.

No OCD here!! 😱

When I was a young man I was always amazed at how often top sportsmen retired while still young. I could not understand it — why not carry on competing? Now of course, I understand perfectly, because whilst jogging round the block is healthy — running an ultra-marathon is not. Going to the gym and doing a weights circuit is good for you — but competitive powerlifting is not! Pushing yourself to your sporting limits is great fun and super-rewarding, but sooner or later, it will begin to take its physical toll.

Being in my (early!) fifties, I enjoy watching older athletes who still compete, especially when they manage to beat their younger opponents. Although sportspeople these days play many more fixtures than they used to, the advances in nutrition, psychology and sports physiology, mean that with careful planning, they can lengthen their career‘s more than they would have thought possible in the past. I really enjoyed watching Jo Pavey win a European Championships gold in the 10,000 meters in 2014. She was 40 years old and had given birth 11 months previously! I am a great admirer of people who just get on with it instead of making excuses.

I really admire women like Jo, who just get out there and make it happen!

One of my favourite sports personalities is the golfer, Gary Player. I’m not at all interested in golf and I know very little about Gary’s career and statistics, etc., but what I do know is that he is always super enthusiastic, always energetic and always having fun!! (Reminds me of a certain Mr A Schwarzenegger!) Now well into his 80’s Gary is still a huge figure on the golf scene due to his life-long love of his sport, his interest in nutrition, and a dedication to the health and fitness lifestyle.

What a guy! Always energetic and enthusiastic! I love Gary Player!

While all competitive careers must come to an end, it interests me to see how sportspeople react to the end of their professional sporting lives. Essentially they fall into two groups; those who continue to train, (doing their original sport or taking up a new one) and those who stop doing sports altogether — and it is astounding how many former athletes end up in the second group! For the life of me I can’t understand why? Didn’t they take up rugby or football or athletics, etc., because they just loved the sport and everything that it entailed? Didn’t they love the feeling of being super-fit, of being strong and healthy and bursting with energy? Didn’t they love having a flat stomach and a muscular body? Didn’t they love being physically superior human beings? Clearly not! It’s just astounding!

For those of us who are committed to a lifetime of physical endeavour — the Million-Rep gym-goers — we have to find new ways of lifting, and develop new strategies for longevity, enabling us to extend our hard-training years.

As we grow older, and get a little creakier, as well as adapting the way we train, it is just as important to adapt the way we think about training too. Essentially, longevity in the gym comes down to injury prevention and (when needed) injury management. Protecting your joints and ligaments — while still having a challenging and enjoyable workout — is the ideal. Unsurprisingly, I have a few ideas on how this goal can be achieved.

An important decision needs to be made as to whether you keep training with the injury, or opt for complete rest. My view is if at all possible — keep training. Obviously, if you have had an operation or the injury is completely debilitating, you have to stop working out. In the case of a fairly minor injury, complete rest can often be detrimental, causing the joints, etc., to stiffen up and become even more immobile. Keeping some sort of mobility is important, and the balance between rest and exercise is yours to find.

Respect The Weight

We all like to train with heavy weights, as they are the key to building muscle-size and strength, and — its fun and exciting too! I wrote a post on iamprotein called Critical Reps, Critical Sets, in which I state that in the course of a workout, there are only a handful of sets that really lend themselves to building muscle. All the others are warm-up or intermediate sets. It’s just those few critical sets that count! And while that is true, without the less glamorous warm-up sets, the heavy sets would not be possible. I see young lads walk into the gym, load the Bench Press bar to their max, and start lifting. Well not for long my friend, sooner or later, something is going to snap. And while you can recover from injury — it will never feel quite the same again. Over the course of time those injuries start adding up, and before you know it, you end up being severely restricted in the movements you can do and the amount of weight you can lift. And that is very limiting and no fun at all. So . . . respect the weight, and warm up carefully and thoroughly.

If You Dont Listen, You Must Feel

In the course of all my years, first as a doorman and then as the manger, of The Church and Backpacker Pub, I have met plenty of colourful characters, some of whom have become friends. One of these is a South African guy called Vaughn Smith. Vaughn was a pretty big guy, very bulky and strong, but the startling thing about him was how much he weighed! After a lifetime of looking at bodybuilders in the gym, I am pretty good at guessing a guy’s weight. Vaughn looked to me to weigh about 120kgs, when in fact he was closer to 150 — a massive difference! His huge weight went some way to explaining his nickname of “Heavy V”! Anyhow, one of the prerequisites for being a doorman is the ability to stand around the front door of a pub or club for hours on end talking bullshit. In this respect, Vaughn was amply qualified and very well suited to the rigours of a doorman’s lot.

One night, the conversation turned to mothers. Vaughn, of course, had a few stories to tell, one of which was the proud fact that the first person to ever knock him out — was his Mum!! He also remembered a saying of hers, delivered with a steely glint in her eye, which went, “If you can’t listen, you must feel!”, these wise words of warning were administered just seconds before Mum dished out a ringing “klap” (slap) around Vaughn’s little boy’s ears.

Vaughn on his last day at Church. It was quite a struggle to get him in the ice-bin I can tell you!!

Mrs Smith’s advice was good then, and remains so even now — long-term bodybuilders should take heed of it. Our bodies are always giving us signals, always giving us little hints, and as Vaughn’s Mum explained all those years ago, we really should listen. Those little niggles and aches and pains are almost inevitably precursors to more serious injuries, and as the key to bodybuilding longevity is injury prevention, listening to what your body is telling you is very important. So, take notice of what your body is trying to tell you, and if you choose to ignore the warnings, be prepared for a big hard klap in the face!

Choose the Right Routine

While it is important to choose exercises that do not stress our joints and ligaments, etc., it is equally important, if not more so, to choose a routine that protects our joints and ligaments too.

In my opinion the best routine to achieve that objective, is that old faithful — Push-Pull. Push-Pull has stood the test of time, being the go-to routine for most bodybuilders for long stretches of their careers. It was the first choice of all the guy’s in the 70’s and 80’s, favoured for many years by all the greats, and championed by none other than Arnold himself.

It consists of using all the upper body’s “pushing” muscles on one day and the “pulling” one’s on another. This has the huge advantage of stressing your joints as few times in a week as possible. Once you have done your “push” day, (chest, shoulders and tris) you then have 3 days or so to rest those “pushing” joints. If, however, you did Chest on Day One and Triceps on Day Two (for instance) you would stress the pushing joints two days in a row, allowing them less rest and recuperation time.

Unfortunately, even if you are careful and warm-up thoroughly, listen to the messages your body is giving you, and choose the right exercises — you can still injure yourself. As I write these words I am reminded of an incident that happened years ago when my first-born daughter, Pandora, learned a distressing life-lesson.

The two of us were just hanging out together doing some sort of kiddie activity, and David Bowie happened to be playing in the background. The song was Life on Mars and one line in particular caught Pandora’s attention. “Take a look at the lawman beating up the wrong guy!”, was the lyric and it had poor Pandy mystified. Pandora was a cautious, thoughtful and very well-behaved girl, (she still is) never in trouble at school, always on time and neatly turned-out. She clearly felt that if you followed the rules and behaved yourself then all would be well. So the lawman (we spent quite some time clarifying exactly what a “lawman” was) beating up the wrong guy was shocking news indeed. I had to break it to her that sometimes in life unfair things happen even when you do everything right. She was aghast! The poor thing.

With Pandy, being silly on the tram at EuroDisney.

Work around it, not through it

When my two lovely daughters were younger, they enjoyed a book called We’re Going on a Bear Hunt, by Michael Rosen.

In the story, four children go on a bear hunt. “What a beautiful day!” they declare. “We’re not scared.” On their journey to find the bear, they are faced with a number of dilemmas. Thick, oozy mud, a big dark forest, and a deep cold river. Each time they encounter a problem, they realise there is no way around it. The only way to go forward is to go through it. While I wholeheartedly endorse Rosen’s message that life’s problems need to be tackled head-on and dealt with up-front, when it comes to dealing with training injuries, this advice is rather poor and unimaginative.

While Michael Rosen’s ‘bear hunting’ advice is spot on, his bodybuilding injury strategies are somewhat more sketchy.

To be honest, training injuries are part-and-parcel of the bodybuilding life. It is not always possible to avoid injury, especially when you are pushing yourself to your limit. Doing a super-heavy set of Deadlifts or Squats carries with it the risk of injury, and we have to rely on our training experience when weighing up the risk-versus-reward of doing that heavy set or not. It is not an easy balance to find because, for hard-trainers, those heavy on-the-limit sets are the ones that stimulate growth, and are also the ones that make working out so exciting and rewarding. Sometimes you can go for it, but at other times you have to have the maturity to know when to back off and leave the big set for another day. Funnily enough, even if we train very carefully in the gym, quite often we can injure ourselves outside of the gym environment, and of course those injuries still have to be managed in the gym too.

Physician — heal thyself!

Coping with an injury is difficult as we want to continue training, and continue progressing, while not aggravating the injury. More precisely, we want to continue to train while allowing the injury to heal.

This is a delicate balancing act requiring a constantly changing strategy. As with building muscle, or losing fat, etc., injuries do not heal in a linear sort of way. One day your injury may feel better, but the next it feels worse, and you have to adapt appropriately to these changes.

If you have a severe injury then your primary goal is muscle preservation during the healing period. Maintaining muscle-mass is relatively easy and does not require much in the way of heavy weights or maximum stress, etc., so lighter weights and higher reps — in very strict form — are the order of the day. About ten years ago I snapped the tendon in my right shoulder. I was cycling in the snow (!) and I came down (twice!) on some black ice. I had it operated on but obviously my range of movement, and my ability to contract that muscle, was severely restricted. In fact, I could not press at all, neither for chest nor shoulders. All I could do for chest was a very very small contraction on the Pec Deck, a movement of literally a few centimetres. So that’s what I did — thousands and thousands of them, for months and months — and to my amazement, and great pleasure, I maintained all of my chest mass. Especially the all-important upper-pec-shelf!

Aaaand . . . relax!

Having an injury that hampers your training and progress is frustrating, but you have to be patient and try to look at the bigger picture. Over the course of a lifetime’s training, a few months where you have to be more careful and thoughtful, and have to hold back a little, is not such a long time, and well worth it in the long run.

Reality — socks and undies separate but shoved in.

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