pain

The Biggest Mistake I Made as an Athlete and How You Can Avoid It

To say I’ve made mistakes as both an athlete and a coach would be an understatement. Hell…I’d even feel comfortable handing someone my track record and telling them it’s a pretty good blue print on “how not to do things.”

While the list is long, and continues to growly weekly, today I’d like to just focus on the biggest mistake myself and my coaches made in my athletic development journey throughout middle school, high school and college.

Notice I say my coaches and myself because this is a two way street. Growing up you do as you’re told, but at the same time I was pretty stubborn and often did my own thing, so yeah, I’m also to blame.

Before we get to the number one biggest mistake being made in training facilities around the world, however, I’d like to give you a little backstory.

The Backstory

I first found the weight room when I was in 6th grade, and have been in love ever since.

In fact, I can still remember reading an SI for Kids magazine when I was like 9 that talked about The Rock and how us kids had to wait for this beautiful thing called testosterone to kick in before we could be as jacked as him.

Granted, they didn’t use that exact language, but it’s a good synopsis.

Anyways, I found the weight room in 6th grade and have been training ever since. My ultimate goal was to play baseball professionally, and I knew the weight room would play a large part in that journey.

As opposed to boring you with the details, let’s skip to the good stuff.

My time in the weight room “paid off.” I trained my as off and became a very good athlete because of it (well….that and genetics). For example, by my sophomore year in college I had a 33” vertical, ran a 6.6 sixty, deadlifted just shy of 500 lbs, squatted 405, cleaned 305, benched 335, could do a lot of pull ups and all that other jazz. Needless to say I was happy with these numbers. Especially since I had to balance them with a roughly 100 game competitive season.

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In essence, I was a very good athlete on paper and had numbers to back it up….that is until I realized I was a big Trojan Horse.

The Trojan Horse

*I really hope you know the legend of the Trojan Horse, or else my analogy is going to make no sense.

Myself, and athletes all over the world, made the mistake of building ourselves into real life Trojan Horses.

On the outside we looked beautiful, and people would be in awe of what we could do, but on the inside we held a dirty secret.

And that dirty secret is the Inverted Performance Pyramid.

In other words, we were ticking time bombs (just killing the analogies today). We had a lot of performance stacked on top of dysfunction, and it was only a matter of time until the whole thing came crumbling down…and did it.

I attained my first real, non-fluke injury my Sophomore year of college, and from there it didn’t get any better. I had stress fractures in my back, pulled quads, and all sorts of things that just kept popping up.

Granted, injury is a part of athletics. If you truly push the envelope you are at risk of getting injured. But there’s a difference between being chronically injured and coming down with the occasional fluke injury.

I fell in the chronically injured category, and thus spent the majority of my collegiate career injured (remember when I said I was good on paper?).

Want to know the best part? It followed me after college. I can honestly say that the past 3 months is the first time I’ve truly trained unhindered since my early days in college (all because I followed a program similar to what you’ll find at the end of this article).

The first time I’ve been able to really be aggressive, throw weight around, and not be in pain or dealing with a nagging back issue.

If you’ve never been injured, then hats off. I truly envy you. But there are many people out there, maybe even you, who fall in the same boat I did. You work your ass off, you do everything you’re told, and for some reason it just can’t all come together. For every step forward you end up taking at least one step back, and you fall into a viscous cycle of

Train-->Make Progress-->Hit Setback-->Train-->Make Progress-->Hit Setback

Almost like you’re trying to walk up a mountain and continuously slide back down.

Where I Had It Wrong

Where had I gone wrong? Where I had fallen off the tracks along the way?

Because in my mind, and my coaches, I had been doing everything right.

It’s not like I was spending time on machines. I was doing squats, deadlifts, cleans, lunges, dumbbell work, kettlebell work and all this other “functional” stuff that was supposed to make me a “bulletproof athlete.”

While the list of “things I did wrong” is rather long, I’d like to bring your focus back to the inverted pyramid because that’s where it all starts.

If you were to build a pyramid, how would you do it? You would of course start with the foundation and make it as big as possible because that gives you the most room for upward growth. Granted, I’m not an expert in pyramid building, but I’ve never seen one that has a smaller base than a peak.

Well when we’re developing athletes, or ourselves for that matter, you have to approach the matter in the same way. You have to lay yourself the most monster foundation possible to both prevent injury and allow for peak performance to occur.

This is what myself and my coaches failed to do. We chose to go after the top of the pyramid from the get go, which is where you’ll find all the sexier elements of performance: things like max strength, power, strength speed, speed strength and sport specific skill/fitness.

Where we should have started, and hopefully you agree, is with the base of the pyramid. At the base of the pyramid is where you’ll find the foundational elements of performance: movement quality, energy system capacity, autonomic balance, and strength, just to name a few.

Without these elements in place, you’re asking for trouble. It may not happen today, but at some point it will catch up to you.

What To Do?

While I’d love to sit here (in Starbucks I might add) and continue espousing on how to build a monster foundation for performance, I’d be wasting my time because Coach Lance Goyke just came out with such a product.

And it’s FANTASTIC.

I had the pleasure of giving it a read last weekend, and needless to say it’s spot on. In it he goes over the 6 pillars of performance and how you must adequately handle each of them to give yourself the opportunity to reach your full potential.

Oh, and it includes a full 16 week training program so you don’t even have to worry about the implementation side of things. You just show up to the gym, pull out your phone, see what day you’re on, and go to work.

But what if this isn’t for me?

I’ll go ahead and stop you right there. This program is for everyone. And that’s hard to say seeing as I’m obsessed with assessing people and writing individualized programs. But somehow Lance managed to craft this thing so that it can help anyone.

If you’re in pain, it can help with that. If you’re new to training, it’s the perfect program to start with. If you’re already a high level athlete, this is the perfect program to hit during a de-load. And obviously this is the perfect program for anyone looking to build themselves a foundation that allows them to train with no limits.

Anyways, be sure to go check that out (p.s. he’s been awesome enough to offer a large chunk of it to you for free):

about the author

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James Cerbie is just a life long athlete and meathead coming to terms with the fact that he’s also an enormous nerd.  Be sure to follow him on Twitter and Instagram for the latest happenings.

Pain and the Brain: How to Take Control and Continue Progressing

Let me ask you a question: have you ever been in pain? Not fun right?

If you’re lucky, it only lasted a few minutes, or several hours, but there are those of you out there who’ve suffered for days, weeks, and maybe even years.

Maybe it was from a strained muscle during your last sprinting session, or a rolled ankle in a pick-up basketball game. Or maybe you injured your back years ago deadlifting, and it hasn’t been the same since.

Regardless of the cause, pain can be both frustrating and confusing. It can leave you feeling hopeless, consume much of who you are, and prevent you from doing the things you love or once loved.

If you Google “pain relief” you’ll quickly get 181,000,000 results that vary from medication and topical cream, to electronic devices and various stretches. Deciding the best course of action to take can be overwhelming and expensive.

When it comes to pain, like anything else, knowledge is power. And being able to understand what ignites your pain is often the first step towards getting back under the bar, on the field, or doing whatever it is you’re passionate about.

Pain Protects You

For starters, it’s important to understand that pain exists for a reason: IT PROTECTS YOU.

It’s there to alert you of danger, and signal for you to stop doing x before you become seriously injured. Not only that, it can make you move, think, and behave differently because it has your best interest at heart: survival.

Thus, whether you like it or not, pain is often vital for healing.

When thinking of pain and your body, think of Kevin McCallister protecting his house.

Photo Credit:  Twentieth Century Fox, Home Alone
Photo Credit: Twentieth Century Fox, Home Alone

Instead of staple guns, paint cans, and a rope soaked in kerosene, you have a motor system, nervous system, endocrine, immune, and limbic system all trying to protect and alert your brain of potential damage.

And instead of the wet bandits, you deal with many sensory inputs that serve as threats to you and your body.

In other words, you have a system. And that system alerts your brain of actual or potential tissue damage when it’s under threat.

It’s also important to understand the amount of pain you experience doesn’t necessarily relate to the amount of tissue damage. Your brain is constantly receiving sensory cues and inputs, and has the final say on whether something hurts 100% of the time.

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To get a better appreciation for how significant a role your brain plays in pain, it’s powerful to understand context and emotional stress:

- A cut on the index finger of a baseball pitcher may be much more painful than a cut on the index finger of a sweeper on the soccer team.

- The loss of a loved one, a bad break-up, or taking on more responsibility at work can increase both muscle tension and pain.

- You have the power to take control and inhibit your alarm system.

Understanding Your Danger Alarm System

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Now that you recognize your brain is the boss and has the final say in pain, it’s also valuable to know that pain is NOT all in your head. There are specific physiological processes occurring that lead to pain.

Mechanical, chemical, and temperature sensors all tell your brain about changes in your body’s tissues, and your thoughts and beliefs are constantly influencing how you perceive these inputs.

After your brain takes into account all of the available information, it quickly decides if any of these sensors are sending danger signals. If so, pain is produced.

Photo Credit:  Butler, Mosey.  2013.  Explain Pain.
Photo Credit: Butler, Mosey. 2013. Explain Pain.

The first important piece to appreciate about your danger alarm system is that sensors have an incredibly short lifespan of only a few days. Therefore, your current level of sensitivity is not fixed.

If you can reduce the demands for the production of that particular sensor(s), you’ll reduce the rate of sensor manufacturing, and in return, reduce sensitivity.

This may mean:

- Inhibition of particular muscle chains

- Decreasing sympathetic nervous system activity

- Decreasing daily mental and emotional stress

- Improving exercise technique

- Eating an anti-inflammatory diet

So, how does sensor and sensor activity relate to pain?

We don’t actually have pain receptors, but we do have nociceptors.

Nociceptors respond to everything. If something is potentially dangerous to your tissues, they’ll send a signal to your spinal cord and then your brain.

We have nociception happening all of the time, but only sometimes does it result in pain.

Wait, what?

Remember: when your brain receives an input it’s weighed with all other inputs and then makes a decision as to whether something hurts or not.

The second important thing to know when talking about your danger alarm system is that your brain is constantly changing and creating neurotags.

A neurotag is something that’s specific to you, and is very dependent on your past experiences. For example, if you were in a motor vehicle accident, the simple act of getting into a car may be threatening and cause an increase in muscle tension.

Here’s another example: the longer you’ve had a particular pain, the better your system gets at producing it.

  1. Furthermore, the stronger and larger that pain neurotag becomes, the easier it is for that particular pain to be ignited.

Think of your brain like a football team:

The longer you’ve dealt with your pain, the better your team gets at running your pain play. And you continue practicing that same play over, and over and over again, while neglecting other options in the playbook. Before you know it, your offense loses variability and can only run one play.

No team wins running only one play. You must teach your offense to be curious, creative, and run a variety of plays; this is when your danger alarm system can be shut off.

Learning to drop off these neurotags and replace them with better references can be extremely valuable.

Tissue Damage

Because your danger alarm system is in place to protect the tissues of your body, it’s important to discuss what’s happening locally, at specific tissues, that causes your brain to tell you to hurt.

In the case of an acute injury, your aim must be to return the injured tissue to a functional state as QUICKLY AS POSSIBLE.

Sometimes rest is best, sometimes movement is needed, other times you may need to intervene via diet, drugs, or surgery.

Pain is sensed via tissues because of inflammation, slow healing, or the tissues become unfit and unused. Movement and massage become important tools for moving tissues and sending safe impulses to your brain to help it construct positive outputs.

All tissues have a healing time, and once the healing time has passed, your tissues don’t get another chance. Managing tissues initially involved in an injury will help manage your pain down the road.

Altered Central Nervous System Alarms

Photo Credit: Butler, Mosey. 2013. Explain Pain.

Photo Credit: Butler, Mosey. 2013. Explain Pain.

Tissues that don’t heal properly can alter the processes of your highly adaptable central nervous system.

Remember: your brain is the command center of your entire alarm system and makes the final decision as to whether or not you are in pain. When dealing with continual impulses from weak, scarred, inflamed, or acidic tissues, your neurons and spinal cord adapt to meet the consistent demand.

At the dorsal root ganglion (DRG), a bulge before your peripheral nerve enters your spinal cord; messages from your tissues undergo some evaluation. Your DRG is sensitive and changeable and may send inaccurate signals to your brain, like telling it there is more tissue damage than there actually is.

Your DRG is also vulnerable to hormonal and chemical changes in your blood when you are stressed, which can cause signals that shouldn’t be perceived as dangerous as threatening.

The better your spinal cord gets at sending this danger message to your brain, the more sensitive your alarm system becomes.

Photo Credit: Butler, Mosey. 2013. Explain Pain.

Photo Credit: Butler, Mosey. 2013. Explain Pain.

When your alarm system becomes more sensitive, Kevin McCallister has to go from setting up a few Christmas ornaments on the floor to installing a super alarm system with infrared and motion detectors. Now any little input will trip the system.

Signs and symptoms of a sensitized central alarm system (an offense stuck running one play) include:

- Persisting pain

- Pain that is spreading

- Pain that is worsening past acute phase

- Lots of movements (even small ones) hurt

- Pain is unpredictable

- Other threats in life: previous, current, and anticipated

When your nervous system is continually in fight or flight mode, your brain is priming your muscles accordingly. Big boys like your erector spinae, lats, quads, and pecs are always on.

These long-term motor changes make you behave differently, hold yourself differently, and even talk differently. It can be challenging to reverse these learned patterns.

Taking Control

Step 1: Understand and Educate

If you’ve made it all the way here, you’ve already begun taking control. Developing an understanding and educating yourself about the physiology of pain can reduce the amount of threat you feel.

REDUCED THREAT HAS A POSITIVE EFFECT ON ALL THE INPUT AND RESPONSE SYSTEMS.

Many of us don’t like not knowing, and knowledge can be powerful in helping reduce the hurt you feel.

Step 2: Identify Ignition Cues

Much of the article educated you on sensory inputs that inform your brain of threat. Discovering what these inputs, or pain ignition cues, are is what will set the stage for active strategies you’ll implement to inhibit your danger alarm system.

These inputs can come from many different sensory cues and scenarios.

They vary from overactive chains of muscle at your pelvis, thorax, or cranium. Or could even come from your vision or feet.

Non-physical ignition cues that are often forgotten include mental and emotional stressors, or a poor diet.

If you go to a health-care professional to help you identify your ignition cues, it’s important that they can answer all of your questions, and make clinical decisions based on your particular presentation and objective tests that he goes over with you.

Step 3: Learn Active Coping Strategies

With your ignition cues identified, you can now go about implementing active coping strategies. These may include:

- Learning about the problem

- Exploring ways to move

- Exploring and nudging the edges of pain

- Staying positive and establishing a supportive and enthusiastic team around you

- Making plans

- Finding de-stressing activities

Step 4: Your Hurts Won’t Hurt You

Once you begin to use active coping strategies, remind yourself that hurt doesn’t always equal harm.

Step 5: Pacing and Graded Exposure

Your nervous system needs you to gradually increase your activity level. Be patience and persistent.

- Choose an activity you want to or need to do more of

- Find your baseline

- Plan your progression

- Don’t flare up, but don’t freak out if you do

- Look at the whole picture. Stressors come from various places in your life

Closing Thoughts

Much of this article touches on what happens when pain persists long past the time it takes for tissues to heal.

If you’ve recently had an injury, remember to manage your tissues and manage other stressors in life, like getting better sleep, better nutrition, and making time for things like meditation.

If your pain has been persistent and worsening, think about what happens when your nervous system becomes sensitized and you install your super alarm system. Learn active coping strategies and teach your offense to run new plays.

Be curious, be creative, feel, and find yourself living a much happier and pain free life.

about the author

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Mike Sirani is a Certified Strength and Conditioning Specialist (CSCS) and Licensed Massage Therapist. He works at Pure Performance Training in Needham, Massachusetts. He earned a Bachelor’s of Science Degree in Applied Exercise Science, with a concentration in Sports Performance, from Springfield College, and a license in massage therapy from the Cortiva Institute in Watertown, MA. He was also a member of the Springfield College baseball team, and interned at Cressey Performance in Hudson, MA.

References

Butler, D., & Moseley, L. (2003). 

Explain Pain

. Adelaide City West, South Australia: Noigroup Publicatinos.

Don't Neglect the Neck

Neck position is highly undervalued in the lifting community.

I’ll give you a little secret: your neck position determines the position of everything else in your body. If you want to build strength, you better consider the position of your neck.

An extended neck position relies more on joints and ligaments for stabilization instead of muscles.

An extended neck means excess compression on the back half of the spine.

An extended neck means an extended back.

An extended neck means shut off abdominals (and we want those on, remember?).

An extended neck is good for testing strength, not building it.

An extended neck is bad for longevity.

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If you’ve had back pain in the past, please, for the love of the universe, stop looking at the sun when you lift. This position makes you stronger when you do it, but you use your spine to stabilize heavy weight instead of your muscles.

This is a fallback stabilization pattern for when you’re testing strength, like in a competition. This is not a long-term solution for building length over the next few decades.

I’ve seen so many athletes who are broken down because they stabilize hard with their backs. They don’t know how to shut them off. They don’t know how to use their abs. They don’t even know how to tuck their chin.

I personally know an athlete who told me his professional career would have been over three years ago if he hadn’t come to work with us. That is amazing. #startedfromextensionnowwehere

I work with the people who wore down faster than their body could repair. The athletes who broke before their playing career was over. The athletes who never built a foundation.

P.S.  I’m currently working on a FREE product that'll teach you how to build the movement foundation of all movement foundations.  If you're interested in getting the goods, which you should be, then drop your email below and I'll send it to you once its ready:

about the author

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Lance Goyke, CSCS, is a Nerd Extraordinaire and secret admirer of lesbians everywhere whose expertise focuses on the human body. His clientele ranges from other trainers to kids to house moms to fighters to baseballers to anyone who needs to be taught how to exercise. Go invade his home base at www.LanceGoyke.com.