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The worst thing that can happen to an athlete in any sport is a serious injury. When home run slugger Kirk Gibson of the Los Angeles Dodgers got hurt, the team almost lost the World Series.
When Magic Johnson got injured, the L.A. Lakers lost four straight to the Detroit Pistons and failed to defend their NBA Championship. When Joe Montana injured his back, the San Francisco
49ers were in deep trouble.
Bodybuilding, as an individual rather than a team sport, presents a different but equally critical set of circumstances if a competitor gets injured. Arnold once severely injured his knee when a posing platform collapsed while he was in a kneeling pose. He underwent months of rehabilitative therapy and was fortunate to come back and win the Mr. Olympia that year. Franco Columbu seriously injured his knee doing a stunt for some TV show. He was carrying a refrigerator on his back when the near-career-ending accident occurred. Ken Waller severely injured his elbow and never competed again.
Weightlifters and powerlifters are extremely susceptible to serious, sometimes permanent, injuries caused by the enormous poundages they handle. Former world weight-lifting champions Paul Anderson and Dave Shepherd have had hip replacement operations. Dr. Eldon Beyerle, a former weightlifting star, once told me that I was the only former power-lifting champ that he had X-rayed who didn't suffer from disk degeneration of the spinal vertebra.
Lifting weights can be hazardous to your health if you're not careful. A case in point is the tragedy of Steve Massios, a former bodybuilder and weightlifting star of the 1950s. Steve cleaned 375 pounds on an exercise (not Olympic) bar on the deck of a ship, lost his balance and fell backward. The bar crushed his chest. It was reported that he died of a strep throat infection. Not true. He died because he did a foolish stunt without proper warmup on the rolling deck of an anchored battleship.
Once during a powerlifting meet in San Diego I saw Wallen Piper attempt a record squat without a sufficient warmup. You could hear his femur (thigh bone) snap like a dry twig from the back of the room.
My personal horror story took place when I tore my left pectoral muscle while bench pressing 455 pounds. I had been doing nothing but power lockouts for the previous 30 days and decided to go for a PR without doing any bench presses. I made the lift, but the injury was so severe that I couldn't bench press for the next six months. If it wasn't for a brilliant doctor named Ken Sommer - a sports injury specialist-I would never have competed again. He saved me from an operation, and I completely recovered and later set two world bench press records.
Kenneth Sommer is a doctor of chiropractic medicine who also has degrees in orthopedics and nutrition. Located in Glendale, California, Sommer has treated numerous world-record holders such as Pat Casey (639-pound bench press) and Russ Hodge (former world-record holder, decathlon). Incidentally, Hodge could bench press 485, squat 680, run the 100-yard dash in 9.3 and throw the shot put over 60 feet.
According to Sommer, the three most important things in preventing an injury are:
1. Proper warmup
2. Proper training techniques
3. Proper nutrition
I consider him to be one of the foremost injury specialists for lifters and bodybuilders in the world. He won the World Heavyweight Weightlifting Championship in the Masters Division at the age of 53. He plans to be the first man ever to deadlift over 600 at the age 60, which will be next spring. Here, in his own words, are 12 tips to help prevent and overcome injuries that Sommer recommends to his clients.
1. Warm up properly. Too much preliminary warming up will fatigue muscle fibers, making it impossible to get maximum effort with maximum poundages. Too little warmup won't prepare you for heavy work, however, and the result could be strain or injury. The first set of any exercise should always be relatively light. Pat Casey would warm up with 135 pounds for 20 reps on the bench press and work up to over 500 for reps using 50-pound increases on each succeeding set.
2. Dress properly when training. You have to keep the muscles and joints warm, especially on cold winter days. A pair of trunks and T-shirt are okay if you live in a warm climate or if it's summer. One of my former patients, Joe Baratta (winner of more than 20 physique titles), tore his pectoral while doing an iron cross in a cold gym. He had won the competition earlier that evening, but he came back later to give an exhibition at trophy time. It was cold, he didn't warm up enough, and his gymnastic uniform certainly didn't keep his muscles and tendons at an ideal temperature for his activities. Joe tore the pec so badly that it required surgery. It took him a year, starting with two-pound dumbbells, to work his way back up to a 300-pound bench press.
3. Avoid silly stunts or showing off. One former Mr. America, who shall remain nameless, was showing off in front of a couple of ladies and the male members of his club. He tried to curl an Olympic barbell weighing 135 with his right hand. Rip went the biceps tendons as they tore loose from the insertion near the elbow. Corrective surgery was his reward.
4. Fatigue can cause an injury. Excessive fatigue combined with repeated heavy effort that involves major muscle groups can result in injury. My colleague, Dr. Sam Ho-mola, reported an incident where a famous strongman ruptured one of his biceps by lifting one end of a car several times for photographers right after completing a heavy arm workout. Ordinarily, this feat was well within his capacity, but his already fatigued biceps couldn't handle the tremendous load placed on them by the rest of his powerful development.
5. Use proper training techniques. Many injuries occur when doing cheating exercises in which body movements are usually exaggerated.
Never jerk relaxed muscles into action. It is beneficial in some instances to bend your body in order to enlist the aid of other muscles while curling but usually only on the last few reps. The muscles should be contracted smoothly against a steady resistance throughout a full range of movement. Also, letting a weight drop back freely to the starting point is a common cause of injury. Don't let momentum relax the tension on the working muscle area. I saw one fellow rupture a biceps while curling with a fairly light bar. He was warming up for heavier curls, but instead of curling with a smooth, even motion, he was swinging the bar up with body motion and then allowing it to drop back under its own weight. The momentum generated by the pull of gravity placed an abrupt jerk on his muscles, tendons and joints at the end of the movement. Result: use of the arm was seriously impaired and required surgery.
6. Don't use excessively heavy poundages. Never let your ego exceed your talent. Everyone knows at least one diehard who uses such heavy weights that he can't even do a single rep in good form. There was one guy who trained at our gym whom we called "Mad Dog Mason." He used so much weight in his bent-over rowing motions that he had to jerk the weight from the floor and then drop his body down to touch his chest to the bar as the weight crashed back to the floor. One day a heavily loaded bar smashed his left thigh and ruptured the big rectus femoris. His entire thigh turned black and blue, and it was several months before he could return to regular training. Trying to impress your gym buddies or spectators with incredibly heavy training poundages makes about as much sense as trying to impress your pals in a drag race down Sunset Boulevard. The results are often tragic and sometimes fatal.
7. Examine your exercise equipment. In top-quality modern gyms like Gold's and World you probably won't have to worry about faulty equipment breaking down and exposing you to a possible injury. But in heavy-duty workout gyms and YMCAs, for instance, I've seen it happen. I saw one guy doing lat pull-downs with 200 pounds when the frayed cable snapped, knocking him unconscious and leaving a considerable lump on the top of his head. On another occasion a 75-pound dumbbell fell apart when the end bolt came off one end, and the unlucky exerciser was rewarded with a broken big toe. One of the most dangerous gym accidents I ever saw was when I spotted a friend 350-pounds in the bench press. As he took the bar off the rack, he failed to notice that it was bent. He was using a thumbless grip, and the bar rolled right out of his hands as he started to lower it. The force of 350 pounds landing on his chest stunned him, and I grabbed the bar as it started to roll toward his throat. To this day he still claims I saved his life.
8. Use common sense. Be careful. There is hardly any exercise you can do that won't result in an injury if you use too much weight in bouncing movements that utilize momentum. If you bounce your bench presses off your chest with too much weight and too much momentum, you might crack a rib. This is very painful, and it's the type of injury that might never heal. If you bounce off your heels doing heavy squats, you might damage your lower back or knees.
9. It is safer to train with a partner. If you handle heavy poundages as Franco Columbu, Bertil Fox or Kal Szkalak, all 500-pound bench pressers do, you need spotters or a safety rack when training. Arnold never squatted alone. Who wants to get stuck on the last rep with 400 to 500 on your shoulders and no way to get up? If you push to the max on the bench press, sooner or later you won't be able to complete that final rep. Your training partner(s) can help you complete the rep. More importantly, you won't have to worry about a heavy barbell crushing your chest.
10. Break in a new program carefully. Whenever you try a new exercise, don't go for for a maximum weight on the movement the first few workouts. There are complex neuromuscular factors involved in using certain muscles in specific ways efficiently. If an exercise is done regularly, you develop certain motor skills that allow you to give it maximum effort with minimum risk of injury. Too much weight in an exercise you are not accustomed to can lead to an injury. Even a change of grip can upset your control of an exercise. Going from a close grip to a very wide grip on the bench press can injure the pecs or delts. Shoulder and elbow injuries heal slowly, so start easy and gradually increase the poundages on exercises that put stress on those joints. I once had a delt injury that took two years to completely heal.
11. Don't rush a comeback. One of the biggest mistakes I see is lifters and bodybuilders who try to get back in shape too fast after a layoff. Push yourself too hard too fast, and you will be a prime candidate for an injury. I've seen it happen time after time. Years ago there was a Pro Mr. America named Floyd Page. He was a regional director for one of the big health club chains. Floyd decided he was going to get back in shape as fast as possible. He started training two to three hours, six days a week while working at his high-stress job. He also enjoyed the night life. Unfortunately, he had a heart attack and never saw his 44th birthday.
12. Sleep, rest and proper nutrition are essential. You can't fool Mother Nature. If you don't get sufficient sleep and rest, you won't recuperate as quickly or as fully as you should. This increases the injury risk factor. Proper nutrition gives your body the materials it requires for tissue repair, muscle growth and energy requirements. I recommend a minimum of 2,000 to 3,000 milligrams of vitamin C and 400 to 600 I.U. of vitamin E each day to help prevent tissue injuries. In the event of an injury you can increase those amounts greatly to help speed the healing process.
An injury of any type can put you months behind in your training. It can result in a loss of some of the gains you've already made. But as they say, an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure, so be careful out there.