COACH columnist

Are you hurt, injured, or f*cked up? I am not going to write about the first two, being hurt or injured. These would include minor strains, pulls, DOMS, feelings, pride, and fake injuries. You know, the issues that many will complain about over and over again. Then, there are those who were “cured” or “fixed” with a couple of therapy sessions, a supplement, or whatever is “trending” at the time. This is not for those people as well.

NOTE: I am not a Doctor or Physical Therapist. The information contained within this article is based on my own personal experience and is not medical, rehab advice. If you are hurt, injured or f*cked up, see a doctor!

I can remember when all problems were because of the weakness of the transverse abdominis, then the glutes, then forward head positions, then the psoas muscle, then ankle mobility, and then onto piriformis or the quadratus luborum. Let’s not forget the levator scapulae and how our central nervous system is disrupted, our bodies have non-optimal compensation patterns, and so on. This is all part of how to become a guru. Find something that sounds really cool, and point out how everyone is so wrong in what he or she does and how you are so right.

LISTEN: Table Talk Podcast #39 with Dave Tate

Those who have been around the Iron Game know what I’m talking about, and you know what? We have all fallen for this BS more than once because those who are really f*cked up will try anything to get out of pain and back under the bar. Those who are injured, hurt, or faking it need a good excuse to explain it all.

If you're f*cked up, your life has changed due to wear and tear. This can be described as pain during and after movement, upon waking, while sitting, or all of the time; stiffness when getting up from lying down, sitting, or any other resting state; waking up in the middle of the night due to pain, or to find that you can’t move a limb, or not being able to sleep at all; tenderness near or on the joint, which compression might help but not that much; a lack of flexibility, where you are no longer able to achieve a full range of motion; crepitus or grinding and popping in the joints; or bone spurs and swelling caused by inflammation. In many cases, it is all of the above.


The strength industry likes to point its fingers and say it was caused by training, but then, it says that the way to fix it is…get this: training. You see, they say that the cause was your training and that if you did the industry’s training, you wouldn’t have the issues you have. So, its training would have prevented it all, and not only that, it can fix the problems as well. Now, how awesome is that? It’s training that can take you to your very best with no risk, and if you are f*cked up, it also has no risk and will fix you. Just think about that one for a few minutes... These awesome programs are not only the prevention but the cure. How convenient!

To be noted. I’m f*cked up, a washed-up meathead, and a has-been that never was, and I have accumulated a lot of wear and tear. On a good day, everything hurts. I know this landscape well. The first thing to note, which the gurus will not tell you, is that there are factors outside of training that lead to joint wear and tear. These factors combined have more causation than training ever has or will have.

These include age. How many older people do you know who have never stepped on a powerlifting platform or bodybuilding stage yet have joint replacements and joint issues? When I think about it, everyone I’ve ever known.

Obesity is another factor, or better stated for the lifting world, body weight. The more you weigh, the more stress you put on the joints all day, every day. When you walk, there is more force on your feet, ankles, knees, hips, back, and so on. Even when you sit, lie down, or sleep, you have more weight compressing you.

Past joint injuries, regardless of how long ago, increase the risk of joint issues down the road — you know, that shoulder stinger from high school football, the back issues from your old volleyball days, the knee strain from soccer, or the time it felt like you broke your elbow throwing a ball. Remember the number of times you “walked it off” or “played through it”? It all adds up. The more impact-related it was, the more it added to the strain. In a way, most sports are plyometric in nature, with a lot of repetitive impacting of your body against the ground, and in many cases, against other people.

Genetics also plays a huge role. We are just not that aware because when we are beating our joints to death, our parents are too young to need anything replaced. Then again, would it have mattered had we known? In some cases, many people are born lucky — literally.

There are some born with bone deformities that will lead to degeneration much faster than in others’ situations. Even the slightest abnormality can have a giant impact as they age.


Let’s not forget metabolic diseases, such as diabetes. Nutrition matters at all ages but most notably as we are building bone density.

Medications—just look at all of the side effects of one drug. And then, when you start to combine drugs, these side effects become undefinable. This is regarding all of the medications, both over-the-counter and prescription ones.

I’m sure I’m forgetting many other factors causing muscle and joint pain, but you see the point. It's not all about the training. Depending on who you speak to, it’s not even close.

It would be false to say that training is not a factor. It is. If you step back some and ask, exactly how much worse is one training program than another when it comes to wear and tear? As you can see, it is just one of many factors, but it does happen to be one we have control of. What makes one training safer than another when you are training to become your very best in a strength sport? Many think they have the answer to this, but they don't. Look up the injury rates of strength sports athletes, and when you do this realize, it takes most close to a decade to get to their best. The other thing to note is many injuries with these athletes are unreported because they don't see doctors or require surgery. I will admit that strength sport athletes will admit their injuries more than you will find in other sports. Even today, injuries are seen as a badge of honor, and these athletes do not have coaches that will "pull them out of the game" if they are hurt. Every football player I have ever known or know played with injuries that he never let the coach know about because he didn't want to sit out.

The impact of training can be debated—and it is. Is load? Repetition? Frequency? The movement? Sequence? What's more important? We know that if slight changes are made in a movement, this changes the movement pattern and in theory the wear and tear... but by how much, and for whom? There's many things to consider and yet... looking at all the factors leading to wear and tear as noted, how much is one aspect of training going to really matter in the big picture?

Here is what most people will agree with. Don't train hard or heavy. The likelihood of developing joint issues from training is going to be lower.

I guess maybe there is more to this wear-and-tear thing than what warm-up you should do or what grip or stance you should take, but then again, I’m not trying to sell you a program, certification, or a joint supplement, so what do I know?

Here is what I do know.  I played with fire, and knew it, and I got burned. I walked too close to the edge, and knew it, and I fell off many times.


Many times I knew that what I was about to do was stupid, and did it anyhow. I knew the risk and didn’t take long to know I was more prone to it than others. I just went harder, knowing there would be a price to pay. I didn’t care. I did things I knew would impact my health later in life and was more than willing to do so and would do it again. No stones unturned, no “what if’s?” and any regrets I have, I earned them. This is not saying I was reckless. That was not even close to the case. I wanted to rank higher, compete well, and keep breaking my own personal records. This is VERY hard to do if you are always hurt and beat up. What I did was calculated, and it was part of the process that I felt I needed to do to get where I wanted to go.

One known fact of powerlifting is that you are training to increase how much you can lift on three lifts: the squat, the bench press, and deadlift. When you lift maximal weights, one of three things can happen, and two are bad. You lift the weight, you don't lift the weight, or you get hurt. That's the sport.

I learned along the way. I had to. I wanted to be the best I could. I also knew the more I’d learn (and continue to learn), the better I would be at helping others. I made and still make sure that it was all worth it.

This is why I will share with you the list of training rules I live and train by today. These rules are NOT for those competing. They are not for those who want to increase their “longevity” in the sport. They are not for the beginner, intermediate, or advanced lifters. There are different rules for all of these groups, and these are NOT them.

This is for those who were willing to pay the price, and NOW the dues have come. The ones who want to train and still train hard but no longer want to add to their injury list.

These rules are for those who know there will be more dues to pay down the road as the carnage is already done, but if we can postpone it or avoid them altogether, that’s a win. If we can take out a PR here and there, we’ll take it.

SHOP: 5 Gifts for the Legacy Lifter

With that said, this is not for those who’ve shelved it all and have resorted to the light weights and high-rep training. Yes, this is a real thing, and the closer you get to it, you discover it’s NOT a bad thing because it beats the alternative—never training again.

It has taken more than a decade of trying all types of training to come up with my rules of mashed-up meathead training, and I’m sure that as time goes by, more rules will be added. These are not written in stone, nor are they medical advice. It’s not rehabilitation advice. It’s not any advice outside of what I’ve done that’s worked for me.

There is also another aspect to note before going on. If you are in this boat, there is no such thing as pain-free. Something will always hurt. I would say this is the case with everyone once they get past a certain age. This is also why pain management is a billion-dollar industry. It is my belief that we are supposed to hurt. Argue with me all you want, but I know for a fact many older lifters (and younger) who promote pain-free powerlifting—well, they also have pain. There is good pain, bad pain, arthritic pain, chronic pain, acute pain, fake pain, and others I am forgetting. You are NOT going to get rid of it all, nor should you, as you will see below, it can be used to guide your training. Some of the pain you will simply have to get used to. Over time, it will become normal, and you will not even notice it. If it is ALL you focus on, yes, it will hurt far more than normal.

So, when I share these, it’s for educational use, and it is up to you and whatever professional(s) you consult with to know if it's right for you.


Take Extended Time Off

Up until a few years ago, the most time off training I can remember was no more than a week or two. It wasn't part of my belief system, and when I did take off two weeks, the joint pain got worse. In a way, it is like a race car slamming on its brakes. It's better to slow down than take time off, but after I would back it down, I didn't want or feel that I needed the time off.

Due to medical conditions spread over the past few years, I found that I was unable to train for weeks on end. A few times, a couple of months at a time.

This is what I found:

The first few weeks, the joint pain was much worse, and then it got better. Never to the point of being pain-free, but better than most of the year. When I returned to training, I was weaker and not in shape, no doubt about that. But each time, I came back stronger than the time before. At the time of writing this, I have not trained in seven weeks, and I do not intend to train for another 4-5 weeks. I go to the gym and help others, but that's it. I set a goal that I wanted to achieve by the end of the year and did it in the third week of October. I said that after I did it that I would not train again until next year, and I meant what I said. Do I feel out of shape? Yep. Do I know I am weaker? Yep. Do I care about it? Nope.

It took me a long time to get to this point, but I know, for me, that this is the best way to go about my training. When I resume training, I will have two to three months of merely getting back in shape or at least to the point where I can begin to train for something that I will have to strive and work hard to do. I know in my mind what I want to do next, and it will take 9-12 months of training to do it, assuming that all goes well. When that objective is achieved, I will take off another couple of months, and so on.


Train When Recovered. Don't Train to Recover.

There is a big difference with this. As a competitor with a meet date, you have a specific date when you must try to get it all to come together on. This makes training more strategic and creates more stress in your training and mind. You fall behind, and you need to find a way to get back on plan. You get too far ahead, you need to know how to back it down without getting behind. You get hurt, you need to figure out how to train through or around the injury. The competition is the deadline, and you need to be ready for it—no matter what. You have to recover from your training but still have to get the training done because you can't push the competition date back. You need to train and live in a way that allows you to recover before specific training sessions. That's part of the sport and it takes skill, time, and attention to figure out.

We mashed-up meatheads don't have a competition to peak for. We have goals or objectives that we want to hit. If it takes two weeks or two months longer, who cares? You do NOT have to train if your body is not ready to do it. Unlike when we competed, we can push the session back or do fewer sessions per month if need be. When I am recovered, I will train. If I am not, I may still train, but lighter or something different—maybe not at all. Before the last goal I wrote about in rule #1, I was training one time per week for the last couple of months and then ended up doing one session every two weeks while pushing hard toward the end. This was also part of slowing the car toward the end instead of slamming on the brakes.


Max Effort Work

This is one of the best things I added back into my training after years of high-volume work. Low-volume, max-effort sessions have been one of the best things for my joints. I pick the safest max effort movements for me and then train up to a one-rep max. This will NOT be something I will introduce when I begin training again, but it will become part of my training within the first four weeks. All strength qualities are increased with maximal strength. When maximal strength is down, so is my conditioning, recovery, mobility, flexibility, and everything else. My first focus will be to introduce this back into the training. I change the movements frequently and always use chains or bands, so the weight is lighter where the joints are stressed the most, and it is more substantial when the joint position is at its strongest. I feel that this helps to maintain bone density and joint stability as well as all of the other qualities that max-effort work builds. If I feel off, or if I am not even close to a PR, I will still do the max-effort work for singles but will not push it that hard. For example, if I am doing SS Yoke Bar High Box Squats with Chains, my best might be six plates per side with 10 chains. It may also be three plates per side with 20 chains per side. Either way, when I begin again, or if I am not ready to push maximal weights, I will work up to 40-50% of my best and hit a single there and be done. Over time, I will build up from that until I get to a point that I push with maximal force.

If you are training for the same reasons I am, you will know when you can push it hard and when you can't. So, please don't ask me how you know when it's time. If you have to ask that, then these rules do not apply to you.


Training Economy

Do only what needs to be done in a few reps as you can.

There is a concept with programming called a training economy. The best way I know to explain this is that everything down within a training session should have a solid reason why it is there. In other words, getting the most significant outcome from doing the least amount necessary. Everything you do in training is another variable to recover from. I once heard George Halbert (multiple all-time world record holder in the bench press) answer a question in the gym that was dead on. George just worked up to and hit some insane amount on the close grip board press. Too long ago to remember, so what I would guess is that it was in the 700-plus range. A visitor in the gym asked George after he was done with that movement what he was going to do for his triceps that day. George replied, “What exactly would a push-down or triceps extension do for my triceps at this point that a close-grip board press didn't already do?” This is thinking with a training economy mindset.

What is the objective of the training? What needs to be done to get to that outcome? With what needs to be done, what parts of that really need to be done? From the sessions per week, movements, sets, and reps? Always be asking if it HAS to be done or not. If you can't explain why, then don't do it.

We got into the position we are in now due to the accumulation of wear and tear over decades of training. I do feel we need movement to keep the joints healthy and working, but how much and with what loads is something we all need to figure out for ourselves. What I do is based on the amount of work and repetitions on the joint health that will be doing the work. My right shoulder is bone on bone, so every rep I do is just scraping away more and more, so I will do very little work that impacts the end range of the joint motion. I stay away from anything that hurts when I do it, so in many cases, this means using partial or restricted ranges of motion.

It all comes down to what the objective I am training for is. If it is to push a max effort movement for the squat as high as I can, I may not do any upper body pressing movements at all, outside of what you will read below.

If the objective isn't strength related but just to increase work capacity, then the loads will not be as great but the overall volume will ramp up over time over many movement planes.

With the movements, I select those that will require fewer warm-up sets—or no warm-up sets at all—and training modalities that make this easier to achieve.

Two easy examples to illustrate this are the extended rep tension-type training JM just showed in the triceps training video we posted.

The next example would be a protocol Dr. Eric Serrano suggested I try. Using a weight of about 30-40% of what I would typically use, perform one repetition, and then rest for 6-8 seconds and then do two repetitions. Keep doing this increasing by one repetition until you reach eight reps. When you can do eight, you can increase the weight next session.

In both of these cases, most people will not need to do any warm-up sets, and if they do, it will only be one to help to determine what weight to use.

You see where I am going here. Get the most out of every set you do. Thus, you end up doing FAR fewer sets, leading to less accumulated wear and tear.


Reduce Muscle Inhibition

Several things happen when your joints are trashed. There could be arthritis, bone spurs, and other degeneration going on. This, in turn, will create muscle inhibition as a way to protect the joint. Many times this is the stiffness that you feel at the end points of the motion. This is the body telling the muscle NOT to let you go further. This is something I pay close attention to because I have some joints that have restricted range of motion and I do not want it to get worse but also know the pathology to know not to let it get more range. In other words, keep it at bay. In 2004, I was told that my shoulder needed to be replaced. My range of motion is limited, but the pain isn’t bad unless I try to go into these ranges of motion where the joint gets jammed up (bone on bone). It’s hasn't gotten any better since then, but it also has not gotten worse.

One of the ways in which I kept this at bay is by using the pec deck machine, where I can stabilize as much of the joint as I can with the machine. Then, using a moderate to light weight, I will do a set using a slow tempo to stay out of pain, and I will use constant tension and a peak contraction for a 1-2 count. The tempo is slowed or increased to hit failure by eight repetitions. At this point, I will do four eccentric-only reps by using my other arm to pull the handle around on the concentric and then use a very slow eccentric, going right to the threshold on the first one (threshold is where pain starts). Then, on the next three reps, I will go just shy of the threshold.

I use this same protocol with all of the joints I have issues with. The machine changes based on the joint, but I think you see the point.

You do not have to use machines and can instead use dumbbells or any other bells. I have access to the machines and use them, as they are easier to stabilize what I need to stabilize.

This is a case where one of the biggest negatives of machine training can become used as a benefit.


Use Loaded Stretching

The one thing I find repeating itself throughout all of the rules I use for training is to stay out of threshold (pain). However, the closer you can get to it, the better.

Think of isometrics (that could fall into rule #4). When you use isometrics, you work a very specific range of motion +/- 10-15 degrees.

With this in mind, if I use a moderate weight and hold just shy of threshold for a 20 count, it acts as a loaded stretch but more of an iso-hold.

Using the same example presented above with the pec deck. After doing the four slow eccentric only lifts, I will go to just out of the threshold and hold for a 20 count. This will end up working 5-10 degrees of the range of motion past threshold without ever having to go there. If it was a joint that was not bone on bone and one I wanted to increase the range of motion, this would be a great way to do so, even better if followed with PNF stretching.

With most of my issues, this is not what I want to do, as the risk for me isn’t worth the benefit. But it is a way I used to regain the range of motion post surgery and achieve the rehabilitation of many of the injuries I came back from.


Get Sugar Out of Your Diet

This is getting too long as it is, but it would be foolish to say that diet doesn’t matter. It does. For me, it’s not the “fix so many claim it to be.” I’ve tried zero carbs, gluten free, fasting, no meat, and so on. In some cases, it did help some. In other cases, it made the pain worse. If I’m having a bad flare up, I will pull refined sugar out immediately until I get back to the baseline.

Try it all until you figure out what helps and what doesn’t.

There are other things, like concentric-only movements. One example is sled dragging for the lower and upper body movements. This is a way to get both loaded stretching and concentric only work into the joint.

The tricky thing is that to get blood into tendons takes a lot of reps, but the high reps accumulate excess wear and tear. I’ve found for myself that if I can lessen or remove the eccentric from this, it’s not creating anywhere near the same joint stress.

These are some ideas to think about. I do not have sample programs or training sessions to illustrate, and if you are in the same boat you will not need them. All you need are some ideas to add to or apply to what you have already found to work.

Trust in what you do know. Nobody has the same experience training YOU as you do. After 2-3 decades, you should be an expert on you. With this in mind, you already know you will go off track here and there and may do some stupid shit from time to time.

There is nothing wrong with that; this still needs to be fun. Otherwise, why do it at all?

I hope this helps. I’m always trying to learn more things to do, more things that can help, more modalities, and so on. So, while I took a shot at the GURUs at the start of this, don’t discount them. Most of what I see, hear, and read I think is BS designed to make the person look smarter than he or she is or is simply marketing to get more clients... BUT... after a couple of decades, you know this just as I do. This doesn’t mean there are not gems and some genius in what they say. Always listen and learn no matter who it is.

Squatting from Womb to Tomb: Why You Must Train 'Til You Die

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