Yes, you read that right! I’ve suffered from a serious back injury and a few others. Some have been from MMA fighting, others from doing something I wasn’t physically ready for. There have been quite a few throughout my life. But there’s no doubt I’ll always remember my first back injury.
Even though most personal trainers have been injured, have recovered from serious injuries, or work with people who have been injured in the past, we tend to shy away from this topic. We don’t like to talk about how exercising can be dangerous or admit when we’ve been injured ourselves. It’s almost taboo, something that should be kept secret. But in all honesty, that back injury changed my life. It changed the way I coach and is part of the person I became.
My Time in Iraq
Let’s go back to 2004, around the time I arrived in Iraq. I was about 19 at the time. That was the year I started lifting weights and going to a gym. I grew up “husky” and was never taught about fitness, nutrition, or health other than what I learned at army boot camp, which was next to nothing.
There was one guy on my team who worked out religiously. He was a boxer in the civilian world, so he was big. I really looked up to ol’ Donnie Darko!
Donnie taught me a few things about fitness. Before I knew it, I was on my own, going to the gym to do a Muscle & Fitness magazine workout. I wrote down all my numbers and found I was making real progress in my first few months in the gym. I felt really good about myself and the results I was seeing, so of course, I wanted more.
While serving in Iraq, you could only be in one of two places: “outside the wire” or “inside the wire”. Outside was the city, where all the fun was. Inside was the military camp, where the only interesting place was the gym. So whenever we didn’t have missions, we would usually hit the gym at least twice a day. We had nothing better to do.
My Back Injury
I remember rocking my entire workout but still feeling that I needed to hit my abs a little more. I really wanted that two-, four-, or even six-pack. I could get there if I did enough sit-ups, right?
That’s exactly what I did, but not the easy way on the ground. No, I wanted to do sit-ups the hard way to get the fastest results. I’d already been working out for a few months, so I thought I could handle it. So I went to the decline sit-up bench where you lock your shins behind a pad. You know, this thing:
I set the bench to the highest possible level (a 30- to 40-degree angle). I was knocking out my reps and feeling good, so good that I thought, “How can I make this harder?” (Because harder equals faster results, right? Not true!)
So I grabbed a 25-pound plate, jumped back on the bench, gave that plate a good hug, and started knocking out more repetitions. This time it really challenged me, but I liked it. So thinking more always equals better, I did more.
It happened on Rep 7 or 8 of my third set. The instant I did it, something popped! Naturally, I freaked out a little. Okay, a lot! It was my first back injury in the weight room and I was legitimately scared. My lower back felt horrible and I could feel bolts of lightning shooting down my leg all the way to my heel. “Freaked out” is an understatement.
The Road to Recovery
Somehow I managed to get off the bench, put my weight up (like all gym-goers should do), and walk down a few flights of stairs to get outside. I knew I needed to see the doctor ASAP. Luckily for me, he was already outside, so I walked up to him.
“Doc! Something’s up, man! I was lifting and heard this pop and now I feel this back injury and lightning shooting down my leg! Look, I used to be able to touch the ground with my hands; now I can’t even touch my thighs! Help, I’m freaking out!”
He calmed me down, then felt around my back a little. There wasn’t much else he could do; it’s not like we had MRIs for a dumb soldier in the war who hurt himself. He told me I’d pulled something and the swelling was more than likely pressing against my sciatica.
If you’ve never had a back injury or sciatica, trust me, you don’t want to. It always bothers you, it hurts to stand, move, and sit, and you constantly feel bolts of electricity in your back, hip, and leg. No fun at all. The doctor told me to rest, then he gave me some muscle relaxers and told me to stop training for a while.
Lesson Learned From That Back Injury
The worst part of the accident wasn’t the pain; it was not being able to train. I was scared to train again; I was so afraid I’d hurt myself again or aggravate the injury.
From that day on, going to the gym made me nervous. I never wanted to experience that pain again. If I hurt myself doing inclined sit-ups, imagine how much a deadlift or squat could mess me up! I won’t lie, I was mentally scarred.
After resting for about a month, taking the muscle relaxers and stretching as much as I could, I finally felt ready to return to the gym. But ever since, I’ve been extremely cautious.
Today I realize it’s not about how much weight you lift or how hard you exercise. The most important thing is to build yourself up, not break yourself down so much that you suffer a back injury or any injury!
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Never Push Yourself Too Hard!
I can promise you, being injured is no “badge of honor”. It sucks. It hurts and can take years to recover from, both physically and mentally.
They say you should learn from your mistakes so you don’t make them again. You’ll never see me on a bench doing weighted sit-ups, which brings me to an important point: I never want my students to experience what I did.
That’s why my online coaching style is conservative. I don’t believe in beating yourself down to the ground in a pool of sweat or racing against a clock. If you focus on getting better and building yourself up over time, you’ll be able to stay injury-free and exercise more in the long run. What I really want for every one of my students is a healthy and pain-free body!
Have you ever suffered an injury or a back injury while working out? How did it affect your training? Share your experience in the comments below! And if you know someone who’s ever struggled with injuries, be sure to share this article with them!
Jay Kali AKA, The Strength Architect is the founder of Kali Coaching. He holds certifications as a Specialist in Strength and Conditioning, Certified Fitness Trainer, Online Trainers Academy Graduate, Training For Warriors Level 2 Graduate and is a 300-Certified Yoga Teacher in Power Yoga. He is also an Amazon Bestselling Author in four different categories and has made it his mission to help women create long lasting, healthy lifestyles in just 8 weeks!