Injury & Forced Specialization: a case study in winning

Robert L. Wanamaker

What it is

I’ve written before about living with setbacks, and trying to make progress in spite of them.  Call it “working through” or “working around” or whatever you like.  Sooner or later, we all seem to get a ding or two here and there, and have to avoid working a particular muscle group.

My most recent “workaround” took place after tearing my left hamstring in a strongman competition.  During the rehab period, the trick was to find a way to make progress in something, somehow, despite the injury.  Full body work was clearly not an option.  In fact, it’s pretty tough to even clean a log or push press it with a bum leg.

I decided to work on my incline log press.  This event is often included in strongman competitions which take place indoors, in the cold months.   Pressing, in general, has always been my weakest strength, and incline log is no exception.

Over a 3 month period, I managed to increase my incline log press from a 1RM of 275lbs to a 1RM of 300lbs – a roughly 10% increase in performance.   This was not a case of “newbie” gains, nor of “muscle memory”:  this was a lifetime PR, and I’ve been training consistently since 2006.  I’m a terrible presser, for a number of reasons; mostly structural.  Not only did I set a lifetime PR, but I did it in record time:  normally, 10-12 weeks of training would see no increase in my pressing.

Less is more:  Specialization

Part of this success, no doubt, was specialization.  I batted things around with Mike Tuchscherer of Reactive Training Systems, and we decided that for 10-12 weeks while I healed up,  it was paramount to keep all loading off the hamstring.  I would certainly not do any training requiring legs, and would even avoid standing overhead pressing for the most part – any standing overhead work would be very light, and I would stop immediately if I felt any pain in the hamstring.

Notice that I didn’t just add more exercises:  my specialization routine forced me to cut back on all other work.  I’m beginning to think that there’s something to the phrase “you can’t have it all.”

I have a couple reasons for thinking this was important:  first, I’ve struggled with my pressing, and never made quick gains at all.  I’ve tried many, many different things:  bands, chains, boards, bottom-up pin presses, various degrees on the incline bench, different accessory movements.  Sure, I’ve progressed:  but it’s hard, slow work.  To suddenly add 10% to a problematic lift means that something changed.

Another reason is what other people, non-lifters and lifters alike, started telling me in October.  I started to get a lot of “Hey, you’ve put on size” and “Your shoulders have grown” type compliments from random folks in my daily life.  The 20-something medical assistant at my neurosurgeon’s office noticed and complimented me on how much size I had added.  There’s absolutely no feeling like being middle-aged and getting a compliment from a young hottie to put some meaning into your life.

So, pretty clearly, there was some important change in my life that permitted me to suddenly add some upper body mass and strength.  Going through my logs, the only major change I made was the forced specialization.

Loads & Deloads

Another indicator, for me, was the feeling of not having to take a deload during this period.   I struggle a bit with deloading weeks.  During a deload, I start to feel recovered, but I also feel like I’m taking a step backwards in certain areas:  especially in my ability to strain.  One thing I noticed during this 10 week period was that I never really felt like I had to fit in a deload.

That’s not to say I didn’t work hard.  By the end of the 10 week program, my shoulders were starting to ache quite a bit.  More than once, they woke me up at night throbbing with pain.

The specialization,  which brought about a decrease in stress and volume, may well have brought have about an increase in recovery.  I watched my diet fairly closely, and made sure to not gain weight, even though I was not training nearly as much.  I want to mention these factors because you might be able to manipulate differently – and better – than I did.  For example, you might work on increasing your recovery capacity through the basics of more sleep, duct-taping your whiny mother-in-law’s piehole shut, otherwise removing some of life’s little stressors, or eating more healthy food.

However, as a 51 year old athlete, it’s entirely possible that for me, I needed the decreased overall stress and volume in order to make the gains I did.  This is why we all keep training logs, monitor our progress, and tweak our approach.  It’s also why all of this is a multi-year endeavor!


So, what did I do?

As you probably guessed, Mike put together a 10 week program for me.  Distilling the program down to its essence:  two pressing days a week, and one limited pulling day.  Intensity and stress were kept in check: we only hit “high” level marks a couple times.

That means reps were generally kept high:  nothing lower than 3 reps (until testing day), and never an all-out effort.  Of necessity, very little cardio was done during this period, aside from easy walks with my dogs.

Pressing days revolved around a main lift, and a couple supplemental lifts.  One day focused on incline log pressing as the main exercise.  The second day would focus on typically seated military pressing as the main exercise.

From a technique perspective, I really worked on activating my traps and upper back during the pressing, and on keeping this activation constant from exercise to exercise.  My military pressing, for example, wasn’t strict:  I didn’t let my elbows flare.

This cue – keeping the elbows together, and driving the weight back instead of up – helped me to consistently activate the larger muscles of the upper back, so that my shoulders weren’t the only movers.  It doesn’t look like a huge difference in video, but it was easy to feel when I got it right.

Some of the incline log work involved using chains; I typically added 60lbs of chain, and adjusted the feeders so that only the last link was on the ground at lockout.  Chains are great; the progressive resistance helps to teach me how to focus and grind.

Other exercises included dumbbell pressing, incline bench, and incline benching off pins with a dead stop on each rep.  We didn’t include much in the way of side laterals, or any other exercise really geared for hypertrophy; to learn to press, I pressed.

Pulling day was kept easy:  some 18″ deadlifts, but done with high reps.  Seated, chest-supported rows; pulldowns, and some dumbbell rows largely rounded out the pulling.  For the most part, reps were kept at 8 and above on these exercises.

I also felt free to back off on pulling day whenever the hamstring whined; if it whined during warmups with 135lbs on the bar, I was done.  If it whined on rep 5 of a 10 rep set, I stopped.   I wasn’t pulling for strength, or hypertrophy – I was pulling to keep my body moving a bit, to keep my hips mobile, and to not totally lose the feel for the movement.

Wrapping it up

I learned a couple things from this cycle.  From a programming perspective, I learned that specialization can yield good results as well as giving the athlete a needed break to recover from injury or over-reaching.  From a psychological standpoint, my desire to train full body and hard was higher by the end of this cycle than it had been in quite some time:  absence doth make the heart grow fonder, I guess.

Injuries are inevitable in the strength sports.  Despite all our preventive work, sooner or later most of us will face a potentially sidelining injury.   I learned that by resetting my expectations and goals, I was able to continue training with an injury, and set a personal record.

I’ll take that as a win!

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