The Link Between Psychosomatics, Technique And Injury
Here are some interesting links between psychology and physiology; training technique and injuries
04 Mar 2022
People who have been training seriously a few times a week for a long time aren’t strangers to injury. It is an unfortunate fact that the more you train, the more susceptible you are to sustain some kind of injury. This just comes with the territory and compared to other exercise modalities, lifting weights in the pursuit of getting larger or stronger is relatively safe. In fact, the most common injury reported in the weight room is from people dropping a weight on their foot!
However, a lot of people seem to believe that an injury will always take them out of training completely, until they have recovered. This extreme course of action is often unnecessary unless of course the injury is extremely severe. Unless you’re in a full body cast, no matter what the injury you can always find a way to train.
Akash, Ivan and Ed talk more about injury and its impact on our mental and emotional state in Episode 182 of RNT Fitness radio. To kick off the conversation Ivan says,
“You don’t realise how lucky you are until you fall sick or get injured. You really don’t appreciate your body until you get an injury.”
The silver lining to any injury (and there always is one, you just have to look close enough) is that you can focus on other areas of your physique and strength that you probably wouldn’t have considered working on if it wasn’t for your injury. Most of the time, training related injuries result from either insufficient recovery, poor load management/programming and suboptimal execution of specific exercises. It’s usually a combination of all of those but sometimes, misfortune strikes for no apparent reason.
Either way, it does give you the opportunity to reflect and potentially change your ways to avoid a similar situation in the future. Also, another truly special silver lining that can only be appreciated once you are taken out of your normal routine is when you realise that you actually really miss exercise in general.
Akash - “You know you are in a good place when you really start missing an activity or the gym. When that happens you know that your 3Ss (structure, strategy and system) are in place.”
When you miss the familiarity of your routine and you yearn to go back to your training program, you know you have reached the pot of gold at the end of the rainbow. You now know for sure that you have successfully created a lifestyle fitness solution that will keep you steady on your fitness journey.
Training No Matter What
When we asked RNTers what keeps them going, what enables them to stick to their training session all the time no matter how tough their day - the answer is always the same.
Training makes the day easier, gives them more energy to power through their to-do list with greater focus, which means they feel more productive and their quality of work is always high.
Ed - “You will notice that, if you do push yourself to stick to your training plan (even on days when you feel tired) you actually have way more in your tank than you originally thought.”
It might seem counterintuitive but if you do train even when you are feeling weak, you will actually feel so much stronger after a training session.
Ivan - “If you wake up in the morning and think I’m just too tired to train today, you are actually letting go of an opportunity to change your body chemistry and give yourself an energy boost. The truth is that you will be tired if you don’t train. You will be able to give more to your day, to your work and your family if you take the time to do a bit of vigorous activity.”
While injuries are unfortunately a potential risk we can always take steps to minimise the frequency and the severity of these occurrences.
The key is to really take the time to warm-up. This is such a basic training principle but is also so very important. Unfortunately, it is the first one that gets thrown out of the window as we progress in the gym. Ironically, it becomes even more important to take the time with a few warm-up sets as the weights get heavier and training gets more intense.
Akash - “There is so much benefit in priming the system! You need the warm up sets to prime the system.”
If you start training with no warm-up sets and you just grab your working weights to execute a Bulgarian Split squat for example, you are not training hard enough. You should never be able to just walk in and hit your heaviest set as that just tells us you have MUCH more to give.
The key to a good warm up set is to approach the bar the same way irrespective of the weight. When you begin to execute a set you make sure that you are laser focused, your stance is correct, you’ve found your focal point, your breathing is controlled and you are mentally preparing yourself to lift whether it is 20kg, 80kg or 100kgs!
Ed - “If you approach all your main lifts with that kind of intention and focus you are definitely going to reduce the risk of injury. And you are definitely going to increase the chances of a much better performance.”
Posture and Technique
Since we are an online personal training company, we request our members to take videos while they execute their lifts. This is so the coaches can make sure that our members are doing the exercises correctly, with the right technique and the right weight.
But one thing that is often ignored by most people who train is the benefit in using the training videos as a guideline for themselves.
Ed - “It is important to watch your own videos. A big giveaway is your gaze and the position of your head. Are you looking all over the place? Did you take a glimpse at yourself in the video? Your gaze should be locked on a spot to make sure that you aren’t distracted and your body is moving the correct way.”
Akash - “Look back at your own videos and check to see what should be moving. If other parts of your body are moving, is that then taking away from what you are trying to achieve? Are you shifting the focus away from the muscle group that is the focus of the exercise?”
If you are unsure about which muscle group an exercise should be working, the best thing to do is to check with your coach or even use the information available on the RNT website.
For example, if you look at isolation exercises like DB curls or lateral raises, looking at your own videos will help you assess if you are using other body parts and muscle groups to move the weight from A to B. If you are engaging other muscles, you might be able to lift more weight but other muscles are working to give you that extra strength and momentum. That is then taking away the focus from the muscle group you are actually trying to train.
A good way to ensure that you are training effectively is by trying to internalise the process to help you really connect to that muscle. It’s good to get into the mindset of what muscle is being worked and understand which body part is being targeted. This is what enables progress from beginner to intermediate to advanced.
A big caveat here is that this sort of internal focus is great for isolation exercises but for larger compound exercises such as the squat or deadlift, you should be focusing on an external focus such as “pushing the floor away” as this seems to be better for performance. Thinking about squeezing your quads as you squat is not recommended!
Akash - “It’s not about how long or how much you can move but how much you intentionally activate a muscle group through a movement pattern. When you can connect to a muscle you can get so much more out of less, making every rep so much more engaging.”
You have to grow this awareness over time and the awareness will come as you keep doing the exercise. When you start off as a beginner, focusing on whether it looks right on the outside will still give you the benefit. As you keep working on the exercises you will be able to internalise the muscle movement over time.
The Effect Of Posture on Pain
A common concern while executing the exercises is lack of symmetry. As humans we aren’t designed to be perfectly symmetrical. Even the way our organs are distributed isn’t balanced.
All of us favour one side over the other. We open doors, brush our teeth and chop vegetables with the side we favour, making our preferred arm stronger. So unless there is a massive difference there is no reason for worry.
If you have an injury and you are worried that your pain is being caused by this asymmetry, correcting it will not necessarily eliminate the pain. Trying to chase perfect posture 100% of the time is not going to get you out of pain. The only thing that’s going to get you out of pain is by actively dealing with the issues.
Ivan - “If J. Cutler could win Mr Olympia with one arm bigger than the other, chances are the rest of us are fine!”
Ed - “I personally have scoliosis and my spine isn’t straight or symmetrical but I have no pain neither does it affect my training.”
The Bio-Psycho-Physical Connection
Once we have sustained an injury our brain tends to send us little warning signals to protect us from injuring ourselves again. Which is why after recovery when we begin to train that area or muscle group again we feel a lot of fear.
During periods of high psychological stress it is quite common to see old injuries flare up. You may have been without pain for days but if an event has occurred that increases your stress levels, these old injuries start to flare up.
Ivan - “It is very limited to believe that any injury is purely physical. There have been scans done on people who have had completely torn rotator cuffs but who are asymptomatic and complain of no pain whatsoever. But on the flip side there are people who complain of crazy pain all the time but nothing shows up in the scans: there is no physical cause for the pain. This is why pain is so much more than a physical injury. This is why the thought of executing an exercise after injury even after it’s healed can make you nervous and you feel twinges.”
The Role Of Stress
It might seem boring or even like a cop-out every time we hear that someone has been physically affected because of their emotional and mental stress. But the truth is that our body acts like a channel to release the stress that is built up, which is why some people fall ill when they are stressed as their immune systems are weakened.
There has been research indicating that stress can exacerbate a myriad of symptoms, including joint pain. When someone is under a huge amount of emotional, mental or physical stress for chronic periods of time our bodies will try to compensate.
One of these compensations is the degradation of bone, potentially promoting the development of secondary osteoporosis. High circulating levels of chronic cortisol (our main stress hormone) inhibit the production of the hormones responsible for helping our bones remodel. This can be seen in individuals who are being medicated via glucocorticoids or even in individuals who are undereating and overtraining to maintain a low body weight.
This brings us back full-circle. We all lead lives that are stressful by default. We have goals, needs, ambitions and responsibilities. Navigating our lives skillfully through these demands is really the definition of success. And the one tool that will help us succeed is by building a sustainable lifestyle solution that will make sure that we lead healthy, happy and productive lives.