There’s an article circulating right now about the potential dangers of pushing your muscles past the point of safety. It’s about Crossfit, but honestly, I know runners who run to the point of damaged joints & stress fractures, power lifters who lift to the point of throwing out their backs, and people who are afraid that if they don’t exercise twice a day they’ll put back on the weight they worked so hard to lose. Over-exercising is seen at every gym, and as someone who always wants to try and test exercise programs and challenges myself, I empathize with them and their obsessions. To a point.
Filming myself working out and putting videos on YouTube has caused me to wrestle with my own self-image demons, no doubt about it. I am, however, much nicer to myself now than I would’ve been even a few short years ago. Age does something to a person. That lovely combination of wisdom, knowledge, and “ah, f*ck it” attitude can be a fine thing if you’re smart enough to embrace it.
Putting videos on the internet challenges me to stay strong and fit – which could easily nudge me toward over-training – but it also challenges me to stay healthy and rested and injury-free! And that, my friends, nudges me toward a smarter combination of exercise, rest and recovery, proper nutrition, and an acceptance that no, I cannot try every fitness fad that comes across my laptop. And believe me, there are dozens. DAILY.
In the Crossfit article, the author shares her colleague’s experience with Rhabdomyolysis, a serious syndrome that, according to WebMD, “results from a breakdown of muscle fibers and release of their contents into the bloodstream. This can lead to complications such as kidney (renal) failure… In rare cases, rhabdomyolysis can even cause death.” The author’s colleague experienced rhabdomyolysis after an extreme Crossfit workout involving hundreds of push-ups and hundreds of overhead presses. I’m shocked by the workout – wtf? – and shocked by the result.
But before we get all ape-shit-crazy and start warning people away from Crossfit and other extreme physical challenges (Insanity, anyone?), you should know that according to WebMD, rhabdomyolysis can also be caused by viral infections, bacterial infections, the use of amphetamines, and many other conditions. So it’s not exclusive to exercise. Most people who go to the gym and do a hard workout won’t blow out their biceps and puff up like their creepy uncle after a three-week bender. (They started it with the creepy uncle reference.)
But if rhabdomyolysis is indeed occurring with more alarming frequency, then it’s more important than ever for those of us in the fitness industry to promote proper form, modifications, and appropriate progression, and more important than ever for the clients and consumers of these exercise programs to ask the right questions of their trainers, know their own limitations, and listen to their bodies to find that sweet spot between challenge, yes, but being safe and exercising without getting injured.
After all, there’s no sense in going to all that trouble to lose weight, build strength, and get fit if you’re going to wind up on the couch nursing an injury, or in the surgery waiting room because you thought “working through the pain” showed your bad-assery.
So what should you consider when taking on any exercise program? How do you determine if you’re doing too much? How can you stay safe?
Interview your instructors and trainers. During the initial consultations, clients should be interviewing the trainers. Do they seem like a good fit? Do they have adequate training and certification? Is anything they’re saying sounding alarms? What is the trainer’s main philosophy? You should work with someone who is a good fit for your goals and challenges. Shop around.
Take your own temperature. How do you feel during the workout? How do you feel afterward? Know the difference between good pain and bad pain, and the difference between a challenge that does indeed tire you but doesn’t cause chronic fatigue that leaves you feeling exhausted, debilitatingly sore, or feeling nauseous or unwell.
Check your ego at the door. If you can’t do burpees without letting your hips sway down toward the floor (putting pressure on your lower back and greatly increasing your risk of injury), don’t f*cking do them. Seriously, just don’t. Do a modified version where you step your feet back instead. I don’t care if everyone else can do them and you’re embarrassed. Safety comes first, because guess what – if you hurt yourself doing them with poor form? You’ll never be able to do them. If what the instructor or trainer is telling you to do causes you alarm, or doesn’t seem right for any reason at all, Don’t Do It. It’s called intuition. And you’re supposed to listen to it.
Do what you can. If the instructor isn’t progressing you properly, but you still want to be there, you have to be your own advocate and barometer. Do what you can. Challenge yourself, yes, but in a reasonable fashion. I have a nagging shoulder injury that makes certain moves, like chest flyes, off-limits. Sometimes it acts up and tells me it’s time to rest – really rest. So when everyone else is doing chest flyes, I lay off. I don’t do another exercise while they’re doing chest flyes, because guess what is NOT rest? Doing bicep curls, or push-ups, or another substitute. I don’t care that everyone else is exercising and I’m foam-rolling for those few minutes. I’m going to take care of my body and know my limitations.
Ask for alternatives. If something hurts, ask the instructor or trainer to help you with form, or provide you with an alternative exercise. I have a class participant who always asks if the shoulder exercises we’re going to do will involve rotation, because if they will, she chooses a much lighter weight. She knows her limits. She asks for alternatives. She takes care of herself.
Find your fitness. You don’t have to love Crossfit just because everyone else does. You don’t have to do p90x just because your coworkers give you shit for using your 5lb pink dumbbells to do bicep curls. You don’t have to do my Quickie workouts for 50 seconds on, 10 seconds off just because that’s the format I choose. If you like to Zumba, then for cripe’s sake, Zumba your booty off. It’s not a competition. We were supposed to leave “everybody’s doing it” behind in high school, because screw what everybody’s doing. It’s not worth it if you don’t enjoy it, are worried you’ll hurt yourself, or you dread going.
Get adequate amounts of rest and recovery. The harder you work a muscle group, the longer you should give it to recover. Why do bodybuilders and power lifters work a muscle group then leave it alone for 3, 4, even 5 days? Because the magic happens in the recovery. That’s my beef with some of these programs that want you to push-push-push day after day after day, with only one rest day per week, and an “active rest day” at that. When do the muscles rest, repair, and grow under those circumstances? Know your body. Take rest days when needed, and get plenty of sleep.
The woman in the article did too much exercising. But because she didn’t want to hold her partner back, she pushed herself past the safe point. It’s not easy to pin down who’s at fault when these kinds of things happen. When I originally hurt my shoulder, I was doing a reasonable amount of bench press reps with a reasonable weight load. It just happened. It wasn’t anyone’s fault.
But I feel better knowing it wasn’t my fault, and knowing it wasn’t the instructor’s fault. I can accept that sometimes, for whatever reason – hormones, a split-second of bad form, maybe I was distracted – these things happen because I know I honor my body and its limits. And now honoring my body and its limits means honoring my nagging injury and the limits it imposes.
Stay safe, my friends. I want you to be around and injury-free for the long haul!