When I went though 7 months of intense pain, I knew something was wrong, but when I lost all the muscle in my leg, I really started to worry…
The MRI verified what we were thinking, two bulged discs, one impinging the femoral nerve at the front of my spine and the second compressing the sciatic nerve in the back. That diagnosis didn’t make me feel much better about the pain, but it gave me a clear direction on the path to take.
My injury caught me off-guard, the result of simply turning my body 35 degrees while my two girls were playing. It was gripping, shooting, shearing and pretty much any other description of pain you could think of. It was the summer of 2016, and I was only 38.
Most normal people would take sometime off, but being a business owner, that wasn’t an option. So during the day I would push through the pain, and in the evenings I would do rehabilitation and whiskey. After a few months of gently care, I started to push a little more in my recovery.
And that wasn’t good. I re-injured again, and again, as I tried to adapt to different routines and exercises. Eventually, I found what worked for my aging spine, and realized that everything that I thought was true for fitness training was actually a big lie.
That’s a big claim, so let me explain…
Don’t exercise like you’re 20… even when you’re 20.
You heard me. Even if you are young, don’t train like half the people you see at the gym. Most of them are over-training and under-eating. Put a major focus on intention and prioritize the goals of the day, then get out and recover.
Most people doing the “chest day” or “leg day” are going to end up with injuries, as doing too much work will result in repetitive strain injuries. There is a pharmacological concept called the Minimum Effective Dose which is the lowest possible dose required to create a biological response.
When applied to the world of health and fitness, it’s about not annihilating the muscle tissue day after day but encouraging the body to grow and adapt a little at a time consistently over a long period of time.
This is the Greek story of Milo of Croton, who trained his body by lifting a newborn calf every day. As the calf grew into a full sized cow, Milo’s strength also grew until he became a part of the stories of legend. Remember though, livestock are heavy animals and doing too much will cause damage.
Time under tension matters… a lot!
Time under tension is a framework for strength training that refers to the amount of time that tension is applied to a muscle. It places a focus on slow moving repetitions during the concentric, isometric and eccentric parts of the lift.
So while you may see some people lifting the weight up as quick as they can to hurry off and check their messages, a lifter who is using time under tension is placing their attention on the movement of the weight.
The tempo can change, based on the lift, the weight, and the person, but a common speed is a 5–2–5–2:
- Five seconds to lift a weight through the range
- Two second pause at the top
- Five seconds to lower the weight
- Two second pause at the bottom
The benefit is continual tension to stimulate both bone and muscle density, even with a lighter weight. There is less irritation to the joint, less break down of form, and less potential for injury.
Because of this, I tend to lift to complete failure with a reduced range of motion as the muscle becomes fatigued. This means that partial reps are completely acceptable for the goal, and since the muscle is very fatigued, I only do one set for the exercise.
That is correct. One set for each exercise, and one exercise per body-part. And yes… it commonly does make fitness influencers quite upset, as it breaks the typical “norm” of fitness. Newsflash: Not everyone wants to put on thick slabs of muscle.
Fluid is an important concept.
And there really are no thick slabs of muscle. If you’ve ever had the opportunity to see a cadaver, you will see what I’m talking about. Muscle tissue in itself is only one part of equation, fluid and water retention is a huge component.
Fluids in the muscle are essential for transporting nutrition to the tissue and to taking away metabolic waste. More fluid in the muscle is what people look for when they chase “The Pump.”
When my spinal injury was bad, I remember sitting on the edge of the bed looking at my left thigh. The muscle had atrophied away enough that my thigh was the same thickness of my calf, and as I felt my numb leg, I thought, “Well this isn’t good.”
When bad things happen, you know that you are going to have a strong lesson being taught to you, whether you want it or not. On good days, my leg was almost its normal size, and on bad days, it was all drained away. This reinforced the fact that most of muscle is fluid, not slabs of meat.
One of the more common things people say to self-sabotage their mindset when they are working out to build muscle (or lose fat!) is the statement, “It’s just water weight.”
While that may be a pessimistic approach, it’s also a realistic one to hold on to when we understand that we are mostly fluid in nature. It also suggests that “The Pump” can be used to help grow muscle if used correctly.
The day after a super-slow failure day, I would follow up with a high volume, reverse pyramid lifting routine. This is starting off with a lighter weight and doing very high reps. Once you hit failure, increase the weight and lift again. Repeat this process two more times, and that exercise is complete. Move on to the next exercise.
It’s not easy, but it’s incredible to see the change in the tissue after the lift! It makes you want to continue lifting, but then it isn’t following the minimum effective dose principle.
Success requires more work than you want but less than you think.
Our brains like to work with the “more is better principle”, but as we age we begin to discover that principle is flawed. We need to rewire our minds when it comes to fitness and focus more on productivity than being busy.
If you really think about it, this is a good philosophy for life as a whole, and the more effective we are at doing consistent, meaningful actions, the more time we will have to enjoy life the way its meant to be enjoyed.