By: Nathaniel Hancock
“Each new chapter of our lives requests an old part of us to fall and a new part of us to rise.”
After meticulous preparation and arduous lifting over many months, I was two weeks away from setting personal bests across the board at my upcoming powerlifting meet in Boise, Idaho. For the first time after nearly a decade of training, I was poised to take over the number one slot in my weight and age category nationwide. The moment came for my heaviest deadlift single (one rep) in the gym, and I was feeling strong and determined. With 575 lbs. on the bar, my previous best in this lift, I was excited to witness my progress and boost my confidence going into the meet by annihilating this weight. I approached the bar with purpose and drive: it moved quickly off the floor until just before lockout, and then — “POP!” — my left biceps detached from the elbow bone as my tendon ruptured. In the space of a nanosecond, I was transported from a place of intense confidence and elation to one of utter heartbreak and disappointment. I sat down in a sea of sadness in the middle of Ironground gym in Murray, Utah, and pondered on what had just transpired. For several minutes I did not know where I was; I was lost.
The next 48 hours were difficult. I found myself playing out the Kübler-Ross grief cycle in my heart and mind: denial, anger, depression, bargaining, and finally acceptance. I had to embrace what had happened and bury my grief in order to move forward from this, my first major injury since herniating a disc in my lower back in 2016. Furthermore, as the tear was complete and the tendon separated from the bone, I knew that surgery was on the horizon, something I had been able to avoid since my right knee (ACL) reconstruction in 2006.
Now that I had accepted the inevitable and scheduled my surgery, what was to be done? How could I internalize the proverb, “When life gives you lemons, make lemonade”? In the midst of my anguish, I reached out to my long-term mentor for words of wisdom.
Every serious athlete needs a good mentor, and mine is a living legend. Born in the United Kingdom during World War II, Iain Burgess emigrated at a young age and began competing in powerlifting in the United States in the mid-‘60s. Once the owner of the famed Maryland Athletic Club (where the likes of Kirk Karwoski, Mark Chaillet, and Marty Gallagher trained in the ‘80s and ‘90s), Iain was serving as a powerlifting coach at the Colosseum Gym in Columbia, Maryland, when I met him in 2013. My initial (immature) impression of a small, quiet, past-his-prime man evolved into deep respect, admiration, and friendship. I knew he would know what to say to inspire me after this hardship.
“The sun came up, you’re alive, and your kids love you. This is where you start.”
Brilliant. And true. Iain went on to tell me about his own biceps tendon rupture surgery in 1981, and how he went on to make 7 world-level powerlifting teams since then (he is still competing in his mid-70s today). Perspective restored! This was precisely the encouragement I needed to inhale at a time when my hope and optimism hade been briefly asphyxiated. Thank goodness for metaphorical oxygen — and Iain.
VARIETIES OF “LEMONADE”
The past happened. It is over and done. It cannot be changed. As Thomas S. Monson stated: “The past is behind; learn from it. The future is ahead; prepare for it. The present is here; live it.”
The question becomes this: what good can come from a setback of this nature? How can a torn biceps (or another serious injury) result in growth — physical and otherwise — when on the surface it may appear to be a purely negative turn of events?
While I happen to be writing this piece on Day One of my surgery recovery (and therefore expect more life lessons to emerge in the coming months), the following benefits of this significant mishap have already come into view with surprising precision:
Every one of these eight benefits presents an extraordinary gift to the injured lifter; however, from a physical standpoint, there are three that merit a special emphasis: increased regeneration, renewed emphasis on technique, and acute focus on building weaknesses.
If you are anything like me, pushing yourself harder and harder in the gym is not the challenge; rather, the difficulty is knowing when to hold back to enable your system to optimally recover from the damage you have inflicted upon it. As I transitioned from a competitive bodybuilder (2000 NPC Utah, 2001 NPC USA) to a competitive powerlifter (2012-present), my maturity in terms of constant max testing versus real strength training evolved; now, as I approach my mid-40s, I am focused more on sustainable strength gains than momentary muscular glory. That said, while my ability to read my body’s fatigue levels and muscle soreness is somewhat advanced after decades of lifting, knowing when tendons and cartilage are overly stressed is another story. On top of that, many of us find ourselves going hard training block after training block; while we tend to implement “de-load weeks” (periods of training with lighter loads) for the muscles, few of us consider how much longer tendons take to regenerate from constant stresses as compared to muscles.
Enter the injury. When we sustain a serious injury, we are forced to back away from training a certain area for a period of time. While this can prove psychologically challenging (speaking from personal experience), it can also be a blessing in disguise, as we are enabling the connective tissue of the untrained areas to rebuild as we rest them for a season. In my case, with a biceps reattachment surgery, I will not be benching for months; while frustrating, this will allow my pec tendons to recover to an extent I have not enabled them to for years, thereby preparing the way for even greater stress capability in the future — and a bigger bench!
RENEWED EMPHASIS ON TECHNIQUE
When attempting to pinpoint why an injury occurred, sub-optimal form throughout part or all of the movement is one of the first variables to consider (in addition to overdoing it in terms of training volume and intensity). In my case with this torn biceps, it appears that my mixed grip sumo style deadlift with the left hand supinated (palm facing up), combined with a tendency to slightly bend at the elbows and thereby place stress on the left biceps in the upper fourth of the movement, likely contributed to the injury. (In addition, as a seasoned lifter with decades of time on task, I have a higher likelihood of general wear and tear; moreover, I had experienced some tenderness at the left biceps insertion point in recent months.)
While it is not always possible to determine precisely why an injury occurred, for the majority of lifters there is room for technique improvement. It cannot be overstated: technique is king. With limited exceptions, the top lifters in the world train and compete with impeccable, efficient, repeatable form. No two bodies are exactly the same, but all of us can locate elite-level lifters with similar body types in order to consider how we might go about optimizing our movement (and motor) patterns. Furthermore, experienced coaches can prove indispensable in their ability to critique flaws in current technique, and to communicate effective cues to assist the lifter as he or she improves.
No one should wait to become injured to seek to improve on technique — that much should be obvious. But even experienced lifters may discover that minor technique flaws, if left unchecked over time, can eventually result in sub-optimal totals or, worse still, in frustrating injuries. Any setback of this nature is an opportunity to re-evaluate technique and to pinpoint the weakest link in the strength and performance chain.
ACUTE FOCUS ON BUILDING WEAKNESSES
In most cases, a serious injury will force the lifter away from certain movements for a time. This opens up the door for an increased emphasis on other movements that may have been neglected or less-than-optimized for a while. It forces the lifter and his or her coach to do a deep-dive analysis on which lifts — among those now available — would best contribute to the lifter’s success, given the injury and perceived weak links.
With a smaller list of possible exercises for the injured lifter, more attention is given to options that had likely been on the back-burner previously. This spells opportunity, as lifter and coach will now be in a position to test out new strategies to see what produces the greatest overall strength gains for the athlete.
In my situation, I have invested in a deadlift harness to enable me to continue to strengthen my posterior chain despite my inability to grip the bar with my injured arm. I am also purchasing grippers, as I plan to transition to a double overhand deadlift once my injury heals and, given my relatively small hands, I want to avoid having grip strength limit total pulling ability. Furthermore, in speaking with my coach, Jake Benson, we plan to incorporate squat work using alternative bars, reps on the Pit Shark (belt squats), and other strategies as my left arm heals.
A NEW BEGINNING
Life challenges, including injuries for serious athletes, place the lifter at a crossroads. Will we maintain the course and find ways to overcome the obstacle? Will we shift focus and elect to invest in a new pursuit? Athletes have different life contexts and distinctive underlying motivations to consider at these junctures, but one thing remains the same: our mettle is being tested. We will be changed by these circumstances in one way or another.
Holocaust survivor Viktor Frankl expressed this truth as follows:
“Between stimulus and response there is a space. In that space is our power to choose our response. In our response lies our growth and our freedom.”
In sum, we are the masters of our own fate. As 2020 has repeatedly shown, we cannot control everything that happens to us in this life, but we have the ability to “choose our response” — every time. Momentary mourning after a setback like surgery is both natural and understandable. But once the dust settles, we would do well to listen to one of the most creative minds of the modern era:
“The way to get started is to quit talking and begin doing.”
— Walt Disney