In the most recent blog on risk, we worked on the Fear of Something Bad Happening To Your Brain. In other words, the risk of embarrassing yourself doing any kind of athletic endeavor.
Today, we're talking about its correlate, the Fear of Something Bad Happening To Your Body. Although self-consciousness is the number one reason people avoid exercise, there's also the super reasonable fear of getting hurt while trying to get in shape. The mere thought of it keeps people away from fitness. Many new clients say, "I just don't want to get hurt."
Even people I've trained for years will occasionally say, "Am I gonna get hurt doing this?" (For the record, the answer is always "I don't know," because I don't know, but rest assured that any professional will not intentionally put you in a position where they think you might get hurt. If you've gotten hurt several times training with Chad McOverheadSquats, it's time for a conversation.)
We are always mitigating the risks of physical harm. If you'd never been in a car before, it would be pretty normal to look at your driver and say, "Am I gonna get hurt doing this?" They would explain that there's a seatbelt, an airbag, a speedometer, and several braking systems in place to help you intelligently handle the risk of being in a car. The gym works the same way. You've got proper footwear, mats, fitness experts, and your body's natural braking systems (high heart rate, nausea, fatigue) to help you intelligently handle the risk of working out.
No one wants to get hurt, so I get it. Fortunately, there are ways to prepare for injury as a possibility and ways to handle it afterwards as a reality. This post is about the former. The next post will be about the latter.
We know being strong keeps us from getting hurt.
But how do you define strong?
We'd like to avoid all injuries, but the world is an imperfect place. I don't think it's smart to either pretend that nothing can touch you, or to fear that you might be made of glass. So how to walk this line between the two, especially when you are just starting to get into fitness?
To answer, let's look at materials science. From my extremely expert knowledge, materials science looks at...materials...and performs...science.
Well, great. I was gonna make a chemistry joke here but all the good ones argon.
(I'm so sorry.)
One of the few things I do know about materials science is that people invent new materials that will be able to do useful things someday. When Apollo 11 was heading to the moon, they needed a space suit that would protect the astronauts from the squeezy ovenfreezer of outer space. (Squeezy Ovenfreezer is a band I would listen to.)
So NASA turned to Playtex to help design a new material safe for leaving Earth. Why Playtex? Because even though they barely hired women, they understood that stuffing your shit into a bra had to be pretty relevant to dressing for space. The astronauts would have to deal with bunching fabrics, stiff wires, impaired movement, and constant irritation. Of course, the space suit was to literally keep the men alive and the bra is just a bunch of skin-cutting, boob-enhancing bullshit that only sounded appealing because it replaced freaking corsets. But whatever. Materials scientists did this, coming up with neat ways of combining existing components like teflon, mylar, kevlar, and neoprene, to create new, sustainable spacesuit materials.
Strong, like health, is an all-encompassing term.
When new materials are made, they are rated for their abilities in order to determine their best fit and use. This is done by comparing them to other materials already in existence. One example that you know for sure is diamonds, known for being some of the hardest material on earth besides calculus. Diamonds are so hard that they are essentially only cut by using other diamonds. (Jesus, just watching that video gave me a crink in my neck. You can use lasers to cut diamonds, but apparently it takes 4-8 hours just to get through a one carat stone.)
There are many ratings commonly used to evaluate materials, but we'll look at four of them: resiliency, toughness, stiffness, and hardness. All of these assess the strength of an object, but strength can be defined in a whole bunch of different ways. So which one is best?
When people tell me that they just want to be strong, we have the same problem. We know that being strong helps keep us from getting hurt. But just like in engineering, strength is defined in a whole bunch of different ways in the body. So which one is best?
We're coming back to exercise after this short break to talk about engineering. Don't worry, we'll talk about sandwiches and mom jokes on the way.
Resiliency measures how completely a material bounces back after being deformed. Rubber is super resilient. So by one measure of strength, rubber is wicked strong. But would you want to fly in an airplane made of rubber?
Babies are also super resilient. (That's a joke, but also happens to be true! Broken bones heal much faster in children than in adults. Babies are also comprised of mostly cartilage, which helps protect them from falls, drops, and careening out of the crib in the middle of the night. And while we're here, another baby fun fact. Knees are all cartilage when you're born, leading to x-rays that make it look like our legs are just somehow hovering in air.)
Toughness is better described by its opposite: brittleness. Tough materials are able to absorb impact without shattering. Polyethylene, for example. Throw a plastic grocery bag off the Empire State Building and you won't be worried about it shattering. Yet you can also tear a hole in it with the corner of the damn spaghetti box your spouse begged you to pick up that's now stabbing you in the thigh.
By this measure of strength, silly putty is definitely strong.
Stiffness measures how much a material can be bent and still return to its original shape. Metals like aluminum and steel are super stiff (you can barely deform them), whereas a rubber band has very low stiffness (it can be wildly deformed—like in a slingshot—and return to its original state unaffected).
Steel and a rubber band couldn't seem more different, but can you find examples where each is the perfect fit for the job? Sure. So, being stiff represents strength, and so does being floppy as hell. I need the monocle emoji here.
(PS. Floppy As Hell sounds like the body positivity blog we all need.)
Finally, hardness looks at how easily a material is scratched or dented. As we said, diamonds are insanely hard. You will have a hell of a time scratching a diamond. Metal drill bits are another example, hard enough that they can withstand the abuse of steady drilling. (Like your mom.)
Diamonds are insanely strong. But you couldn't use them to build the frame of your house.
A material that is highest in every strength category is surely one of the holy grails of science, alongside a cure for cancer and a way to construct a properly mayonnaised sandwich without the goddamn chicken sliding out the back.
Why does any of this matter? Because strong isn't easy to define in engineering and it's not easy to define in fitness either. The best way to prevent injuries in fitness is to recognize that strong, just like health, is an all-encompassing term. To solve this problem, scientists have learned to make composites. That's what you're going to do too. You combine several elements and materials to make something stronger than each individual part. Simba was a trash lion without Nala. Nala couldn't defeat Scar. Individually, they were slow. Together, they were able to mufasa.
(I'M SO SORRY.)
Composites are game-changing.
Reinforced concrete puts steel in the middle of concrete walls to help improve steel's strength and reduce concrete's brittleness. Bulletproof glass is generally a mixture of glass and plastic, neither of which will stop a bullet on their own but together they're like freaking Superman.
And this, dearest purring lions, is how you walk the line between pretending you can't get hurt and being terrified that you're only going to get hurt. Whether you're in the beginning of your fitness career or if you're a seasoned gym vet, you need to make yourself into a composite.
A composite of what though?
Metaphorically speaking, you'll want all the same ratings as material science. To maximize your ability to bounce back after a hit, to absorb impact rather than shattering, to bend under load and then return to your original shape, and to be able to drill for a real long time without wearing down. (Insert easy joke here.)
Here's what this looks like in actual fitness terms. There are arguments for plenty of others, but these are my black blazers, sundresses, and comfortable flip flops. If you fill your closet with these essentials, you'll be able to build any outfit with them.
Strength is better defined as work. (Work = force x distance.) How much mass you can move from one place to another. You push your car out of a hole. You did work, bitch.
People often think of strength and power as being the same thing but they are not. Power requires speed. (Power = force x distance/time) This is why powerful movements aren't as heavy as strength movements. It's asking a lot to fire a bar up overhead and expect it to get there. Look how fast Sarah Robles moves this bar. That's power. Even in slow-mo it's somehow in normal speed. (PS that bar weighs 278 pounds. 278 pounds!!!)
Endurance training is just what it sounds like: How long can your body continue producing a quality movement? Muscle fibers for endurance are physiologically distinct from muscle fibers for strength and power. This is why you don't see too many 70 year old sprinters (much of their power production has dropped) but you do see 70 year old road racers (their endurance fibers are largely unchanged). Endurance requires a lower level of strength per move, which allows movement to endure over time.
Flexibility is given less credit as an athletic component than the first three, but it deserves its place on this list. I split (see what I did there?) muscle flexibility into three pieces: passive, active, and REALLY active. How far will my muscle stretch when something helps it? (Like putting your leg up on a chair to stretch your hamstring.) How far will my muscle stretch when it's on its own? (Like kicking your leg to your face.)
And how much will it stretch when it is carrying weight? (Like doing a deadlift.) The same muscle groups could potentially answer each of these differently depending on how healthy those groups are.
Moving without restriction is the gateway to learning absolutely anything you want to learn in fitness. If you go watch Sarah again, you can see that she's flexible in her legs, hips, spine, and shoulders. Flexibility can't lift a bar, but it sure can prevent you from lifting a bar.
The partner to muscle flexibility and also, in my opinion, underutilized as a training tool, is joint mobility. Mobility has major implications for both performance and injury prevention/rehabilitation. Your joints have to be able to move from end to end, and to be sturdy throughout that movement. You know your annoying windshield wiper that leaves a streak right in front of the driver's eye? Your wiper is able to move from end to end, but it's not sturdy throughout. Your joints can skip and streak in the same way. A skip in a joint is what leads to a labrum tear, bursitis, or shoulder impingement.
Moving without restriction is the gateway to learning anything in fitness.
Assuming you're not training for a specific elite sport, you'll want to train for competency in all these areas. The better you are at combining these athletic properties within your body, the lower your odds will be of getting hurt no matter what you're working on.
But Mia, we all only have a limited amount of time to devote to the gym. I don't have time to consistently train five different modalities. I can barely get two runs done a week, how the hell am I supposed to find thirty minutes a day to stretch my hips?
The beauty is, you can replace one workout with another. You don't have to do all five every day. I often do full workouts which are exclusively mobility. I recently spent forty-five minutes just working on moving my shoulders and shoulder blades around. That was it. No sweat, no fatigue, felt incredible afterwards.
But Mia, let's get real. I can't handle five. Which one should I focus on the most when it comes to keeping my body healthy? Just gimme one.
If you showed up on my porch with torches, I would pick strength. But before you pack that up and take it with you, I just want to remind you that it's a little bit like saying "Well, if diamond is the strongest material on the planet, let's just build all our buildings out of diamonds from now on."
For one thing, DeBeers made sure no one could ever afford that. But for another thing, although diamonds are the hardest substance on the planet, they can also be easily smashed with a hammer. Sapphires too, which smartwatch manufacturers remembered after making watch screens out of sapphire glass. The screens couldn't be scratched by anything, but they sure could be smashed.
Besides diamonds, ceramic and cement are also significantly stronger than steel, compressively speaking. A bus crashing into a cement wall would, in theory, not do nearly as much damage as a bus crashing into a steel-framed wall. Bulletproof vests are often made with ceramic plates, not steel ones. Of course, anyone who's ever handled either cement or ceramic knows that both materials are brittle as hell.
So we use steel for buildings, even though it's not the very strongest, because it's got the most of what we need. And that's how I train my athletes. Try to get the most of what you need, rather than the absolute limit of just one thing. There has to be some athletic compromise.
Sure, exclusively strength training is gonna give you your maximum strength progress. But the longer you only do strength training and avoid the other four types of training, the more you're gonna be building your buildings out of diamonds. There will inevitably come a point when a hammer comes smashing in, and your body won't be prepared for it. In my opinion, sacrificing maximum strength gains in favor of earning some mobility and power gains is worth it. Believe me, you won't lose overall progress.
Making physical improvements to your body REQUIRES you to progressively overload it. With overload comes gainz, and with overload also comes problemz. Think of these five methods as being five ways to minimize risk to your body. It's not just brakes or just a seatbelt. It's brakes, seatbelt, steering wheel, airbags, and backup camera all in one. Each modality that you can develop will lessen your odds of getting hurt at the gym, no matter what your fitness level.
In the next part of this series, we'll switch from talking about preventing injuries and into My Shoulder Is Already Fucked What Do I Do?
But here is a snack while you wait on pins and needles. Forget, for a bit, that you aren't able to do the one thing you want to do most. Set it aside like your sixth gin and tonic. Go get some Chex Mix and an eye mask instead. See how much happier your body is tomorrow when you give it something different from the temptation right in front of you.