The gym isn't causing your aches and pains

The evening folks all know Margaret - she’s the one that lifts more than anyone else in the gym! I always like to judge if I’m using the right kettlebell by making sure I’m using what she’s lifting. If you haven’t met her, yet, she’s super cool and smart, and both a great athlete and coach. She offered to supply some rants for the blog, and since I’m all pro rant, here’s her first one. More to come…

I began weightlifting seriously for over a decade now now, and I would swear that I haven’t gone a day since when I’ve been to the gym and haven’t heard someone complaining about knee pain. If I did it was because I was the only one there… and even that wasn’t a guarantee. I’ve been hearing it more frequently at the gym, so I asked Mike if he would indulge me and let me address my thoughts on the blog.

For those of you who don’t know, I played NCAA D1 and USA national level hockey until I tore both of my ACLs – at the same time, in the same game, during my first college career game. For a variety of reasons, I chose not to get surgery which meant I needed to figure out another way to be able to function again. This actually meant I didn’t function at all for about a year and just complained and felt sorry for myself a lot. In chronic pain, I finally came across a guy who turned my life around in more ways than one. He was in a lot worse shape than me physically at a recent point in his life, having literally been blown up by an IED, and so he taught me two important things that I still remind myself of every time I wake up:

1) Stop complaining so damn much about general aches and pains – those can [normally] be fixed and I still have both of my legs and arms.

2) The gym is not my life. In fact, it’s a very small fraction of my life.

So where am I going with this? Where was he going with this? The points he was really trying to make, although being young and dense it took a while for some of them to sink in, is that I need to slow down and fix my life and thinking as a whole. He was an anomaly the CrossFit world and a lot of people didn’t like him very much because of it (because what’s the point if you’re not going as fast and heavy as possible?!). That said, he taught those that would listen to really focus on movement in every part of your life. If you go to the gym for an hour, that’s still less than 5% (1/24th to be precise) of your day. Your knee pain, aside from acute injury, is more than likely not coming from that time. It will be exacerbated by sh***y lifting, yes, but I can say after working with thousands of athletes, first responders, and military personnel by this point my life that if we make the core movements habit all of the time, that is how we fix chronic pain, knees included. As a bonus, we’ll also become much strong and more proficient in the gym. This takes thought, though, and breaking down bad habits that we’ve developed our entire lives.

For example, wearing flip flops all of the time (e.g. more than going in and out of the car to the gym or preventing fungus foot in locker room showers) makes us clench our toes and will cause extreme tightening in out plantar fascia (bottom of our feet) which will translate to tightness in our calves and will ultimately translate to knee pain. Traditional cushy heeled running shoes will cause us to be more anterior chain reliant (i.e. we dip our knees forward and turn them in causing us to use our quads more dominantly) which will tighten our patellar tendon and… causing knee pain. These things we do become muscle memory. We begin to dip forward with our weight towards our toes naturally, running shoes or not, while standing in line at the grocery store or standing while cooking dinner. This adds up more than any stress in 5+ hours in the gym a week, and these same habits will follow us into the gym.

I’m going to write another piece describing some of the really basic habits we can break that will significantly improve hip/knee/back problems, but my takeaway is that next time you’re asking the coach why you have knee pain, it’s probably not really just from movement in the gym… but lifting really heavy s**t and putting it back down, often with the same bad habits, will make it present much more noticeably than standing in line. You’ve been accumulating these problems every since you put on your first pair of Sketchers when you were three. The best thing we can do now is fix the root issue in the other 23 hours of your life.

Margaret Gruca