Avoiding Non-Contact Soft-Tissue Injuries

With the NFL combine behind him, SCI.net's Matt Steel puts on his trainer's hat to explain how most non-contact soft-tissue and joint injuries can be eliminated.

The combine has come and gone. As I watched some of college football's most accomplished athletes do their best to display their athleticism, I'm reminded of both how far training has come as well how much it lags behind in several areas.

The most substantial progress in training over the last 30 to 40 years has been in recovery and nutrition. Back in the '70s and '80s (largely considered the steroid eras in football), you could read about players lifting weights up to five or six hours a day. And as a result of overtraining without ideal nutrition, players were vastly undersized compared to what they are now. It wasn't until players started scaling back on the amount of days and time they spent lifting weights, combined with focused nutrition plans, did we see a substantial gain in size and athleticism.

Technology has taken the science of training to a whole new level. I was pleased to read last offseason that the Steelers had invested in the Catapult system. Check catapultsports.com and you can get a detailed description of how this technology helps limit overtraining. In a nutshell, the biomechanical technology can monitor things such has hydration levels, fatigue, and sleep requirements for individual athletes. I don't think it was a coincidence that the frequency of non- contact soft tissue injuries decreased for the Steelers last season.

That said, despite these latest technological advancements in athlete monitoring, far too many injuries occur that shouldn't. Athlete training is still lagging behind in several ways. Less than two years ago, I started training with a former NFL player who played for a team for two seasons and had a cup of coffee with three other teams, including the Steelers. As we worked together, I was shocked to learn all he didn't know about training as I taught him numerous exercises and body-maintenance techniques that he had never seen.

Immersed in athlete training for over two decades as either a high school or college athlete, fitness professional, and athlete trainer, I always had a passion to dig deeper into all of the possible options that could better maximize performance, with the high-ceiling goal of eliminating the chance for non-contact injury. Meeting and learning from countless other professionals, I have yet to meet one who has the drive to put their theories to the test by performing everything they teach. I have been doing exactly that since my college career ended. Maximizing my own genetic athletic ability has long been an obsessive passion. But as someone who wanted to train athletes in the best way possible, it was extra motivation to perform ideas so that I truly had the knowledge of what works best for athletes. After over two decades of having the continuous goal of improving my training programs through education and personal experience, I developed a system that has not only eliminated non-contact injuries to ligaments and soft tissue, but also eliminated chronic injury issues that my athletes had suffered. NON-CONTACT INJURIES SHOULD NEVER HAPPEN. If they do, the athlete and/or his trainer are making mistakes somewhere along the process.

The first major reason athletes get non-contact injuries is because they use poor mechanics when doing exercises. I have seen countless videos of college or professional athletes lifting weights, and not once have I ever watched them do the exercises correctly. In sport, the athlete is constantly reinforced about the fundamentals, yet when it comes to exercise, the teaching of fundamentals appears to be severely limited. The fundamentals are like a golf swing or a jump shot, they take time and repetition to master. But lost on U.S. athletes is the importance of optimal positioning of the ankles, knees, hips, spine, ribs, shoulders, and neck. By maximizing the positioning of these areas, the athlete learns how to integrate the entire body to all movement. More specifically, the athlete learns to integrate the core with all movement.

This is vital to injury prevention. The anatomy of the core extends four layers. When the athlete maximizes their core connection to movements with optimum biomechanics, he or she trains the brain to consistently connect the nervous system to trigger the core to aid movements. This can help eliminate the chance of the athlete sending a more inefficient signal that can oftentimes send the majority of force to a joint. With optimum biomechanics and core integration, the body is trained to have the core take on a great amount of force, saving wear and tear on ligaments. Understanding this, I believe the injury Sean Spence had a couple years ago should never have happened.

A few years back, I had taken a nine-months program with the guidance of someone I consider to be by far the biggest genius I've ever been involved with in movement. When I learned integration mechanics a few years back in this Pilates certification program, it was as if I went down the first hill of a roller coaster. That steady progression I had made in training knowledge was the steady climb, the program was the rapid profession. I remember at that time when I was learning how to connect the entire body to movement being amused while driving my car because I noticed my core taking on the force of acceleration and breaking. Since then, new athletes who initially develop sore lower backs the first time they do a speed routine, after working with me for a sustained period of time, get soreness in their core the first time they come back from a designed extended rest period. That is because they have trained their core to take on force by doing all movements with optimum fundamentals. I enjoy watching the steady progression as my athletes initially struggle with mechanics due to an underdeveloped core, only to steadily master the mechanics as the athlete increases hi comprehensive core strength and willingness to connect his core to movement.

The second major issue I see in training is the exercises used by athletes. The thought of athletes using powerlifting excercise such as squats, walking lunges and tire-flipping gets me heated. These are the same movements used by football players back in the '60s and '70s. Using power lifts and squats I would equate to using a rotary phone today. It makes no sense, especially for kids who are getting their bodies destroyed by people with very little training education on amateur, junior high school or high school levels. I've known numerous former athletes who suffer extreme lower back issues as adults, and much of it due to the exercises they were forced to do as amateur athletes. The body is resilient when young, but eventually the bad habits catch up to people as they age.

Look, anyone who performs any movements that provide muscle and strength while running sprints can increase their size and speed. That part isn't a science. But there are so many better options to maximizing an athlete's strength, size, and athleticism than powerlifting and squats. In my mid 20s, when I was in the fitness profession full time, I trained with a colleague who at one point won the North American Strongest Man competition. I watched this guy do half-depth squats at 765 pounds. He had a 330-pound boulder he carried outside to train. I once counted him doing 27 reps at 315 pounds on an incline bench. At 6-3, 320 pounds, an NFL owner (who was a member at the club) asked him to do a private workout for his team. He failed miserably in the private workout. For all the strength he had, this individual couldn't move very well. We did "powerlifting Fridays" together, and at the time I was miserable with aches and pains that at the time I thought were just a part of training. But it made me think of Olympic powerlifters, who didn't seem to be too athletic, either. And I began to wonder about the importance of these movements in relation to athletic performance. I thought there had to be a better way. And the "there has to be a better way" is the mentality I still use to this day.

That said, power lifts are violent on the joints. It doesn't make much sense for a sport that is heavily predicated on violent collisions to do movements that add unnecessary stress to joints. Squats, no matter the form, put a tremendous amount of unnecessary stress on the spine. Hamstring injuries occur far more often with athletes than quad injuries. I believe squats to be to be one of the primary reasons. I have sent athletes either to Division One programs that later develop hamstring issues or have had Division One players come back with hamstring issues that we had to work to eliminate. The reason is that while doing squats, many athletes shift weight to the front of the feet and bend the waist rather than the knees, leading to predominant use of the quads with limited hamstring activation. This creates front to back imbalance, and deficiencies in the hamstring can't match the force created by the quads and hamstrings injuries occur. One hamstring injury is a major red flag that the athlete is doing something wrong. Injuring both hamstrings should activate a blinking billboard that the athlete has major training deficiencies. Shamarko Thomas would never have injured his hamstrings if he was training properly. And by developing quad dependency, the athlete can transfer excess force to the knees that stronger hamstrings, adductors, and glute muscles should absorb.

The strength imbalance also creates the "stiff hips" myth. It's a little humorous listening to draft analysts who act as if they're experts on movement. I could stretch an athlete's hips for an eternity and it's not going to eliminate the "stiff hips" of the so called "heavy-legged waist-bender." The reason the athlete isn't fluid at dropping his hips is often because he hasn't developed the functional strength in the hamstrings and glutes to support the drop of weight. Often we see it with heavier athletes when their hamstrings and glutes have to support much more for force. But it's an issue that can be corrected by choosing the right exercises. That was the main issue as to why my NFL buddy couldn't stay in the league. As a tight end, he couldn't bend and he lost the leverage battle. When I met him, I couldn't get him to drop his hip joints parallel to his knees without any weight, yet somehow in college he was tested to be able to squat 450 twice. As we worked using exercises that forced him to activate his hamstrings and glutes, he was able to bend substantially better and drop his hips parallel to his knees. Mike Adams can't bend very well. But with the right exercises, it can be corrected.

There are over 600 muscles in the body. The more variety the athlete can receive, the better. Power lifts, squats, and conventional weight training is not enough to eliminate strength imbalance. Conventional weights, functional movements, nervous system speed maximization, Pilates and yoga are all components that should a part of an athlete's athletic process. This variety is the best way to eliminate any potential imbalances.

The third major issue I see is in post-workout/post-practice therapy. It's surprising that with all the latest advancements, teams still practice and then walk off the field without doing myofascial therapy and mobility work. Another term for it is Rolfing. Athletes do some of it here or there. They often use foam rollers and sticks for their hamstrings and calves (although those rolling sticks don't come close to getting deep enough). Athletes get deep-tissue massages and acupuncture as well. But myofascial work is never more important than after a workout or practice. And I have never seen another trainer use techniques that allow the athlete to treat EVERY SINGLE PART OF THE BODY, from the bottom of the feet up though the skull. My NFL buddy had an understanding of how to roll out his quads and hamstrings, but he had never seen self-release treatments for the feet, adductors, hip flexors, core, chest, shoulders, rib cage, etc. -- all techniques vital to maximizing recovery and minimizing mobility injury. Stiff areas of an athlete are the result of neglected areas.

I run a summer myosfascial class for athletes. I had most of those high school kids decrease their 40 time by two to three tenths of a second working on nothing but myofascial release and mobility. By maximizing looseness and mobility to ALL areas of the body, the athlete can nearly eliminate the chance for soft-tissue injury while improving athleticism. Most damage and tightness occurs after working out, practices, or games. Yet, specifically after practices, when practice is over, the athletes just walk off the field. Dynamic warm-ups are utilized before practice, yet for some reason teams still stretch before practice rather than after, which is the most crucial time to do it.

This is more of an issue in the U.S. than in other countries. One point I read made a lot of sense: Here in the U.S., there are so many athletes to choose and dispose of, whereas in smaller countries there is extreme value on a quality athlete. It puts optimizing protection at a premium.

Finally, there are more nerve endings in the feet than any other area of the body. Yet athletes spend a tremendous amount of time training the body and very little time training and caring for their feet. Through ideal hand and foot maintenance, an athlete activates system fluid flow throughout the body that optimizes the function of the nervous system. When I administer this program to my athletes, I'm always able to point out which foot they worked on because it stimulates fluid flow on that side of body, causing the arm on that side to be slightly longer than the other side since the fluid stimulation loosens muscles all the way up that side of the body.

A foot issue can cause a chain reaction all the way up the body. For example, when I was in the 9-month Pilates education program, I learned how to work on and possibly solve chronic shoulder injuries by working on nothing but the feet.

While training has advanced substantially, there are still far too many gaps in the process. Biomechanics/integration, exercise choice, comprehensive myofascial post-practice/workout therapy, and nervous system fluid foot and hand therapy are areas in which the U.S. sports world is still lagging far behind.

In my mid 20s, I thought I'd last, performing my athlete-training programs, to my early 30s. Now at age 39 I feel far better physically than I did in my 20s. I'm hanging right in speed-wise with one of my athletes who ran a 4.37 last year at the Chicago regional combine. I never would have thought I could move at these speeds at this age, let alone still be able to perform pro athlete-like training programs. With this system, I'm confident I'll be able to maximize my athleticism and run routes well into my mid 40s, with age 50 now being the new personal goal. Saving countless amateur and professional athletes from unnecessary wear and tear or injuries while improving their performance longevity and athleticism is my ultimate goal.

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