My physical training has been the single biggest ally in fighting my mental health issues (namely, depression). This is a recommendation I’m not afraid to personally endorse to men again and again, but I can also backup with multiple medical studies.
It’s also the backbone for my #1 Bestselling Book in Men’s Health.
Any reader of my book will be able to read between the lines of many chapters and see a man constantly at war with his own mental health. And this is not a war to be taken lightly – when the biggest killer of men under 45 in the UK is suicide, and 42% of men in the UK have suffered with depression.
42 fucking percent. That’s pretty much half of all the men reading this, have already, or will at some point, suffer with depression.
So I put quite a bit of weight to my words when I say that I strongly believe a rigid and regular exercise program helps my mental health and it can help yours too. The routine and the testosterone boost are vital to my mental health as a man.
….so what happens when you get an injury from training, and then you can’t hit the gym in the same way anymore?
Cue 2 deep hernias in my lower abdomen (with a testicular cancer scare thrown in for good measure – but that ended up being nothing more than a week of worrying my ass off).
The prognosis? No deadlifts. No squats. No Benchpress. No gym…. What the fuck would I do!?
Step 1: Find Out The Limits
The first step of course is to immediately tell your doctor that you hit the gym a lot. She may think in her head “Hmm he does some yoga, maybe a circuit class”. NOO! Tell her you lift big weights… Make sure she knows there could be 200kg of pressure on your back and you need to know if this is OK.
I had a confusing experience when I tried to seek professional advice from my Doctors. My initial consultation with a Senior Consultant (urologist) told me
“Do nothing. Absolutely nothing. Don’t even carry groceries!”
But then I spoke with another Doctor on a second occasional shortly after an ultrasound and he was somewhat more empathetic. He told me,
“We both know how important physical exercise is to you, and in most of my male patients, how important it is for their mental health. So as your Sonographer [Ultrasound guy] I am telling you to do nothing, but if you were a patient in my clinic, I would tell you to listen to your body, adapt, and protect your physical AND mental health”.
Somewhat cryptic but, understand that every word that comes out of a UK Doctors mouth is spoken with great fear of being sued (Thanks for that culture Americans…). He was a great guy who had obviously lifted in his day. He got it. Hernia’s can kill you, but so can sitting on your ass all day going crazy.
This is something that Athletes have to deal with everytime they get an injury. Do this and you risk making it permanent and worse. Do that and risk creating a whole new problem.
I did my own research online. I spoke with a few powerlifters at my gym who had suffered with Hernia’s in the past. I spoke with my gym buddy who is a junior Doctor. I read online bodybuilding, strongman and powerlifting forum threads.
I established the absolute, ‘Do not cross these lines for risk of death!’ limits and also got a realistic sense of my prognosis.
Take serious injuries seriously.
Step 2: Test Those Limits For Yourself
The next step is to get in the gym and run a physical assessment for yourself.
Run through your original routine with the absolute lightest, lightest weights. I’m talking about empty bars, assisted machines, body weight, a few reps. Feel the injury in your body, feel which muscles rely on it, which movements tax it.
In my case, your abs/core are responsible for bracing almost every single heavy lift. However, it’s possible to keep them relaxed for many isolation lifts and for compound lifts if the weight is around 30% of your max.
I ran through my routine and immediately disqualified the standard deadlift and squat. Other things like chinups and pullups taxed my abs more than I’d ever realised. A lot of the dumbbell exercises performed standing up relied on my core to brace my body and prevent swaying.
This was NOT a workout. It was a gentle physiotherapy assessment.
The purpose of this is to really listen to your body. Understand how it works and how the injury impacts other movements.
It’s also to keep you active and to make sure you’re immediately doing something about it and taking control of you. You cannot let yourself fall back down, and staying in control is vital.
Step 3: Adapt, Adapt, Adapt!
Once you have your list of exercises that are out and exercises that are OK, you can start to adapt.
For example, I would usually like to bench 100kg – 110kg for 5 sets. But I knew this required a solid core – something I couldn’t do.
But when I put my legs up on the bench and relaxed my abs, sure I couldn’t bench a heavy weight, but I could move 50kg – 60kg for 10 sets of 12 reps. That isn’t going to grow my chest, but it would help to maintain it.
Squats were out, but I discovered various isolation leg machines (which I’d usually avoided) that allowed me to maintain relaxed abs if I kept the weights low-medium.
You need to accept your limitations, and adapt. Find new exercises, look around the gym at some of the more unusual stuff you see people doing, check out some online workouts in Mens Fitness or Mens Health. Try it out, adapt it.
Step 4: Write A New Program And Stick To It
You will end up with a lot of gaps in your training. This is the time to add in those new exercises. Sure, they wont be your favourite and they won’t be the most efficient for gains, but with enough sets and enough reps, it’s possible to create the best workout possible.
Once you’ve established something resembling a new program, write it out!
Even if your program looks a little light, the key is to have the structure in your day and week. Whenever depression threatens to hold you prisoner in the house, knowing that you have an absolutely fixed appointment in the gym can help.
Also, that period of masculine exertion is a beautiful place to release your frustrations, angers and anxieties onto the iron! We need to hang onto that catharsis!
(You may find adding in more cardio than normal will help to keep away any fat gain during the injury. Even if you can’t run or row, a gentle walk for 1 hour is better than nothing)
Step 5: Focus On The 10 Year Goal
The last and most important step, is to not worry about it too much.
3 months out from training (that’s the typical Hernia surgery recovery time) sucks balls, of course. But the end goal of having a body like Arnold and his $100m+ real estate portfolio to match is a 10+ year goal.
A few months might delay that vision slightly, but it doesn’t prevent it!
You will see muscle mass lost. You will get weaker. You might gain some weight. Just accept that it’s part of the journey and use this time to train your skills in adaptation and explore other ways to get that physical routine and that testosterone boost!
Injuries fucking suck. But always protect your mental health!
NHS Key Facts and Trends in Mental Health – http://www.nhsconfed.org/resources/2016/03/key-facts-and-trends-in-mental-health-2016-update
Male Suicide (Samaritans Report) – http://www.samaritans.org/sites/default/files/kcfinder/files/press/Men%20Suicide%20and%20Society%20Research%20Report%20151112.pdf
Campaign Against Living Miserably (CALM) – https://thecalmzone.net/