Book Review: Gift Of Injury By Dr. Stuart McGill And Brian Carroll
As a fitness coach focused on helping people lead stronger, more energetic lives long term, I rate Gift of Injury very highly. Here's why I think it should be required reading everyone engaged in athletic pursuits at any level.
Gift Of Injury is written by spine specialist Dr. Stuart McGill and multiple record holder in powerlifting Brian Carroll. The book follows Brian's journey as he went from non-stop debilitating back pain to being able to get back on the platform pain free and performing at an elite level.
Although most of us aren't (and never will be) world class lifters, this book shares important lessons for anyone who trains with weights. It's easy to read and is accessible to the average person. No PhD required to get through this tome!
What are the biggest take aways? There're plenty of nuggets in there, but for me, these were the four most impactful points in Gift Of Injury.
1. Perfect the basics
Brian describes the day to day imperfections that led to many of his problems:
“Years of poor movement patterns, allowing my form to be loose under load and having energy leakages without proper stiffness, improper strength progressions and lack of ‘down’ weeks had finally caught up with me.”
And when he saw Dr. McGill and began to see improvement, he reacted:
“I almost laughed at how simple he made it seem…. I guess sometimes high-level athletes get so used to their own ingrained movements that they forget the basics of form necessary to the sport. The old adage that we need to practice the way we plan to compete, is so true.”
There are plenty of nuances that contribute to excellent lifting technique. A lot of it isn't natural or automatic. It needs to be taught and practiced. But that’s the point. From day one, find someone who can help you learn those key technique details. Then practice them on every rep.
Not only does this lessen your risk of injury. It leads to better long term development. Incorrect technique is a major reason for getting stuck at early performance plateaus. Better technique gives you more potential - the potential to lift more weight, to train more without being sidelined by injury, and to eliminate weak links.
“Employing proper form during menial daily tasks such as tying your shoes… is just as essential as maintaining your technical cues under load.”
2. Core Training is essential for performance and safety
Seems obvious enough, but stay with me here! My experience tells me that your idea of core training and Dr McGill’s method may be very different, and that's worth investigating.
McGill says that:
“Core training, and the employment of core stiffness are non-negotiable to injury resilience and performance enhancement. I know of no other athlete variable that measurably enhances athleticism so immediately.”
His methods focus on eliminating movement in the trunk and spine. Whereas an exercise like a sit-up intentionally bends the spine as you crunch up, exercises like planks, loaded carries, bird dogs, and deadbugs are all about holding the same position in your spine while allowing your limbs to move freely around it.
The book details many of these exercises, but the main argument is that we should train the core like we use the core: to create stiffness and stability. Training the core in a way that causes repeated bending is less effective and has a higher chance of leading to back injury.
3. Be honest about your goals and potential
As kids growing up, many of us dream of playing under the bright lights of our favourite pro-sports league and emulating the heart and skill of our childhood heroes. Later on, most of us realise that won't be in the cards. Dang. So then what? What role will fitness and training play in our lives at this point? What are we training for?
There are so many reasons to participate in fitness activities, from maintenance to high performance, and everything in between. After a decade of coaching, I can say that having clarity on where you want to sit on that continuum (and why) leads to a much more satisfying and productive experience.
Gift of Injury touches on this:
“Decide if you want to train fitness, or train to be an athlete. Your health and injury rate will depend heavily on the path you choose. Athletes sacrifice a lot more than the average ‘fit’ person thinks, or will ever know…. Know that it’s a 24-hours-a-day job. It is a lifestyle. If you choose to be an athlete, be one 24/7, there is no other way.”
“Keep your goals realistic. You will never train a St. Bernard to win against a Greyhound on the racetrack, you will only get a broken dog…. Know that the top athletes have been touched by the hand of God in terms of their genetics. The wise person trains for health and once achieved, shifts to maintenance.”
How far you want to take your fitness potential and what constitutes an acceptable minimum standard is up to you. And it changes over time.
But we shouldn't fall prey to the myth perpetuated in the fitness industry that relentless hard work is all it takes to get to the top. Don't get me wrong. Hard work will get you a lot further than many people think! Every week I see people surprise themselves with how strong and fit they've become. But at the same time, to become truly elite, you need something extra. It's called natural ability. It's not fair, but we don't all possess equal amounts.
The people at the very top of sport work obsessively hard and are also blessed with extraordinary potential.
“Great athletes are not normal! Some have developed a killer instinct that, when trained and tapped into, can unleash a beast on competition days. Others are genetic mutants whose natural build lends itself to greatness in their particular sport. Most of the “greats” are a combination of both. Regardless of their predisposition, pure will is a critical factor on the path to success.”
4. We’re all different
That's right. You're all unique snow flakes. Pat yourself on the back.
Follow the principles, but adapt them to what works best for you. Maximize performance and minimize risk.
“Many of the athletes we work with, especially the ‘multi-million dollar ones,’ obviously are not trying to compete in powerlifting. You MUST treat these especially differently! These athletes are in many cases, better off squatting to a box set above parallel, depending on the hip depth, if could be 3-5” difference that could do the trick. This is done to shorten the ROM and lessen the risk of injury, while keeping their training sport-specific and NOT for powerlifting. Remember, ‘availability supersedes ability’. Some athletes will be better off not back squatting at all and doing a version of a front squat, or another variation of the squat etc. ”
In other words, if you want to learn something about getting really strong, study what powerlifters (and other insanely strong athletes) do. But be careful if your goals are different. Borrow the concepts, but customise them to fit your needs.
Not everyone's body is well suited to deadlifting from the floor, or to certain styles of squatting. Some exercises or routines might just be a bad idea for you. There's no shame in the exercise modification game! In other words...
Don't shy away from those differences. Embrace them and you'll get better results.
More free Resources to help Fix your Back Pain
Check out my excellent article on healing your back pain here. It received a lot of positive feedback so far and I hope it can help you too.
And One More Quote I Liked
“Ego for success is essential. One must disrespect the load enough to be assured that they will defeat it…. But this same ego won’t allow them to start over, or back off. This is so important to heal, beat pain, and surgery, and prepare the foundation to rebuild strength later.”