Built by SOUTH

I’ve watched my injury video hundreds of times at this point, and every single time, I find my mind trying to undo the events that happened January 26, 2014. I remember everything so clearly about that morning: my breakfast, the drive to the Expo, thinking that “even though my body was tired I’d give it my all” (remember this point for later), I remember seeing all the excited lifters and fans. I mostly remember being happy.

Things didn’t work out in my favor that day, or really, for a lot of days after, but that’s part of life. It doesn’t “kick you when you are down,” or “pick on you.” Life happens. Period. What you do with those circumstances is entirely independent to you, your willingness to work through problems you face, and more so, a willingness to accept that in almost every scenario, the choices YOU make impact your life. I’m not gonna go on a tangent, but it’s one of those “if you hate your job, change it” kind of mentalities I’m talking about. Accepting an injury is just like that; you can’t undo it. You can wallow in self pity, or you can be proactive and research, work, and contact any and every one possible to guide you in the steps to not only come back from the injury, but come back better.

Now, before some jackass points out that not all injuries are able to be overcome, there are certainly steps to be taken that can ensure no matter how minor or traumatic the injury, you come back the best you possibly can. I’m going to list some ideas that have helped me, and also share some pitfalls. I hope you take the time to understand that I’m not perfect, and my recovery is far from over, but I’ve gained a lot of insight I feel anyone that faces an injury should know.

Accept Your New Reality

I’m not talking bumps and bruises here. I’m talking serious injury; when that happens, there is going to be a huge adjustment period to how your body feels, how it moves, and also how you think about yourself. I remember for six straight days following the accident waking up from amazing morphine-induced sleep thinking, “That was a horrible nightmare,” only to try to move my legs and be reminded that my nightmare was real. I kept trying to undo what was done. I kept replaying it in my mind again and again, but I was realizing that I needed to accept reality. When I did this and stopped trying to undo things, my mental approach and focus heightened. I was no longer thinking about what could have been, but what was yet to come. I gained the motivation to get out of the hospital bed. I wanted to begin physical therapy. I wanted to be proactive and do everything that I could to help myself. I was no longer the man I was before the accident, and I had to be “ok” with this.

Surround Yourself with Love

I say this and it sounds cliche, and maybe a little soft, but facing an injury alone is an extremely – I’ll argue – near impossible task that will only compound itself if you don’t seek help. I prided myself in independence, being “a man,” being strong. But in this time shortly after my accident, I was no longer independent and strong. My sense of manhood was challenged because I was weak, incapable of doing my daily routine, and having to have help to get out of bed, to use the bathroom, to clean myself.

I was no longer the man I was before the accident, and I had to be “ok” with this.

You will never understand how much it means to just have someone there, to get a phone call, to hear from someone that they are thinking about you. All of these things seem insignificant, but I promise you that they are immeasurably meaningful, and I will argue necessary to guarantee proper and full recovery. What I mean by that is that your mind will be the Devil’s playground when you are injured, but having people that solidify your identity as a person and not just an “athlete” will be the foundation on which you can begin rebuilding self esteem, and eventually, the physical aspects of repair. Never ever be afraid to reach out to people, and furthermore, when people offer to talk, listen, eat with you, cry with you … Let them. It’s OK to be vulnerable. I learned so much about myself when I let the outside walls down and just let myself feel pain, joy, love, and the whole range of emotions, instead of being the stone-faced lifter that the Internet knows. In my weakest moments, I found out how much I am loved for who I am, not what I do. This was profoundly important to coming back from my hell.

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Give Yourself Time

I laugh at this one myself because I have NEVER once, since my injury, let this idea sink in. I’ve pushed 100% in every physical way possible, taken peptides, anabolics, vitamins, minerals, and at one point even a Crystal-wielding Shaman to try to speed up my recovery. But the fact is: No matter how much I want it, my drive to come back does not make tissue heal any faster. Ligaments and tendons don’t get stronger just because I want them to do so. There are biological factors at work that just take time.

I remember the doctors saying I might not walk for 6-10 months, and I set that as my crutch to build upon that I would do “this by this date, and that by that date.” This manifested timeline was based on no research or understanding of how badly I was hurt; it was based on my mentality as an athlete that “nothing can stop me, and fuck your limitations.” In so many ways, I would have been better off letting my body rest and giving my mind a better break to face all that was truly going on, instead of worrying about what a bunch of anonymous assholes on the Internet thought about my “toughness.” I came back, and in 1o months, totaled 1918 lbs. WOW! That got me a ton of “Likes” and “You’re the man” posts, but you know what? As “inspiring” as that may have been, it was 319 lbs. short of my best. What if I had waited five more months? Six? What if I had done all the things my doctors told me to do. What if rather than only focusing on being able to squat, bench, and deadlift, I focused on being able to walk more than 200ft. at a time without having to sit because my legs shook so badly? What if I stopped caring about trying to impress total strangers, and focused on impressing my son by showing him that strength of self is worth more than strength on a platform? Take your time. The platform has been there for a long time. It will wait on you.

Accept That You Will Be Weak

I remember starting physical therapy and the therapist giving me a drill on the leg press with a single 10 lb. plate per side. Before I even tried, I said: “At least give me a plate.” After much arguing, and me nearly leaving the therapy session, I conceded to follow instructions. As soon as I got to rep 4, I was thankful that I’d given in. My leg would just not work in the same way that it had before. While I had “piston power” (pushing in a straight line), I had no ability to push when my foot was placed in odd angles, and my stabilizers were all but nonexistent. I remember at one point unracking 400 lbs. on the squat and just shaking like I was having convulsions, but I squatted it anyway. The point being that our body doesn’t heal all things at the same rate. My legs grew quickly, and I was able to press lots of weight with my leg, but in one line. Outside that line, I was impossibly weak. Instead of stepping and realizing how much I was endangering not only my own body, but the guys that spotted for me, each and every time I lifted, I should have dedicated much more to accessory/GPP type movements and ROM type movements to build the knee back successfully and confidently.

When The Good Times Roll … Stop

This was another point I failed at over and over again. I would set goals for myself:

“Today, I want to squat 135 for 3 reps.”

Then in my head I’d think: “Well if I can do that, then why not try 185? And who the hell am I to stop at 185?! 200!” And, most times, I’d do it without incident. I’d hit my goal, and then some. Other times, I’d overdo it, my knee would swell, stiffen, and prevent me from lifting my next two squat sessions. So don’t trade short term “good” for long term “great.” Set small, incremental goals that keep you moving forward but that also keep you safe. Tortoise and the Hare…

Lastly, Enjoy the Break

For the better part of 17 years (and definitely 15 of those years), I’ve been pushing my body at a grueling level. I’ve broken many a training partner and kept on trucking. School, friends, family … Screw them all, I got the gym. That sounds cool on a YouTube snippet, and in some cases, that is the sad reality that you will have to endure to be great. You will have to be selfish and hurtful to those that care about you at times. But in this moment, in this time when your body broke down for whatever reason, listen. Let your body guide you. Rest. I didn’t touch a weight for 3.5 months, only to come back and bench 600 lbs., a goal I’d been chasing for years! Was it the rest? Was it eating what I wanted while I recovered? I’m going to say it was the margaritas and double enchiladas that I love so much but rarely enjoyed because I was always “grinding.” There is a side of me that looks at my powerlifting career, and knows that I am so blessed to have done all the things I’ve done; but on the other side of the coin, I look at aspects of my life – LIFE – that I totally missed chasing weight.

I’m not trying to dissuade you from pushing hard and being a badass when the time comes under the bar, but take it from me: Life is precious, and at some point, the glory fades. No matter how high you soar, at some point, you come down. It’s the path you build when you are climbing the mountain that will guide you back down when the time comes. If you are like me, I was a wrecking ball. I didn’t care about anyone but myself, I hurt so many people in my life, and in my time of need, I found that instead of being able to enjoy all these relationships that I built along the way, I’m rebuilding myself and mending bridges along the way.

This article may not connect well with many of you, and a lot of you may think I’ve “gone soft,” but in reality, the knee injury was just an outward expression of the broken parts of who I was on the inside. So understand that the mind heals the body, and the body heals the mind. Take your time, enjoy your journey, learn the lessons your injury has to offer, and know that no matter what, you can come back stronger.

Brandon Lilly

Brandon is a top ranked powerlifter, author of “The Cube Method”, and “365STRONG”, as well as a respected strength coach. Brandon is ranked as one of the strongest powerlifters of All-Time, having world class totals in multiple weight class, raw, and equipped. His efforts as a lifter, and a coach have helped cause a paradigm shift in the sport of powerlifting. His Cube Method has helped over a dozen men total 2,000 lbs or more in raw divisions, and over twenty women total over 1,000 lbs or more.

READ MORE BY Brandon Lilly
  • Max Martinez

    Great article!!!! Had surgery on torn right pec and this articles couldn’t be more real and to the point!! Hit home with me and Thank you Brandon, great stuff brotha!

  • Mike

    I rupture my left patella tendon last spring, and while I’d been a fan of yours before the accident, I didn’t realize you’d suffered a major accident like you had. Some people told me to see how you handled it, and your story is one of the reasons I was able to deal with it. I’ve only been training hard for a few years. Lost my sister and my mother, on top of a whole lot of other bad crap that came into my life, and the depression and anxiety that followed caused me to gain tons of weight and become weak. Then I got into heavy lifting again (I had been a football player in high school and loved the weight room) and my life got back on track. Last spring (March 5 actually), I had bought a house two days earlier with my fiance’, only to have my patella rupture when I slipped on ice after plowing my father’s driveway after a moderate squat session the night before. I had goals I was trying to reach in the weight room before I get married this coming spring, and laying on my back waiting for help to get there, all I could think was the squat and bench numbers I was so busy chasing were going to be out of reach now. It was weeks before I could wrap my mind around that. It was only after I started following your story that I realized I would get through it. You’re 100% right. It’s hard having your dignity taken from you and having to rely on others for your mobility, your daily routine. I’m a high school teacher and football coach. I couldn’t be in the weight room with my kids to help them in spring lifting, and I couldn’t drive myself anywhere for a long time because I was locked in extension for over a month. It was hell. Thanks to a lot of love and support from my family, friends, and fiance’ most of all, I accepted my new reality and moved on. I’m chasing a 500 pound bench press, and when the season is over, I’m going to start chasing a 135 pound squat, haha. Someday, I’ll put 600 on my back again and get it. Until then, I’ll be the best I can be at this time, given what happened. Thank you for the article and for being a badass, even dealing with the injuries.

  • joe kolano

    I herniated a disc in my lower back in october 2015 and still have not made a recovery yet the pain went from being in my whole leg to just is my butt and has stayed like that for over 2 months now i’ve been doing regular chiropractic care 3 times a week and just recently stopped pt because i do all of it at the gym everyday anyway is there anything you could recommend i try to help my recovery

  • Annette

    I can relate to this in so many ways. You certainly learn alot about yourself as well as others after major surgery. I think this is very well written and I’m happy to see someone else has experienced the same journey as me. I am 10months post rotator cuff,bicep tenodesis, impingement and bone spur removal surgery. I felt like an emotional rollercoaster not being able to lift or just high five. I have learned alot in less than a year and been greatly humbled by the experience. Thanks for the great article.