I used to train Brazilian jiu-jitsu alongside a nutritionist—someone who prided himself on his own fitness. Our instructor was a tough man—but one famously uninterested in conventional exercise. One day, the nutritionist challenged him. “Let’s do a decathlon to prove who’s fittest. We’ll do a bunch of events. We can bike, run, swim, and climb…” And then, in a fit of hubris, he added, “We can do a jiu-jitsu event too!” The instructor paused for a moment and then growled, “Jiu-jitsu first.”
The moral of this story is that it’s hard to run on a broken femur. Or swim when your shoulder is just barely hanging onto your body. Athletic options are reduced by injury. Sometimes permanently.
Everything has a risk-to-reward ratio. Risk management begins with exercise selection. You can get a great workout free-climbing El Capitan, for example. Or by fist-fighting a hammerhead shark. But there are safer ways to do things. The goal is maximum benefit with minimum risk. It is measured by consistency over a lifetime instead of performance in the short term. Life isn’t a sprint. It’s a series of marathons punctuated by unpredictable—and sometimes bizarre—events.
A good risk-to-reward ratio will not exceed—or interrupt—your ability to recover. Tissue healing takes time. Minor insults—like sprains and strains—can heal in less than a week. More serious injuries can take months. There are hard limits to tissue repair. Variability largely comes down to quality of recovery. If you don’t stop picking it, it will never heal.
It’s ok to enjoy going heavy or pushing hard. But there will be moments when you need to decide whether performance, experience or longevity takes priority. That doesn’t mean avoiding risk; it means knowing exactly where risk will hockey-stick upwards. This happens under fatigue. Under excess load. When focus evaporates. Or when you tell someone to hold your beer. Your choices in those moments are not just the product of your priorities. They are also about your ability to express those priorities. Here, you will benefit from having more options in your back pocket.
Not all pain correlates with injury. But minimizing risk starts with paying attention to pain and associated signals. If jogging hurts your knees, you can walk fast on a steep incline—on a hill or treadmill. If squatting hurts your back, you can perform single-leg exercises that work the legs just as effectively—but spare your spine.
Better ROI exercises can become defaults—or used as Plan B.
Pain is a useful input when it comes to shaping your experience. It is your friend. Listen to it like you would with any other. Dialogue with it. The earlier you respond to—and work with—signals of pain, the less likely you are to need a radical intervention.
You do not have to wait for pain to occur before changing your strategy. Some choices are simply better than others. If they’re not obvious to you now, hindsight will amplify your vision. The trick is not to break yourself completely before 20-20 kicks in.
Some structures are more resilient than others—or recover more completely. Broken bones often heal beautifully. However, a full ligamentous tear will require surgery and 6-12 months of hard work and luck to return to full function. Your options for highly fibrotic muscle tissue, torn cartilage, or atherosclerosis are very limited. Work hard but be gentle.
Brain health is a top priority but is not attained in isolation. Consistent exercise contributes to mental wellbeing—and mental wellbeing contributes to consistent exercise.
Consistent loading is essential to joint health. Passive rest is the last resort for injuries. If you can’t train an area directly, train its neighbours. It takes a village to support the rehab process.
Prioritize exercise choices in this order:
- Low-orthopaedic risk, high-benefit
- Appropriate loading and volume
- Technical improvement
We begin with exercise selection because there are some exercise choices that technique simply can’t fix. At least not in the short-term. This may be due to a lack of clarity on execution. Or because your body can’t get into the positions required. Low-risk exercises can be performed safely—immediately.
Once a good exercise selection has been made, intensity and total workload should challenge—but not exceed—your ability to execute well. Go too light and you won’t get the feedback or stimulus you need. Go too heavy and it will become impossible to perform things safely. There is a sweet spot.
Technical improvement happens when you are clear on the requirements for excellent execution—and able to consistently meet them. Especially under conditions of difficulty and duress. Things should feel hard and look easy.
Prioritize exercises with low orthopaedic risk. Load for adaptation. Develop excellent technique. This powerful trifecta increases your opportunities for lifelong health. And if a shark fight is ultimately unavoidable, this is your best chance to show that sucker who’s boss.