Donnacha broke both of his knees.
At 40 years old, he’d just moved into a new apartment. Since he was the compulsive exercising sort, his first two purchases were an air mattress and a cheap pull-up bar he installed in the doorway.
It was a Saturday afternoon, and he decided to crank out a few reps. The first set went fine. Then, the second. But in the middle of the third, he felt the bar shifting. His initial thought was one of irritation, not wanting to be interrupted mid-set. Five. Six. Seven.
Then it happened: The bar came loose.
He slammed onto the floor, landing directly on both knees. Before long, he was on his way to the emergency room, where he survived over the weekend on a series of barely adequate morphine shots and an operation that followed two days later.
You might think that after an injury like that, Donnacha would’ve been nervous about exercising for a while. But you’d be wrong. Before the worst of the pain set in, he wondered whether he’d still be able to make it to the gym later that night. And about a week later, he did in fact start going back in, tottering around on crutches from machine to machine, working out his arms until his legs healed.
His case is a bit extreme, but after talking to more than a dozen men about their own experience with injury during exercise — whether it’s from running, swimming, team sports or lifting — I’m confident in saying that many of us handle it very poorly.
We handle it like, well, men, or “men” rather. There’s a couple of reasons for that. We’re either ashamed at having been clumsy or stupid enough to hurt ourselves in the first place—often brushing off a serious mishap the way someone does when they slip walking down the road and try to pretend it didn’t happen—or we’re too stubborn to give ourselves time to recover without making it worse.
To be sure, there’s a lot of injuring going on out there. Whether it’s slapstick falls, complex Rube Goldberg-like chains of events, simply landing weird or moving the wrong way, the possibilities for injury when working out are endless. Between 2011 and 2014, according to a study by the Department of Health and Human Services, Americans injured themselves in sports- and recreation-related incidents at a rate of 8.6 million per year, or 34 times for every 1,000 people. While many of those injuries were in children and young people up to the age of 24 — and often involved organized sports — general exercise was the most frequent cause of harm among all age groups for both men and women.
Similarly, a 2015 study from the Consumer Product Safety Commission estimated that 464,363 people went to the emergency room due to injuries from exercising or exercising equipment, trailing slightly behind bicycling and basketball among the more dangerous activities.
No pain, no gain, as they say.
I’ve certainly suffered my share of injuries — ranging from the idiotic to the life-altering. There was the time I nearly broke myself in half on the squat rack when I was in college, as well as the time when I passed out in the middle of doing overhead presses, waking up on the floor of my parents’ basement spilled into a laundry basket. At the moment, I’m recovering from an abdominal tear that, for some reason, didn’t magically go away on its own despite my having forced myself to lift and run through it for months.
Dave, 39, of Montreal has pretty much the same injury history. His latest happened when he was attempting a personal best on the bench a while back. All of a sudden, his shoulder felt like it came out of the socket. As the bar was coming down, his instinct was to protect his brain, so he slid himself down on the bench just in time. “I got a glimpse of the bar as it dropped behind where my head was and where my head and neck would’ve been had I not reacted,” he says.
Stupidly and stubbornly, he hadn’t asked for a spotter, like many of us often don’t. The failure chastened him all the same: “I’d been lifting weights for a while. I felt so stupid and sheepish.”
That reluctance to ask for help when lifting is related to our refusal to admit we might screw up. Sam, 32, of Boston doesn’t remember exactly what happened when he messed up his nuts while squatting. It was a few years back, and he’d just started lifting with a personal trainer. He was wearing a belt for support, and after a couple of reps, the trainer made a quick adjustment to his belt in the middle of the set. “I immediately went down for the next rep and instantly felt a sharp pain on the right side of my lower stomach and upper right leg. I had to stop squatting immediately.”
The pain went away not long after, and he forgot about it until he was back at home going to the bathroom. “The entire right side of my scrotum was extremely swollen. It felt literally 10 times thicker than the normal, left side of my sack. I looked down to check it out, and I also saw that the entire lower right side of my shaft was extremely swollen.”
Being 23 at the time, he didn’t go to the doctor, because, as he said, he was extremely dumb and also pretty embarrassed. He walked it off, in other words. He rubbed some dirt on it and did what any dude charged on the brain-mangling drug of common masculinity would do: Eh, this will probably work itself out.
This time, fortunately, it did. “Luckily enough, I woke up the next morning and magically everything was 100 percent healed. One of the bigger reliefs of my life. Never really figured out what happened, though one of my friends in the medical field says it was probably a specific kind of hernia.”
Michael, 41, of Houston, was in the middle of powerlifting training when he tried out some “strongman” lifts. Unlike the slow, precise lifts he was used to, these tended to be more precarious stunts. “It’s all irregular shapes, weird balance issues and explosive bursts,” he says. “So we did some tire flipping, which I was actually quite good at. I was able to get down low and had a good firing for getting the thing up. But to move a 500-pound tire, you also need a wide grip and lots of stability across the gut to absorb what the rest of your body is about to do. I don’t know if I remember the rep itself, but I remember finishing the run and feeling like someone was squeezing my abs like a fistful of cash.”
A week later his stomach had swollen into a purple and yellow cloud, and there was a small mound above his belly button. He pressed on it and it went back in. “I got tense and stood really straight and was terrified that if I relaxed, ‘it’ would come back out.” Which it did. Again and again. It was like being in Alien for a few months, he says. Eventually, he went to the doctor and had surgery to repair his ruptured abdominal. After that, it went away for almost a year until he inevitably re-injured himself — one of the hardest parts of the aftermath was giving himself time to heal.
Hurting yourself is common, but it doesn’t make it any less embarrassing, which was a common theme that a lot of guys who have hurt themselves brought up when I asked. I’ll speak for myself here, too. A few months ago, when I found myself caught on the bench press, unable to lift a not-all-that heavy weight back onto the braces, I was reluctant to cry out for help. Even as the bar started pressing into my chest, I thought about how ridiculous I would sound yelping. About how weak I must look to anyone nearby. At some point, a very slender young woman came over and saved my life.
Everyone can relate to the sting of losing a sporting contest — the blow to the ego. But in a sport where it’s just you versus yourself, there’s an added level of perceived failure. You didn’t just lose—you lost to yourself, and unnecessarily. No one wants to be injured, of course, but we also don’t want to be someone who was capable of being injured in the first place. One minute your identity is that of a healthy, physical specimen, the next you’re a clumsy, inept screw-up.
Obviously, it doesn’t have to be this way — a lesson many of us will learn in our own time. There’s nothing shameful about an accident or a mishap, and injury will at some point come for most of us. What’s important is how we handle it after it does. Pushing through the good type of pain involved in exercising is often mental. We talk about the dedication and the perseverance of athletes overcoming the odds. But there’s a very thin line between being dedicated and being a dumbass.
As for Dave, he says he still doesn’t bench anymore after that near miss, but that doesn’t mean he’s given up on working out. Instead he’s switched to dumbbells, because those can be dropped independently and more easily.
Plus, they’re a lot less likely to decapitate him.