5 Ways a Major Knee Injury Changed My Squat

Injuries suck.

2017 has been a real test of my tenacity toward my progress under the bar. This February, I was prepping for a powerlifting meet to qualify for USAPL Nationals (83kg weight class), and experienced a pretty traumatic knee injury while training.

At the time of injury, I was working through four sets of four at 77% of my 1-RM. I was on my second rep of my third set, and began to stand up out of the hole, then POP. I lost all tension, fell to my back, hit my head, and the bar dumped to the floor. I didn’t know what I did in the moment, but I knew it was serious. I couldn’t lift my leg.

As it turns out, I ruptured my quad (shout out to Dan Green who’s rehabbing a similar injury right now). My vastus lateralis (outer quad) and intermedius (mid-quad) completely detached from my knee cap and rolled about an inch up my leg.

Besides being knocked out cold from hockey hits, and getting the occasional stitches – this was my first major injury (it’s a 6-month recovery).

I’m about 5.5 months post-surgery, and I’m finally getting back under the bar. Oh how I’ve missed it. But I’d be lying if I said this injury didn’t change multiple aspects of my squat. Below are five ways knee surgery changed my squat.

What Are the Odds?

Before diving into the five ways, I want to clear something up. This isn’t a post to scare anyone away from lifting, or going heavy at that. In fact, powerlifting as a sport has a pretty low injury rate compared to other strength sports, and regular sports.

One study from 2011 assessed 245 competitive and elite powerlifters and their injury rate. Authors of the study collected data by questionnaire and found that injuries rates equated to about one injury per 1,000 hours of training. The three most common areas of injury included the lower back, shoulder, and knee. And 43% of the population complained of routine problems during regular workouts (aches, pains, etc).

Another study from 2006 looked at 101 competitive powerlifters’ injury rates. Similar to the above study, authors found that injuries were typically acute, and rarely debilitating in nature They averaged the injury rate was around 4.4 per 1,000 hours of training with the four most prevalent areas being the shoulder (36%), lower back (24%), elbow (11%), and knee (9%).

At the end of the day, injuries are always present, but the risk is low.

1. Respect for the Weight

Since I found myself lying flat on my back looking at the ceiling wondering, “What the hell did I just do?” My respect for the bar and weight has grown. This is something you often hear from top-tier athletes, “Respect the weight, no matter what.”

Dmitry Klokov is a huge proponent of respecting your weight, no matter how heavy, even if it’s just the bar. I always respected the weight I moved, but I took it for granted. Before this injury, I was more worried about simply moving the weight to get it done, and not so much understanding the weight.

This injury has helped me realize how much of a blessing it is to move any amount of weight. It could be the bar, a light set, a max, it doesn’t matter. To move the body under any amount of resistance, and to come out stronger, is a blessing.

2. Better Walk Outs

The walk out, a simple, yet extremely important key to every squat. I wouldn’t say I had full blown happy feet before this injury, but I was much less calculated. When un-racking weight I would constantly reset my width because something would feel a little off, which in hindsight could have caused an undetected imbalance along the way.

Now, before every squat session I keep note of my squat width and work on my walk out. It’s something so small, but it goes a long way when building confidence in your lifts. I’ve needed the extra bump of confidence to get comfortable loading again, and having a consistent walkout has helped me build confidence due to the familiar consistent feeling.

3. Improved Bar Path

I’d say my split of high and low-bar squat styles is about 50/50. Each program I practice squatting with a different style, which is great for being rounded, but without close adherence to minor details it can be troublesome. One thing I admit I dropped the ball on before this injury is keeping an eye on my bar path.

Ideally, you want the bar to track somewhere in your mid-foot (some squats will vary due to anthropometric differences). When I was switching back and forth I stopped paying close attention to the finite details for each squat like a consistent bar path. The weight was moving well, so I didn’t think anything was off.

It wasn’t until I started watching videos leading up to the injury that I noticed a slight forward lean in my high-bar squats (in the video above: watch my hips and slight forward lean).

This could have been one of the factors that lead me to injure my knee when I did. Now, I start each session by filming my first set from the side to ensure my bar path is consistent. Will I always do this? Probably not, but for now it’s been great for building back my mechanics and confidence.

4. Stronger Depth Awareness

Ass to agree squats are great, and I would perform them every leg day before this injury. But they’re not always needed for some athletes, which I wish I had paid more attention to before the rupture. For example, I have long femurs, so ass to grass for me often leaves my body with a sizable butt wink, and forward leaning posture.

In addition, ass to grass squats can actually cause a lifter to lose some of their total body tension. I believe this was one of my underlying issues. I’m good at displacing force, and moving fast, so when I rebound quickly from an ass to grass squat, I think there was a slight second when I lost tension and that contributed to the injury.

Lately, I’ve been paying closer attention to my hip angle and doing more pause squats to improve my depth awareness. Do I have a few mobility issues? Of course, but I can hit competition and ample depth without the additional risk of lost tension.

5. Enhanced Warm-Ups and Mind Muscle Connection

For me, these two points go hand-in-hand. A strong warm-up and mind muscle connection with the body are two relatively easy things to do, but often overlooked. Before, I had a bad habit of rushing through a warm-up to get to my working sets. If this is you, I urge you to take a few extra minutes to ensure your body is fully ready.

Now, I spend extra time moving through every warm-up aspect of the squat. It’s been a continual learning process, but now I set a 15-minute timer on my phone and work from the ground up (starting at my ankles). I don’t allow myself to approach a loaded bar until I’m hitting my 15-minute mark, even if I feel warmed-up.

Additionally, I pay more attention to my body. Since the injury, it’s almost as if I’ve tapped into an enhanced sixth sense of understanding my body’s movement. Things that felt normal before, now feel off, and I notice them. I’ve always paid attention to muscle contractions and mechanics, but never really listened to my instincts when something felt slightly off. It’s easy to point someone else’s faults out, but hard to detect your own.

A lot of athletes (myself included) understand the mind muscle connection and its importance. I’ve learned that when injured you become hyper aware of your body, as you have to build back from ground zero.

Every hinge, bend, contraction, feeling, is now accounted for and noted when I squat. An injury is a blessing and a curse. It sucks sitting out and rehabbing, but you learn so much about yourself and the body you’ve been gifted with.

If you find yourself injured, it’s okay. Take a deep breath, realign your focus, and start building back up, but smarter and better.

Editors note: This article is an op-ed. The views expressed herein and in the video are the authors and don’t necessarily reflect the views of BarBend. Claims, assertions, opinions, and quotes have been sourced exclusively by the author.