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Out of the Frying Pan & Into the Fire: A Pro’s Story of Injury and Triumph

So here I am in my immaculately clean (that’s a lie) apartment in northern Okayama Prefecture, somewhere in rural Japan between Osaka and Hiroshima. During one of the best parts of my day, my morning shower, I was pondering over the many injuries I’ve been rewarded with since I first began my quest at age 14 of becoming super muscular and strong. I’m still fighting a quad pop I had last year as well as getting my erectors into peak condition after a back strain almost 3 years ago. I still can’t believe it’s been that long but when you’re training like crazy and are riding wave after wave of personal records in a great groove, it can be horrible when you’re totally thrown off the tracks and are forced to rest for a long time. Regaining that lost momentum can be really difficult, physically and mentally. In this article I will go over all the notable injuries I’ve had since I began lifting, what caused them, and how I fixed them.

dan harrison japan

Dan Harrison

I had been going like a speeding Shinkansen (the bullet train in Japan, its top speed is around 200 mph) making inhuman gains in my squat and deadlift, as well as some pretty great upper body gains. From late 2009 until the beginning of 2011 I had gained over 150 lbs on my squat and deadlift, 60-70 on my bench, finally won my professional card in Strongman, rocked a 925 deadlift in the gym, nailed some national powerlifting records, and placed 7th at my very first pro show, Odd Haugen’s Strongman Challenge at the Los Angeles Fitexpo. A few months after that it all came crashing down. Just now in 2014 am I back to where I was in strength and am building up for a powerful comeback that will take me right to the top in 2015. Hitting a solid 4th place at the Fitexpo in 2013 was a huge confidence booster as well. I’m 32 years old now but some of the best at World’s Strongest Man are in their mid and even late 40s so I know I have a VERY long path of destruction and war ahead of me. Life is all about pushing ahead toward your awesome goals and fighting through setbacks. When you take a swing at the world, it will take a few good swings back at you and some of them will knock your teeth out. We all know that a coward dies 1,000 deaths so until your clock truly runs out, you’re still in the game. Got it?

The 90s

I’ve had some pretty awesome experiences in the Iron Game. I’ve met almost all of my heroes, worked out with the strongest men in the world, had a real inside look into the worlds of Bodybuilding, Powerlifting, Strongman, and Armwrestling, and countless other really amazing things. When I was in high school my grandparents used to drive me to Muscle Beach to go workout at the weight pit and then take me to Gold’s Gym Venice to workout some more. This was the mid 90s, almost all of the best bodybuilders of that era were in there training so I got a chance to meet and talk to a lot of them. My favorite was Chris Cormier, he was the coolest guy ever! Meeting Flex Wheeler in his prime was cool too, his training partner at the time, Rico, scared the hell out of me. I came up asking to get an autograph and he was like “WHAT DO YOU WANT KID!!!?!?! Ha ha ha just kidding, hey Flex, this kid wants to meet ya!” It was totally awesome.

Another gigantic guy I was talking to there (no idea who he was) told me “you’re only 15 and you have a real good frame, ONE DAY YOU’RE GONNA BE A HOUSE!!!” As a high schooler I would get all jacked out of my mind on Ultimate Orange and go squat and deadlift at 6am sometimes. I used Tom Platz’s program “Big Beyond Belief” and got some really good gains out of it. California Muscle Culture in the 90s was still very alive.

Dan Harrison girls

A 17 Year Old in the Trash Can

Back to injuries… my first actual injury was a pec strain from bench pressing. The bench press is probably one of the most dangerous exercises as well as the most widely performed around the world. Even with perfect performance the pecs are in a very vulnerable position and can be strained or worse at any time.

It’s always a roll of the dice with the pecs while training the bench press even with great warmup and sensible training. Even the best professionals who do all they can to lift safely have massive pec injuries and constant stingers there! So anyway, I was 16 years old and feeling really strong (feeling strong, not actually strong. Big difference!) I was attempting a 245 bench press. It felt amazingly light at liftoff but as it came down I felt a strain across both pecs and the bar free fell the rest of the way down. I’m sure my spotter caught it or else I would have had a big problem! For years after that any time my pecs became slightly overworked it would feel as if it was going to tear or something! Sharp pain! This bothered me on and off for TEN YEARS. At this point in my lifting I had done a 405×6 deep squat with a belt and some ace wraps and a 455×6 (touch and go) floor deadlift. Right when I turned 17 I began to have a lot of knee pain, got a back strain from deadlifting heavy every week for years on end, a pretty bad shoulder strain from doing behind the neck presses (an already horrible exercise) with way too much weight and horrific form, a strain in my right wrist from God knows what, and elbow pain. I decided to just take a full month off the gym, stop behind the neck pressing, and be smarter about lifting; this worked really well and soon enough I was back to 100%.

Japan and the United States " people power " showdown !Tanigawa master vs Dan -Harrison

Tanigawa master vs Dan -Harrison

Amateur Strongman, Dumb and Dumber

During the 9 years I’ve been involved in Strongman competitions the one area that has taken the most damage is my back! This is to be expected, Strongman is about picking up really, really heavy stuff!!! The back has to support the whole body under these insane loads so when it gets hurt, it can be pretty bad. The first back strain was during training for my first show which had an 18” deadlift. This is an event where a barbell is supported on 2 blocks so instead of picking it up from the floor, the bar begins (for most people) a few inches below the knee so for almost everyone, a much heavier weight can be used and we all know that the heavier the weight is, the cooler it is! The rough thing about this type of deadlift is that almost all of the strain is RIGHT on the low back at the beginning of the pull!! In training I overdid it and despite my erectors burning with exhaustion I kept pulling singles until POP. Oh man, what a moron! What have I done… had a small pop in the low back that wasn’t awful, but very annoying for months and months until a very good chiropractor yanked on my leg and POP, something released in my back and the pain was gone.

I had a minor strain somewhere in my pec/trapezius area after doing some strapped farmers walk holds with 450 per hand (if you’re asking why I did that, check the title of this section). It was bothering me for many weeks until my trainer’s wife told me to stop drinking all soda. Evidently high amounts of sugar can really increase inflammation especially when you’re hurt, and can prevent muscles from really relaxing and healing. I quit soda and the pain was gone for good  in less than a week.

The next back strain was in late 2006, a couple months before Amateur Nationals. During the summer of 2006 I was making awesome progress in my squat. I went from 550×3 with belt and wraps to 640×1 in just knee sleeves, no belt! It also took my front squat from 405 to 475. I did my first 405 front squat at Gold’s Venice. I failed it the first time but Lou Ferrigno was there, he gave me some pointers about keeping my elbows higher and boom, got it on the second try!

dan harrison flexing

I had a 4 week rotation in lower body work:

Week 1: Squats to a max single or triple, raise the pins in the rack, add 50 lbs and do one full range negative rep, raise the pins even higher and do a second negative with another 50 lbs on the bar, then maybe one down set with 500 for a few reps.

Week 2: Barbell step-ups to a 12” box, a few sets, 5-10 reps per leg.

Week 3: Same formula as week 1 except with front squats

Week 4: Same as week 2.

This was working amazingly until I had the bright idea of trading out the step ups for max rack deadlift lockouts! Wow, was that stupid! The box step ups were amazing because they provided extra leg work WITHOUT beating up the erectors. Heavy squats can do a serious number on the back muscles as well, and the relief provided from the step ups was perfect. When I traded them out in favor of deadlift lockouts, it was a recipe for disaster. This lasted about a month before my back went out, and that lasted many months before I was back in shape. It was bothering me so much I went ahead and dropped the cash for a Westside Reverse Hyper, which turned out to be one of the greatest investments I ever made. With some rest, smart training, and a lot of rep work on the reverse hyper, I was back in action and ready to lift anything.

dan harrison group

Inferno

The next back injury was in 2008. I had had a couple small pops again in my low back leading up to this; the first was leaning back super far to press out a very heavy viking press. The other was the same pop there that happened bouncing out of the hole with a 575 squat. Do you see the connection between free squats and injuries?? The death blow was a 2 day strongman training weekend at Odd’s, a few guys flew in to train so we were all going ballistic. The morning of day 2 I jumped on the reverse hyper and started going full range of motion pretty explosively. What a great idea that was, full range stretching and ripping up one of the most sensitive muscle groups on the whole body! Something went out and I could barely stand up, I couldn’t train that day and ended up spending most of that Sunday in bed. This was the beginning of 6 months of HELL. Have you ever had sciatica? It’s awesome, it’s like your whole leg is on fire from your low back all the way down to your feet. Can’t sleep, can’t sit, can’t DEADLIFT for sure. I ate on the floor for weeks and even had to take a couple weeks off work it got so bad. Funny thing was, I could squat fine and do some strongman events but if I tried to lift even a light atlas stone it was suicide.
I needed to ice my whole leg at night so I could fall asleep. The amount of ibuprofen I took during those months was just wrong. Thankfully I never reached out to prescription painkillers at that time because I would have became an addict for sure. Now and then I’d have a couple of them, become a space cadet for a while and forget about my leg but those drugs don’t heal you at all. My incredible chiropractor ended up giving me a bunch of free sessions digging out tons of huge knots all down my leg. Man, it was horrible! He would actually schedule me during times when nobody else was in the office because I’d be screaming! It was some real medieval style torment but it worked and after a while it all released and I was OK.

The Great Fall

As I addressed at the beginning of this article, I was making incredible progress on my Strongman and Powerlifting journey when a bad back strain in April 2011 took me down.
I had competed in the LA Fitexpo and placed 7th, then 4 weeks later did a powerlifting meet and did a raw 860 squat right after moving to Texas, and then did an extremely heavy 2 day strongman show in Las Vegas 3 weeks after that.

I really should have taken a couple weeks off training BARE MINIMUM after all of that, but nope. One of the things that I did in training in between the Fitexpo and the Powerlifting meet was an 875 deadlift with no belt! Around that time I was still proud of the 855 beltless deadlift I had done a few months prior until an amateur strongman put up a video of him also hitting 855. This pissed me off incredibly so in a determined rage I went in an did 875, because screw him. From floor to lockout it was almost 12 seconds but it felt like it took an hour. I was so crippled after that but who cares, I WON. Right? So after all of that stuff all done in early 2011, I went right back to training and was doing max box squats with 400-500 lbs of band tension, BELTLESS. This was so stupid! I was alternating weekly between low bar back squat and Safety Squat Bar, which puts a huge strain in the mid/upper erectors. During about the 4th week of this nonsense I got a massive strain all across my mid erectors. After that, deadlifting even 315 was impossible. I knew I was in deep trouble because I had a pro show in Philadelphia coming up a month later which was fully paid for by the promoter so I didn’t want to let him down. I talked to the man, Louie Simmons, on the phone and he had me doing a lot of sled dragging and reverse hypers during that month which helped a lot. I still had back problems at the show and couldn’t even do the opening deadlift of 700-something but I did the rest of the events great and finished okay in the show.

dan harrison

A month later I moved back to California (after my 6 month Texas adventure) but my back wasn’t really getting any better so I decided to really commit to taking 6-7 weeks off any real lower body work to become the leg extension and leg curl world champion. This was a difficult time in my life because I had returned to California from Texas with an injured back, a broken heart, and barely enough gas money to make it home. It was the beginning of a two year period where I had to take stock of my life and rebuild myself in every way. I was such a mess but thankfully my old boss was glad to give me my old job back and my family let me stay with them for the time being. I worked night shift so it was fun sometimes to get all jacked up on Green Apple NoXplode and go to the 24 hour gym at 3am. It was difficult for my parents having me living in Texas, it would seem as though it would be much harder having me in Japan now but they seem fine! I think they’re just glad I’m finding my way in the world and really taking control of my destiny. They get a kick out of watching me do crazy stuff around here and traveling around to different countries whenever I want. Moving to another continent into a different culture was a huge risk but like anything in life, no guts no glory. I had a lot of signs that it was meant to be, so I didn’t worry too badly.

During that time back in California I slowly worked my way back into squats and deadlifts and after a few months was super strong again. My deadlift has taken the longest to get back but part of that was because I changed my training so much. In the past I had always done box squats in training but I switched to doing free squats only, which was a huge disaster. My knees were always killing me, my back was chronically tired, and my deadlift completely disappeared. It got so bad that at one point I failed a 675 below the knee rack pull. Pretty upsetting to a 900+ deadlifter. I went back to box squats and more of my old style training and the back got big and strong again!

Break a Leg

I’ve always been big on barbell lunges since 2009, they helped correct some lower body imbalances that brought up my power like crazy as well as almost immediately release all of the residual back pain I was experiencing from the 2008 injury. I could barely do 155 for a few reps at the beginning but after a few months I was working out with 300-400 lbs for reps. After a certain point I didn’t believe they helped because I was able to lunge over 550 for reps but I didn’t see any real increase in my squat or deadlift anymore. The problem was, I didn’t really pay attention to that because lunging giant weights was endlessly entertaining to me, as well as the rest of the gym as they watched in horror half expecting a colossal catastrophic event which they were rewarded with now and then. Inspired by my previous success with squat negatives, I had used heavy lunge negatives from time to time which really did bring up my lunging power. The problem is that I never know when to stop with anything I do. I had the bright idea of doing a lunge negative on each leg with 635. Left leg went great. Did my right leg and felt a decent strain across the side of my leg, which was probably my IT band. This was 2 years ago and I am still struggling with this leg issue. Later that year I was free squatting and something popped in my right leg on the way up with 675. Hurt pretty bad and my leg got pretty stiff.

This was 6 weeks before the 2013 Fitexpo which was a VERY important show!!!! One of the events was a 550 lb front squat for reps, so I was pretty freaked out. I went back to light front squats a week later with about 300 lbs and my R leg wrapped tight, and it felt okay. I kept that leg wrapped up in a knee wrap around the thigh and gradually worked back up to some pretty heavy squats before the show. Seemed to work its way out of my system and I ended up with 3 easy reps with the 550 front squat at the show before I accidentally dumped it forward. Dangit! Winner had 5 so I still had great points. No leg problems in the show, won the tire flip, placed real high in everything else except the Yoke! Usually a great event for me but I had both legs wrapped up tight to protect the quad which made my legs sort of stiff which in turn made walking with 915 and then 1075 very awkward.

dan harrison armwrestling

It popped again a couple months later in the gym during an 800 squat but that healed pretty quickly. This was the fourth week in a row of  free squatting heavy in the gym, I was squatting in just belt and knee sleeves but by week 3 my knees and quads felt pretty horrible. Ignoring that I decided to just go in on week 4 with wraps and add 100 lbs to the bar, because I’m really stupid. Pop! A couple months later It popped again HORRIBLY during a 585 front squat in the gym, and that one was the really bad one. Couldn’t walk for a couple weeks, leg turned black, had to pull out of an important show I had 2 weeks later as well as the whole year ahead of me, so I was trying to keep up heavy training so my whole year wasn’t ruined.

I was experiencing some real depression over that one because it was so crippling as well as becoming a real threat to my future in the sport I love. Thankfully I had some good doctors, my chiropractor, and a couple acupuncturists do their best work and put me back together. They also fixed the pec tear I earned at my first Armwrestling tournament around that same time. I mean who does that while armwrestling?? It turned black! This Chinese acupuncturist rubbed FIRE on the pec and stuck all these pins all over me. He also did some deep tissue work and it healed super quick.

Before a show in Russia a couple months later I had the amazing idea to hit some 500 lb lunges and to my astonishment, the quad popped again. People have been asking me all my life, “What’s wrong with you?” I’ve never had a good answer for that. Thankfully that one healed fast and everything went great in Russia. Our team ended up only winning 3 out of 7 events so we didn’t win the overall title but whatever, the trip was one of the most amazing things ever. Drinking Russian energy drinks all day during the show (undoubtedly amphetamine-laced) assured maximum performance as well as zero sleep that night. I was up at 4:30am with Andrew Palmer armwrestling and having one of the strangest discussions ever. Escape from the minus world!

Resurrection

I have the rest of 2014 to train before the 2015 Fitexpo in Los Angeles, California and this is the perfect amount of time to prepare for the most successful year of my Strongman career. I have a great track record of finishing well there (7th and 4th) against an international field so I know what I need to  do. Doing very well there can also get me an invite to more big international shows so I am coming in with the biggest battle axe possible. I’m in the middle of rural Japan and another English teacher who loves heavy lifting ended up moving right down the street! I now have a GREAT training partner! I had forgotten how much that helps; it has been a huge positive development for my training and my life in general. It can be difficult when zero people speak English in your whole city but him and I are kicking ass and showing people around here what high testosterone men are supposed to look like. In just over a month training with me he’s already got huge slabs of muscle all over and has gained about 5kg. We train early in the morning because otherwise we get mobbed by Japanese dudes and training turns into a photo shoot. I don’t mind getting mobbed when I’m out in some big Japanese city but during training I don’t like screwing around. This one guy never shuts up too, but he usually goes in the afternoons along with most of the chatty ones.

Final Words

No more free squats probably ever again, I am done with those as well as bench pressing. I’m done competing in Powerlifting so I have all the more energy to focus on heavy overhead pressing and deadlifts without all the chronic injuries related to benching and heavy free squats. I’m only 32 but I’ve been lifting heavy weights for 18 years, it takes a toll. Instead of bench pressing I have opted for weighted dips which I believe are both safer and more effective. My legs look awesome right now and I haven’t been squatting regularly, just deadlift variations. I might add in some pause front squats just for extra explosiveness and strength support for Strongman. Heavy deadlifts and push presses do work the quads better than anyone gives them credit for. If an exercise is causing you problems again and again and the risk to reward ratio is not good, dump it. Not worth it. In Armwrestling there is a somewhat risky move called a Shoulder Roll which can help finish a match with tricep power but can potentially put the arm in a super dangerous breaking position. And when I say breaking position, I mean your arm can basically break off the bone and your life is over for the next year. I’m going to stay away from that move as much as I can, not worth it. If all I did was Armwrestling I would take more risks like that but I can’t afford to have a major arm injury since I’m also a pro strongman and am training for the biggest show.

Strongman hurts and so does Powerlifting and Armwrestling. Yes there are other athletes in these sports who have had much more horrific injuries than I; broken bones, completely torn muscles and tendons requiring major surgery, hernias, knee blowouts, internal organ damage, heart attacks and worse. These sports are not for chickens! All I can really bear witness to is what I’ve experienced. Every injury is sort of unique so what works for one person may not work for another but there are some general similarities we can all acknowledge. Listen to your body, avoid too much sugar, don’t do behind the neck anything, bench press with great caution, pause squats are amazing and much safer than free squats, pay attention to back pain, and always do a really full warmup especially for your back!!!!!

Dan Harrison


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