It’s back day and heavy deadlifts are first up. After a thorough warm-up that includes a couple of submaximal sets, you’re ready for your heavier work sets. You load up the bar just enough to squeeze out eight good reps, but on your first rep you notice a subtle pain that feels much like a burning sensation in your groin area where the thigh meets the torso (inguinal region). After a few more reps, the pain becomes slightly more noticeable, but never unbearable. By the end of the set, you sense there’s something wrong. You cease with the deadlifts and proceed with the rest of your workout, but you notice slight discomfort in the inguinal region throughout the remainder of your workout. About a week later, you notice a slight bulge in that same region.
According to Dr. Jerett Zipin, a sports medicine and internal medicine physician in Monrovia, CA, “A hernia occurs when the contents of a body cavity, such as portions of intestine or abdominal fatty tissue, protrude out of an area where they’re normally contained.” The abdominal wall, which is a thin membrane that represents the outer portion of the abdominal cavity, may be compromised either at birth or later in life. Pre-existing openings in the abdominal cavity (usually at birth) or areas of abdominal wall weakness (usually later in life) make individuals susceptible to hernias. Additionally, individuals with a family history of hernias are more likely to develop them sometime in their lives.
Any activity that increases the pressure of a compromised abdominal cavity, such as coughing, sneezing, heavy lifting or even straining during a bowel movement may contribute to the formation of a hernia. The signs and symptoms of a hernia range from seeing a painless lump in the abdominal wall to a severely tender and painful bulge of tissue that may or may not be pushed back into the abdomen.
Zipin says that inguinal hernias make up most of all abdominal wall hernias, but there are different types of hernias that may occur (see “Types of Hernias”).
Due to the nature of bodybuilding, lifting heavy weights with compound movements such as squats, deadlifts and bent-over barbell rows are part of a comprehensive program, but those same exercises put you at risk. Although weaknesses in the abdominal wall may predispose you to hernias, you can minimize your risk by maintaining strong abdominal muscles and ensuring you progress your weightlifting efforts in a logical fashion (that is, increasing your weights slowly over time). If you’ve taken some time off from performing heavy lifting, be sure you progress slowly back to your heavier weights to allow your body to build tolerance to the heavier loads. Unfortunately, once you develop a hernia it’ll likely get worse over time with continual heavy lifting. The only way to correct a hernia is through surgery. This is usually a successful feat when you have a knowledgeable surgeon who understands your needs as a weight lifter.
What Is It? A protrusion of an intestine, its fascia, or adipose tissue through the wall of the cavity that normally contains it. It’s not an uncommon occurrence among bodybuilders when adipose tissue or an abdominal organ protrudes through a weakness in the abdominal wall or groin area.
Is It Painful? Pain may or may not be present, but there’s some danger of organ dysfunction and other complications if left untreated.
How Do You Know If You Have One? If you feel a lump in your abdomen, it may be a hernia. The lump may be small, soft and painless or may be swollen and tender. The best way to know is to have a sports-medicine doctor check it out.