Getting a hernia from lifting weights or being athletic is a horrible experience. Hernia surgery involves a long road to recovery — one that’s effective as long as you stick to the process and take your time through it. As a lifter and coach who’s undergone hernia surgery, I’ll tell you what you need to know if you find yourself in similar shoes.
But First, What Is a Hernia?
Truthfully, hernias can come in different forms. Umbilical hernias are located around the midstomach region, and inguinal hernias are located in the lower pelvic region. In each case, the lining of the abdominal wall is compromised, allowing for tissue underneath to push through. Depending on the severity and nature of the injury, this can be painful and even require emergency surgery.
The urgency of the hernia really depends not only on its location but also the tissue type that’s escaped. When the abdominal lining is torn, often a fatty tissue known as the omentum is what causes the protrusion. Often, this can create a bulge with minimal pain symptoms (as was the case with my own inguinal hernia). This generally means you can still carefully function while you prepare for surgical repair in the coming weeks or months. In other cases, organ tissue can begin to fall through and surgery needs to be arranged as soon as possible to put the organ (in the case of inguinal hernias, usually the intestine) back into place.
Whatever the nature, surgery is the ultimate answer. Naturally, most people who go under the knife wonder whether they’ll ever be able to return to the same level of capability they had before getting injured.
And that is good news. I had my strongest PRs in major lifts well after my surgery in 2011. If you’re recovering from hernia surgery, these guidelines will set you on the right path to positive results without setbacks. On a similar note, many of these points can benefit a lifter who’s healthy and trying to avoid a hernia.
Ask Your Parents
Like many aliments, potential for getting a hernia from exercise is heightened depending on whether you’re genetically inclined to get one. Ask your parents if they’ve ever had any, and if yes, you’ll know you’re probably more susceptible to one than the next guy is. With that said, training smart matters tenfold.
Like the subheading suggests, this one applies to both recovering hernia patients and healthy individuals who have never been injured. Improper breathing technique is one major player in exercise that can be a huge cause of hernias. Understand the importance of exhaling on the exertion phase of your lifts, remaining braced, creating intra-abdominal pressure and limiting the amount of strain you place on areas like your pelvic floor. All exercise starts with good breathing. Practice it under light weight and get used to it. If you’ve been injured, it will only matter that much more.
Be Careful With Anti-Extension Work
It took me a long time before I could get back to exercises like ab wheel rollouts, hand walkouts and barbell strict presses. The common thing among these movements is the anti-extension capacity of the abdominals. They place the abdominal tissue into a stretch that a strong contraction negates (in order to keep the spine neutral and intact).
Remember, you’ve been stitched up because your abdominal wall was torn open. With that in mind, you can easily reinjure yourself if you’re not careful. Start your abdominal work in a neutral position and not an extended one. Work with short plank variations before pushing the envelope. If you’re healthy, pay special attention to your spine position during heavy overhead presses and rollouts. Just because it doesn’t “hurt” to fall into extension, don’t try to be a hero. Lower your load on presses (or range of motion on rollouts) and do what you can with your glutes and abs remaining engaged.
Take a Closer Look at Your Hip Complex
Don’t forget that many muscles cross through the core junction, and the hip joint is a complex one. The iliacus, psoas, transverse abdominal muscle, rectus abdominis and more are all part of the region between the bellybutton and the upper thigh. When you’ve had a hernia repair, regardless of its location, plenty of scar tissue will be a byproduct of the healing process, which will severely limit your range of motion to start. You’ll be limited in what you can do at the beginning, but creating more flexibility within your bounds is key.
Gentle stretching and rolling can do your body good, especially focusing on muscles that surround the site (think quads, glutes, IT band). You risk reinjury if you get right back into weight training without paying attention to your mobility and flexibility.
Listen to the Doc
In conclusion, no one wants to go under the knife. In the training community, everyone who does seems to want to set a world record for recovery time, and then post their exploits on social media with trite motivational quotes. Instead, let recovery be the name of the game and take the time you need to get better. No one’s trying to be a hero — especially not a recreational lifter with a day job.