We each picked up another rock and stood laughing by the edge of the maize fields. The kids threw first, one after the other. We watched as the rocks sailed into the sky before falling somewhere in the distance among the stalks. Then they looked up at me, waiting for me to throw. I gave my shoulder a little rub, hesitant. It had been so long since I’d thrown something at full effort, scared I’d break something again; the last few rocks we’d thrown I’d just lobbed into the air lazily, like always. But for some reason I felt better today.
“What the hell,” I thought.
I gripped it loosely between my first two fingers, like a cricket ball, did a little hop step, and let it rip with everything I had.
We all stood there in a line, eyes in the sky, watching it soar way into the distance, these little kids laughing wildly as they pointed to it, wondering how it was possible to throw something so far. Even I was surprised. As it landed I gave my shoulder another rub, just to check if it was still in one piece. It was fine. After five years, maybe my shoulder was finally back to normal.
A bad shoulder is born
It is hard for me to pinpoint the exact time my shoulder starting niggling. I’ve had niggling injuries all my life. Ankle, hamstring, wrist. I vaguely remember my shoulder pinching mildly around 2012, when I start hitting the weight room hard, like every other mid-twenties male. But injuries for me were always minor inconveniences. I would rest and stretch for a week, then it was right back into the action.
In 2013, I was throwing rocks out in Ethiopia somewhere and felt a sharp jolt in my right bicep. Normally I shrug things like that off, but this one was different. It was a piercing pain that made me really stop and think “ooh”. But even then, I just gave it a rub and thought it would sort itself out in a week or two.
A few weeks on and it was still uncomfortable for me to do basic things, like push ups or just lifting my arm above my head. Maybe it needed a couple more weeks to heal itself up.
Of course, that never happened.
What followed was three years of doctors visits, physios, scans and X-rays, frustration, fear, despair. None of them managed to fix it. It affected my sports, my workouts, even the way I did simple things, like reaching for the salt across the table. At one point, it almost felt like I was going to be “that guy with the bad shoulder” for the rest of his life.
Of course, I wasn’t able to let that happen – I’m too obsessive to let things go like that. Eventually, I realised the only person that was going to fix this problem was me. Googling, research, books, emails, experiments. Today, five years later, I’m 95% cured. I fixed my own permanent injury, and hopefully it’s a story that will help many of you out there do the same thing.
The physio and doctor world tour
I saw my first physio about two months after feeling that first jolt in my shoulder. I was living in the Philippines at the time. This was the beginning of my little world tour of shoulder treatment. The physio didn’t give me any real diagnosis – she just did the standard assessment, gave me a few exercises with the stretchy bands, massaged it, hooked me up to some UV machine or something. Over the next few weeks of seeing her, things improved a bit, but only marginally.
By this stage I wasn’t doing any shoulder work in the gym anymore – I was too weak to lateral raise even a few kilos. I started to wake up with a sore shoulder in the middle of the night or in the morning, meaning I had to start sleeping on my left side only. It was starting to affect my day-to-day life.
I saw a new physio the following year back in Auckland, maybe six months later. Her diagnosis was a bad subscapularis and some bicep tendonitis. I must have visited her about ten times, and each time was the same thing. She’d do some assessments, I’d tell her it still hurts, and then it was just the same advice as last week. Do more exercises, strengthen it up. Every morning I was doing shoulder rehab exercises, dozens of them. The shoulder improved slightly (maybe, I don’t even know for sure) but nowhere near to 100%.
After no real results with the physio, I finally went to see my GP. His diagnosis was chronic inflammation of the bursa, or bursitis. The bursa is a little sack of fluid between your neck and shoulder. Since the problem had been going on for so long (around ten months now) my GP recommended a cortisone (steroid) injection, because he said no amount of physio would fix such heavy inflammation. A few days later I visited a clinic and they did the injection under ultrasound. I saw my big inflamed bursa on the screen.
“See your bursa, it’s normally as thin as paper,” the doc said.
Mine was all swollen up like a mushroom. I watched the needle jab right in on the screen and pump in a dose of steroid. It was done in two minutes.
Things improved a lot after that, maybe to 75%. I went to my physio again two days later and had big improvements on all her standard assessments. I felt like I’d finally found the answer. Steroids for life!
But gradually things got worse again. A few months on and I started to feel the sharp pinches again, and still couldn’t lift as heavy as before. Things slowly deteriorated. I figured I’d see someone new – give it one more shot. I was in Bangkok at the time, and made an appointment with a shoulder specialist at Bumrungrad, the renowned international hospital.
That hospital is like a space station. I signed in and registered as a patient, got an ID card, and then was escorted up to the specialist area by my own personal guide. I remember looking down on the hospital, from the window of the ten millionth storey. If they can’t fix my shoulder here, nobody can.
The doctor was Thai, but spoke perfect English, no doubt from his American education, which was evidenced by his row of degrees on the wall. We had a long conversation about the entire backstory. He said the obvious thing to rule out first was any structural damage. “Have you had an X-ray done?” he asked. I shook my head. “Well, that’s kind of an obvious place to start. Come with me.”
We walked down the hall to the X-ray room and did an X-ray on the spot, with some kind of new-age X-ray machine I’ve never seen before. Then we headed back to his office where he showed them to me.
“It looks normal. Since you’ve seen so many people already, I’d suggest we do an MRI. Rather than just poking it with my fingers and guessing, on an MRI we can see everything clearly. If anything is wrong, we’ll be able to see it right away.”
That made a lot of sense to me. This guy was making the most sense out of anyone I’d seen thus far. I returned the next morning and did an MRI. If there was once place where I could afford to do it, it was here.
Later that afternoon I returned to the doc and he gave me the news.
“Everything’s normal. You have a small, small tear on your labrum, nothing that won’t heal up by itself.”
He gave me a short lecture on different strengthening and postural exercises, and some pain meds just in case. That was it.
This was a huge letdown. The MRI had sounded so promising. I thought they were surely going to find something in there, maybe even a wild parasite eating away my shoulder muscles or something. But I was again left with no real answers.
It was at this time I learned the real meaning of health is wealth. Who cares if you have a billion dollars if you can’t even reach into the top cabinet? I was starting to get depressed about the thought of all the things I may never be able to do again. Was a little shoulder injury really going to stop me from doing so many things in life?
Luckily, just a few days later, I made a discovery that changed everything.
The blog post that changed my life
It was just happenstance that I found a blog post by Clayton at Spartan Traveler called How I Broke My Body And Then Fixed It (his blog is also amazing for anyone into productivity/long term travel/online business – he doesn’t post often but when he does it’s top notch – check it out here.)
As you can see, this post you’re reading right now is named in honour of Clayton’s. This was the turning point that finally led me in the right direction.
In that article, Clayton laid out a story almost identical to mine, but it was about his knee. As I read through it I found myself nodding, nodding, hoping there would be a magic answer at the end. And there was, kind of.
I also reached out and emailed him, telling him how awesome his post was and how much I had learned from it. Like every real blogger out there, he hit me back!
Building my own path to recovery
There is a lot of theory that relates to what I’m going to talk about below. Clayton explains it all in his blog post, I won’t repeat any of it here. If you’re dealing with long-term injuries I would highly recommend reading his post first.
The first thing I started doing was watching the videos by Mobility WOD (Workout Of The Day) like he recommended. These were short, daily videos by Kelly Starrett – the movement guru, author and doctor – giving you short ten minute exercises to do each day. The goal is to break down soft tissue that has knotted up, fused to bone, and re-open up movements, some of which might have been restricted for years or even decades. Think of it as giving yourself a Thai massage but 10x more painful. Obviously this takes some work, although the concept is reasonably simple.
I started with all the shoulder ones. I still remember the first one I did. I was in Quito at the time, in a little hotel using a broomstick and a ball from a toy store. The video below was the exercise I did and gave me almost instant relief:
Now imagine what I’m thinking at this moment. Four doctors in three different countries over three years couldn’t figure it out, painkillers and steroid injections couldn’t fix it, then this random guy on the internet makes magic happen in five minutes on Youtube. Over the following days I moved onto all his other shoulder videos, then moved on to back, neck, bicep, and everything else.
These MWod videos brought my shoulder to around 80% health in just a few days. I was in Quito learning salsa at the time, and was finally able to get back in the gym in the mornings, lifting weights and slowly building my strength up again. I started every day with MWods and gradually improved even more. It was hard work, but obviously worth every second. Soft tissue work and mobilisation on Youtube was more effective than all the physios I’d seen put together, and in a ridiculously short time. It was as close to a magic bullet as I could have gotten. Not to mention, not a single “professional” had even mentioned this kind of therapy, let alone recommend I actively include it in my daily rehab.
Getting to the next level
Of course, this was only the beginning. What I wanted to build was a shoulder that was even stronger than before, too strong to be injured again. That wasn’t the case yet. I was still having to lift easy in the gym, and still had pinches in the front delt and bicep every now and then.
Clayton had recommended a book called The 4 Hour Body by Tim Ferriss.
There is so much information in this book. Even now several years later I still pick it up and flick through some chapters and find things I didn’t even notice the first time.
Maybe that’s why the first time I read it, it was a little bit heavy for me. Too much information and not enough personal context to relate it to.
However, about a year later I re-read the book and everything clicked.
There are two chapters in the book that are exceptional. The first is called Reversing Permanent Injuries.
Here are a few pages from that chapter:
My internal rotation was about as good as Tim’s in the photo. Maybe slightly worse. So, it was back to Mobility WOD to find exercises for improving internal and external rotation. I also saw an ART doctor in New Zealand for 2-3 sessions, who helped loosen things up nicely, but in the end I figured it was mostly stuff I could do at home.
Today, my internal rotation is excellent. No physio, no surgery. Just regular mobilisation work from Youtube. Just one example of the many improvements I’ve made from info in this chapter.
The second chapter that really changed the game for me was called Prehab. Prehab is about injury proofing the body, and is possibly the most interesting chapter of any book I’ve ever read in my life. If you’ve ever dealt with serious injury, it probably will be for you as well. Here’s the introduction:
One of the exercises described in the chapter to both test for and fix these imbalances are “the chop” and “the lift”.
These can be done on any standard pulley machine in the gym, or even with resistance bands. This video offers a good explanation of what they look like:
After self-testing myself, I found my right side was 4x stronger on the lift. It was a whopping 10x stronger on the chop.
If imbalance causes injury, I was a multi-muscle injury time bomb waiting to explode.
But this shouldn’t have been surprising. I use my right arm 10x more than my left arm, so why wouldn’t my right side by 10x stronger than my left? And over 30 years of life surely that imbalance would lead to some kind of problem. Maybe that’s why people get more injuries as they get older. This is the kind of thing that seems obvious when you think about it, the problem is, you never think about it.
Over the next 2-3 months I started my rebalancing program. I did the chop and lift every morning: 2-3 sets on my strong side, 5-7 sets on my weak side. In a pretty short time I made big progress, bringing the imbalance to about 2x, down from 10x and 4x. This is in fact how I do almost all my workouts now. I used to do equal sets on either arm/leg, but now I always do more on my weak side to close the imbalance.
There is another exercise outlined in the book called “The Turkish Get-up” or the TGU. Here’s an extract:
The last two sentences sums it up: Jon Torine, head strength coach of the Indianapolis Colts, is also referenced in the chapter:
“My job is injury prevention and performance enhancement. I start with the TGU. I finish with the TGU. I check progress with the TGU.” Since Torine joined the Colts, they’ve had the lowest injury rate of any team in the NFL. The TGU works!
Here’s a good tutorial on it:
I do the Turkish Get Up as often as I can, every day if possible. It’s a perfect exercise for stabilising, but is also a full body workout too. I do a weak/strong ratio with this too, so I usually do 2 with my right arm, 5 with my left arm. Even today, after doing this for a few years, my right side is much stronger than my left. A lifetime of imbalances takes years to fix.
All this information was instrumental in returning my shoulder to health. Because I finally had a “diagnosis”, I was able to go full steam into researching and understanding everything there was to know. And usually when that happens I go way into the rabbit hole and when I get to the end I start digging for even more. Steady progress over the next year brought my shoulder back to around 95%.
During my Eurotrip of 2016 I started to slack off a bit – I was travelling with bands and a ball but just never really found time to do any body work. I was still doing pushups and other bodyweight exercises every day, but because I wasn’t dealing with any injuries anymore I started to lose interest in the mobility side of things. I was also country-hopping like a mad backpacker through Europe so it was just never on my mind. Unsurpsingly the shoulder pain started to emerge again. It even got so bad I remember hunting for a pharmacy in Copenhagen to buy some pain meds during the latter half of that trip.
But because I was already armed with the knowledge of how to fix it, I wasn’t too worried. When I finally settled in Berlin, I started getting back on my daily mobilisation work again. It ended up being another few months before I “fixed” my body again. But this time the doubt was never there. I knew what I needed to do, and I did it, and it worked.
Just by luck I also learned some new stuff during this time. Luckily, one day while lounging in the hostel, I came across this gem on Joe Rogan’s podcast, where a shoulder specialist came on the show and introduced me to brachial hanging. Check it out:
Can you imagine that? Simple hanging from a monkey bar each day has a higher success rate than shoulder surgery. It is information like this that is not widely available in the medical profession. They’re great at finding the right medications and surgeries, but stuff like this isn’t in their textbooks. You have to hunt for it on the internet. Interestingly the MWod guy posted a similar video recommending this same exercise about a year later.
As soon as I saw this video I started hanging every day. The results were awesome. Shoulder loosened up instantly and you can literally hear the fibres grinding away. Before I had been struggling to find a place where I could do a lot of my exercises, but hanging was something I could do anywhere. I was in Germany at the time, and started doing my daily hang from the rails of the top bunk bed. In the next hostel I was doing it under the staircase.
This period of time was a good lesson that nothing is ever truly “cured”. You need to look after your body constantly, or you simply fall into the same cycle that got you injured in the first place. And was also a good reminder that there’s always more to learn, even if you don’t think you need to.
Maintenance, maintenance, maintenance
Now that I’ve got a good understanding of shoulder mechanics and how my shoulders became broken, I’m always looking for new ways to keep the shoulder healthy.
The main lesson I’ve learned is to treat the body holistically (meaning treat the whole body, not just the problem area). If the shoulder is injured, you can’t just treat the shoulder. In fact, it might not even be the shoulder that’s broken. It might be your hip or back or chest that’s busted, and that’s what’s throwing your shoulder out of whack. I’ve read countless blog posts now about people who had a sore knee, but it was actually their ankle that ended up being the cause, or maybe they had a sore back, but it was their knees that needed fixing.
Treating your body holistically also means managing your diet, your stress levels, your sleep. An inflammatory diet makes your more prone to injury. High stress levels slow down your recovery. Lack of sleep cuts down on your healing time. If you have a bad shoulder, don’t just try to heal the shoulder, try to heal the whole body.
Other things that I do are I travel with a hockey ball and resistance bands so I can do all my Mobility WOD exercises on the road. Prehab is always better than rehab; just a few minutes a day and you can do a lot to prevent your body from breaking. The thing about serious injuries is they rarely happen out of the blue. They usually happen by wearing down a muscle for many years, until it finally hits the limit and poof. So doing maintenance work on your body isn’t just something you do when you’re “injured”. This has to become a part of your daily life.
How To Cure Your Own Permanent Injuries
If we go back to the beginning of this story, it started with a physio, then another physio, then a GP, then a steroid injection, then a specialist, then an X-ray and MRI, plus a bunch of pain meds and home exercises and every kind of diagnosis. Over three years I was treated for bicep tendonitis, inflamed subscap, chronic bursitis, three different countries, nobody could fix it.
I’m also near certain had I simply continued with the advice I was given (painkillers, physio, cortisone) I’d be having shoulder surgery in the near future, if not already. I would almost certainly be looking at an entire life with a bad shoulder.
That’s not necessarily what surprises me. What surprised me in the end was how simple the cure was – no surgeries, medications or expensive therapy. When I look back on it, here’s all that was required:
- Doing shoulder soft tissue/mobility exercises every morning from Youtube (5-10 mins a day, free)
- Turkish get ups (5-10 mins a day, need a kettlebell or something heavy)
- Chop and lift (20 mins a day, need a basic gym or resistance bands)
- Hanging from a bar (2-3 mins a day, free)
Obviously it took a lot of time to discover and experiment with all these, but those four exercises are what had about 90% of the effect. And all that information I got from a book on Amazon ($10) and the internet (free).
This is the power of research and reading. All the answers are out there if you’re willing to hunt long enough to find them. With the internet we are all connected and can share our experiences. If anyone you know has a “bad shoulder” or “bad knee” or “bad back”, please send them this post or Clayton’s post and give them an introduction to this. The amount of people I’ve read about who have turned their “injuries” around with such simple methods is astounding. Hopefully this post can help us add a couple more.
Here are a list of resources I highly recommend to anyone dealing with lingering injuries:
The 4 Hour Body by Tim Ferriss – so much amazing knowledge in here from self-experimentation. Changed my life.
Mobility WOD Youtube channel – Literally hundreds of videos on restoring movement to every muscle in the body. Spent hours watching these.
Becoming a Supple Leopard by Kelly Starrett – Book by the Mobility WOD guy on all things movement and mobility. It’s huge like a bible, I have it sitting in my weight room at home. Covers everything!
Move U on Instagram – This is my favourite Instagram page, and the two guys who run it are really good at explaining things. They cover a new muscle group each day, and give you exercises to do.
Pretty much everything I’ve written in this article I learned from the above resources. Almost all of them are free.
And remember, even if what I’ve listed above doesn’t have the answer to your specific problem, I’m sure someone out there does. So much of the advice is universal to a healthy body anyway. Keep searching, asking questions, trying new things. And don’t give up!