What to Do When You Have a Serious Injury or Setback? Become Iron-Man.

I am Iron Man.

I have to admit, I never felt like I could truly relate to the character of Tony Stark (Iron Man).

I feel a close connection with Captain America, and at times I’ve felt like a member of the X-men due to often feeling like the “only one” and being weird in my exercise and diet habits.

Finding similarities with a brilliant billionaire playboy who gets kidnapped, builds an arc-reactor in his chest to survive, and then uses said technology to build a super power a full suit to save the world just never clicked with me.

Welp, after my first trip to the doctor in years, it turns out I have WAY more in common with Iron Man than I ever would have imagined.


The week of November 25th won’t be remembered as my favorite week ever:

Wednesday morning: I interview one of my heroes, Tim Ferriss, and publicly commit to rigorous training sessions three to four times per week of Capoeira before heading to Brazil for Carnival in February.

Thursday: I attend my first Capoeira class here in Nashville – I get through the handstands, cartwheels, and gingas, surviving the 90-minute class excited and energized…but quite sore in my lower back (something that has bothered me for years).  I ask the teacher to personally train me three times per week and he agrees.

Friday: I decide that now I have an actual home base, I should probably take care of myself. I go to a doctor to finally figure out why my lower back has been hurting me for so long. After a series of questions, some stretching and range of motion tests, I get x-rays taken. The following conversation takes place:

  • Doc: Hey, so here are your x-rays. Um, have you ever had a serious fall in the past? Like, 10 years ago or so?
  • Me: Hmmm, nothing that I can remember? I’ve had back problems for years, but I just kind of dealt with it.
  • Doc: Well, let’s take a look at your x-ray here (see photo above). Look at your L5 Vertebrae – it’s supposed to line up with the rest of them…it’s off by quite a bit.
  • Me: Wait, that’s supposed to line up with the rest of them? Ruh roh…

Over the course of the next hour, I’m told I may never deadlift or squat again, and for the time being I definitely need to avoid any lower back-strenuous activities…like capoeira.

I’m not going to lie…for a guy that runs a fitness website, lives for strength training, loves picking up heavy things, and enjoys finding new physical activities that put a tremendous amount of strain on my body, this felt like a sucker punch to the gut.

For once, I’m in a situation that can’t be fixed with just clean eating and strength training. I drove home in a serious funk, feeling like my life was just diverted down a completely different path.

Then the nerd gods intervened.

I walked in my apartment, threw my keys onto the counter, and plopped down on the couch completely depressed. I turned on my TV, and guess what movie had just started five minutes earlier and happened to be on the channel I had watched the night before?

Freaking Iron Man.

Stop the shrapnel

Tony Stark woke up in a terrorist prison cell with an arc reactor protruding from his chest.  It turns out, this arc reactor is the only thing keeping the shrapnel embedded in his body from piercing his heart.

Overnight, Tony had been transformed from healthy, wealthy, and wise to a sideshow freak at risk for instantaneous death every minute of every day. After the initial shock wears off, Tony doesn’t sit around and sulk.

Hell no.

He sucks it up, accepts the fact that he can’t go on living the same way, and starts making changes immediately. It turns out, this drastic and gruesome injury is crucial to Tony’s development as a character.

He needs this massive step back before he can take steps toward becoming a true superhero.

If you’ve had an injury or ailment, recent or chronic, you probably had an initial moment of negativity too. However, no matter how bad it may seem, you still woke up today…which is a pretty damn good start, right?

Instead of getting bummed out that my back is messed up, I’ve instead decided that I’m very lucky that I made the discovery now rather than ignoring the pain for another decade and causing even more serious damage down the road.

If you have a physical ailment, get it looked at. Whether it’s a knee problem, shoulder problem, or lower back problem, you need to find out if you have any “shrapnel pointed at your heart.” You can’t begin building your suit and becoming a superhero until you uncover the challenges you need to overcome.

Once you’ve received your diagnosis you have two options:

OPTION ONE: Complain and use the diagnosis as an excuse for inaction. “Sorry, I can’t exercise, I have a bad knee/back/genetics/whatever. Now, hand me the remote and that pint of ice cream. Damn my poor luck!” Unfortunately, life isn’t fair. Some people get to play life on Easy Mode, while others have to play on Legendary Difficulty. That’s just how it works.

I love this woman’s attitude, and this guy’s list of excuses:

OPTION TWO – Become Iron Man: Identify your shrapnel – get x-rays, a check-up, or whatever you need to identify the source of your ailment. Then, accept that you’ll need to make some changes moving forward if you’re going to rise and become Iron Man. You’re going to realize that through some tinkering you can build a stronger self.

Start building your own Iron Man suit today.

Build your suit

Once Tony accepted the fact that he would need a permanently implanted arc reactor to keep him alive, he set out to turn his weakness into a strength. It was this weakness and “accident” that allowed him to become Iron Man.

I’m in the process of building my suit now by strengthening everything around my ‘arc reactor.’ For the foreseeable future, I won’t be able to do any serious lower body strength workouts, which bums me out to no end. However, this discovery is going to really force me to think critically about how I can stay in shape without my preferred method of traditional strength training. I expect it will be lots of upper body gymnastics work, yoga, stretching, walks and hikes, and a crazy amount of core workouts to strengthen the stabilizer muscles in my back to keep my spine safe.

What kind of suit are you building, and how are you going to build it? Work with your doctor or physical therapist to find out what you’re capable of and how you can strengthen your weak points. Learn what you CAN do to rebuild yourself, then get working on it!

I strongly encourage you to forge a new path while thinking, “I’m going to level up my life today.” Like changing to a new class (from Warrior to Monk, for example) in a RPG, you might need to adjust your Level 50, but is a far better alternative than feeling sorry for yourself and using your weakness as an excuse to get lazy.

Now, once you’ve started laying out the blueprint for your Iron Man suit, it’s time for the montage.

Test drive it

iron man drawing As Mr. Stark planned out his prototype, he continually ran tests and experiments to see what he could and couldn’t do. He learned how much thruster power in his boots was too much, that if he flew too high his suit would ice over, and that if the arc reactor was removed from his chest…it would kill him.

I want you to think of each day like an experiment:

  • I can still do this exercise with these modifications and get the same benefits. BOOM.
  • Okay it hurts when I do this, therefore it’s either too soon or I shouldn’t do that.
  • I can do this, but I get sore afterwards. Let’s see if I can attempt the same exercise and hold it for longer next time.
  • I can do this new activity and there’s no pain. I’m going to keep doing this.

There will be bumps, bruises, soreness, and frustration in your future. That’s part of the game. Listen to your doctor, listen to your body, and work with yourself to find out what you’re capable of.

As you begin to test out and tinker with your new suit, remember this: in every super hero movie, there’s always a slick montage where the hero/heroine goes from awkward and frustrated to epic and awesome (in a matter of minutes). What they don’t show is the days/weeks/months/years required by the character to put that montage together.

In order for you to become a superhero, you need to go through your “awkward to awesome” phase too, and you need a LOT of footage to fill up that two minute montage. So be patient!

Start your montage today, one frame at a time.

Save the world

Iron Man Saves the World To borrow a line from my friend Mars, “The world needs you.

The world needed Tony Stark. He was broken, but he worked around his shortcomings to better himself and successfully defeat evil villains, saving the world from certain doom.

In doing my research for this article, I came across this awesome quote from one of the original writers:

“Here you have this character, who on the outside is invulnerable, I mean, just can’t be touched, but inside is a wounded figure. Stan [Lee] made it very much an in-your-face wound, you know, his heart was broken, you know, literally broken.”

Up until last week, I really felt invincible. Well, I’ve learned that unfortunately sometimes we can run into obstacles that might force us to take a different path to our goals.

HOWEVER, I’m okay with that, because I know that new and different strengths are now available to me, waiting to be unlocked. I’m going to save the world in a new way.

If you’re dealing with an injury or ailment, ask yourself: “What would Iron Man do?”

The world needs you to be healthy. I don’t care what path you take to get there, but I know that this planet will be better off if you take care of your body and dominate adversity.

Get started.

What kind of Iron Man suit are you building?

2018 UPDATE: So I wrote this article nearly 5 years ago, and I wanted to share my results since then. I slowwwwwly built up my core strength, and eventually started deadlifting again with the aid of a coach.

“I am Iron Man.”



photo source: arc reactoriron man close-up, iron man test, iron man drawingiron man saves the world

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    112 thoughts on “What to Do When You Have a Serious Injury or Setback? Become Iron-Man.

    1. Great article and wonderful, inspirational attitude! I walked around for a year with a broken back. I had been working full time with handicapped adults, going to graduate school on the weekends and taking care of my wheelchair dependent mother as she struggled through a terminal disease. I thought I felt terrible and everything hurt because I was terribly depressed. When my mother died I finally went to the doctor. She referred me to a physical medicine doctor who took an x-ray and diagnosed me with a pars fracture and grade 1 spondylolisthesis.

      When I asked how to recover I was told that I could get a spinal fusion and face more than a year of recovery. No. Just no. They also told me that I could never do any exercise other than light walking and swimming and that I could never lift weights again. Then I started reading fitness blogs in which people with this same condition (it is a mis-alignment of the spine due to bone slippage when the pars interarticularis broke) got better. They too were told not to exercise or lift weights but they ignored the advice because it made them feel worse. Five years later, I go to the gym virtually every day. I use low impact machines like the open Stride, the elliptical or the stair climber. I lift light weights and do so many planks that you could bounce a quarter off of my stomach. You know what? I feel strong. My back rarely hurts. Working out has helped me build my iron man suit.

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