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. So sorry to hear about your troubles. I am a new member here, hope that you find a way to work around it all. I only have is one japanese proverb I stubbornly refuse to forget

    七転び八起き Nanakorobi yaoki

    Literally: fall seven times and stand up eight

    Oh and please keep being an inspirational samurai-nerd for all us people who need motivating 🙂


  2. Hey Steve,

    Reading this article in my inbox has brought me back to nerdfitness after several months. This past September just before I went back to college my doctor told me I had tore up the muscles in my lower back from squats and deadlifts. In addition to telling me it would take 6 months to get healed, he advised I not do any heavy weightlifting again. Do you have any suggestions as to what kind of strength training can I do that is low-impact? My doctor’s only suggestion was swimming (which I’m terrible at). As a result, I’ve mostly fallen into the rut you described where I’m playing life on easy mode physically.

    Hope everything goes well for you.

  3. Hey Steve,

    I have really enjoyed your articles thus far. I even started my own morning mile and I have you to thank! I don’t even think about it anymore, though I’m sure the people commuting on my street are wondering who the freak in the pjs is every morning.

    Anyway, I felt compelled to comment on this article because I can relate in more ways than you can imagine to your back troubles. I’m actually a cyborg or bionic or however you want to think of it. What I mean by that is that I have two titanium rods screwed in my spine from scoliosis correctional surgery. They’re 14 inches long and span from T2 to L2 and they’re held in with 19 screws. My curve reached 65 degrees before the surgery I had when I was 14 years old. I’m 21 now and have been plenty healthy and active ever since- with one giant exception. Recently, over the past year or so, I’ve developed chronic sciatica. It’s gotten so bad that I’ve had to skip class on more than one occasion due to not being able to sit though a lecture. Driving is nearly impossible and working out has been out of the question. I’ve started seeing a new chiropractor (fourth one) who has taken xrays and is pretty sure he knows what the problem is, which is that my sacrum is tilted and rotated such that it’s causing my lumbar vertebrae to twist and curve as well- he thinks this may have been the cause of my scoliosis. I’ve also tried steroids to try and ease the pain in the meantime, as chiropractic adjustments take a lot of patience and persistence to hold, but they haven’t helped much. But I’m hoping that with his help, and the help of my surgeon, I will be better soon.

    Anyway, enough about me, I’m basically writing in hopes that you will continue to share what you come up with as far as workouts and staying fit while you deal with this injury. I’m truly sorry to hear that yet another young person like myself is dealing with back pain that threatens to make life unmanageable. I wish you the best of luck on your journey to health and full range of motion!! Keep us posted!! And thank you again for all that you do!!


  4. If it were my back, would advise seeing a D.O. over a Chiropractor. They are typically trained in the same sorts of manipulation as chiropractors are, but have a more comprehensive medical training as well.
    You do good, Steve, and I want you to get better and continue unimpeded in your quest!

  5. this means one or more of three things, right?
    1. squats and deadlifts will ruin your back even if your form is right
    2. you have been doing them wrong, i.e. they are that complicated that even when you think you’re doing them right, you’re not
    3. something else is wrong

    i just want to be sure that i’m not setting myself (and other people) up for injury in the long run

  6. what do you think was the problem?

    were you doing squats and deadlifts wrong? are they just too complicated that even when you think you’re doing them properly, they’re still bound to destroy your back? or was it something else entirely?

  7. I’m an archer and I broke my ankle for the second time (this time I even got to get plates put in) last week and I’ve been really, really bummed out about all the stuff I’m gonna be losing out on the for the foreseeable future, and the fact that getting to the bathroom has become a freaking adventure. Means a lot of lost practice time, and probably some shit balance issues to contend with when I go back, and it’s been depressing me since I got out of the hospital.

    A friend linked this post at the exact right time, because it really really helps me put stuff into perspective and has me thinking about the alternatives and that suit blueplan stage you mention. At the moment, I think that’s gonna be a lot of upper body stuff but it reminds me of all the stuff I CAN do to keep stuff going, and that I’m in a sport where something like my injury isn’t going to be THAT big of a deal once I’m past this initial stage and find a way to shoot that works for me. Thank you for this, and for the inspiration to get out there and do what Tony would, instead of just angrily running people over with my walker the way I really WANT to right now.

    I haven’t let fibro or the TMJ that I triggered when I started shooting (ask my chiropractor and dentist about how much I fucked THAT one up. It’s probably one of those warning stories) and I don’t have to let this do it either. This gives me a lot of hope for the future too.

    Good luck with your rediscovery too!

  8. After my idiopathic hypersomnia diagnosis last year, I’ve slowly been building my suit. That quip about ‘at least you woke up’ … well, yeah, the problem was? I didn’t wake up, technically. For about four years. Sleeping Beauty, kind of. Now my ‘suit’ has a bunch of white pills, which kind of work – but they work by interrupting how hard it feels to do stuff, which has seriousbad consequences. Iron will is actually kind of a problem in this situation, because it’s easy to go hard enough to literally knock myself out for a week – before I feel like I’ve really tried at all. So I’m now applying that iron will to going very, very, very slowly, and recording everything, so that I can apply empirical methods to figuring out exactly how to improve. Oh, and the spinal issues? Got some of them, too – T4 and C4, to be exact. For which I need to do major strength training and flexibility work to begin correction. And then weightlifting, because the density is low.

    For someone who, above all, wants to be fit, strong, and just plain *well* … seriously. That’s all I want for christmas.

  9. Two words: Dr. Sarno. My husband had lower back pain for years, was diagnosed with degenerative disk disease, a fracture in the spine, and advanced arthritis. He was told by 3 different doctors he should give up (at age 35) and get used to it, it will get worse.

    A friend (who was told a similar fate about her tennis elbow years before) told us about Dr. Sarno. Having tried everything and facing a pathetic future, he read every Dr. Sarno book. Within 3 weeks, he was surfing again and training for his first marathon.

    Anytime his back problems act up, he reads the book again and follows the recommendations and is back up working out again the next day and living pain free. This is a guy who couldn’t even take out the trash or walk across the room without throwing out his back 5 years prior.

  10. also meant to include his friend who was a Physical Therapist/genius looked at his xrays and told him, his back looked messed up, but he’s seen other people with worse backs that were living pain free.

    Don’t let a doctor stop you. Try PT, chiro, massage, Dr. Sarno and your own knowledge and tenacity!

  11. see a physical therapist first! it’s a stability issue not a mobility issue (not stuck but sloppy). don’t loosen something that’s already loose!

  12. This article is very inspiring and pretty good timing for myself. After a session of dealifting on Monday, I discovered I strained my hip flexors (abductors?) that I believe I got from getting stepping a ladder wrong. I was pretty bummed since this was my second week of strength training. Today, I decided to continue to do the exercises that don’t rely on that muscle too much until I can squat down all the way with no pain. It sucks for this to happen right at the beginning but I need to keep building.

  13. So sorry to hear about your back, hopefully you can find a way around this bump in the road. I’m glad you posted it though, I myself had a serious illness a few months ago (blood clots in both my lungs) that took me in the space of just a few hours from a perfectly healthy young woman who’d really improved her physical fitness over the previous 6 months to being unable to so much as talk normally without having to stop and catch my breath, unable to sleep lying down for several weeks, not to mention the chest pains. It sucked majorly, especially as I was just weeks away from starting at a new college.

    Fortunately, I didn’t give up and kept trying to get myself better with the help of a great doc who told me that if I could increase my cardio once I was cleared to start exercising then I could offset any lingering effects on my breathing. I can’t say I didn’t let it slow me down at first (hard not to slow down when I couldn’t make it up 1 flight of stairs), but I’m catching up to a new and improved version of myself much more quickly than I expected.

  14. Steve, you’re the one who guru’d me to eat right and take care of myself. I’ve read enough of your writing to know that this may be a challenging new direction for you but it won’t be enough to slow you down! Optimus Prime, right? Tiny changes! I believe in you!

  15. Thank you for this post. I’ve been reading a lot of stuff as I have made my journey over the last year or so, and very, very few people discuss this. I have 4-5 herniated discs, two bad knees (one’s already been worked on) and a brain condition called Chiari. All of these things mean that while I can work with the Kettlebell I love so much, I have to be careful. I’ve taken routines from some mainstream DVD’s and such and will modify some exercises or replace some in order to get the same benefit but to avoid some pain or something I know will cause it later.

    Thanks again, I hope that we get some more updates from you on how you’re doing adjusting to your new styles of working out and taking care of yourself. Good luck! Once you’ve identified a problem, it’s sooo much easier to deal with. 🙂

  16. Well, Tony Stark would come up with brillaint explanation to prove that the doctor was wrong, and then he’d proceed like it wasn’t even an obstacle at all. Because genious, playboy, philanthropist, billionaire, can do anything he wants!

    And knowing all the wonderful/inspirational stuff you have done Steve, you’ll probably make a full recovery and get back into the groove in no time. I mean, you’re freackin’ Steve Kamb! The guy who brought video games and fitness together and inspired thousands! You’ll make light work out of this back injury.

    And hey, in defense of your slick montages where heroes go from puny to awesome in just minutes, I’m pretty sure Rocky can do anything, cause he’s that great.

    Anyways, have a great day and keep your chin up.



  17. Best article ever. I have been down for months about all of my working out because I have an ACL injury, therefore no running, squats, burpees, and many other plyo excercises I enjoy heavily. This article is just what I needed to get back in the game, Thanks Steve!

  18. Aw, Steve,  sorry to hear about your injury. You’ve got a great attitude about it, as always! Good luck.

  19. Dude, keep it up! Literally couldn’t believe my eyes when I was reading it but you’ve seen the positive all on your own, now go and show us all how it’s done!

  20. Hey Steve.. Great article. Too bad about the back. I also have back problems and I no longer do any heavy lower back exercises and have cut out many leg exercises as well. My doctor is of now help and basically says live with it. I’ve been working on my core more and seeing the chiropractor and massage therapist when it’s bothering me.

  21. I can’t believe I didn’t see this article earlier! Iron Man is my favorite super hero and this article really spoke to me. I gave up Hip Hop because I hurt my knees, and I never really got back into being active. Thank you for this article, Steve, I think it’s the push I need. Good luck to you too.

  22. Brilliant:  “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!” … that’s insight for the 110% strong as well as the injured.  Thanks Steve.  The timing on this is serendipitous as I’ve just found I’ve been training on partial ACL and MCL tears the past few months … my initial response “Oh man, if I wasn’t bright enough to know I was making things worse all along, maybe I should stop while I reorient?”, now?  … I guess I don’t know but there’s more building in the works! 
    P.S. — I too will be in Brazil through January and February.  NF international photo op?

  23. Hey man, sorry to hear about your vertebrae.  I like your take on overall fitness but have always been frightened away from deadlifts and other such back crushing workouts because my dad has severe back problems from years ago when he worked construction.  

    Some positive support: I had knee problems for many years, found it difficult to go up and down stairs.  Did that stop me from climbing Kilimanjaro or running a marathon?  No.  I put a brace on it, worked to strengthen the muscles around the joint to take up the slack and over many years, it slowly got better.  Now I have no pain in my knee!One thing I did to make it better was change how I sat down in the car.  I know, sounds random, but I knew there had to be some movement I was doing that was irritating it.  Turns out one of those movements was the twist of the knee as I put one foot in the car and sat down.  I decided to train myself to sit down first, then swing my feet into the car to see if that helped.  I believe it really did, so now I do that every time.  It doesn’t look very manly, but my knee feels great and that’s worth it!  

    I believe by strengthening those muscles around your spine and learning what movements are good movements and what aren’t, you’ll be back to 100%!

  24. Steve,

    Make your core unbreakable. I was diagnosed with grade 2 spondylolisthesis in 2005. Pain so bad I was going days without sleeping. I had a choice to make. Get a spinal fusion or go through 1 year of intense physical therapy to strengthen my core. 7 years later my core is rock solid and I have very little pain. You can overcome this.

  25. The same day you got this news, I came home from the hospital following my second surgery (after trying chiropractic, yoga, pilates, CST, massage, exercise, rest, heat, ice, acupuncture, water aerobics, everything I could to avoid surgery for 4 years) to correct my spondylolesthesis at L5-S1 (which started when I thought I was doing the right thing by walking on a treadmill at the gym 3-5 times a week). I believe your dedication to fitness has kept your back from getting worse than it might have if you were more sedentary. Now, I’m feeling much better, stronger, and more ready than ever to take charge of my wellness. I’m ready to be Iron Woman. 🙂 Thank you for the inspiration!

  26. I just found my arc reactor—– Lyme’s Disease. Now I have to go on a doctor ordered low fat basically Paleo diet. I will get better, it’s going to be tough, but I will be healthier. And I will do a pull up.

  27. LOVE this article! I’ve been having issues with my back (and been to Dr) but determined to continue working out. I’m modifying and just continue to keep moving forward.

  28. I would suggest seeking a second opinion from both a sports physician and a spinal surgeon.

    While family physicians are terrific and important, given the scope of the lifestyle changes, I would want to speak to an expert. Particularly where such absolutes as “you must never do X or Y again.”

    Best of luck.


  29. Really needed this article right now. Thank you so much. Keep up the awesome work!

  30. I just lost over 50 lbs and have that much more to go, but I have been somewhat stuck. I am in the best mental health of my life, just beat fibro, am starting two new internet businesses (one on health and one to sell essential oil based products. I have been into healthy living for 38 years and never stop learning. I have spent hours on your site today (first time). I already packed up all my grains and I am 100% committed to the Paleo diet. I have been working out too. I have arthritic knees and a shoulder injury from weight lifting, both of which I want to overcome. Did I mention I will be 57 in a few months. I am going to be the absolute best I can be. My accomplishments so far have been astounding, (I had brain surgery in Oct 2013) and I want more by way of even better physical health. I am going to start your home workout today.!
    I love this site, it is truly motivating!

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