In the last post I discussed that too much of a “healthy” stressor can harm you. Today we are going to look at one of these instances that became far too common in the last decade. Along with rise in popularity of high intensity training came a dramatic rise in cases of Rhabdomyolysis. Rhabdo, for short, happens when an athlete pushes their body’s muscles too far past their literal breaking point.

Even though Rhahbdo has earned a mythological character in some communities it is nothing to joke about. If you know someone who has gone through this illness it was certainly not pleasant. Rhabdomyolysis occurs when an extreme amount of muscle cells (fibers) in a region are damaged so badly they enter the bloodstream and the contents overwhelm the kidneys. Remember when you exercise you intentionally break down muscle fibers so they will regrow stronger and you will grow more of them. Rhabdo happens when the amount of this stress is too much.

The most notable symptom of Rhabdo is dark urine, often described as cola. Side effects also include intense pain and soreness in the affected muscles. Patients with Rhabdomyolysis may need hospitalization and an IV. In extreme cases even dialysis is needed to heal the kidneys.

Any time Rhabdomyolysis takes place it is because an athlete has gone to muscle failure and then continued doing repetitions. In order to learn how to avoid Rhabdo let’s first discuss the most common scenarios where athletes get it.

Common Causes

Coming Back Too Hard

When I was coaching CrossFit the clients I always kept an eye on were ex-athletes who hadn’t worked out in 5 or more years. These people knew how to push themselves, but had not in a long time. This meant they were at risk to push themselves very hard even though their body could not handle it. Always be honest about your fitness level and workout with an intensity that matches.

Various Versions of “Drop Sets”

A drop set in the body building community means to use one weight and do repetitions of an exercise continuously until you can no longer lift it. Then you immediately use a lighter weight and repeat until failure. You can continue this until using very minimal weights. This breaks down the muscle much more than needed.

A similar scenario can happen in functional fitness workouts without realizing it. If you are doing pull-ups and move to ring rows when you can’t do pull-ups anymore you are doing a drop set. You have gone to failure at one amount of stress only to go to failure again at a slightly lower amount using the same muscle group.

So…how do we avoid getting Rhabdo, but still get great workouts that are going to build muscle?

How to Prevent

  1. Use a weight that you can perform consistent sets with and where you may only get close to failure at the end of the last set (if you are even trying to get to that point).
  2. Focus on smooth movements, not allowing yourself to do more reps just by bouncing or swinging the weight up. Use tempos like 2 seconds down and 2 seconds up to help with this.
  3. When you reach failure in a movement STOP doing that movement.
  4. Pay attention to how sore you get from certain workouts and by going to failure on various exercises. Only by getting to know your own fitness level will you know when you can push and when you need to let your body heal.

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