Bodybuilding and Hernias: What You Need to Know

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The risk of getting a hernia is easily one of the less glamorous aspects of bodybuilding.

While common and usually non-threatening, hernias can be painful, limit your day-to-day activities, and keep you out of the gym. Left untreated, there can be rare complications caused by hernias. More importantly, they don’t just go away on their own. In short, if you get one, you need to get to your doctor.

Let’s discuss what a hernia is, what causes them, preventative steps, and what to do if you get one.

What is a Hernia?

Your organs are held in place by the muscle tissue in your abdominal wall. You can visualize this tissue like a suit of armor holding your insides where they belong. But in every great suit of armor, it’s still possible to find a weak spot. When the abdominal wall has a weak spot, your intestines can push their way through. And when this happens, we call this a hernia.

Causes of a hernia

So, what exactly causes your organs to be able to push through a wall of muscle? Well, there are three common causes of a hernia:

1 Birth Defect

Those who are unlucky enough to be born with an improperly closed abdominal wall are at a high risk for developing a hernia. Sometimes, the condition is so bad, babies are born with what’s known as an ‘umbilical hernia’, and the only cure is surgery. However, the symptoms aren’t always so obvious from birth. The weakness can go undetected until adulthood, and unfortunately, this sets the stage for the possibility of your intestines slipping through during a weight lifting routine.

2 Strain

The most obvious form of strain is exercise during bodybuilding. When bodybuilders lift too much weight, they increase their risk of getting a hernia. This is especially true if their abdominal wall is weak, and if they’re using bad form. A strain-based hernia can also come from chronic coughing and performing simple household chores with bad posture.

This is one good reason to practice proper form when lifting. All bodybuilders are risking injury if they don’t. And you don’t have to have an undiagnosed birth defect to be susceptible, it simply heightens your chances of it happening to you.

3 Lifestyle

Do you lack fiber in your diet and find you’re always constipated? Have you gained weight? Have you been following a rigid bodybuilding schedule for many years? All of these lifestyle factors place you at a higher risk for developing a hernia. With a bodybuilding lifestyle specifically, over-training of the abdominal wall without a proper rest and recovery program can weaken the abdominal muscle tissue and increase the risk for the intestine to push through.

Types of Hernias in bodybuilding

There are three types of hernia that bodybuilders can develop based on the factors listed above:

1 Inguinal hernia (Abdominal hernia)

As mentioned above, this is the most common type of hernia you’ll see occur in bodybuilders. This is when a bodybuilder going through their exercise routine takes on too much weight. They’re probably also using poor form and posture.

For example, during a barbell squat, your abdominal wall acts as a brace against the force of the weight on your back. It also helps with balance. If a bodybuilder has a weakened abdominal wall as a result of a birth defect or over-training, the intestine pushes itself through the abdominal wall, specifically near the groin.

This type of hernia is far more common in men than women because a man’s testicles descend through the inguinal canal. If this doesn’t close up properly after the testicles descend, it increases the risk for a hernia to occur.

2 Hiatal hernia

Again, when too much weight is used and the force of strain is too great, a bodybuilder could develop an hiatal hernia. This is when a section of your stomach pushes itself through the diaphragm, exposing itself in your chest. This type of hernia is most common with older bodybuilders.

3 Incisional hernia

As the name implies, this one’s caused indirectly by an incision that you get from surgery. If a bodybuilder has surgery and an incision is made in the abdominal wall, this creates scar tissue and weakens the tissue surrounding it. During a bodybuilding workout, the intestines can push themselves through or near the incision spot, even if it’s healed scar tissue.

How do you know if you have a hernia?

You can easily self-diagnose a hernia if you have one. Ask yourself the following:

  • Do you have an obvious bulge or bump in the area of your abdomen or groin?
  • Have you noticed swelling in your abdomen or groin?
  • Have you recently had abdominal surgery?
  • Do you have pain that worsens when you cough or move something heavy?

If you said yes to most of these questions, then you most likely have developed a hernia. Immediately stop your bodybuilding routine and you visit your doctor as soon as you can.

Exercises that put you at risk of developing a hernia

There’s a common saying in bodybuilding: There are no bad exercises; only bad form. For the most part, this is correct. It’s bad form and posture during heavy-loaded exercises that are going to dramatically increase your chances of developing a hernia.

The three most common exercises for developing a hernia are also considered the three foundational exercises in fitness: barbell squat, barbell deadlift, and bench press. Again, these exercises when performed correctly are amazing for your physique and overall health. But when you load up a barbell with more weight than you can handle and perform these exercises incorrectly, you’re asking for trouble.

How to prevent a hernia

A few simple lifestyle changes can help to significantly reduce your chances of developing a hernia:

1 Lose weight

If you’re overweight, focus on shedding those extra pounds. Excess weight places a great deal of unnecessary strain on your muscles, organs, spine, and connective tissue; this is a recipe for developing a hernia.

2 Check your ego

If you’re going to the gym or helping a friend with moving, leave your ego at home. Spend the extra time warming up, stretching, and starting with light weights for a few sets.

3 Eat more fiber

Constipation can cause a hernia so it’s important to eat a fiber-rich diet to help get things moving. Just adding two tablespoons of chia seeds to your protein shake can boost your fiber intake.

4 Give your body rest

Whether you’re in sports, or you work an insane number of hours in physical labor, you need to give your body time to rest and recover.

5 Use a hernia belt

A hernia truss offers short-term relief if you’re waiting for an appointment with your doctor or recovering. It should only be used with agreement by your doctor.

What to do if you get a hernia

First things first: Stop exercising, then get to your doctor. There’s no magical natural cure to make your hernia go away and you may need surgery, so you’ll need the advice of a trained professional.

Depending on the severity, size, and location of your hernia, your doctor may advise you to make the lifestyle changes I listed above and monitor your pain levels. If your hernia is severe or if the lifestyle changes haven’t helped, however, your doctor will likely schedule you for surgery.

Know someone at risk of developing a hernia?

Do you have a friend that performs exercises incorrectly often and with a lot of weight? Are some of the older guys in your gym still living a hardcore bodybuilding lifestyle? Pass this article along to them so they can educate themselves on what a hernia is and how to prevent it.

Have you encountered a hernia? Tell us about your experience in the comments below.

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