For the past two years, I’ve been dealing with a herniated disk in my neck.
It was somewhat of a blessing in disguise when it happened. I was 26 years old, still working 9-5 as a copywriter at an advertising agency, and full-on living the lifestyle of a bodybuilder. I had been working out for six uninterrupted years at this point—in the gym 3 hours per day, 6-7 days per week. I ate constantly while I was at work. I weighed 180 lbs with less than 7% body fat. And for a long time, despite my love for writing (and aspirations to become an author), I thought fitness was going to be my career.
After all, it had been “the thing” that had shown me the most success.
I’ll never forget the day my injury happened.
It was my birthday. May 23, 2016.
I was about to leave the office and meet my lifting buddies at the gym, when my boss and mentor at the time offered to take me out to dinner. “Come on, birthday steak dinner, on me. I know how much you love your protein.”
At the time, a steak dinner anywhere in Chicago would have been quite the treat. I wasn’t making much money as a copywriter, was living in a studio apartment on the north side of Chicago and spending all my money on food to support my bodybuilding habit. But I was incredibly disciplined during these years of my life—and anyone who knew me then can attest to my unrelenting obsession with personal development.
I didn’t want to spend my birthday eating a steak dinner. I wanted to hit chest and continue moving in the direction of becoming a bodybuilder.
So, I declined my mentor’s invitation, walked to the train station and did the same thing I always did: rode the train home, made myself a massive oatmeal-peanut-butter-blueberry smoothie back at my apartment, took some pre-workout and went to the gym.
It was one of the best lifts of my entire life.
Everything felt perfect.
I had been in a flow those past few months, not missing a single day in the gym. I was lifting heavier than I’d ever lifted before in my life. I was putting on muscle like crazy. And the feeling I had in the gym that night, I remember, was pure happiness. I was present.
Until the very end.
To finish out my workout, I decided (on way too much pre-workout) to superset cable flies for chest with diamond push-ups. And the first set felt great. But the second set, about eight reps into my push-ups, I felt something pop in my neck.
I stood up, reached behind me to feel, but nothing seemed out of the ordinary because literally my entire body was pumped up from a two-and-a-half hour workout. So what did I do?
I kept going.
It wasn’t until I got back home to my studio apartment and started cooking dinner that my head started pounding.
It happened so fast.
First, there was a dull pain. Then the bottom of my head started to pulse. Then, within a matter of minutes, I started getting shooting pains up my shoulder, into my neck, all the way to the top of my skull. I wobbled over to my refrigerator, opened the freezer and grabbed a bag of frozen strawberries to put on my neck. But every time I would breathe in, another shooting pain would hit, and the cycle would repeat itself.
For the entire next month, I was on painkillers.
The night I hurt my neck, I called my dad (who is, coincidentally, a spine surgeon).
At first, he thought it was just a muscle strain. But by the next morning, it became abundantly clear to me that I was dealing with something much worse than just a pulled muscle. I called out of work for the next few days, went to the hospital, and sure enough, I’d popped a disk in my neck—it was right there on the MRI.
Rest plan: Vicodin and no more lifting.
Now, this wasn’t the first time I’d experienced a back injury. When I was 14 years old, I actually fractured the right side of my lower spine playing hockey. And then again when I was 17 years old, I fractured the left side of my lower spine—also playing hockey. When I turned 18, and after several years of endless back pain, my dad thought I might also have what’s called Ankylosing Spondylitis (an inflammation of the spine and an early form of arthritis).
The way to deal with Ankylosing Spondylitis was to be physically active and keep the muscles loose.
Which is how I got started bodybuilding.
As soon as I got injured, a massive part of my daily routine vanished.
All of a sudden, I had 3-4 more hours each day to myself.
I couldn’t lift. I could barely cook breakfast, lunch, and dinner. And within the first week of my injury, it became abundantly clear to me that I was headed for a dark and twisted depression. Here, I’d spent more than six years perfecting my lifting routine and my diet, finally reaching a point where I felt like I was “mastering” my craft—and then poof, it was all gone. I felt everything from angry to sad, frustrated to afraid. I was scared I’d never be able to lift again. I was worried I’d need surgery. And I just kept replaying my mentor’s words to me, over and over again: “Come on, birthday steak dinner, on me.”
If only I’d chosen to go out to dinner that night.
In an attempt to focus my energy elsewhere, the only other thing I could do with a herniated disc (and wanted to do) was write. I went through an initial phase of trying to pass the time doing other hobbies of mine—I made some music, and restarted my old World of Warcraft account. But neither of those hobbies offered me any sort of new “north star,” which was what I needed.
I didn’t just want to cope. I wanted to pick a new goal to go after—until I was healthy enough to get back into the gym.
I had been working on my first book, Confessions of a Teenage Gamer, for a while.
So I made it my goal to finish it.
I’d been struggling with the last few chapters for a while, but with so much free time to myself, I started to realize that the writing itself wasn’t the problem. It was me. I’d been postponing finishing the project. I’d been prioritizing lifting instead of blocking off adequate time to focus on the writing.
Simultaneously, I had also just started writing for Inc Magazine, so I decided to double-down on my column there as well. In many of my other articles, I’ve written about how, as soon as I got my own column, I wrote an article every day, 30 days in a row, month after month after month. Well, it was my bodybuilding injury that sparked that fire in me—and what propelled me to write so much.
This is why I say my injury was a blessing in disguise.
I herniated the disk in my neck at the end of May, 2016.
By September, four short months later, not only had I become one of Inc Magazine’s most popular columnists (bringing in hundreds of thousands of page views every single month), but as a paid columnist (being paid per page view), I’d created a secondary income stream for myself that had allowed me to save thousands of dollars—which become my “leap” fund.
In addition, I finished my first book, Confessions of a Teenage Gamer, self-published it on Amazon, and hit #2 in two separate categories.
The same day I published my first book, was the last day of my 9-5.
It was such a strange series of events.
I still hadn’t returned to the gym, was on and off painkillers, and physical therapy was showing little signs of improvement. All in all, my future as a bodybuilder became clear: there was no going back.
Meanwhile, my career as a writer had been slowly building on the internet over the past two years—but the moment I herniated the disc in my neck and went all in on writing, things exploded. I quit my job. Became a ghostwriter for founders and executives. Quadrupled my income. And ended 2016 convincing one of my closest friends to take the leap with me to start a high-end content writing business—which we ended up launching a few months into 2017, called Digital Press.
I’m a writer after all.
Over the past two years, I’ve barely been back to the gym. I’ve been in and out of physical therapy and casual commitments to yoga. I’ve tried dry needling and massages and everything except surgery to heal the trauma all the muscles in my upper back experienced the moment I herniated that disc. But through it all, I’ve come to realize that despite the pain of the injury itself, it was a necessary part of my journey.
I don’t think I would have willingly walked away from bodybuilding. I loved it too much—and yet, it was taking up too much space in my life to allow my true talent to flourish.
Still, I like to be physically active.
A friend of mine, fellow writer (and the single best sales copywriter on the planet), Craig Clemens, and I started doing writing sessions together, and he introduced me to an awesome fitness-writing routine.
It’s a productivity hack, sure. But it’s also a way to get the endorphins flowing—which gets the words flowing faster and more effectively.
Here’s how it works.
Turn off the internet and set the timer for 7 minutes.
You can structure these 7-minute intervals in a handful of different ways—maybe one interval you focus on legs, another you focus on abs, etc. But the truth is, the whole idea is to just keep your heart rate up and your body moving. Set the timer, and don’t stop moving until it goes off.
Here are some of the most common exercises I like to do:
- Air squats
- Jump squats
- Walking Lunges
Once you reach the 7-minute buzzer, grab your laptop and start writing.
No turning the Wi-Fi back on. No checking your email on your phone.
Ideally, you should have a Word doc already open, and know in your mind what you’re planning to work on—for the next 33 minutes. That’s how long you’re going to write for, until the buzzer goes off and you set the timer for 7 minutes again.
The goal is to go through at least four 7-minute workout sprints, and four 33-minute writing sprints, in one session (which is 2+ hours of writing).
The first time I tried this method with Craig, I had no idea what to expect. Considering my background as a bodybuilder, this went against everything I believed was effective for muscle growth and fitness. But that’s what was so interesting about it. The routine isn’t built for someone trying to become, say, a bodybuilder. It’s intended for someone (like who I am today) who wants to remain physically active but spends hours and hours and hours sitting in a chair, working—and writing.
When we did our first 7-minute sprint, one of the first things I noticed was how clear my head was as soon as I sat down to write. It felt like my inner voice was directly connected to my fingers, and as soon as I “thought” the words in my head, they appeared on the page in front of me. 33 minutes passed in an instant—and then we were right back to doing crunches and air squats and push-ups.
Now? I do this writing-fitness routine 4 or 5 days per week.
For a variety of reasons.
First of all, it’s a way to get some physical activity into my day without having to drive to the gym, work out, drive back, etc. Running a startup and writing as much as I do are both huge commitments. This has allowed me to still keep my body moving without giving up a huge chunk of my day.
Second, I swear, this does wonders for the writing process. You’d be surprised how much easier it is to get “in flow” when you’re panting and your abs are on fire.
And third, this has been a great re-introduction for me to being physically active without lifting weights.
Try it out. Let me know what you think. And writers, don’t knock the process until you’ve tried it.