By Mario Strong

I have suffered many injuries and narrow escapes throughout the decades. In 1973, during my senior year of high school, I was performing handstands on the parallel bars during gym class. I had performed this movement plenty of times before and for me it seemed routine, or so I thought. I had a spotter as required but no mats on the floor to cushion my fall. For some reason, while on the bars with my feet in an upright position over my body, my hands suddenly slipped and I found myself falling quickly towards the hard floor. Instead of breaking my fall, the person spotting me quickly jumped out of the way. There was nothing to stop my momentum and I crashed to the floor with a loud bang as I landed headfirst. What should have brought me serious injuries resulted only in a large head bump and a lesson learned!

Several years later, while riding my horse, Galaxy, on my upstate farm, I got a little bored. To spice things up a bit I got the bright idea of doing some wild bronco riding, but needed a way to make Galaxy start jumping. I found a can of horsefly repellant in the barn and sprayed it on Galaxy’s upper tail area. This created a burning sensation on my horse’s rear-end and sent him jumping wildly to my delight. After a minute of violent galloping in circles, Galaxy calmed down, but I wasn’t satisfied with such a short thrill. So once more, I sprayed the horsefly repellent on Galaxy’s upper tail area and again he started jumping wildly. This time he got annoyed with my antics and kicked his back legs higher and higher in an effort to throw me off. Finally, he succeeded in his crazed effort, by whipping me off the saddle and over his backside as I crashed head first into a pile of horse manure. Again, what should have paralyzed me only resulted in my head splattered in what I deserved and another hard lesson learned.

One day I was training in my home gym and banging out Half Squats with a couple of spotters on both sides of the barbell. I worked up to a respectable 365 pounds, which wasn’t too shabby for a seventeen-year-old bodybuilder. As I took the weight off the freestanding barbell racks, I stepped back next to a bench and began to squat until my buttocks hit the bench. For some reason on my tenth rep, I found myself unable to lockout and began to fall forward with the weight. As I yelled for the spotters to grab the heavy weight from me its resistance quickly pushed down on my neck and I suddenly saw the floor coming at me fast. With instinct, I somehow somersaulted in midair by using the heavy barbell’s pull to swing my body around it as I held my breath and heard the heavy steel crash loudly onto the floor, with me landing on top of it. My spotters didn’t know if I had snapped my neck, or was seriously injured as I lay on the floor waiting for some major pain to strike me. After a minute or so, I realized I had dodged another bullet and opened my eyes while smiling to my friends. It was an extremely close call that I would never repeat again. The following day I ordered a power-rack from the York Barbell Company. Since that day, whenever I perform squats I make sure to use some type of safety rack. Another lesson learned!

However, as lucky as I was at times, I have had plenty of real injuries to contend with from my years of karate, running, and weight training. Some of the worst injuries have knocked me out of training for weeks and months at a time. I have suffered through strains and sprains, muscle tears and spasms, both herniated and ruptured disks, and just about anything else you can think of. That is what happens when you constantly train to the max.

Down but not out! Mario with his sister and mother in the ER - 1987

Every now and then, we all get knocked down. Nevertheless, that is simply a time to re-evaluate your efforts and come back stronger. The important thing is not to repeat the same mistakes again. Remember the phrase “No Pain No Gain.” It is so true in this sport. At my Staten Island Bodybuilding Club, I had a forty-foot long red, white, and blue banner with those exact words that boldly hung high as a reminder of what it took to achieve one’s goals. It was part of the iron game that we all experienced and accepted without complaint; we always came back hungrier, to train hard for bigger and better gains.

One near catastrophe that I experienced was in 2000 while training at a Dolphin Fitness Center on Staten Island. What was unusual about this injury was that it occurred while I was resting between sets. I had worked up to heavy poundage while performing the Leg Press. After I finished my last set with twelve 45-pound plates on each side of the machine, I stepped out of it and stood by its side to answer some questions regarding training from a gym member. I wasn’t paying attention to what was happening behind me. While on the opposite side of the machine, another gym member started removing all the 45-pound plates from one side. Since the machine was not designed to stay upright with a tremendous amount of weight only on one of its sides, it came crashing down and hit my back like a giant boulder falling off a cliff. The 500 plus pounds that remained on the side I was standing whipped the machine towards me while sending its top metal plate-holder ripping into my back like an axe. Instinctively, I fell downward with the machine’s force to avoid breaking my back in two. As I hit the ground, I rolled out of the machine’s way and heard it crash loudly to the floor while I watched the 45-pound weight-plates fly in different directions. As the crash echoed throughout the gym, its members suddenly became quiet. I rose from the ground and looked over to see who had stupidly removed all the weight-plates and nearly crippled me. All I could see was a couple of fellows sprinting towards the exit in fear of what might have happened to them. I never did find out who they were, probably a couple of beginners that knew to quit while they were ahead. Because of the incident, I received some serious muscle pulls as well as deep scrapes from the machine as it tore against my flesh like sharp blades. My sweatshirt was soaked in blood and my back burned from the torn flesh. It was time to call it a day and heal my wounds. The one thing that I was reminded of from the experience was always to expect the unexpected. Since gyms are very dangerous places that could cause some serious pain and suffering, I should have known better than to let my guard down. Another lesson well learned!