Josh Perry’s BMX career started the same as many other’s: a young kid in the skate park looking to jump higher and go faster than his skateboard allowed. It was shortly after Josh went pro that his journey, and life, turned upside down.
Multiple brain tumors, a severe ACL tear, and a long road to recovery; nothing has come easy for Josh.
We sat down and spoke with the Cape Cod, Massachusetts native to discuss his incredible journey, the role strength and conditioning has played in getting him back on the bike, and how his training at the Athletic Lab with a PUSH Band is taking his on-bike performance to the next level.
Josh, thanks for taking the time to speak with us today, your story is an inspiring one. We're excited to talk about how you've been strengthening yourself for competition, but first, walk us through the beginning of this journey.
So I had moved to Greenville, North Carolina to ride with Dave Mirra and the other pros at the time. I was competing international, and in March 2010 I had fallen and hit my head, which I needed an MRI to check for brain injury or swelling.
Leading up to that, for about a year I was experiencing severe headaches, nausea from headaches, blurred vision to the point where I couldn’t even see the TV from my couch, sometimes so bad that if I looked at my hand I’d have multiple hands. Some days were better than others.
The MRI results came back and the doctors told me that I had a problem. The injuries weren’t the problem; it was that there was a mass on my brain. They didn’t know if it was cancerous or benign, but it was a brain tumor and it needed to be taken out.
I ended up finding out one of the top neurosurgeons in the world was right nearby at Duke University. He looked at the MRI and rescheduled some patients to get me in sooner. He said if I had waited another month without getting this taken care of I might have not woken up one day. It was 2 weeks later or so that I actually got in – April 16, 2010.
The surgery lasted 6 hours when it was supposed to be only 4. There was a complication where the location of the tumor was on a main artery. They had to avoid hitting the artery so to not risk rupturing it, giving me a stroke or paralyzing and killing me right there on the spot, and a whole list of other risks. The tumor was also on my optic nerve, which explained why my vision was impaired.
So after the 6 hours I got out and everything was ok, the tumor was benign, and I was good to go home.
But that wasn’t the end of it?
It was September of 2012 and a recent MRI showed 2 new masses in the same location, but separated from each other. They said it was residual cell growth because of having to avoid the artery during the surgery.
I was doing some research on the topic, I was still hesitant to deal with it right there, and I came across something called Gamma Knife Radiosurgery. This is a form of radiation treatment that is a more targeted version using less powerful beams than the normal. They pinpoint the location that they want to treat, and they’re able to send a number of different beams of radiation that meet at that one point. It does its job, they’re able to treat more specific areas and more than once as it isn’t as dangerous as traditional radiation. Plus, the side effects don’t even compare and the success rates are much higher.
So I went through that in November of 2012, and we did some routine follow ups a year and half and 2 years out, and now I’m 5 years off of that and those two areas were shrinking.
Incredible, that’s great news that you’ve been able to move on from that experience, it really puts things into perspective. And to say that wasn’t the last time you faced adversity either...
Yea, so it was 2013, I was in a contest in Indiana and I put my foot down wrong. My foot planted, my body turned to the left, my foot turned to the right, I fell down on it and I felt my knee pop. This was the same experience that people describe when they tear their ACL. I heard it pop and I felt it through my whole body, the pop. I laid down on the ground, it didn’t hurt. I tried to get up and I took one step and went back down. Right there I thought “oh man, I blew out my knee”.
As I was sitting there and the paramedics came over was when it started to hurt, and I was just devastated. I was coming off of a video that I had put out earlier that year, right after my radiation, to let people know I wasn’t going anywhere. I was super excited for that contest, and I think, looking back, I got a bit too excited with what I wanted to do on that jump.
That recovery was brutal. Spoiler alert, I didn’t have the surgery then, I had it 2 and a half years later. I was told a lot of different things, and I ended up just wearing a brace; I was back riding and I dealt with moments of swelling and pain throughout that time.
So fast forward to the beginning of September 2015, I got an MRI and the doctors tell me that, yea, this is not how your ACL should look, you just blew it up and there’s a lot of other stuff going on, we recommend surgery.
They gave me a lot of prehab before the surgery, it was my now girlfriend helping me out, and she walked me through every step of the process.
Jacquelyn Lauricella, ATC, LAT, Josh’s girlfriend was also with us, and as his Athletic Trainer had this to add:
His MRI diagnosis looked like a list of ingredients, it was so long. Here was his rap sheet:
- His ACL had torn and the fragments had adheased to other parts of his knee, meaning the new ACL they constructed for him would be almost entirely new tissue (hamstring graft).
- Partially torn medial meniscus. (which they slightly shaved to diminish fraying)
- MCL damage
- PCL damage
- Baker's cyst growth (removed)
- Osteophyte formation (removed)
- Cartilage damage
For the two years Josh was without an ACL he reported complaints of pain and swelling on a regular basis. He began exercising with a friend who also did BMX and did workouts that focused on strengthening and balance. Some of the stuff he was doing was very beneficial, but without an ACL, the integrity of the knee is greatly compromised.
I don't think he hurt everything on that diagnostic list all at once. I think continuing to ride without one, and the toll BMX can take on the body, created more problems. He did, however, do an excellent job strengthening his knee the best he could in that situation.
Jacquelyn, tell us more about your experience working with Josh.
I met him in 2015 right before his MRI. Normally, a person is very weak and swollen after an ACL tear, so prehab is mainly range of motion and flexibility, but because Josh had been so functional, we were able to do very specific and rigorous strengthening to prepare him for his surgery.
He was very intrigued by strength training initially and we did something different everyday to challenge him and keep him from being bored. Our biggest focuses were distal hamstring and quad strengthening, hip and glute development, proprioceptive exercised and core. Because he was an athlete, he was strong and athletic, but when you ask people to do very specific exercises for areas that are already injured, it's a different level of a challenge and it makes the most athletic people feel very awkward. Some of the movements were very foreign to him and he would get frustrated. However, I learned that if you challenge Josh, he will rise to the occasion.
We weren't dating at the time, but he drove me crazy. He was one of the most involved and relentlessly inquisitive athletes I had ever worked with. He wanted to be hyper involved with his program. He wanted to know what and how and why and even asked to watch videos of a surgery like his before he went under the knife. Of course this was great because if I didn't have specific answers ready, he would be on my case. I know my stuff, but throughout his entire pre/rehab program I had to know specific details of everything I was asking him to do. The results he experienced throughout his rehab and the lack of swelling and issues he had post surgery, combined with how solid he felt on his bike, even after 13 weeks off, made him a true believer in strength and conditioning.
After he was back on his back he wanted to continue strengthening and workout programs. We constantly talked about what he should be doing at the gym and made small tweaks to his program. He has come a long way since then and what they provide him at Athletic Lab is something every BMX athlete should try.
Josh, obviously strength training played a major role in your recovery, but what drove you to go to the Athletic Lab specifically?
It got to the point where I was going to this everyday gym, and I thought I needed to go to a more sport specific gym, which is how I found the Athletic Lab. They’re all about taking a look at the data and tailoring your training to your sport. Everything they do is tailored to your sport, it was exactly what I needed.
Yea, so it’s very untraditional for action sport athletes to take training as serious as we do. My goals are personal of course, but my goals can be universal to any BMX athlete. That being said, when I met my coach Matt Hunter at the Athletic Lab, I told him my main goals were:
- To protect my knees, specifically from the previous ACL surgery I had
- I want to work on my upper body strength and core to make specific tricks a little bit easier and require less effort, so I can continue my sessions with more energy.
- Being able to lower my heart rate while I ride, so I’m able to get to the end of the session and perform some big tricks and not fizzle out like a lot of riders do.
In BMX, we have 2 60 second runs. You see these guys come out, and I used to do it too, they come out real strong, lots of tricks, lots of height at the start, and then 30 seconds in they start fizzling out. They’ll do a couple of tricks here and there, then they call it with like 5 seconds left.
My goal was to improve my conditioning so I could stretch my runs farther. I was eventually doing tricks at the end of my run that I didn’t think were going to be possible.
What has your experience with the PUSH Band has been, and how has it helped your training?
Using the PUSH Band, the first exercise I got introduced with was the bench press and then the squat. We were measuring the velocity of that as a testing tool, every couple of weeks we would use the PUSH Band to measure my velocity and see where I was at.
We do a bunch of exercises, but those were the 2 main exercises we were using the PUSH Band for. The other thing with my sport is the explosiveness, so we measure exercises that mimic that, and build my strength and explosiveness. So we do a lot of exercises and use the PUSH Band to track that.
Matt Huter, Josh's coach at the Athletic Lab adds:
These exercises are useful for assessment because of their relationship with sport performance. They are so commonly used, across all types of sports, that there is a large pool of data to compare with and get a better measure of performance.
We used PUSH to get an assessment of max strength without working with loads that Josh was not ready to yet handle. Additionally, the velocity data gives us insight into his ability to produce force at varying speeds.
From years of in house testing we have normative data, as well as more global benchmarks, to compare to. With an understanding of this data, using the PUSH Band allows us to see where an athlete is on that day. As they move forward and progress we continue to track these measurements and make more informed decisions because of it.
Do you have any features of the PUSH Band that you enjoy using, or that stand out to you?
That first experience of using the PUSH Band in my workouts with was really cool. My workouts felt even like a game for me, and a competition to do better each day in the gym. Just being able to see my progress and see my numbers made me say, “damn it, I need to do better, these numbers aren’t as good as the day before”. Just being able to see my progress with my numbers, the past 10 months has been a game changer for me.
We are talking about using Free Movement to track different spins and tricks on the ramp and in the park. I’m really excited about that, because then I can measure my progress in the gym, but then I can also go to the park and see how it’s translating to specific tricks. We won’t be able to do all of the tricks, but we’ll be able to do the main tricks. Things like tail whips and bar spins, or 360s and 720s, the spinning tricks, it’s going to let us see the power that goes into those. I’m excited to see how that goes.
Matt Hunter, Josh's coach at the Athletic Lab, adds:
We are working with Chris Chapman to use Free Movement to get a better understanding of the demands of the sport by getting objective measurements of the tricks Josh executes. It brings the benefits of PUSH to a far wider array of movements. The true applications are somewhat limitless, it will be fun to see how it ends up being implemented.
At this point we are still playing around with it, so it's hard to say exactly what will come of it. I expect we will be able to see velocities change over time due to changes in factors like Josh's physical output, or equipment.
From your experience, who would you recommend use PUSH Band in their training? Is it just for pros?
I think it can be beneficial to anyone. I’m a big believer in the importance of data. If you want to go somewhere, but you don’t even know where you’re at to begin with, you’re going to have a hard time getting to that somewhere else. You need to have the data to set a starting point and be able to track your progress as you go on.
I think it can be useful to anyone, the everyday athlete, the pro athlete, the weekend warrior. I really enjoy knowing where I’m at, if I want to go from point A to point B I need to know what it’s going to take and how I’m doing. It would help anyone who has a goal in the gym, it will give them the data to tell them how they’re doing.
How has your on-bike performance improved since starting to take your strength training more seriously?
Yea, so it took years of abuse on my body to realize, maybe I should try to protect my body. People like Dave Mirra were telling me that to go to the gym, it’s good for you, and that I should try. I usually thought “na, I don’t want to do that”.
Now that I’m actually in there and working out I want to document it all and expose as many people to it, especially kids in my sport, to help them understand the importance of it.
I know a couple of 16 year olds who tore their ACLs in the past year or so. That’s such a young age, and it’s something I’d like to help the younger generation to understand how to avoid. Strength training and nutrition is super important, and don’t wait for something to happen before you start. You can prevent it now from happening. It’s definitely a goal of mine to help other kids understand that.
The biggest improvements I’ve seen on my bike was the pump, the beginning of your takeoff on the ramp, and the landing absorption. So if you don’t clear the ramp, or you land too low, being able to handle that has been a big game changer for me in my riding.
While doing a trick sometimes I’ll over rotate, and instead of blowing off my bike, I’ll be able to now counterbalance that and hold onto it. Instead of my legs giving out and I fall over I’ll be able to hold myself up.
I think with the right strength training, tricks will become easier, your absorption and your pump is going to improve, rotation will improve. You’ll be able to compensate for over or under rotations. Any and all of those things will help with your endurance, whether or not you’re focusing on it, being stronger will help you handle your tricks and keep pushing at the end of a run.
Matt Hunter, Josh's coach at the Athletic Lab, adds:
Focus on doing the basics exceptionally well; this will likely put you in a better position to succeed than most. Be in it for the long haul, training takes time. But small gains again, and again, and again, over long periods of time lead to a MASSIVE total improvement.
Training physical output is a way to push the sport forward. Faster, stronger, more fit riders will be able to do things that no one has been able to do before. If you don't have experience training, find a coach who can help. Track your progress so you know if you are progressing at the pace you want.