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Tue, Jul 30, 2013

[Icon][Icon]Stopping Weakness, Starting Strength

• Post categories: Omni, Health, Exercise, My Life, Helpful, Science:ItWorks

tl;dr: How I went from being too weak to get out of bed, to being the strongest I've been in my life, in six months.

I'm 36 years old. I have been in pain every single day for more than half my life.

In my teens, it was backache. Not severe, not enough to lay me up in bed or stop me doing things. Just low-grade discomfort in my back.


Nothing seemed odd to me (or others) about this. I've always been the tall skinny type, and back pain is just something tall people are prone to. Everyone knows that. I couldn't magically shrink myself smaller, so back pain was just something I had to put up with.

So put up with it I did, through the rest of school and on through university. It still wasn't bad, just a bit wearing. I even took up scuba diving as a hobby, lugging heavy dive gear around. Not comfortable, but do-able. The constant aches and pains just didn't seem a big problem.

Then I graduated and got a job. Processing clinical safety data, eight hours a day typing on a PC. Plus my hobbies of hacking and writing in my spare time. Most of my waking hours were spent on one computer or another. This was where pain started to become a bigger issue. My wrists started to hurt - the onset of RSI.

This wasn't like back pain - it wasn't constant. My wrists were fine when I woke up, fine when I walked out the door. Fine right up until I sat down at my desk and started typing, whereupon they caught fire.

Seriously. They burned. Backache paled into insignificance as I spent hour after hour trying to work through the pain. Except it didn't, because as the RSI got worse, so did my back problems. From discomfort I progressed into real pains and occasional episodes where I would tweak something back there so badly that I lost range of movement for days at a time. And then I started noticing never-ending tension in my right hip, which started to also develop into real pain and also tingling numbness in my right thigh sometimes.

At its worst, I was in a special ergonomic chair, with a special ergonomic keyboard and wrist support gloves, on the highest dose of painkillers I could get away with, taking frequent breaks in which I would often go and run my wrists under the cold tap just to ease the burn. And I was only just getting through the day. Even after a week's holiday in which I didn't even see, never mind touch, a keyboard; I went back to work, sat down and Bam! Feel the burn.

I almost quit the job just to get away from the pain. But then I was recommended a book, by a professional physiotherapist who said she had found it revelationary. A fair endorsement, it seemed. So I ordered a copy - Pain Free, by Peter Egoscue.

It made a simple observation: Chronic pain in one place was typically due to misalignment somewhere else. The "oh!" moment in my case was when I was reading the chapter on wrist pain, and it showed a diagram of the typical posture of somebody who needed Carpal Tunnel surgery: back rounded forward, shoulders rounded forwards, head bent forward... and I suddenly noticed that I was sitting in that exact position.

I sat up pretty fast. At the weekend, I started doing the recommended stretching exercises the book advised for wrist problems. Remarkably, the main stretch for curing my wrists also did a good job of easing the tension in my right hip. I went back to work on Monday and, between the stretches and a determination to sit properly upright with wrists not bent back, the RSI was gone. Not banished completely and forever, but something that would just crop up now and then when I was too tired to notice my posture was slipping.

Years slipped by, and although the book had cured the worst of my symptoms, it couldn't get me all the way fixed - my posture still felt bad, my right hip just would not relax, and of course my back was always grumbling about something. But it was only little aches and pains. Nothing too worrying.

Then came my banner year: 2011 began with a motorcycle accident. I hit a patch of black ice, went down, and broke my right shoulder. That was me stuffed for any type of physical exertion for a few months, then. Plus, constantly supporting my broken shoulder really exacerbated my lopsided posture - I started to feel severely crooked.

I was just beginning to feel healed enough to get back into hobbies, such as running and rock climbing, when 2011 dropped its next surprise. Getting a lift back from the dentist, I was in the passenger seat of a Mini when it hit a patch of oil on a country road. It duly got into an argument with a tree, which it decisively lost, and I wound up being stretchered to hospital with head and spinal injuries.

They dug the glass out of my head and stitched it back up, confirmed that my spine was severely whiplashed but not actually broken, and sent me home.

For the rest of the year, and for a good few months of the next, I was borderline crippled. We'd hit the tree hard enough to break the driver's ribcage, to give you an idea of the levels of trauma involved. Physical therapy sessions came and went with no noticeable difference, my back slowly healed from the damage, and then it just stopped getting any better.

Not because everything was now fine. If anything, it felt like my spine had just given up and stopped bothering to try and get better. It was no longer the pain of damage, though - that was pretty much healed. It was the pain of weakness. The muscles in my back and core had simply lost so much strength that everything, literally everything, was a painful strain.

Let me put it this way: You know when you get out of bed in the mornings? When you sit up and throw the covers off you?

I put my back out doing that. I was literally so weak I could barely get out of bed. Lifting the duvet off myself was something that could sprain my back.

Scuba diving? Forget it. Shopping for anything heavier than a pack of biscuits? Forget it. The months of inactivity from a broken shoulder followed by the months of inactivity from whiplash had seen my core muscles shrivel and fade away. I'd tried yoga and pilates and they were no help at all. I took up running again, and that did actually improve things a little - you may think of running as an entirely lower-body activity, but it also makes you swing your arms and firm up your back some, too.

Apparently, then, what I needed wasn't bed rest; nor was it passive stretching and bending. It was actual exercise.

I tried boxfit, since it seemed like spending an hour punching things would (a) boost my upper body strength, and (b) be a good way to let off steam. It helped: I slowly worked my way up from one session a week to two, and then three. My shoulders and arms improved a lot, and my back eased up a little. But then it stopped really doing much else, and my lousy posture, which I was still unable to correct, started to make itself felt with joint pains from the fast-paced movements of boxfit classes performed whilst unbalanced.

When the boxfit class closed for Christmas, I had a couple of weeks of downtime. It was time to try something new: A book I'd seen highly recommended on sites such as Reddit and Hacker News. And with very good feedback in the Amazon reviews: Rippetoe's Starting Strength.

It's considered old-school by some, but effective by just about all. And when you're as chronically weak as I was, a book that's all about how to slowly and incrementally build up your strength, without some of the macho no-pain-no-gain BS you sometimes see in such guides.. that was attractive.

My biggest worry was that I was still in really bad shape. I was genuinely at risk of doing myself damage by carrying a heavy bag of shopping. My biggest worry when I first tried a back squat wasn't that I would look stupid, or have bad technique, or anything else. It was that even the unloaded bar would be too much for my long-suffering spine to take. I was honestly worried that even an empty bar would put me on the floor.

You know what? It almost did. Because on that first day, there was no bar in the rack, so I had to take one that was leaning against the wall in the corner. Having to pick up and carry a bar, then lift and rotate it to horizontal to put it in place, was almost a game-over move.

Almost, but not quite. I managed it and, confidence boosted a little bit, I took the bar's weight onto my shoulders and lifted it out. Five sqauts, bar back in rack. Job done.

And you really can't imagine how good it felt.

Not the triumph, not the fact that I'd managed to do five squats. But the actual feeling of supporting a weight, of exercising my atrophied back. The pages and pages of detail SS goes into, hammering home how to do a squat right; the dozens of illustrations; the sheer insistence on correctness and descriptions of how to achieve it - for many people, SS is annoyingly wordy and goes into too much detail for trivial things. For me, that was a lifesaver - my posture was so poor, my entire body so mis-aligned, my back so unused to being put to work.. after over a year of enforced inactivity, I was in such appalling condition that being able to finally take a step back towards health & fitness felt indescribably good.

I even risked putting a little weight onto the bar and doing a few more sets. Just a few kilos, weight that a healthy twelve year old would probably have sneered at. But I didn't care, for me it was huge.

That was it for me for that day - I didn't want to ruin things by overdoing it. But it was an encouraging start, and as Rippetoe points out, the barbell is awesome because you can incrementally increase the weights at whatever pace you need, to ensure you make progress every time. I worked up to adding in the press and the deadlift. The bench was out - my misalignment was at its worst on the bench, I simply couldn't hold the bar level. And the clean was similarly out, I just didn't have the range of motion to work with.

But those three core exercises - squat, press, and deadlift - were doing me the world of good. Not just because I was slowly inching up the numbers, but because you get more and better feedback doing a movement with a weight than you ever could without. The press, in particular, gave me a LOT of feedback - it was (and still is) my weakest move because any postural problem sucks out your ability to bring force to bear. I could only put a meager 7.5kg on each end of the bar and I was at my limit. Not so much because there was no strength there, but because I could feel I was doing myself damage - my left arm hurt every time I straightened it above my head.

After a couple of months, I stopped even trying to increase the weights I was working with - strength wasn't the problem, technique was. Every move I made, I could feel that I was doing it wrong - too much weight on one side; too much strain on the wrong muscles; or just pain as muscles were impinged due to my being unable to get the movement right.

Three times a week, for months, I worked with the same weights and put all my focus on feeling what I was doing wrong and trying to correct it. It was six months from my first gym visit, some eighty sessions, before I managed to get through every set without getting a warning twinge that I was making a bad mistake.

But that was the first time in more years than I can count that I got solid evidence that I could actually work my way back to not being so misaligned. It was the first real progress I ever made towards a day when I could say "Nothing hurts".

It was still slow going, though, and every improvement required constantly watching every move I made and trying to learn how to make it better. I was quite literally relearning how to walk. Relearning how to make every move, in fact. It's so hard to do, because although we think we're in control of our movements, we're really not. When we want to stand still, we think "stand up" and it Just Works. We know nothing about all the work that hundreds of muscles all over the body are doing to keep us that way. We think of standing still as being an inert, motionless thing: Our brain is hiding from us all the complexity involved in balancing, all the little adjustments it makes every second to keep us apparently still.

You can't just think "I'm moving wrong, I will correct it." You have to think "I'm moving wrong, what do I need to do to retrain my brain to correct it?"

And I was learning how to do this, slowly. But then I got pointed at one more book, the Leopard Book by Dr. Kelly Starrett. Or K-star, if you prefer.

I was a little dubious, to be honest - I mean, how seriously can you take a book with a title like "Becoming a Supple Leopard"??

But it got rave reviews, and then someone mentioned his video project. Apparently, the good doctor decided he'd spend a year putting up one video a day, for free, on YouTube, with some piece of useful advice.

I watched a few. I picked a couple of the physical problems I had - jaw tension, and misaligned right shoulder - and watched the corresponding videos.

Jaw tension, he said, was down to holding your head wrong: letting it slump forward. And a few seconds experimenting confirmed what he said: If you push your head forward, your jaw is dragged back. If you pull your head back, your jaw can relax and move forward again. Moving my head back not only removed the aching tension that had been there for years, not only fixed the bite position my dentist had described as "totally weird", it even helped me get a better night's sleep as it turned out to be the cause of my snoring.

That was impressive.

For the messed-up shoulder, he advised laying down, taking a dumbell in one hand, and then holding it up with a straight arm at 90 degrees to the floor for a couple of minutes. This would cause my shoulder to relax into a non-rotated position, he claimed. And it had to be two minutes at least, because stretches aren't really effective unless you hold them for at least that long.

So I tried it. And **** me if it didn't give me the most noticeable improvement in my shoulder position I've ever had.

And the two-minute rule? That's worth the price of the book on its own. I have one persistent ache in my left mid-back from a muscle that I can stretch out, but it only ever gives a few minutes of minor improvement, so I usually don't bother. Holding that stretch for the two minutes, though? Not only does it take AWAY the pain, it also stops me going right back into the dysfunctional position that causes it.

All in all, those free vids were pretty dramatic evidence that this guy knew what he was talking about. I ordered the book.

I'm still working through it - it's a big book - but it's totally worth the money.

I've seen some reviews where people claim it's of limited effectiveness; not as good as claimed; doesn't give them any real improvements. To them, I say: Good for you! You're clearly someone with pretty good posture and technique. But I'm a walking disaster area - my left foot has a collapsed arch; my right shoulder is rotated; my spine is crooked; my neck isn't straight; my hips aren't level; and every time I move I can feel that some joint somewhere is getting abused by my lousy non-upright position.

And the sheer number of helpful things I've already come across in just the first third of the book are (for me) genuinely, seriously, literally life-changing.

Even something as simple, as taken-for-granted as climbing a flight of stairs: This makes my left ankle and knee ache. Page 93 told me why this was: My left knee is collapsing slightly inwards, putting huge strain onto the joints. After reading that, I climbed my stairs forcing myself to keep both knees, not just my right, pushed outwards.

Know what? It's the first time in several years that I haven't felt something complain when climbing a flight of stairs.

The amazing thing about the human body is how well it can work even when so badly compromised. Lest my shoddy posture give you the wrong idea, I should highlight that even with all those problems, courtesy of the workouts I've been doing since December, I'm in better shape than I ever have been before in my life.

Six months after starting with Starting Strength - six months after having to be very cautious moving an empty bar - I've gone from having a back so weak it couldn't take a bag of groceries to one that can deadlift my bodyweight. A few weeks ago I was in the country and I saw a tree that looked like it would be great fun to climb. A year ago, I would have just looked at it and sighed. Six months ago, I might have made it if somebody had given me a boost. Now? I just reached up, grabbed the lowest branch, and hauled myself up. And then turned and hauled my (somewhat smaller) friend up behind me. I moved home, and the dozen big heavy boxes that all my worldly goods were packed into, I simply carried down the stairs of my old home and up the stairs of the new one.

My posture is lousy, and full of flaws, but it too is getting better. And although I'm still in pain every day, it's less than it has been in a long, long time. And I stress again: It only took six months to get my back from "so weak I couldn't get out of bed in the mornings" to "stronger than ever before in my life".

So my message is, if you're someone who would like to get stronger and/or fitter, but feels embarrassed about going to the gym because you're in lousy shape: Unless you too have been laid up for over a year with broken bones and spine trauma, I gaurantee you're in better shape than I was. Get a good book, or a good coach, or just a friend who knows what they're doing. And get to work.

You'll be amazed how fast things can change.

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