About six weeks ago, Miss D. and I began strength training at the gymnasium owned by Mr. Strength Training himself, Mark Rippetoe. He put us through a lengthy interview beforehand, checking our health histories, current state of body and mind, and so on, before deciding that yes, we were suitable candidates. (He’s very choosy about that. If he doesn’t think he can help you, or if he doesn’t think you’re serious, you won’t be accepted as paying members of his gym. It’s refreshing to meet a man who puts principle above money.)
In the six weeks since then, we’ve made what is, for us, amazing progress. Bear in mind that I have a fused spine and a permanently damaged left sciatic nerve, and I’m in pain 24/7/365. Miss D. has suffered several shoulder dislocations (a genetically-inherited weakness she’d as soon do without), and a few years ago, her right knee was the meat in a two-car sandwich, resulting in it being not so much broken as shattered. Neither of us is in very good shape physically, and following doctors’ advice and prescriptions over the past few years has made us worse, not better. We both struggle with weight issues (me in particular), and as for physical therapy . . . let’s just say neither of us was satisfied with the results we were getting.
Our personal coach, Carmen, has been working with us for one to two hours a day, three days every week. We’ve more than tripled the weight we’re lifting in the various exercises, and she’s been very good indeed about working with (and around) our respective disabilities, trying to get us the maximum benefit from the exercises we can do, and putting off until later those we simply can’t manage for the time being. She’s also modified exercises to accommodate our weaknesses. For example, given my damaged nerve and fused spine, and the balance issues they cause, I simply can’t do squats in the textbook fashion; so she’s having me do box squats (demonstrated by Mark Rippetoe in the video below), using a stool as a halfway point. (The gymnasium shown in the video is where we train.)
For deadlifts, I can’t bend forward far enough (partly due to my fused spine, partly due to my over-large belly getting in the way!), so Carmen’s having me do a modified rack pull instead, where the bar is supported on cross-rails, meaning that I don’t have to bend so far. I’ll try progressing to the full deadlift if and when my flexibility and balance have sufficiently improved. (The rack pull is illustrated here: skip forward to 8m. 10s. to see it in action.)
I’m finding it interesting to compare traditional strength training approaches to the modifications needed to accommodate my disabilities. I doubt very much whether I’ll ever approach the weights lifted by those who’ve done these exercises for years, because I expect I’d have bits of titanium straps and screws erupting out of my back if I tried! Nevertheless, I can work up to a lower weight limit, then do more repetitions at that level, instead of trying to constantly increase the weight. In the same way, I’m going to combine dieting with strength training, so as to shed weight faster. That’s anathema to most strength training coaches, because they point out (quite accurately) that building muscle mass and tone is the opposite goal to weight loss, and incompatible with it. Well, I have to do both, whether I like it or not, so I’m going to have to modify my program accordingly; but if I’m careful, and plan intelligently, I should be able to accomplish both things over time. It’ll probably work out to one week every month using a liquid (water) fast, and the rest of the month, eating a protein-heavy diet to promote muscle mass gain while doing strength training. We’ll see how it goes.
Suffice it to say that Miss D. and I are very pleased with the progress we’ve made so far. I’m already seeing improvements in the way I sit, stand and move. My pain levels have not decreased, and I don’t think they will; but if I can increase my core stability to the point where I can move more freely, that’ll be a big plus in itself.
If you’ve never considered strength training before, I highly recommend that you look into it. You’ll find a lot of material, including video clips, at Mark Rippetoe’s Web site. I highly recommend taking some time to visit there and browse through the material. From my own experience, I think the discipline offers real benefits to those prepared to invest their time and energy in it, and take it seriously.
It doesn’t matter how old or out-of-condition you may be. To illustrate that, here’s 91-year-old Virginia Rizen, who trains at the same gym as ourselves. (Her coach, Carmen, is our coach too.)