Of strength training, disability, and coaches

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.)



  1. FWIW

    I first learned of Rippetoe via Art of Manliness, and they did an excellent set of vids on proper form for most of the core strength excercises with him…

    Gathered them up here, for those who'd find it useful.


    Matt Reynolds, who'd worked with Rip, was a help for a while until my life situation changed, but was on point helping get my workouts on form and organized. They do help people who are only available online and can't get to their gym


  2. If you're close enough to train at Mark's place, then you are luckier than 99% of the lifters out there. Do everything he says and your quality of life will definitely improve.

  3. On a parallel course, is eating a low carb diet- after 40 years or so, people are finally waking up the fact that everything we were told by the gov regarding diet is 100 inverted. That old food pyramid, is total BS. Eat lot's of meat, lots of veggies, few carbs.
    Denninger has talked a lot about this, his latest included the results of some large studies-

  4. Some years ago, in teh mornings ESPN used to have weight and fitness shows. One was aimed at strength training for those with minimal gym access, and featured lifters of all ages and fitness levels, as well as the trainer and his assistants. I remember a 77 year old retired policeman who did modified lifts because of knee problems. But he still lifted, and was an example that older people benefit just as much as younger from strength training, if done right.

    Congrats on the progress! I've been doing more core/low back work recently and I've gone up 25 pounds on some back exercises. Given that I've got some problems in that area, the strength and reduced pain are delightful benefits. Now, if I just didn't have to work at the work-out . . . 😛


  5. Lowering calories isn't much of a problem for progress when you have plenty of fat, especially if you're just starting out. Full-on calorie restriction -real fasting – avoids metabolic slowdown and ups growth hormone. I have no adverse effects from 1-3 day fasting blocks done multiple times a month.

    c/o intensivedietarymanagement.com if you haven't already.

  6. I train at a facility whose core business is physical therapy, primarily post-surgical recovery. To support that, the facility has a full complement of high tech equipment, all linked to a database with each individual's training program, so once past the therapy program they can exercise and build muscle under the watchful eyes of a pair of trainers with the machines closely monitoring the weight and range of motion of each exercise. There's also several full sets of free weight equipment; coming back from a long training layoff, I spent the first two months on the machines then gradually replaced machine functions with free weights. The couple machines I'm still using draw comments from the rehabbers about the high weight settings I use; I'll have the weight capacities on those maxxed out soon, and move those exercises to free weights.

    I talked with one of the therapists about what I considered the extremely light weight they have their patients using, and she said they have to begin with re-establishing range of motion before they can work on strength improvement, and that a lot of their patients' problems go away when they start getting stronger. She also said had most of the patients done more to develop and retain strength they may not have had the problems to begin with.

    Rippetoe has written about that quite a bit, especially how strengthening muscles also much better supports the joints those muscles manage.

  7. Thanks for this Peter! It will be a good boost as I start my rehab under physio terrorist, sorry, therapist!

  8. Really appreciate this one. I've got heart failure along with weight issues and diabetes. I really need to move into something more than what I'm doing.

    What kind of questions did you guys ask of him during the interview?

  9. hi.
    about food.
    doc told us that diabetics do better by eating the protein first, the veg second and the carb -if any- last.
    the book 'the adrenal reset diet' recommends the same order but based on the entire day;
    that is, protein for breakfast, protein and veg for lunch, and the same in the evening plus any carbs you think you need or want. save all carbs until the end of the eating day.

    hope it may help you.

  10. Thanks very much for this post, Peter!
    After a motorcycle wreck, I got put back together pretty well, & I'm grateful; however, several parts, one leg being the worst, don't work the way they formerly did. I'll be looking into this, & seeing where it leads me.
    –Tennessee Budd

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