“Anyone can give up, it’s the easiest thing in the world to do. But to hold it together when everyone else would understand if you fell apart, that’s true strength.” Unknown
Our client, Emily Hagan, came to Fivex3 Training on November 5, 2014. I know the exact date because I still have it scheduled on the calendar in my phone. 😉 She was definitely nervous about getting started but I think she was also excited at the same time. Before coming to us, Emily told us that she had tried “EVERYTHING” but nothing seemed to be helping her with her goal of getting stronger and feeling better about herself. It wasn’t until a few weeks into her training that she opened up to us about her husband Drew. I think once she started talking to us about her husband, she realized how much her strength training was helping her in regards to her life with Drew. Emily is a pretty amazing young woman. I have had the pleasure to watch her grow over the past year from scared, nervous, often frustrated and unsure into a confident, strong and powerful woman. Sure, there are still times when she comes to the gym unhappy with things, but by the time she has finished her training, whatever she came in with, is loooong gone.
Her story is a testament to what it means to be stronger – physically, mentally and emotionally.
7 years ago, I received a phone call. From a stranger.
“Hello. Is this Emily? Did you know that your husband Andrew was in a car accident? He was unconscious at the scene.”
My husband, Drew, had been on his way to work when somebody crossed the double yellow line and hit his car head on. Drew suffered a devastating consequence: Severe Traumatic Brain Injury (TBI) that left him in a coma for almost a year. The accident happened in August 2008. We had only been married for two years.
Two weeks after the accident, on the night before our two year anniversary, the doctors told me that Drew would most likely remain in a vegetative state for the rest of his life. Refusing to accept the prognosis, I spent countless days visiting and doing sensory stimulation exercises with him. In August 2009, the doctors decided that Drew had officially emerged from the coma. His awakening was not sudden and rapid like you see in movies. Rather, it was the result of an arduous process, consisting of small increases in awareness with intermittent setbacks and plateaus. My own recovery from grief has followed a similar trajectory.
Most doctors claim that TBI patients stop recovering after one year. That was not the case with Drew. At 18 months, he started smiling again. The following year, he started using an iPad and communicating with written words. By the 3 year mark, he had transitioned off of tube feedings and was eating entirely by mouth. The list goes on. My husband is truly an amazing man who defied the odds.
Strength has been a particularly critical component in Drew’s recovery. When he was initially discharged from inpatient rehabilitation, he did not go home with me but instead, went to live at his parents’ house. One reason why he could not live with me was because our home was not wheelchair accessible. Another reason was that it was not safe for me to care for Drew on my own. He was not strong enough to assist with transfers (from bed to chair, or vice versa), and I was definitely not strong enough to lift him.
Over time, Drew became stronger, and I became more determined to take him back to our home. I had our home modified to be wheelchair accessible. I also started working on learning how to transfer Drew from his wheelchair to his bed and vice versa. It was not pretty and my stubborn persistence typically resulted in a successful, albeit, clunky, transfer. Almost three and a half years after the accident, Drew and I spent our first night back in our home together. We were both ecstatic to be able to experience a little bit of normalcy that most people take for granted.
As Drew continued to regain physical abilities, I still felt that I was taking a risk each time I helped him transfer. Sometimes, Drew would fall. As he recovered even more, he started to exercise his own stubborn persistence by trying to get up on his own and always ending back on the floor. I always managed to get him up using a little bit of creativity and a lot of willpower. Each time I had to do this, we would both end up stressed out and exhausted. I would be sweaty and out of breath. Sometimes, my back would ache the next day.
I wanted to be healthy and strong, but I was not. For the first few years after the accident, I did not treat my body very well. During this time, I spent way too much energy trying to suppress my raging anger and worked on simply getting through each day without losing my job or hurting anybody. By the time I started to function as a normal person again, my body was out of whack. So I began working out. A LOT. I started running, took Barre classes, Pilates, Zumba, HIIT…EVERYTHING. At first, I enjoyed my workouts, but after a couple months, I started noticing that I was not seeing the results I wanted, so decided to ramp up the frequency and intensity. At this point, my workouts were leaving me feeling nauseated and exhausted, and I started to dread each hour-long sweat session. And I was definitely not getting leaner or stronger. I got colds pretty regularly and had a very hard time controlling my appetite.
Despite not feeling physically strong, I felt mentally strong. I had been through so much with Drew and his accident and recovery that I felt like I could conquer anything. So I kept searching for something that would get me out of my fitness rut and make a REAL difference in my life and in Drew’s. In September 2014, I started doing research to find a gym where I could learn barbell training. Why did I want to try barbell training you ask? Well, it seemed like the next logical step after I had tried everything else. I was fed up with Barre classes because I stopped seeing results after about 6 months, even with consistent practice. Second, I had started reading women’s strength magazines (Oxygen, Strong) and the articles in the magazines sparked my interest in strength training. And third, I figured that barbell training would probably make good use of my natural body type and would most likely enhance it. I was never too concerned that heavy weight training itself would cause me to get bulky. I have always had relatively thick, muscular legs and calves—it seems to be genetic. I had spent so much time lamenting over this and was finally coming to realize that it was neither healthy nor productive to try to diet and exercise my natural body type away. I was, however, seriously worried that I would gain weight if I stopped doing an hour of cardio every day. I thought that I was burning about 400 calories from cardio each day and that I would have to drastically reduce my calorie intake to avoid weight gain after quitting cardio. I was wrong about that too once I joined Fivex3.
I had looked into a few other local gyms, but none of the others appealed to me. I wasn’t looking for a cardio / weight machine house, trendy Pilates fusion classes, or 30-day boot camp programs. I was looking for smart, patient experts to help me figure out what I was doing wrong! One day, I was walking downtown with Drew and I noticed the Fivex3 Training sign. I went home and visited Emily’s web site and was immediately interested. I had been wanting to try barbell training, and Fivex3 seemed like a safe place to learn. And based off of many fabulous Yelp! reviews and testimonials, I was pretty confident that Fivex3 would provide this for me. I also liked the general “no nonsense” vibe that I got from the Fivex3 web site. Sure, I liked reading fitness magazines, but I didn’t want to work out with a bunch of perfectly made up women who all have beads of sweat glistening on their six-pack abs. I like that the pictures on the Fivex3 web site show real-life women doing awesome things. It was easy to see myself belonging to the Fivex3 community.
I was a little nervous about getting started at a gym though so before contacting Emily, I attempted to do strength training at home with 10-pound dumbbells and a 15-pound kettlebell. I was still continuing with Barre classes, but I was also doing a HIIT-based program called “The Inferno” on DailyBurn.com at home. The program included a weekly session that required you to count how many reps of different exercises you could do. I always felt sick (hyperventilating, wanting to throw up) after doing it and did not really see my numbers going up. It was very disappointing.
Finally, I made the decision to contact Emily in November of 2014 and came in for my first session with Emily and Jay, another Starting Strength coach at Fivex3 Training. I felt very timid and awkward. Jay worked to put me at ease as did Emily. The first time I tried to squat, I immediately thought, “What am I doing?!? This is not going to end well! Please stop now!” The 45 pound bar felt SO heavy on my shoulders! My form was horrible (or so I thought.) Okay, I am exaggerating, but it was pretty bad. (No, it wasn’t Emily says.) Before I ever tried using a barbell, I thought I was excellent at squatting because I could do 150 plie squats in a row with two pound dumbbells. Obviously, this was an incorrect assumption, and it took me a few months to learn new movement patterns. It also took me a few months to realize that doing nauseatingly intense cardio for an hour each day would only hinder my progress. I argued with Diego, Emily’s husband and Starting Strength coach, when he told me to stop doing so much cardio. Eventually, I obeyed. Reluctantly. 😉
The workouts were simple and consisted of three exercises each session: squatting, pressing or benching, and deadlifting. For each exercise, I would do several warm up sets, starting first with the empty bar and then gradually adding weight until I had worked up to a work set with the highest weight I could perform with good form. Each workout was a challenge, and I felt a great sense of accomplishment after each session. It was completely different from all my other workouts. I never left feeling exhausted or tired. In fact, I had more energy after my sessions than before.
I continued with my 10 sessions with Jay and Emily, and after the sessions were over (about 5 weeks), I was very, very nervous to start lifting with the group and loading my own barbells. So I asked to purchase 10 more one-on-one sessions, but Emily refused to take my money. “You are ready to work on your own Em,” she said. “Don’t worry. We will still be here coaching you.” I’m still not exactly sure why I decided to start my gym membership after completing my one-on-one sessions. At the time, I still felt really awkward and nervous every time I stepped under the barbell, but I wanted to give my new workout regimen a chance to yield results. It took about another month before I felt truly comfortable and was convinced that I wanted to keep lifting.
After a few more months, the weight started to get heavier, and I started becoming discouraged. I was particularly upset when I had to reset my deadlift from 170 to 155. Then it happened again. After the second “failure” I had a meltdown at the gym. I literally sat down on the platform and started to cry. Diego gave me some very tough love and basically told me that I should not continue lifting if I could not be patient with the process. He explained to me that I would have to accept that as the weight got heavier, I would not be setting PRs as frequently as when I had first started. “You cannot be a novice forever Emily,” he told me. “Strength does not work this way. This is a journey. A long one.” It took some prodding on his part to get me moving again, but I did. And I never looked back.
There are many, many reasons why I ultimately continued. My strength gains. The friends I have met at the gym. And I started noticing so many positive changes in myself. My clothes were fitting better. As someone who has struggled with weight for most of my life, particularly during childhood, I was amazed at how comfortable I was feeling in my own skin. I realized I was no longer getting sick regularly, and I had more energy. I even felt more confident at work. I knew I had to adjust my attitude and keep going. Granted, this did not happen overnight, but whenever I would get discouraged at the gym, I would think of Drew and remember that whatever frustration I was experiencing was only a fraction of the frustration he experiences at physical therapy. Drew has been my inspiration to persevere through tough moments because he does it every day.
Last summer was the first summer in my adult life that I felt comfortable and confident wearing real shorts! I remember when I was 23 and weighed 120 pounds and even then, I hated my legs and rarely wore actual shorts. Instead, I usually wore knee-length shorts or capris. This year, it occurred to me that my knee-length shorts made me look frumpy and that I should be proud of my strong legs.
I have enjoyed getting to know the other members of the gym. I am not exactly a social butterfly, but it is easy to relate to the other women because we all share the common goal of getting stronger. The women encourage each other instead of competing with one another. I did not expect to make new friends at the gym, but I certainly have! I have also enjoyed getting to know the men at the gym. I used to think that all men lifters were some version of the “bro” stereotype, but I quickly found out that male lifters are usually nice, normal guys. Now, I can lift weights in a room full of men and not feel self-conscious. That is something I did not think was possible.
Most importantly, it has become easier for me to help my husband. One day, I went to help him get up off the floor, and I realized that I was no longer struggling to get him up. I am now able to safely support him while he walks. On occasion, I have to help him walk up a flight of stairs , and I know that my strength helps me make this a possibility. If we are going somewhere that is not wheelchair accessible, we have to take Drew in a lightweight, manual chair so that someone can carry the wheelchair into the house / building (the power chair weighs about 500 pounds so no one can carry it) while Drew walks up the steps. Every other week, we go visit a friend whose house is not accessible. Walking to and from our friend’s house while pushing Drew is pretty physically demanding. Technically, I could have done it a year ago, but it’s so much easier today. We have even been able to slow dance together. As with my husband’s recovery, my strength progression has neither been quick nor easy. However, I have seen steady progress, and I am learning to be at peace with the process.
Drew and I do much more together now than a year ago. Even before I started strength training, we would often go out together without the help of an aide. However, I feel even more confident doing this by myself now. He accompanies me to the gym on a regular basis too and all the members know him and talk to him and tell him what a lucky man he is to have such a great wife. 😉 They also tell him what a great husband he is when he has to wait for me to finish my lifting. 😉 I love when Drew comes with me to the gym. He is my best friend, so I naturally want to include him in all the important aspects of my life and it’s great for Drew to actually see what I do. It’s very cool to see that it makes him happy as well. He’s usually smiling, bopping to the music, and cheering on the lifters by clapping. It’s such a positive experience for both of us. It helps me to have him there. I have recently been struggling with my deadlift again, but when Drew is right in front of me clapping and smiling, it’s hard not to smile too! I have so much more energy to go out with him just on my own. Drew and I love to go out to eat and take long walks in the city together. I now know that I am strong enough to handle most situations that may arise while we are out, and I am also more motivated to get out of the house with him, especially on weekends. I used to have a hard time getting out of bed on Saturdays, but thanks to my Saturday morning workout routine, I am now able to get up earlier and do something that will set a positive tone for the rest of my day.
Over the past 7 years, my husband Drew has defied doctors’ predictions and has been recovering slowly. I have emerged from intense grief to become stronger and more confident than ever. My strength training at Fivex3 has helped me on my own journey of recovery and has enabled me to more effectively support Drew and is now a vital part of my life. I look forward to my workouts and enjoy being a part of the Fivex3 community. It’s great to know that he is proud of me, because I am most certainly proud of him. I can’t truly know what he goes through, but I strive to support his recovery with conviction and love. I believe that Drew’s slow and steady recovery process will continue to be fruitful, and my strength training has reinforced the idea that meaningful results do not happen overnight. My husband and I are truly partners on this journey. Through all of the setbacks and periods of progress, we cherish our time together and look forward to what is to come.