We first met Steve when he contacted us about training his daughter, Jackie, a swimmer in college, who needed to get stronger in order to be more competitive in the pool. We started training Jackie in the summer of 2014. Around 2015, Steve decided he wanted to start working with us but was hesitant to start with the barbell training due to a previous back injury. He thought that our more general exercise/moderate strength training program would be a good introduction to weights again and be more easy on his back. What he and I both discovered was just the opposite. Sure, he was feeling better and he was moving again but he was still wrenching his back again often and when he would do this, he would miss multiple classes. Was the more moderate strength training really working for him? After yet another back incident (simply bending over to pick something up), I told Steve that we needed a different approach to his training and suggested that he think about Starting Strength. Four exercises. Simple programming. Effective programming. In February of 2016, he started training. Since the day he started Starting Strength, I never received another email telling me he wouldn’t be able to come in due to his back. He never missed a training session because of his back. Not once. For work or vacation…sure. But never for his back. Barbell training works. Just ask Steve. Here is his story.
I’ve always been fairly active. I played multiple sports as a kid, plus lots of sports with friends, then track and cross country in high school with unfocused, ineffective weight lifting on an old Universal machine in the school gym. I did mostly running and some biking after that, although I lifted some weights in college, and got my bench press up to 200 pounds. I didn’t do squats or deadlifts because I didn’t know how to do them. After college I played rec league softball for about 20 years, and every few years, got my running back up to speed. My only gym experience in this time was using the exercise bike, running on the treadmill, and some machines and occasional dumbbell work, with barbell bench press once in a while. Most of that was done at the local YMCA, while waiting for my daughter Jackie to finish her swim practice. I never took a strength training class, never asked for help and as a result, never got that much stronger.
And then the injuries began.
First, I had to give up softball after injuring a rotator cuff tendon in my right shoulder twice in two years. In 2012, I started running again fairly consistently. Then, one day in the fall of 2012, my back locked up on me and left me stuck on the floor for about 20 minutes. I knew this wasn’t good, but I thought it was just a one time thing and a few weeks later, I ran a 5K race. In hindsight, this was most likely not a good idea. Shortly after the race, I developed shooting pain down the outside part of my left leg. When it didn’t get better on its own, I finally decided to get an MRI. The MRI showed “at L4-5, left posterior lateral disc protrusion results in posterior displacement of the left L5 nerve root and mild left neural foramen encroachment,” among other issues at other locations, including a grade 1 spondylolisthesis at L5-S1.
The MRI showed a herniated disc at L4, and most likely the running had aggravated it since I hadn’t fully recovered from the initial back episode. After trying medication and several months of physical therapy, I finally opted for a cortisone shot in June of 2013 to relieve the leg pain and the inflammation in my back. I couldn’t run anymore, but I could bike and swim. I did some machine and light free weights with no plan or guidance. Occasionally, I would wrench my back, but at this point that wasn’t unusual. It was becoming a normal part of my exercise routine.
A week and a half before Christmas in 2013, I was helping my nephew move out of his dorm. He did all the heavy lifting, but it only took a small twist carrying a small board through a door to do me in. I could barely move. The pain slowly worsened over the next several days. I couldn’t sit, could barely kneel at Christmas Eve Mass, and the only way I could stay comfortable was lying on the floor, on my stomach, with a pillow underneath my hips. I slept that way that night. On Christmas Day, I ended up in the Emergency Room because if I tried to stand for more than 30 seconds, my right thigh felt like it was being stabbed with a flaming knife. I’d almost thrown up from the pain. The only thing that made me feel better was a lot of prescription strength pain and anti-inflammatory meds. Drugs became my friend.
I knew this was something more serious than the last time I had injured my back, and decided to get yet another MRI. This one showed a disc herniation at L3, a pars fracture at L5, grade 1 spondylolisthesis L5-S1, and grade 1 retrolisthesis L4-5.
I consulted separately with a neurosurgeon and an orthopedic surgeon, because by late winter of 2014, my right thigh muscle was atrophying due to the pinching of the nerve in my back. The right knee was always numb or tingling, and pain meds weren’t helping anymore. I eventually opted for surgery, since I didn’t want another cortisone shot in the back, and physical therapy (again) wasn’t helping. On April 15, 2014, the orthopedic surgeon predicted he would need to make a 1 inch incision, and my surgery would be 45 minute. It turned out that he needed to make a 2 inch incision and 90 minutes for the surgery because the herniated disc had broken into 3 pieces. In fact, he had to go looking for them. The nerve was highly inflamed at that spot, and there was a bone spur he would have to shave down. I immediately felt relief the minute I woke up from the surgery. The only side effect from the surgery is that there is still some residual numbness that may not ever go away, and my right thigh is still a bit smaller than my left. The doctor prescribed no activities for a week, then nothing but walking and work for a month. Then, if all went well, at 3 months, I should be ready to start regular activities, based on “if it hurts, don’t do it”. He also suggested a spinal fusion might be in order down the line for the spondylolisthesis. This is not an option that is on my table and I definitely was adamant that the spinal fusion was not going to happen if I could help it.
Once I was ready, I was able to start some biking and swimming later that summer, and worked out with light weights and machines. I still didn’t try running because my back still felt “weird”. I used a lumbar support when sitting, and I always lay on my stomach for a while when I got home from work. Occasionally, my lower back would give a dull pop (or thud) while I was on my stomach, and it would feel better. Any tension or discomfort I had would go away until some days later. I started investigating ways to get my back better, i.e. stronger. At the same time, I was looking for ways to help Jackie, now a student at Lafayette College, get stronger for her swimming. Jackie started training the summer of 2014 at Fivex3. I started the Basic Training class a few months after she had returned to school that fall. I thought that beginning with a more moderate strength training, general exercise program would be best as I was worried about re-injuring my back. I did BT off and on, swam a little, biked a bit. However, even though I thought I was being “careful” with my training, I kept reinjuring my back. It was beginning to frustrate me to no end.
I finally decided I needed to really “fix” my back so I wouldn’t keep getting injured. I had always been curious about the barbell exercises, and I could see the difference in Jackie since she started strength training more seriously. I was also smart enough to know I could hurt myself if I did it wrong, so I never tried to squat or deadlift, since there never seemed to be anyone that could teach me correctly. This changed, of course, once I got coaching from Emily. After yet another back episode, we decided that I needed to start training with the barbell. She basically told me I needed to start lifting because I was starting to sound like her before she started training seriously after her multiple back episodes.
January 12, 2016
I wrenched my back (again) this weekend, and I’m still sore. Rather than re-injure it, I’ll just wait until next week to come in. Just when I was starting to get into a good habit, too. See you next week.” Steve
“Ahhhh!!! When you come back in next week, we needed talk about what you are doing that is making you constantly hurt your back. You sound like me…..6 years ago……Before Starting Strength. ;)” Emily
On February 8 2016, my Starting Strength journey began. What is different in the Starting Strength approach is that there is a clear, defined process, and a technique that can be adjusted for both body proportion and an individual’s experience and injury history. It’s an application of principles, not a once size fits all method. Emily was able to start me with very low weights, and instruct me in such a way that I gained confidence so I wouldn’t hurt myself when I put weight on my back. Thinking about it now, it was more my head needed to accept the weight on my back or in my hands. My body was ready to try it but more importantly, I had to convince myself that I could do it. Each session, we added a little more weight than from the session before. Emily would consistently check in with me during our sessions to make sure I was feeling good. And I was. Each week, the bar got heavier. And I was getting stronger. More importantly, my back was getting stronger, and I was not longer having back episodes.
I also now have back muscles! I no longer need a lumbar support when I sit down. I have had to buy new shirts and pants, since I’ve put on about 13 pounds in the past 9 months. It’s not a lot, but then again, I’m not a young man anymore. My legs are about the same size again. The muscle atrophy in my right thigh has almost completely disappeared. I have also learned that I can still move, and train, even if I have some small discomfort or soreness in my back, which happens off and on to 50-year-old backs like mine. I’m still learning to listen to myself, and understand what my aches and pains are telling me. I’ve strained a little bit with bad form on some squat sets, but was still able to get back under the bar for the next set, and do it correctly, with correct form, aided by the appropriate encouragement from the coach(es). Facing the fear that I may hurt my back again (or worse), was an interesting challenge, but it’s given me a more confidence in my ability to handle heavier weights, even if I’m a bit nervous sometimes about the next heavy set.
Barbell training is also the first truly new physical activity I’ve had to learn since I was young. I think that alone is enough of a challenge and a good reason to start lifting properly.
I don’t have to lie on my stomach every day when I get home from work, although it still feels good to do so every once in a while. My lumbar support is lost somewhere in a closet, I think. I haven’t needed it for months now. I have become more confident in my ability to lift things around the house. I always knew to “lift with my legs”, but the training with the barbell has shown me I also need to keep my torso nice and tight. In a nutshell, barbell training has taught me a better way to move. Before I started training, I could ride a bike for about 40 minutes or so before my lower back would start feeling tight and weak at the same time, forcing me to sit more upright, or even take a break. I recently did a two hour ride with no back discomfort at all. Before strength training, my back would also start to feel funny after about 30 minutes of swimming. I’m eager to get in the pool again to see how it fells. I think it’ll be better.
For about two years, I didn’t do anything except walk, take short bike rides, and do some swimming. Mowing the lawn was good exercise. Since February 2016, I’ve been going to the gym twice a week, and doing occasional longer bike rides. Mowing the yard is not really exercise anymore.
Even more importantly, I like that I’m adding margin to my system. My Dad fought Stage IV melanoma for 4 1/2 years before he died in October 2015. I saw how much it took from him before he died. That’s an extreme case, but I realized I had to get healthier, stronger, and bigger, so I could better deal with getting older in general. If I ever have to fight cancer, or any other illness when I’m older, I know I’ll have done what I could to help myself before it happens.
Emily has built a friendly, supportive community of people at Fivex3 who make it fun to go to the gym. Jackie started lifting to improve her swimming. I started to help my back. My other daughter, Courtney, started training with Emily to get healthier and stronger, and my wife recently started at Fivex3 in order to strengthen her knees and legs after 2 meniscus surgeries, so she can continue her running. It’s truly become a family affair. And we are all stronger and better for it.