By John David “J.D.” Merrill, Fivex3 Member
On July 4, 2018 I was in my kitchen cooking eggs when suddenly my back seized up and I fell to the ground. This wasn’t the first time I had a back episode, but it was the most severe. I couldn’t move.
I had been in and out of physical therapy for back related issues since elementary school. But after my July 4th fall, my physical therapist couldn’t see me for two weeks. I couldn’t wait two weeks.
My sister suggested I try her chiropractor, Dr. Sharon Dongarra (“Dr. D”), of Thrive Chiropractic. I thought chiropractic was some voodoo stuff, but I was desperate. I tried to go in with an open mind.
Dr. D started with an interview to help understand my background, then she administered a surface EMG, a paraspinal thermal scan, and measured my Heart Rate Variability. On a scale from 0 to 100, my heart rate variability was a 53 and my muscle tone and balance was a 39, putting me in the “very challenged” category of the Corescore assessment.
I was 27 years old, 6’5” and 165 lbs. I had just lost a grueling campaign for State Senate. For six months I had been walking 20,000 to 30,000 steps a day with few hours of sleep, hardly any food, and tons of stress.
Dr. D theorized that the lack of sleep, food, and exercise plus the stress and anxiety that came from the campaign had put my body in a heightened state of vulnerability, and that when I fell the week after the campaign ended, it was my body telling me that it had enough, and something needed to change.
I started seeing Dr. D twice per week, then once a week, and eventually once every two weeks. At the same time, she referred me to Diana Sugiuchi (RDN, LDN) of Nourish Family Nutrition and a personal trainer, Susan Simpson (SSC). Dr. D thought that in addition to chiropractic care, I needed to eat and regain core strength.
Even before the campaign, I had been eating only 40-50 grams of protein on a good day. Diana helped me first double and then triple my protein intake while adding structure and purpose to my eating. Our visits were covered by my insurance.
While improving my diet felt manageable, I was hesitant to reach out to Susan Simpson, the Starting Strength coach. For years the only exercise I’d enjoyed was swimming. It was as much a mindfulness experience as it was exercise. And I was overwhelmed by the idea of lifting weights. I’d never lifted weights and I was intimidated.
But Dr. D reassured me that Susan specialized in working with folks who were fragile like me, that she would be patient and kind and nonjudgmental, so I decided to give it a try.
At our first session, Susan explained the Starting Strength method and why it works. I started out squatting 45 lbs, overhead pressing 40 lbs, and deadlifting 65 lbs. At our second session I squatted 55 lbs, benched 65 lbs, and deadlifted 85 lbs. That steady improvement continued as I worked with Susan three times a week for 90 minutes at a time. My body almost immediately began feeling better. Within a month, my back problems were eliminated as I gained core strength. I also noticed an almost immediate improvement to my posture.
In the 4 years since I began strength training, I no longer have back issues. I am able to do things I never imagined I’d be able to. I have gained 30 lbs and now weigh 195 lbs. In September 2021, I decided to compete in my first strength lifting meet, Stronger Together, at Fivex3 Training. I joined Fivex3 so I could train with Emily and Diego in preparation for the meet. In December 2021, I competed at the meet with a friend from Old Line Strength and Conditioning. I may have finished last among the men, but achieved two personal records by pressing 140 lbs and deadlifting 315 lbs.
I used to think strength training was just for bodybuilders and athletes. I now understand that lifting is important for everyone – and especially for those of us who have struggled with back pain, stress, and anxiety.
I now lift 3-4 days a week, splitting time between Fivex3 in Brewers Hill and Old Line Strength and Conditioning in Quarry Lake, where Susan coaches. Both facilities have built a warm and welcoming atmosphere where all are made to feel like they belong and are celebrated and supported.
I can’t tell you how many people of all ages, genders, races, and backgrounds I’ve met at the gym whose stories are similar to mine, who have used the barbell to move from pain to progress. So if you are struggling and aren’t sure where to turn, I hope you find a strength coach (or just join Fivex3!!) and pick up a barbell soon – it’s the best prescription I’ve ever received.