I am currently wearing two braces (shoulder and lumbar spine) and have a procedure scheduled for both knees. Thankfully, the knees only need Synvisc One injections, instead of surgery. Welcome to your future, LOL. These surgeries and injections did not follow an accident or trauma, they are the result of pushing myself beyond the limits of tolerance for my body’s structure. I like to think my heart is bigger than my frame, but it is just as fair to say that at times, I didn’t have enough common sense to accept my limitations or take sufficient time off to heal or recover.
We all have different reasons for subjecting ourselves to a demanding lifestyle of rigorous training, disciplined dieting, and sacrificing social occasions that revolve around gluttony, imbibing, or sloth. I have had different motivations over the years, but after tearing my left distal biceps tendon ten years ago, I decided to no longer compete in bodybuilding. I had competed and placed in the MuscleMania World Championships, and appeared on the cover two bodybuilding magazines.. But as I recovered from the biceps tear, I realized that competing was taking some of the joy from training, and that the severity of my dieting had curtailed my growth and strength.
Now, my training is part of the journey of personal development and self-exploration. I thrill from the immediate reward of facing the challenge of each workout, and experience a sense of pride (not vanity) in the long-term results of the lifestyle I share with my wife. Despite the limitations caused by injuries, and the ongoing battle against Father Time, I was achieving health, fitness, and physique goals that met my standards.
Unfortunately, the damage to my back and shoulder progressed to the point that I was forced to give up yoga (when you get older, being bendy becomes important), could not perform any press, and was waking up throughout the night in pain. It was time for surgeries that would require six months or more of recovery before I could return to the level of training that I was accustomed. In consult with my surgeons, I decided to have my L4-L5 vertebrae fused, followed as quickly as allowed by the rotator cuff repair. The back surgery went so well, and I progressed rapidly, allowing the shoulder surgery to follow just seven weeks later. During that seven weeks, I walked at least four miles every day. I was not allowed to carry or lift anything over a gallon of milk (8-10 pounds). How was I going to handle that, mentally and physically?
My orthopedic surgeons are very conservative, disallowing any weight training for six weeks. Well, I didn’t break the rules – but interpreted them and the rehabilitation instructions a bit liberally. I did avoid the weight area for about two weeks, but then made use of the dumbbells that lay way off on the far end. You know, the pretty ones that are rubber coated, and in day-glo colors. Yes, I was starting back with 2 and 3 pound dumbbells. My workouts are constant, in other words, I don’t have a rest between sets; I either perform ab work or opposing muscle groups between sets. According to the academic experts, I should be sacrificing mass and growth with such a routine, but it works for me. My rep range is in the 20s for most sets. Yet, I still maintain a body mass index around 30 with a body fat in the mid-single digit percentage (5’8″ weighing 196 with a body fat of 5% by caliper not corrected for age) – before surgery.
During the recovery period after my back surgery, I could eventually reach an intensity that allowed me to feel the “pump” and (very) gradually increase my weight. Up to the rotator cuff repair, I felt that I was maintaining my conditioning as well as could be. Then there was the rotator cuff surgery. The first day was fine, I was loopy from the anesthesia, and the nerve block was still blocking any pain sensation. At 1:00 in the morning, I awoke to the feeling that a tiny team of goblin sous-chefs were using a cheese grater on the bones of my shoulder. Fudge, or some f-word streamed from my mouth like an over-caffeinated adolescent with Tourette’s. OK, the scary parts will be left out, but it was a couple nights before I slept without pain meds. Even now, I don’t sleep through the night at four weeks out, but get by with Tylenol. So, it was back to the treadmills again for a couple weeks. Some people may like the treadmills; for me, it is a short-lived period of mobile incarceration. I can’t stand it, but fortunately the weather allowed outdoor walking many of the days.
After two weeks, I had to get back to the weights (those tiny, day-glo weights). But, I could not use or even tense my left shoulder, and it was in a sling anyhow. Well, I accommodated, lifting single-arm exercises only for a few workouts. For some reason, the usual crowd was absent during those early weeks and a bunch of new members were there instead. Yep, instead of the group that knew me at my prime, I was standing amongst strangers watching my subjectively withered form lifting weights that are only slightly heavier than a helium balloon. Even being a confident man, I was embarrassed. Thankfully, my wife has been my constant companion. Takes away the sting of feeling little if you are with the hot babe, LOL.
I have just started increasing the weights gradually, and incorporating some unilateral machine work for the right side. I have to say, it is depressing to see the changes that occur during a period of disuse, and how rapid they arise. Even supported by a supplement regimen to reduce atrophy, my left arm has turned doughy and small in my eyes. Does it mean that I feel less about myself? No. Does it mean I accept this is how it is going to be? For now, a very short now. Barriers, restrictions, limits – these are the things that have always motivated me. I will take this setback as a motivation to return to where I was just a couple months ago. Once I get there, a new goal will lie just ahead.
One thing I have not done for a long time is use the term “not fair” in regards to prior or this grouping of setbacks. I grew up in a blue-collar, Midwest family. You made your own way. So often, I see young adults who have as much potential, but have not learned the same lessons. Parenting nowadays has insulated young people from adversity, the very environment that forges character and teaches perseverance. If I had not had to adapt to growing up so near-sighted that I couldn’t make out the big “E” on the eye chart, poverty, an abusive first marriage, single parenting, and the competitive and antagonistic nature of academics and medicine, (hold back your tears, LOL) – I would think the setbacks might be the end of the world, an excuse to crawl into a corner, curled into the fetal position, and believe I will never be what I once was. Adversity is not a state any of us desire, but without it, we never develop or grow. It is the heat of the fire that forges the strongest steel.
Right now, I am feeling better every day, improving from a low point that had me weak, fatigued, irritable, and smelling less than fresh.
If you want to improve, regardless if you are healthy as a horse or sick as a dog, the recipe is the same. Do what you can, intelligently and diligently. Don’t succumb to self-pity, or use a setback as an excuse to stop training. If you have to begin at a level that most novices would laugh at, that is square one. Even if it just getting out of bed to stand, do it. But be damned if you are going to accept that as your final destination. Somehow, somewhere, inside of all of us is the ability and determination to achieve our potential – physically, mentally, spiritually, financially, it is all the same.
I am fortunate that I was able to schedule and be prepared mentally for these recent setbacks. I entered this period at a near-peak condition. My wife has been by my side, friends supportive with phone calls, emails, and prayer. I used my knowledge of diet, training, and supplementation to suppress the atrophic effects and maximize the training response to the limited program available to me. And though I do from time to time look with despair at what is happening now, I am always looking ahead to the day I am moving forward to new heights.
About the Author
Daniel Gwartney, M.D. took the path less traveled and combined his passion for health, fitness, and bodybuilding with the knowledge and experience learned during his medical training. A former world-ranked natural bodybuilder, appearing on the covers of Muscle Media 2000 and Ironman Magazine, and a regular contributor to several of the top bodybuilding and fitness magazines, he provides unique insight into the application of fitness into medicine and medicine into fitness.