Rise of the Machines

Being injured is not my idea of a fun time. If I had broken an arm, I would quite likely be having a cast removed any day now and on my way to regaining strength, but a herniated disc doesn’t necessarily have a predictable and tidy healing schedule. I’d rather have a broken bone or a pulled muscle, a sprain or stitches, or a week long flu. This is not fun.

I feel like two different people. One is the optimist who knows how to dream big and work to achieve it. The other isn’t quite defeated yet but is broken, frustrated, and despairing. I am both people, flipping back and forth sometimes as frequently as a heartbeat.

My training routine since the injury has been little more than rehab exercises. Everything has been careful and slow and simple. I’ve not been allowed to touch a barbell or perform certain movements. While I appreciate the necessity of the rehab and the restrictions, I miss moving some weight and training more like an athlete than an injured person. I might have a World record squat, but these days my prowess is pretty much limited to bird dogs and body-weight glute bridges.

With my training playlist blaring in my ears, I go through my rehab motions fighting an internal battle between determination and despair. It’s an ugly battle of hand-to-hand combat, trenches, and no man’s land. One day a song might bolster my spirits and fan the flames of positivity and determination, while the same song the next day might shoot down my hope in a fiery hail of bullets. The ongoing numbness in my left leg weighs heavily on me. It’s bad enough that I can feel the weakness in that leg and the tentativeness that comes with diminished physical sensations, but the thought of potential long-term nerve damage is rather frightening. Having resigned myself to missing out on Nationals, I have also accepted that there is no specific timeline for stepping back onto a powerlifting platform. Although I have seen some improvements over the past five weeks, my physiotherapist has pointed out that ideally there should be more. My worth and sense of self are not dependent upon being or training like a powerlifter; however, I do still greatly miss doing those things that I enjoy doing in the gym.

I smiled last night when I opened up this week’s training program from my coach. Not only did he put in a reference to the new Star Wars movie opening later this week, but he also changed up my program to incorporate a bunch of machines! This is both exciting and out of my comfort zone. It’s exciting, because machines means I get to use some weight, even if I’m still starting out low and slow. This is potentially uncomfortable and scary, because I’ve never really used machines before! I’ve seen them in the gym, but I’ve always looked at them as strange, wild animals that you look at but don’t touch. I have no idea what they are or how to use them, so I quite literally need to google each exercise/machine before going to the gym. I need to know what machine I am looking for and how to use it properly. That’s the easy part. Then I need to find those machines at my gym. My gym has two floors with machines on both levels. Some are labelled, some are not. But I think I found all of the machines I need for now.

I’m still a long way from deadlifting, bench pressing, or squatting with a barbell, but it was so good to use some muscles that haven’t been used since the injury. The weights I’m using must start off low. I need to take each rep slowly and carefully, but I was able to work biceps and triceps, pecs and delts, quads and hamstrings. It’s been a long time since I’ve had so many muscles quivering from exertion. I felt the effects of a lack of strength training and the ongoing left leg nerve impingement. Standing body weight calf raises…the left calf is weaker and lagging. The same is true of the left hamstring when doing leg curls. Even though my left quad is unaffected by the herniated disc, when doing leg extensions I can still feel a lack of involvement in my left foot, or at least the numb half of my foot. As I’m extending both legs, my right foot feels engaged and active, while the left foot isn’t engaged and feels as if it is merely hanging out for the ride. <sigh> Small weights. Small steps. Turtle’s pace.

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Information Overload

Have you ever realized just how much information is available on the internet? So. So. Much. Maybe too much.

Since herniated a disc five weeks ago, guess what has been on my mind a lot. If you said herniated discs, you’d be correct! For being so smart you get nothing more than a pat on the back and a glance into the chaos that is within me.

I like knowledge and knowing and understanding and learning. I herniated a disc, so what exactly is that? How does it happen? What are the symptoms? How do you treat it and manage the symptoms? The list of questions is nearly endless. For all the information on the internet though, sometimes clear answers are hard to come by. Sometimes too much information muddies the waters and makes things more confusing. Clinical answers to medical questions aren’t always easily understood by someone without a medical background. The answers aren’t always black & white, and yet finding answers to the questions living in the shades of grey isn’t always easy either. It is confusing. It can be frightening to read about worst-case scenarios or the problems encountered by others in a similar situation. Finding a few answers might alleviate fears or inflame them or both. Or create more confusion.

Five weeks into my herniated disc and I feel more fear now than I did at the onset. Even though I have more knowledge and answers now, there is still so much that is unknown, so much to work through and fight for, especially in terms of persuading my family doctor that I need to pursue next steps. Should I be successful in my quest that will create new sources of anguish and frustration, because waiting is part of the medical system around here and I don’t want to wait anymore. I want to heal. Like yesterday.

 

An Exercise in Frustration

About two weeks ago I pulled out the diabolical candy cane puzzle that I received as a gift from my eldest son a few years ago. I say it is diabolical, because it is. This puzzle is 1000 pieces and the most difficult puzzle I have ever done. Now I have done hundreds of puzzles over the years and even the toughest ones seldom take me more than 2-4 days to complete. This puzzle easily takes me a month. I took the photo below this afternoon, and yes! This is two weeks worth of progress.

candycanepuzzle

For most puzzles, I have my own little system that works for me. This puzzle takes my system and throws it out the window. Solving this puzzles is an exercise in frustration and patience. It requires an eye for the smallest details which connect two pieces together, even if you cannot connect those two pieces to anything else. What you see on my board is a hodgepodge of randomly connected pieces and an assortment of pieces with just the sort of details that might be helpful at some point. Ever so slowly I manage to put the scattered bits into small groupings, and eventually I can connect those groupings to the edges. I cannot work on the puzzle for large periods of time; this is partly due to the fact that I need to stand and partly due to the fact that I have other things to do with my time. This is not something that can be rushed.

As I was working on my puzzle today, my thoughts bounced back and forth between the frustration that is my candy cane puzzle and the frustration that is my herniated disc. I see a lot of similarities between the two. Healing the herniation will take time; it cannot be rushed. There will be tedious exercises and small victories that won’t appear to connect to much of anything. Patience will be required, and frustration will undoubtedly be felt on many occasions. Progress might not always look like much, but little steps of progress will gradually reveal the bigger picture that I’m looking for. It would be easy to give up and quit, but determination and perseverance will bring results. The results might trickle in slowly at first, but at some point they will come more quickly. And just like I can feel pride in finishing the puzzle, I can take pride in weathering the storm of injury and coming back stronger.

About the only difference between this puzzle and my injury is that I will finish the puzzle before the end of the year. My physical recovery might take longer than that!

They Told Me to Go to Rehab

This morning I went to the gym. It was my first time back in the gym since my competition ten days ago. My husband started to question my sanity when he found out I was planning on going to the gym today until I explained what I would be doing. No squats. No deadlifts. I wouldn’t even be looking at a barbell. Instead, my coach has programmed some rehab exercises: 90/90 breathing drill, bird dogs, standing lunges, hip hinges, one arm dumbbell floor presses, and standing cable facepulls. Hardly the stuff of a powerlifter’s dreams!

Yesterday a friend asked if I might be up for a bit of a day road trip on Saturday, and I optimistically said that I could handle it. Then I left my house this morning to go to the gym. I hadn’t even backed my car out of my driveway before I was in agonizing pain. My drive to the gym barely takes 5 minutes, but it felt much longer today. By the time I got to the gym, I had to peel my hands off of the steering wheel, and I’m surprised that the steering wheel was still in one piece. Sitting is pure torture. I had to text my friend to say that there was no way I could go with her on Saturday.

So, I was in a lot of pain by the time I got to the gym. Putting on my gym shoes resulted in more pain. I feel like my husband did prior to his hip replacement surgery…unable to put on a sock or a shoe or trim my toenails without great difficulty and pain.

The exercises my coach programmed for me this week are not overly difficult, but the purpose isn’t really to challenge me physically. As easy and basic as the exercises were, I did experience some pain from the positioning of my left leg, even when the leg wasn’t doing any work. It seems that just having that leg passively bent is enough to cause pain to flare up, which is something I have noticed at home already. The left leg also fatigued quite quickly during the standing lunges when it was doing the work. I should point out that pretty much all of the exercises were to be done quite slowly and methodically for a small number of reps. The lunges were 3 reps per side with a 5 second descent, 3 second hold, and 5 second ascent. The right leg had no trouble at all doing the work, but that left leg was burning by the second rep. My only other struggle was getting in and out of position for some of the exercises, like the breathing drill and the floor presses. Getting down onto the floor and back up off of the floor were tricky to do without sending shards of pain through my left hip and butt.

Waves of self-pity are battering against the shoreline of my confidence and self-control. I have no regrets and wouldn’t change anything about my performance at the competition. I had no reason to suspect that this might happen, and chances are that it would have happened sooner or later even if I was doing something seemingly innocuous. My other back issues had been doing very well leading up to competition, and my training had also been going well. No, I do not regret a single thing about the competition, at least not the things that I could control. It would have been nice not to have herniated a disc, but that wasn’t exactly in my control.

But seriously, who enjoys being in constant pain? I know I don’t. Pain clouds your judgement and colours your perception. It wears you down physically and emotionally, and it can paralyze you. This is true of any type of pain.

“Pain has a way of clipping our wings and keeping us from being able to fly. And if left unresolved for very long, you can almost forget that you were ever created to fly in the first place.” ~William P. Young, The Shack 

I was at the gym for an hour doing my rehab exercises. For the first half hour, I struggled. My body felt a bit shaky and weak, as if the 10 days of idleness had stolen all of my strength and flexibility, and my thoughts, as few as they were, castigated me for struggling. The work wasn’t difficult, but 10 days ago I was breaking all the records and now I couldn’t even get myself onto the floor without whimpering.  I had tucked myself into a corner to do my exercises, out of the way and out of anyone’s notice, as if I should be ashamed or embarrassed. My attitude wasn’t much improved by the time I finished my exercises, although I wasn’t even aware of having an attitude until now.

But there is an attitude. It is an attitude of frustration, of despair, and maybe even resignation. I feel stuck. It’s been 10 days of intense pain and a leg almost entirely numb from butt to toes. I am not having fun. I cannot even see fun on the horizon. But despite all the negatives, I am still determined to hold my head up (because I can’t imagine that drowning would be very pleasant) and rise above this injury (because I don’t think I can sink any lower).

There is one positive for today. I slept quite well last night. In fact, it was the best sleep I’ve had since before the competition. It was also the first night I spent the entire night in my own bed since the competition! Of course, I still woke several times with pain raging, but at least I got some sleep.

It’s All Coming Back to Me Now

This morning’s training session was short and sweet. Deadlifts were the only thing on the agenda and only two working singles. I had warmed up and completed my pulls within 25 minutes. I’m not sure that I even broke a sweat, but I was stoked by how solid and easy the deadlifts felt. My heaviest pull today was 285 pounds for a single rep, and it felt much easier than last week’s singles at 275. Gym PRs don’t really count for much, but I have never pulled 285 pounds in the gym before. Of course, I’ve pulled more than that in competition…but never in training. Not ever. I am used to having heavyish deadlifts feel almost impossibly difficult in training, which is one reason why I was rarely asked to do them. Oh my goodness! So many of my preconceived notions about my abilities have been shattered these past few weeks, and I find it all exciting and scary at the same time.

With the success of today’s training session added to Tuesday’s, my emotions are being pulled in a dozen different directions. The countdown is on…9 days! I am more excited than words could ever convey. This will be my 9th competition, but the thrill of competing never gets old. I feel poised on the brink of something good. After months and months of pain and struggle and frustration, I am finally feeling good and ready. My body isn’t in a 100% perfect state, but I do think I am in a physically better place than I was going into Provincials, even though I had been feeling pretty good then. Training has been going well. Weights and volume were more than I’ve done before, but my body held up and the weights moved. One of my biggest goals is within reach. I have no reason to think that this competition will be anything but good.

With the dawning confidence comes surges of fear and trepidation. I’m not afraid of failing so much, although I certainly don’t like it when failure happens. But in the moments that I feel the most excited and hopeful, I also feel the most nervous. Some of the fear comes from the fact that I’ve been injured most of the year. Some is simply the natural byproduct of competition and the desire to succeed. I think a big part of the fear is the thought of disappointment. Not my own disappointment, although that is a real possibility, but rather the thought that I might fail and thus disappoint everyone who has been cheering me on. It’s not exactly a rational kind of fear, I know, but it is present and I must acknowledge it.

My coach shared his thoughts with me as to the numbers that he is thinking of for me at this competition. His target is a small increase in my overall best total, and I am good with the numbers that he showed me. They are realistic, reasonable, and still challenging in one way or another. Seeing those numbers allowed me to exhale all the breath I wasn’t even aware I was holding inside. With a new coach, an online coach who is still learning me, I didn’t know what numbers he might pull out of his hat. I’ve been so focused on simply getting and staying healthy and my one big goal that I haven’t thought much about too much else. Yet somehow, now I am relieved to know that my coach isn’t projecting a huge jump between my previous best and what I will do in 9 days. My husband likes to joke that he won’t be satisfied unless I deadlift 350 pounds. While that may be possible one day, I am glad that my coach isn’t looking for me to add 40+ pounds to my best lifts after the year that I’ve had. It settles the nerves a bit to know, although the sense of expectation is still high.

This is a roller-coaster of emotions that I have ridden before. I’ve got this.

Smooth Sailing

In training, as in many aspects of life, there are good days and bad days. The exact same weight can look and feel completely different from one day to the next. It might feel super easy today, but then you might feel crushed beneath the same weight next week. I have experienced these ups and downs over the course of my 4 years of training, and I’ve been blessed to have wise and seasoned individuals in my life to remind me that those ups and downs, good days and bad days are completely normal. They happen to everyone, and I’d like to think that the ups and downs are actually beneficial. Smooth sailing is pleasant and safe, but a lack of adversity can actually make you weak. It might even prevent you from venturing into faster, rougher waters for fear of the unknown dangers that could be waiting ahead. Easy is nice for a season, but I think we grow best in the storm and struggles, in the gym and outside of it. Fighting to reach a goal. Pushing through adversity. Swallowing pride, disappointment and frustration. Sweating. Straining. Determination. Resistance. Those are the catalysts for growth, for change.

This is why I try not to let tough days get me down for very long. I might feel frustrated in the moment, but I’ve been learning to embrace the suck. As I approach the bar for a set that feels hard and maybe more than I am capable of, I feel a hurricane of emotions raging inside. Fear. Doubt. Anger. Pride. Insecurity. Anxiety. Hopefulness. Despair. I feel them all and more that I cannot put a name to. I feel them battering away at my confidence, then I batten down the hatches and do what I need to do. Am I always successful? No. Sometimes I need to drop reps. Sometimes my body hurts. Once in a while, I simply fail. But I do the best that I can in the moment, knowing that a tough session doesn’t equal failure. I’ve got competition goals, and those goals can only be achieved on the platform. I can perform those goal weights in the gym, but I would only get personal pride in the achievement. On the flip side, fighting through 5 tough squat sets of 4 reps at 180 pounds does not automatically indicate that I will bomb my squats at competition.

Last week’s squats, those 5 sets of 4 reps at 180 pounds, felt tough and some of the reps felt ugly. The exact same weight, sets and reps the week before also felt rather tough. Until today, 180 pounds was the most weight I’ve had on my back since June 10 and that resulted in re-tweaking my back. Today’s training called for squats at 200 pounds, and I was respectfully apprehensive. That’s what months of injury and rehab will do to your sense of capability. I expected 200 pounds to feel tough. I expected that I might struggle through the reps and sets. The rep range was 2-3, and I was already mentally preparing myself to strive for 2 reps and not stress out over not getting all 3. I was even expecting that my back might erupt into pain again. I expected all of those things, but I walked into the gym with confidence in my step, in the knowledge that I am a fighter, determined and focused. Good, bad, or ugly…I was going to meet it head on.

1. competition squats (2-0x0) 2-3 reps

warm up: 45 lbs x 8, 95 x 5, 135 x 3, 165 x 3, with belt 185 x 2

main event: 200 lbs x 3, 200 x 3, 200 x 3, 200 x 3, 200 x 3

Remember how I said 180 pounds has felt tough for the past two weeks? The final warm up set at 185 pounds felt a little bit heavy, but 200 pounds felt lighter and easier. Although I had prepared myself to simply strive for 2 reps, I had no trouble getting 3 reps for all 5 sets. While there might have been a rep here or there that wasn’t quite perfect, most of the reps felt and looked (at least the ones that I had video of) pretty darn good! My coach said I crushed it, and that’s exactly how I feel about it. After the first working set, I racked the bar and walked over to stop my video and broke into a big, sassy grin. I had approached the bar for that first set with trepidation and determination, and, as I was squatting, I realized that I was going to be okay. Confidence surged within me.

2. competition bench (2-1×0) 2 reps

warm up: 45 lbs x 8, 65 x 5, 85 x 2

All those sets were done with my feet on the bench. The back was feeling decent, but, knowing how much arching can quickly aggravate my back when it is irritated, I am going to take whatever measures I can to minimize the aggravation. At least until my back returns to normal function again!

100 x 2, 110 x 2

main event: 120 lbs x 2, 120 x 2, 120 x 2

In the same way that I haven’t squatted 200 pounds for almost 4 months, I also haven’t benched 120 pounds for just as long. Bench press is by far my weakest of the big 3 lifts, and my bench press in competition has been stuck at the same weight for two years. Now that is frustration if I ever experienced it! The programming given to me by my new coach has pushed me and my bench press further and harder than I’m used to going, but so far I’ve been able to keep pace.

The fact that a heavy squat has the ability to crush you like a bug will always make me feel more apprehension than a heavy bench press; however, once I crushed those heavy squats today, I had to look 120 pounds in the eye and tell myself that I was capable. And I was. The bar felt a bit heavy and the reps felt a little slow, but everything looked good on the videos!

3. pause squats (3-2×0) 3 reps

155 lbs x 3, 155 x 3, 155 x 3

4. chest supported rows (2-0x1) 10-12 reps

55 lbs x 10, 55 x 10, 55 x 8

Having completed my session, I walked to the change room with my head high and shoulders back. Maybe there was some swagger in my step, too. I’ve had a fair number of tough training days lately, but today was a good one. Day 2 will see more apprehension when I attempt to deadlift the most weight I’ve done since June. Day 3 will test me again when I am supposed to bench 120 pounds for 5 sets of 3 reps. Those could be good days or bad ones, but I’m looking forward to the challenges. Tomorrow will be 31 days until the competition!

Confidently Stubborn

Okay, so this week without training hasn’t been too bad, but I am definitely looking forward to walking into the gym in the morning. I have no idea what my coach is going to have in store for me, although I can be fairly confident that my training will be designed to make me stronger and work on weaknesses. I’m ready.

“You have to have confidence in your ability, and then be tough enough to follow through.” ~ Rosalynn Carter

It would be easy to let my experience at Provincials shake my self-confidence. Although I have grown quite confident in my abilities, I am still humanly prone to stumbling along in the darkness of doubt. Whatever it was that happened in my back on my second squat, it flooded me with fear, uncertainty, frustration, and doubt. I still knew what I was capable of when healthy, but I was suddenly afraid that I might have done more damage to my body. I knew that I have determination and toughness, but are those qualities enough when you’ve been thrown into the fire? In all honesty, as much as I knew that I wasn’t about to throw in the towel and quit, in the midst of the pain and volatile emotions I wasn’t giving much thought to being tough enough to follow through. I just wanted to survive the day as best I could. Earlier this week my coach complimented me on being a person with strong character by pushing through when it was emotionally and physically tough. It’s not always easy for me to accept a compliment, but I’m trying.

Perhaps the biggest knock against my confidence was my failed bench press attempt. My competition bench press has been stuck at 60 kilograms since October 2015, yet I have only attempted a heavier press while competing twice, at Westerns last August and at Provincials last week. Having pressed more than 60 kilos in the gym means that I know I am capable, but my string of failures also plays with that confidence like a cat toying with a mouse. I will keep striving though.

“Character consists of what you do on the third and fourth tries.” ~ James Michener

With my next competition not until November, I have lots of time to heal and train and focus. I definitely have goals for November’s competition, although I am not going to say too much about them for now, partly since a lot can happen between now and then but also because I don’t really have specific targets yet. So far my goals are general. I know I am capable. I just need to be tough enough to push through and to keep trying. Or maybe I am just that kind of stubborn.