Posted in exercise, Health

Steps Back, Leaps Forward

When it comes to diet and exercise, we often expect our progress to look like this:


Stay dedicated, try hard, and every workout will be a crescendo of ever-increasing gains, right?

We are having a really good day, and do something awesome at the gym. Maybe a new lifting PR, maybe hitting a certain amount of volume or speed on an exercise. And then, we “expect” to be able to hit or exceed that same level at each subsequent outing.

But the truth is, those great days are rare. Most days we don’t feel our best. What then?

When it comes to my own progress, I have to balance my perspective between the small and big picture. It’s easy to get preoccupied with the details of a “bad day,” and lose sight of how far I’ve come:

“I’ve deadlifted that weight before, why couldn’t I hit it today?” “4 sets of 25 is killing me, it isn’t usually this hard!” “This burns like I’m on fire, what’s wrong with me?”

Or, as happened to me recently, “OMG WHY DOES MY BACK HURT LIKE THIS AGAIN???”

Allow me to elaborate…

As I’ve discussed many times in this blog, chronic back pain is what first brought me to Ludus Magnus. As I kept coming back each week and did the work, bit by bit, that pain lessened until it was a shadow of its former self.

My muscles got stronger. I lost weight, and lessened the stress on my joints. I ate less sugar and refined carbohydrates, which lowered my overall inflammation.

So in my mind, my back should be all better now, right?

About a month ago I was working my “day job” at Trader Joe’s on a busy Saturday afternoon. I had a produce shift that day. Maneuvering heavy boxes out of a tiny, cramped cooler at awkward angles. Doing my best to use good lifting practices but the work was demanding and I was moving fast.

Several hours into my shift, I was down on my knees putting up some veggies in the cold case. When I stood up, my back broke out in spasms.


I immediately went to the back room and stretched for several minutes in hopes of calming it down. I got down onto my knees to stock something else, tried to stand up, and a spasm took my breath away. It took a few attempts to get back to my feet.

I was pissed and in tears on the way home, saying terrible things to myself.

“I thought I was stronger than this.”  “What did I do wrong to cause this?” “Why didn’t I move slower?” “Why didn’t I stretch more?” And, the biggest one, “I thought I had made more progress than this.

One bad moment, and I’m questioning three years of hard work.

I rested at home the remainder of the evening and focused on recovery: drank lots of water, alternated ice packs of 2 minutes on/3 minutes off, and made sure to take my nightly dose of curcumin and magnesium glycinate. Once I wasn’t lugging produce around anymore the pain subsided. I didn’t need any OTC pain relievers. I got a good night’s sleep. 

The next day, Sunday, was my regular upper-body workout. Did I stay home because I was feeling sub-par?

Nope. I showed up. I came early and did some reverse hypers to loosen up my hips and get the blood pumping to my lower back. I told Matt what happened, and he advised me to do the workout and back off anything that caused pain.

To my amazement, I got through the workout with no problems. I actually felt much better when I left than I did when I arrived.

Then Wednesday morning came: leg day. I was still a bit stiff and sore, but Matt kept the workout all traction-based with lots of light belt squatting, reverse hypers, 45 degree back extensions, hamstring curls, etc. Nothing caused me pain. I felt so much better afterwards.

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Here’s what I know today: my back is not “cured,” and it may never be “all better.” I abused my body for years with poor eating habits, inactivity, and improper lifting techniques. My genetics for arthritis are poor. Some of that damage may not be entirely reversible. Little flare-ups may be a fact of life. Or they may not be. Time will tell.

But I also know this: it’s a hell of a lot better than it used to be. And it keeps getting better all the time.

The worst thing I could have done was stay home until I “felt better.” I did get as much  quality sleep as I could during that time to aid recovery. But laying on the couch all day and avoiding the gym was not the answer. Prolonged inactivity leads to tighter, stiffer muscles, and even more pain. 

Of course there are conditions that require periods of prolonged rest and avoiding training. And nobody should over-train or keep doing something that pounds their body and exacerbates an existing injury.

But I had to be willing to work through some discomfort in order to feel better. Plain and simple. The key is working with an experienced trainer like Matt who understands how to adjust the workout in order to aid healing rather than impede it. 

With the demands of modern living, we don’t necessarily have a ton of days where we feel our best. There is usually some little ache or pain somewhere that wants to pull us to the couch. But waiting for those little things to go away only makes them worse. Working through them in a sane, sensible way and getting stronger leads to more better days.

Today, what I am able to do in the gym on a bad day is exponentially more than I could do on my best day at the beginning of my training journey.

That is progress.

If you want to work with somebody who has been where you are and knows how hard it is to get moving, reach out at 614-517-2520, email, or hit me up on my Facebook Page “Gain to Lose with Jennifer!”

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