I walked into the gym ready to get a membership. It's been over five years since I belonged to a gym; they kept playing Teenage Dream over and over and it never occurred to me to ask them to stop. As a restless person, I'll work out indoors or outdoors, with or without company, at any time of day, doing any of half a dozen types of activity. I can't not exercise. My options are to move my body or to feel like I'm crawling out of my own skin. When I decided to join a gym again, it was a gift; my husband asked me to be his accountability partner. I hadn't planned to be upsold into a training package. There's a price break for new members, though, and he encouraged me to go for it.
Working with a personal trainer has certain expectations assigned to it. Trainers tend to be people who have always loved physical exertion. Many are quite young and have been fit their entire lives. The dynamic tends to be a buff guy in his twenties, pushing the physical and emotional limits of a middle-aged person with chronic neck and back pain (and possibly knee pain and even more). We can't walk down a flight of stairs afterward, and many of us quit.
My husband had an experience like this. His trainer was a Navy man. My hubby has been hit-and-miss on exercise over the last few years because of persistent knee pain. An MRI revealed that his knees aren't shaped quite right. The first thing the trainer wanted to work on was: lunges. When you're a hammer, everything looks like a nail. When you're a trainer, everything looks like a problem of willpower, persistence, and strength training. They aren't working together anymore.
He warned me. "The first thing they'll have you do is lunges. Just tell them you have a bad knee."
My perspective was, If I'm going to work with an expert, I'm going to do precisely what I'm told. I'll read whatever is recommended. I'll watch documentaries. I'll take classes and quizzes. I'll get my nose down to the carpet and do planks for an hour a day. If my trainer says to DO LUNGES, then lunges I will do. I'm smart enough to be humble, listen, and take the directions I'm paying to be given. I have zero problems with knee pain, willpower, persistence, grit, determination, or accountability.
I have had a bit of a problem with obedience. This is a growth area!
The gym manager asked me about my fitness goals. I explained in about a minute that I had run a marathon, over-trained, and developed an overuse injury in my ankle. I wanted to run a 50-mile ultramarathon for my fiftieth birthday, and I wanted to make sure I was cross-training properly to avoid reinjuring myself. He took me straight to a man who is exactly my age and who specializes in recovery. I told him that I had gone to physical therapy for tendinitis of the anterior tibialis. He immediately listed off the issues that would lead to this problem: hip instability, weak core, weak glutes, weak quads. Not ten minutes after I had walked in the door, I was deep in conversation with a man who knew everything my physical therapist did after six months of appointments. The difference was that he hadn't seen my MRIs or done a physical exam.
How was this possible?
I had religiously made all my PT appointments. I had spent countless hours doing my prescribed exercises. I had frozen myself with the ice massage cups. I had tormented myself with the foam roller. (Foam rollers are pleasant unless you have a hot, fresh injury). I had eaten anti-inflammatories until I rattled. I had tolerated experimental electrical treatments. After six months, my PT had no explanation for why I still had pain. Then I meet this personal trainer, and he quickly demonstrates how everything in the body is related to posture. My ankle is stressed because my pelvis is tilted because my shoulders slouch. He knows the names of every muscle and tendon. Everything he says matches my diagnosis, except that he proposes a different root cause and a broader range of solutions. I'm sold.
I wait for a couple of minutes before my first session. My new trainer is finishing up with his previous appointment. She's in her sixties and she can't stand up straight. From the waist up, she walks at a fifteen-degree angle. Her arms dangle down. I can't imagine the pain. Bless you, honey, you need this time more than I do. You are who I could be in twenty years.
He has me stand in different positions while he takes pictures. He shows me how one shoulder is higher than the other. He draws ink spots on my kneecaps and shows me how one knee rolls in at a different angle than the other. He shows me how my lower back arches (and next time, he says it could develop into lordosis). I'm standing up straight, but without doing power poses for the camera, I can see there are issues. I look a decade older. He has me roll my arm and feel the impingements in my shoulder and back. Then he pokes and prods a couple of spots in my back that make my muscles spasm. Bad on one side but not the other. "Does it hurt when I do this?" "AAAAAAH!" Now I can feel it, I can see it, and I believe he knows what he's talking about. I'm ready to learn.
At my second session, he teaches me some basic exercises and takes pictures of me doing each one. They are deceptively simple, yet profoundly tiring. One is that I just have to sit on the floor with my back against the wall and my toes pointing up. That does not sound like an exercise. It feels like one! My shoulder blades want to stick out and poke the wall. I have to roll my shoulders back and point my chin toward my chest. The backs of my knees are supposed to touch the floor, but my hamstrings are so tight that I can't do it.
We find tightness in my ribs and chest and calves that I had no idea was there. I do Triangle Pose against the wall, and I can reach a full foot farther on one side than the other. I'm crooked!
I went in feeling like a fit person. My plan was to start doing strength training, maybe get some more muscle definition in time for our anniversary weekend. Now, I feel like I've gone in just in time to avoid becoming a wilted, frail elderly person. "Pain is the very last sign," says my trainer, and I don't want to think about the kind of neck and back pain I would be in for if I hadn't addressed my posture.
The most unexpected thing about working with a personal trainer is what he's advising me not to do. I'm walking too much and it's exacerbating the tightness in my calves and hamstrings. I definitely shouldn't start running again yet. Lunges are a no-no. (Squats, yes; lunges, no). I'm not even supposed to go to yoga for at least another week. The initial stretching workout I've been given burns about twenty calories.
If I'd simply joined the gym to work out with my husband, I would have gone straight to the elliptical machine. I would have done a circuit of weight machines, forgetting that the last time I quit doing that was because I kept wrenching my neck and shoulder. I wouldn't have realized that I was creating yet more chronic pain and overuse issues for myself. This new path is the path of reeducation. I'm already learning so much I didn't know about anatomy and physiology. AaI'm becoming aware of my body in a different way, one that unfortunately involves some crunching sounds. I've been humbled about my physical age and my actual versus perceived fitness level. I'm starting from the place of beginner's mind, and that's exactly where I wanted to be.
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I've been working with chronic disorganization, squalor, and hoarding for over 20 years. I'm also a marathon runner who was diagnosed with fibromyalgia and thyroid disease 17 years ago.