I am a 54 year old lover of iron and muscle who first entered a gym at the age of 48. I had no previous athletic experience whatsoever. In fact, when I was a child my mother wrote notes to physical education teachers asking that I be excused from class, as she had been told by physicians that I would never be able to participate in athletic activities. I was born with a congenital hip dislocation and all of my joints are hyper-mobile, making me so flexible that I am susceptible to muscle injury (since the muscles get little help from the joints). I literally “fall out” of my joints when lifting heavy. I also have Asperger’s Syndrome, a form of autism, so just being in a physical education class (or gym) can be completely overwhelming for me.
I began working with a trainer in December 2006 when I signed my son up for a gym membership. I weighed 110 pounds at 5’7″, so weight loss was obviously not my goal. I wanted to become stronger.
My first trainer focused on whole body workouts once per week involving compound exercises (functional training). Eventually, despite the fact that I was terrified of being in the gym alone, I started working out by myself as well, first on machines, and eventually with free weights. For a while, I was unable to even move off the treadmill when alone in the gym. Eventually, my trainer suggested that I try moving to only one machine instead of the several he had at first prescribed. And, after mastering the move to one machine, I was able over time to try more.
I subsequently trained with a female trainer who focused on building muscle mass (German Volume Training), as well as on increasing strength. It was during this time that I began reading everything I could find about lifting.
I worked out on my own from January to May 2009 when I asked another trainer if he was available to train me. I wanted to work on my deadlift, my favourite lift.
Then everything started to change.
By the fall of 2009, much to my surprise, I had succeeded in learning how to perform the technically complex, physically and mentally challenging Olympic lift called the Clean & Jerk. Eventually, I was able to put at least 75 pounds over my head, lifted from the floor, to my shoulders, and then “jerked” overhead. I “cleaned” 85 pounds. My deadlift improved to 155 pounds for five repetitions. I lifted 160 pounds for one rep. My trainer told me that I had lifted more in my deadlift than any of his other female clients – and I weighed only 116 pounds at the time.
“You are a strength athlete. You can move big weight long distances, quickly.” - Trainer #3
I was very quickly able to do front squats with 95 pounds for five reps. My back squat reached 105 pounds, although we focused on the front squat. I had the strength to do split squats for six repetitions while holding an Olympic bar overhead. I gained noticeable upper and lower body muscle mass, along with the surprising strength. My weight went up to 121 pounds, although my clothing went down a size (size 0 pants) due to a 6.7% reduction in body fat. (Yes, even thin people have body fat.)
Unfortunately, I was having so much fun and making so much progress in the gym that I ignored a lingering pain in my right shoulder for several months, assuming it was just “stiffness”. Eventually, the pain started radiating down my arm and I could not sleep at night. Finally, I could no longer hold the bar on my back, nor could I put any weight overhead. I couldn’t even reach up for something in the corner store without a bolt of pain stopping me in my tracks. My olympic style lifting and my training came to an end, but I kept working out in the hopes of reuniting with my trainer/coach.
Physiotherapy lasted for a surprising eight months. There was no sign of a tear or any other serious injury, I had full range of motion in my arm, but the pain was never-ending. Two steps forward was followed by one step back, over and over again. Even prescription medication did not stop the pain. Eventually, an ultrasound showed chronic inflammation, bursitis, and osteoarthritis.
I began training with a champion powerlifter at my son’s gym where I was receiving physiotherapy and massage therapy. He worked closely with my treatment providers, and taught me how to do rehab strengthening exercises. He had been injured himself and understood what being sidelined felt like. Nevertheless, this trainer insisted on holding me back, frustrating me, for my own good. And it worked.
Soon after the strengthening phase of my treatment began, I started experiencing less pain. Eventually, the pain was gone.
The next phase of my training was to try to learn how to overcome the fear of re-injury. I had to start building myself up from what felt like square one. I had two good months and was starting to feel my confidence returning when a new pain emerged – this time in my right hip. Although I made the same mistake of ignoring the pain for too long, it was eventually diagnosed by a sports medicine physician as Piriformis Syndrome. My training took another hit.
It has taken me over six months (and several weeks of physiotherapy) to stop the painful sciatica which required medication (something I do not like to take) three times per day to control. But I’ve won this battle, as well. I am currently pain-free and intend on staying that way.
I am now looking forward to ramping up my training, getting the weights back up, and then progressing further.
The best thing about all these set-backs: I know my own body. I know what it needs and what it doesn’t need. I know what I must do, as well as what I like to do. I am now the one in charge.
That said, I am grateful to all of my trainers, especially the last one who “held me back” for my own good, and to my amazing detail-oriented physiotherapist for his hard work and supreme patience. Also, my massage therapist has made the healing blood go where it needed to go. She has done wonders.
My workplace has made several modifications for me, including providing a space where I can stand to review documents. This has reduced my sitting/twisting by at least 50%. I have the best boss in the world and we have the best office manager. Thank you!
Finally, my son, Will, has stood quietly by my side, both in the gym and at home. He has heard me rant in anger and witnessed my sorrow when it seemed to me that I would not be able to lift again. And now he is encouraging me to forge onward. Thank you, Will.
I don’t believe in being “positive” all the time. I believe in experiencing fully the whole range of emotions available to us as human beings, including anger and grief. These feelings teach us valuable lessons. They allow us to learn from our mistakes, to imagine what others must be experiencing, and to be humble. Life is a process of learning and feelings are our guides.
However, I have developed a motto which is “feel bad for 30 seconds and then work twice as hard”.
My other motto is “never quit”.
Wish me luck!
P.S. As well as being a devoted gym rat, I work full-time as a Law Clerk for a Founding Partner in an incredibly busy law firm. I have been a single mother for 23 years. I also went through the pregnancy alone. I earned a B.A. from Queen’s University (Political Science) and a Master of Fine Arts in Theatre (Directing) from the University of British Columbia. I am a playwright and have had two plays produced, one of them twice (see playsbybethfrench.wordpress.com). My Asperger’s Syndrome was finally diagnosed due to struggles I faced in the gym. Lifting has changed my life for the better, by introducing me to the athletic sphere and the social sphere, two worlds which, up until now, remained quite foreign to me.