TOO LITTLE IS BETTER THAN TOO MUCH A painful reminder of the importance of moderation
One of my first lessons in fitness school was the story of Milo and the Bull. Milo was given a calf by his father. He went out every day and picked up the calf and carried it to his father to show him how much he’d grown. As the bull grew heavier each day, so did Milo’s strength. Eventually, Milo was known in town for being the only man who could easily lift a full-grown bull. This fable is an illustration of the lesson that you must start small and add weights gradually. This is the safest, quickest and most effective way to increase your strength. The thing is, I know this. But I forgot that basic lesson for one fateful day.
My story begins in late January of 2009. Just in case you don’t know this about me, I’ve always kept myself in good shape and placed a very high priority on my health and wellness. For the past few years, I had been focused on developing an intense fitness system that uses little to no equipment. It was not a body-building program, but it made me lean, muscular and athletic looking.
Then, I got cast in a play as a TV superhero. I was scheduled to perform this play in May, so I had the idea that I could use the next four months to bulk up and be impressively muscular for the play. I joined a gym and started weightlifting. This is my area of expertise. I know how it’s supposed to be done. Despite that, I don’t know what came over me. I guess I let my impatience get the better of my training and knowledge. I’ve done body-building before and when it’s done right it can be very safe and effective. In fact, in four months, I could have done great things if I didn’t rush myself. But on my second workout, I had a lot of energy and I just kept lifting and lifting, adding more weight and more weight and focusing really heavily on my chest. Like an amateur. I know I wouldn’t have let any of my clients do anything as crazy as that, but I guess I was in character as the superhero on some level. Anyway, as I’ve said, I should’ve known better.
Unsurprisingly, I did some damage. Now this part is interesting to me. While I was lifting, in the gym, there was no ‘moment of truth.’ No POP or painful twinge. In fact, it all seemed great. I got a nice pump and headed home to enjoy it. It wasn’t until a few days later that I noticed that the soreness in my right shoulder girdle was profound and showed no signs of easing. Typically, DOMS (delayed onset muscle soreness) only lasts for two days at the most. But three days later, I still had something going on. I figured it was just a knot and I needed to massage it out. I got on my therapy balls and rolled around, but I found that no amount of massage or stretching could offer me any relief. I was pressing my back into the corner of walls, and massaging and stretching as much as I could. Finally, I had to admit that this was something more serious. I knew I had to do ice and aspirin for a while until the area calmed down. Of course my weight training stopped completely.
Either the original injury was quite widespread or it caused a lot of secondary pain patterns to develop, but it was fascinating to notice the many different specific sensations I went through. I would squirm and wiggle all evenings just in an effort to find a comfortable position. To no avail. I couldn’t stand, sit or lie down. The first wave of pain seemed to be localized in my right rhomboids, which was aching for a few days. This was an unrelenting ache of immense proportions; excruciating and exquisite. Then there was a period when I would swear my levator scapulae was the culprit. It was tender and achy up the side of my neck and it was very uncomfortable to elevate my scapula or shrug my shoulders. There was also specific tenderness at the superior medial angle of the scapula. There was a time when I could distinctly feel my teres major was inflamed and the outside of my armpit near the distal axillary border was tender to the touch and it was very painful to rotate my shoulder internally and externally. There was also often a very sharp pinpoint pain on the anterior aspect of my humerus. But then my pectoralis minor went through a wildly spasming phase and I could feel specific tenderness along three attachments on my anterior ribcage. Basically, I spent a lot of time wanting to stick my finger deep inside my armpit or underneath my pec major to massage or stretch something deep inside the structure of my shoulder. There was a visible divot in the surface of my right pectoral. Like a sink-hole in my chest.
I was getting depressed. On one hand, I was professionally embarrassed that I did something this stupid. But not only was I very disappointed in myself for letting myself down as a trainer, but I was also quite aware that I was in store for months and months of recovery. I knew that I would not be any bigger for the show, but that I would in fact be smaller than I was now due to muscle atrophy from abstaining from exercise. I was also concerned that I might not be able to lift the other actor, who under normal circumstances, I could easily lift and carry, like the script calls for.
Two months went by before I had relief from the pain. Until then, I was in constant pain except for when I was icing, on aspirin or while I was teaching my Nia classes or for the few hours afterwards. I performed in a play (Alley of Masks), taught yoga, Yoga Tune Up and Nia classes, led a weekend retreat and went on with my life. Right through the pain.
By late March, I was feeling like I’d recovered enough to start seeking rehabilitation treatments. I found a wonderful physical therapist named Shmuel (who I’d highly recommend to anyone who needs some expert physical therapy) and I also saw a Rolfer and a Swedish Massage therapist in addition to my own well-informed self care.
Before the injury, my personal workouts included between100 and 200 pushups among other things. I had been working on
my one-armed pushups and one-legged squats and gotten up to three one-arm pushups on each side. Of course now, I couldn’t do a single pushups using both arms. My chest had completely shut down. I could barely even hold a plank position, and certainly not for any length of time. Learning from my mistakes, though, I remembered Milo and I worked on getting plank first. And then I did ONE pushup; careful to perform it correctly and not too quickly.
Eventually I was thrilled to be able to do one perfect pushup. I was so fired up by that, that it was hard to stop at one, but I told myself to take baby steps. I did ONE pushup and then took the next day off. On day three I did TWO pushups. I was actually quite pleased to be able to do two pushups, when I hadn’t even been able to raise my arms without pain for the past two months. Our ability to heal is astounding.
I worked this way, adding a little bit at a time. I actually went back into the gym in April. Using the exercise science I know and the patience I know, I went about it the correct way this time. My bench presses and my pull-ups were very limited, but I told myself to work with what I have. I was able to get some of my muscle back in time to go to Dublin for the play.
Since I went to Dublin in mid May, I had been off the weights and I’m resting again. I feel like I was the slightest bit premature in getting back to the gym, but I did it for the show. I wasn’t totally pain free and I noticed that I was compensating and using my deltoids instead of my chest in my bench press. I also had a crooked support structure for my torso. I could detect that my obliques were not firing evenly and causing my torso to torque when I lifted anything heavy. So I got off the weights completely once I started the show.
In June, now five months after the injury, I came out of the resting period and went into phase one of active recovery; reclaiming my body. I focused on eating tons of raw vegetables and doing tons of yoga and rehabilitative exercises. I wanted to get lean and flexible while teaching my chest how to work again.
I’m writing this in early July. It’s been six months and I’m happy to report that my chest is back in the game. I’m up to three sets of pushups now. Yesterday I did twenty perfect pushups, then another set of seventeen and then a third set of twelve. For a while I was unable to flex the muscle at all; it was completely dead. The rate of atrophy was astonishing. I have lost a lot of size in my right chest and arm, but was overdeveloped in the right deltoids (thanks to my premature stint in the gym in April.) To be fair, I should say that people have told me that they didn’t notice it until I pointed it out to them, so I may be exaggerating but I’ve always been fanatical about symmetry and proportion in body building. So for now, I’m focused on getting my right side to catch up with the left and plan to go back to the gym around mid July 15.
So, what have we learned:
Always practice patience and conscious awareness when you exercise.You’re better off doing a little bit less than doing too much. If you do too little, the worst that will happen is that you are a little bit less sore the next day, but do too much and you could find yourself in pain for months, out of the game entirely and suffering from a deranged body from compensating for injuries.
This black and white shot is the best photo I can find of a straight forward picture of my chest. It was taken in 2006, but it shows the symmetry I have
always had. This is JAG Fit.
The next picture was taken on my birthday, June 15, 2009. Obviously I am much smaller all over from not having used weights for four months, but if you look carefully, you will notice the right side is much smaller. Check out the chest, arms and shoulders. I have some work to do.