It was a little over a month ago that I lay on my weight bench in the garage with tears of frustration streaming down my face. I had just completed a 15 minute “workout” consisting of a few unweighted lunges, some hip bridges, and 3 sets of 5 reverse abdominal curls. This was all I could do, since I still had a PICC line in my arm and couldn’t chance any upper body work (I’ve learned that important life lesson). As it turned out, the 3 exercises I chose were clearly enough, as my heart rate after the last rep was about 300 bpm and I felt like if I rolled off the bench right then, I might have to call my son in to help me up.
I was a mess.
I suppose I had a good reason for the tears. This was the third bout of pneumonia in just four months, and I was sick and tired of being sick and tired. It was also my first attempt at any form of exercise other than easy walking in well over a month, and my physical fragility was frightening. Normally when I exercise, I am a bit of a taskmaster. I push myself pretty hard and usually do more than I set out to do. But today was different. I was a complete wimp.
I was nearly at the end of my course of antibiotics and the PICC was coming out in two days. This meant that I had been receiving medications to eradicate lung infections for four of the the last five weeks. That is a lot of antibiotics. There was likely not a viable bacterium to be found in my body. Indeed, my cough was gone, the pain of pleural inflammation was gone, and I could actually eat again. But, where was my mojo? I still felt like crap, and this was the kicker. Normally, at the end of a course of IV’s, I am raring to go, having planned my fitness regimen for the next three months. This time was different, and I was worried.
Of course, my partner reminded me that I would get better…that I always did…and that I needed to be patient. My rational mind knew this, but my emotional self kept whispering, “What if this is it? The beginning of the end? Your 53 year good luck streak has to end sometime…”. I hate that voice.
So, ten pounds of muscle mass down (which was obvious as I watched my legs trembling as I got up from the bench), I vowed to give my secret weapon the old college try and to stop listening to emotional self until the end of the trial. Antibiotics are needed, as are pulmonary clearance and airway treatments. Sleep is king, and hydration and good caloric intake does wonders. But, the best medicine of all, at least in my experience, is daily exercise. It makes me breathe deeper. It gets me outside. It makes me cough up junk. It builds an appetite. It makes me, ahem….regular. But most of all, it feeds my soul.
So, tears now dried, I developed my plan. It was a modified version of my plans of the past…much easier…much slower progressing.
Walking is always the foundation of my recovery, and will be until the day I can’t walk anymore. But walking further than I should due to training for a half-marathon when sick was what landed me in the hospital with pneumonia number two, so I had to be cautious. I decided to cut in half the time I thought I should be able to walk, and add just a few weight training exercises only three days/week. These were front squats, kettlebell swings (only 10 at a time), and Turkish get-ups with a very light kettlebell. That’s it. I wanted to do more, but my shoulder was messed up (thanks to levoquin), and I had to be careful not to rupture a tendon.
So that’s what I did. Over time, my walks became walk/jogs, and my two kettlebell exercises proved to work magic, as I knew they would. Today, I’m doing swing intervals as easily as I was before the s&#t hit the fan back in January. My shoulder is getting stronger and I’m able to press again. I can breathe. I’m not coughing. I’ve gained back 6 pounds.
Yes, the antibiotics did wonders. Thank God (and Barb) I have insurance and great medical care! But there is no doubt in my mind that what converted me from that trembling, weak mess lying on my bench last month to today, looking forward to my get-ups and KB presses, is exercise. Exercise is medicine. Very slowly but surely, it works to build up strength and endurance, to improve appetite and thus enable weight gain, and to bring me out of the doldrums to enjoying my fantastically fortunate life.
Nobody wants to walk into a gym to lift weights knowing nothing about weight training. First of all, it is obvious, and who wants to look as clueless as they feel? But you are not clueless if you have read my “perfect workout” series. You know to immediately roll and loosen up your joints, to then move into some corrective work, then to do movement preparation drills. Now you are ready to lift…
Let’s start with my basic “Rules of Lifting”
First, begin by working the biggest muscles first, then moving to smaller ones. If you are going to include your legs into your lifting that day, start with squats or deadlifts. If you are giving your legs a day off, start with back exercises.
Second, focus on complex moves. Complexity is in…isolation is out. A “complex” lift is one that uses several muscle groups, and as a consequence, movement occurs at multiple joints. A squat is a perfect example of a complex lift. In the squat, you not only use the gluteals and hamstrings to extend the hips, but you also use the quadriceps, hip flexor group, and the stabilizing muscles of the entire core. Compare this to the knee extensor machine, a classic isolation movement occurring at a single joint. In this move, you sit on a chair, hook your ankles under a pad, and extend your lower legs. This is an isolation move occurring across the knee..not only that, but it is an isolation move that you almost never do in real life. Below is a sampling of both types of lifts. An isolation move or two won’t hurt, but focusing on the complex moves is better overall approach. Additionally, if you are going to do both types of lifts, do the complex moves first. The biceps curl can wait till the end (for all of you mirror gazers…).
Complex lifts (multiple joints move): Squat, Deadlift, Lunges, Bench press, standing military (overhead) press, Horizontal rowing, pull ups
Isolation lifts (single joint movement): biceps curls, adductor/abductor machines, triceps extension, leg extension, seated hamstring curl
Third, learn perfect technique. If you do this first and foremost, and you focus continually on technique (even when you fatigue) you will not get injured. On the other hand, if you are sloppy, it is very possible that you will hurt yourself as you lift heavier loads. This cannot be over-emphasized. We are not talking rocket science, though. I learned by reading books and watching others. These days, not only can you read, but YouTube makes it easy to learn the basics. Just make sure you are watching a trained professional, not an actor/actress from a reality TV show (you know who I’m talking about).
Begin lifting light. For the first few weeks, you get stronger NOT by lifting heavy, but simply by training your nervous system how to do the moves. Once you have good form and the movement patterns are grooved into your brain, it’s time to get serious. Begin light for a warm up set or two, and then work hard! You will not “bulk up.” The last repetition of your work sets should be difficult. If the final repetition is easy, or even moderately easy…go heavier!
Take a day or two off between lifting for the same muscle group. You have made teeny little tears in the muscle fibers by asking them to lift heavy weights. But don’t panic…this is good. If you feed your muscles and rest them appropriately—they heal and come back even stronger. This is the whole point of weight lifting. It is called Specific Adaptation to Imposed Demand (SAID principle for you exercise physiology nerds). Your body adapts to what you ask it to do. If you want it to get stronger, you must ask it to lift heavier objects than it is used to lifting. It then adapts, and, poof, you are stronger.
Now that the basics are covered, how about the more specific questions of what moves, how many exercises to do, how many reps and sets to do, with what frequency should I lift, and how hard should it feel. How will I know if I am doing too much? Too little?
A beginner should try to work every muscle group at least twice a week. Once a week…not good enough unless you are just trying to maintain the muscle mass you already have (and even then, twice/week is better). Three times a week is even better, but only by a little bit, so if you are really working hard to fit it in, at least get in two workouts per week. What are the muscle groups to target?
Legs: Both front (quadriceps) and back (hamstrings) of the thighs. Think lunges, squats, stability ball hamstring curls, step-ups, and more lunges
Hips: Extensors (that would be the butt, Bob), and flexors (these are usually very tight and mostly need to be stretched). Think squats, more squats, deadlifts, kettlebell swings, lunges again
Back: Huge muscle groups! Latissimus dorsi is the big one (lat pull downs, pull ups, rowing movements), anything where you pull something toward the center of your body either horizontally or vertically
Chest: Pectorals and anterior shoulder: Think push ups, bench press (flat, inclined), dumbbell flies
Shoulders: Three heads to your deltoid muscles, so they like to be worked at different angles. Exercises here include vertical pressing moves like the military press, with bar or dumbbells, lateral raises (bend over an inclined bench for a different angle), dumbbell forward raise, and my favorite, kettlebell clean and press.
Abdominals: Plank holds (front and side), bicycle, stability ball curls, regular curls, dumbbell or kettlebell renegade row (killer), Russian twist
Arms: both front (biceps): rows, pull ups, biceps curls, and back (triceps): triceps press or kickback, pushups, horizontal and vertical pressing moves
Is your head spinning? Like I said, it is NOT COMPLICATED! Pick one move from each group (some exercises overlap groups because they are complex, and therefore work across multiple joints). Study the precise form from books, YouTube, friends who know, or a trainer before you try each exercise. Start light. Warm up first. Then gradually add weight until the last repetition is fairly difficult. In the beginning, strive for two sets of 10-15 repetitions of each exercise. In exercises where you hold for time, aim to increase your time by 5 seconds each time you do the move.
KEEP TRACK OF YOUR PROGRESS. I know it looks silly. But if you don’t know what you did the last time, how can you progress? You have to challenge yourself by doing a tiny bit more or holding for a few seconds longer than the last time. I carry a workout log around with me. I look to see what I did on that exercise the last time I did it. Then I will either increase the weight, or the number of reps, or decrease the rest between sets. Only a tiny bit. It’s all about baby steps and consistency.
It has been some time since my last post. If you were wondering how long you had to do Day Two, or if you have given up on me, I apologize.
This is what happened: In short, I went, I conquered, I returned to crash and burn with pneumonia.
My mother was right, and so was my father, sister, partner, and probably even my dog. You really can have too much of a good thing…even exercise.
Someday, some post, I will relay my experience at the RKC. It was one I will always remember, and that I will never regret doing. It was amazing to feel strong, to realize that I was as tough as the next guy, even though my lungs suck (ha, no pun intended). It was humbling to realize how much I didn’t know, but equally gratifying to complete something I had set as a truly ridiculous goal for a 50 year old with CF. I met great people, friendly people, scary strong people, and a few people who were there, like me, just to push themselves. I was forced to “come out of my shell” in a sea of strangers (I really am shy), to explain my cough to people who worried for me, to assure people that I wasn’t really going to leave a lung on the floor–it just sounded that way.
I wore a Life Is Good shirt this, the first day, because it was really how I felt…happy to be there even though it was 35 degrees outside…happy to be swinging kettlebells with the best of the best…happy that my body was cooperating (well…it was at that moment)…just happy.
So I learned my lesson. No more Navy Seal-like goals for Julie. But, man was it a blast.
Back to Boot Camp posts.
You may wonder why…
Stay tuned for more!