Change Your Exercises for Safety

The target audience for this article is those who are already gym literate. You know how to do a dumbbell bench press and load the leg press. Your technique has always been good and you’ve never hurt yourself in the gym. You are trying to pick up where you left off, but now you have the complication of our new partner, our chronic illness, or some degenerative change making things a little different.

Here are some personal practical examples to illustrate you can change what you are used to doing and still achieve your goals. No, not your old goals – your NEW goals! The ones you have now for regaining or retaining your quality of life!

Dumbbell Bench Press

As previously mentioned, I have a few problems in my lumbar spine: a bulging disc, a herniated disc and some very grumpy facet joints. I have always preferred free weights. I knew something I was doing in the gym was irritating my back, but I wasn’t 100% sure which exercise. I suspected it was the dumbbell bench press – not the actual exercise, but getting off the bench at the end of a set. Every time I finished a set, I felt a definite sharp twinge (that may be an understatement there) in my lumbar spine and I would suffer varying degrees of discomfort in the following days.

I stared at the chest press machine and decided I was going to have to give that a try.

The action of getting off the machine is not subjecting my back to any undue stress.

It works. No aggravation of my back as I step out of the seat. No, I’m not happy about giving up my free weights, but I’d rather adapt my exercises than not do them at all.

Much easier than getting off the bench!

In February I will under go Radiofrequency Facet Joint Denervation which will hopefully help: in the meantime I have adapted. If the RFJD works, then I’ll have time to work on building the muscles supporting the spine in readiness for when the RFJD wears off.

Loading the Leg Press

Those weights for the leg press have two handles – use them! I realised lifting and carrying a 20 kilogram weight one-handed was not something I should do any more. By the time I’d loaded six of these onto the machine, plus the top-up weights, I was feeling it. Then there is putting the weights away at the end. You DO put the weights away, don’t you? Yes, I knew you did! Using two hands feels a bit awkward at first, but better to use two hands than stop doing the leg press altogether. 

Some readers may have no difficulty with a mere 20 kilograms, I realise that. Some of us more mature souls, or those starting back slowly may be very wise to take things gently initially! Pace up!

Leg Curl

Prone (face down) leg curl is another exercise my back doesn’t like. Luckily my gym has a seated leg curl machine. I’ve found I can do my leg curls with no issues at all in a seated position. No, it doesn’t look as tough, but I no longer care about looking tough, I care about staying limber and strong-ish.

Leg Curl

General Tips

Remember to PACE! While you might be an old hand in the gym, are you new to the concept of pacing for medical reasons?

Make sure you adjust the seat heights (or anything else that needs adjusting) for your particular height. While we may all have been a little cavalier about such details in the past, it pays to be picky about such details now. I usually find tall people have been on everything just before me and I have to adjust every single thing! Your body will thank you.

I don’t recommend lifting to failure, unless you are well and truly on a path to remission or lucky enough to be in remission. I do, now (“now” being until my iron vanished into thin air), lift to failure, but it is something I’ve built back up to and I certainly don’t make a habit of it – besides “failure” is a lot less now than it used to be! Russian Volume Training is probably not a great idea for us either. We’ll end up in the Boom/Bust cycle again, if not with pain, with fatigue.

Slow and steady should be our mantra for the moment. All is not lost though: I know a young man who was diagnosed with reactive arthritis. Told he would not play professional sport again, he became a hypertrophy competitor, fitness professional and was one of our teachers. He is a pretty buff guy.

I hope this may give you some ideas. If you would like assistance, contact me.

Be careful and safe!

I’m done for the day!

 

Pacing For Beginners

Pacing in the context of managing our pain relates to our rate of activity or our performance progress. In this article I am using walking (that’s why the feet!) as an illustration, but the same logic can be applied to sitting, standing, resistance (weight) training or whatever activity it is that we are having trouble doing to the level we want to.

As I have shared previously, when I was first started on this journey, I walked five minutes at a time, four times a day. Five minutes was how long I could manage before I experienced pain. Slowly, by pacing, we can build up.

Please be aware pacing is only one component of condition management, it is not THE solution. This is a general introduction only, each person requires specific planning tailored to their circumstances.

Warning: Maths Ahead

Let’s assume for the maths part of the exercise that like me, you can also walk five minutes before you experience pain.

  1. Take that five minutes as your Test 1 measurement.
  2. After a suitable rest, do a second Test. The Test 2 result might be four minutes.
  3. Add 5 + 4 = 9. To find the average of your two trials: 9/2 = 4.5 minutes.
  4. Now you need your baseline, your official starting point. This is 80% of your average. 4.5 * 0.8 = 3.6 minutes, or 3 minutes 36 seconds.
  5. Increase at a rate of 10% from your baseline. 3.6 * 1.1 = 3.96 minutes. Let’s just call it 4 minutes!

Each day you increase by 10%. JUST 10%.

Putting Pacing into Practice

How does this work in practice? I did some timings on a stroll the other day. It took me 217 steps and 1 minute 48 seconds to walk from one tram stop to the next.

What is a tram, you ask? I’m glad you asked! This is a Melbourne tram. Terrific mode of city transport.

If you don’t have trams in your area, do you have an alternative?

Why was I doing the timings? Because we can use local infrastructure to our advantage. After a while you will get very bored with your backyard or walking around the same block. Tram lines are fantastic because we can walk, hop on a tram for a rest, get off further down the line preferably within one or two metres of a nice cafe, finish our rest over a nice coffee and then repeat the exercise back.

As we build up, we can use the distance between trams stops as stepping stones. Looking at my 1 minute 48 second walk between stops cited above, that is way more than a 10% increase from a 4 minute baseline. That would be closer to 50%, WAY too much. But later on it will be possible. You are not stuck on 4 minutes for long! As you build up you can walk just past a tram stop then back and still catch a tram to reward yourself with coffee. Over time you will be reaching the next tram stop.

A little reconnaissance may be necessary. This is the tram stop I was passing. In the middle of a busy main road, there are lots of steps up from the pavement, an over-bridge and then more steps down. This may not be ideal for those pacing up slowly! This is one of the tram stops you might want to zoom straight past – as a passenger!

Of course there are many alternatives: drive to a favourite park or beach, then walk. I don’t suggest the shopping centre, as it could take 20 minutes to walk from the car park to your store of choice!

The Rules

Rule #1: stick to the times. DO NOT be tempted to do more than you should, despite how great you might feel right that minute. You risk undoing all your hard work to date if you do that.

Rule #2: do it every day. Even if you don’t feel the best today, do your allotted time. Every day.

Rule #3: Wear appropriate footwear. If it is sitting you are working on, ensure you have an appropriate chair.

Other Thoughts

I also apply pacing strategies to manage the fatigue, along the lines of how much I do on any given day. I’ve mentioned before I don’t do grocery shopping on days I do a strength workout. I don’t do strength workouts the days I work eight hours in the office. We work out rules for our individual circumstances.

Christine Miserandino (lupus and fibromyalgia) has written The Spoon Theory which is a great way to visualise the energy/fatigue situation. I found it very early on in my journey and it certainly helped me adjust to my new life. I do have many more spoons these days than I used to, but that didn’t happen overnight.