Proactive healing: Recovery requires hard work and a humble mind

Sciatic nerves NIH

Regular readers of this blog know that while I am a writer, I also enjoy physical exercise. What they do not know is that for the past year I have dealt with chronic back pain, which left me inactive for the first time in my life. Now that I have almost completely alleviated the pain, I think sharing the lessons I learned from the experience may be applicable to anyone in need of healing — physical, mental, or spiritual.

Roughly one year ago my back seized up and I found myself on a hardwood floor after 10,000 volts of electricity seemingly ran through my body. It took about 45 minutes to crawl towards my bedroom about 15 feet away. I was covered with sweat after pulling myself into bed (where I spent the next four days). Afterward, the pain lingered throughout my lower back and butt, but I had no idea where it came from.

“Is my old back injury from the Army acting up? Did pushing my wife’s car out of the snow damage something? Did I somehow hurt my back dead-lifting with improper form?” I thought.

Then, I went to work trying to figure out the best way to heal.

  • I stopped lifting weights and opted to exclusively run and swim — no success.
  • I exercised muscles around the affected area, hoping they would compensate for the weak point and give it time to heal — no success.
  • I tried only doing upper-body work — no success.
  • I tried anti-inflammatory pills — no success (unless I wanted to live on anti-inflammatories for the rest of my life and destroy my kidneys).
  • I tried osteopathic manipulative treatment — no success (my hips and back were out of whack within 24 hours after each treatment).
  • I tried a complete secession of physical activity — no success.

For a man who has spent his entire life being physically active, this sort of repeated failure was, in many ways, demoralizing.

“What if I have been completely wrong about the underlying cause of my pain this entire time?” I thought.What if the problem is something I would have never expected? If so, what could that be?”

I finally concluded my pain could be caused by the hours upon hours I sit in a chair each day, even though I have always made time for exercise when I am not working.

The possible solution turned out to be something I have avoided for years: Yoga.

Sciatica yoga

I looked up many videos on yoga for sciatic nerve pain and began stretching religiously twice a day.

At first, no success. I had almost zero flexibility and the stretches were somewhat painful. I kept at it.

Then, pain that was once dispersed throughout my lower body localized around my sacrum.

Then, I could get out of bed in the morning without pain, even if my back “wasn’t quite right.” My flexibility had dramatically increased.

Then, one day, I felt good enough to do a little dance in front of my wife — and my back said, “Nope! Not ready for dancing.”

This week, for the first time in one year, I exercised every single day and managed to work in dead-lifts with no problem.

The moral of the story is this: Healing often requires hard work. It also may require you to admit that all of your preconceived ideas of where your pain is coming from are wrong. On top of everything else, the healing process itself may demand you willingly endure more pain.

Time does not heal all wounds. Pills do not always work, and smart people often cause themselves a lot of pain by refusing to admit that they do not have all the answers.

The last thing I wanted to do over the past month is to admit that regular yoga was what I needed to heal my back pain and counter the many hours I sit in a chair for work. Luckily, I put my ego aside and listened to yoga instructors like Jen Hilman.

I was wrong. If you are in some kind of pain, then I implore you to be open to the idea that you too may be wrong about a lot of things. The decision may put you on the road to recovery faster than you think.

Flip the switch: Tap into ‘fight or flight’ for gains in the weight room

Years ago I worked in a gym, and it was always interesting to see the post-holidays rush slowly whittle away as discouraged individuals decided that the sculpted body they envisioned in early January wasn’t going to happen — “this year.” There are many reasons why fitness goals go unrealized, but the inability to “flip the switch” is one of the more critical failures I’ve observed. When you’re tired and exhausted and you think you can’t do another repetition, are you able to find that “fight or flight” switch in the basement of your being and flip “fight”? If so, it won’t be long before you differentiate yourself from the rest of the crowd.

Try something along these lines the next time you work out. As you begin to feel the burn in your arms, legs, back or whatever other muscle group you’re working, wait until the point when you would normally end the set and then say to yourself: “I’m going to finish this set as if …”

  • “… My life depended it.”
  • “… The life of someone I love depended on it.”

You will be shocked by just how much you could lift when only moments before a little voice inside was saying “No more!” You will be amazed at how many repetitions you could knock out when only moments before a little voice inside said: “You’re done!”

“The weakness of flesh is to settle for less.” — Killswitch Engage

Indeed. As I told a friend of mine who plans on becoming a Navy SEAL within the next couple of years: Even the most prized swords had to become molten metal before they could be crafted into something legendary. While simply getting yourself into motion will often yield results if you haven’t been active in awhile, the biggest gains come when your body tells you there is no gas left in the tank, but your mind tells it to shut up and figure out a way to run on fumes.

“But Doug,” you say, “there are some pretty big guys in the gym, but I don’t really see them knocking out high reps.”

True. There are a lot of big guys who spend most of their time in the gym looking at themselves in the mirror. I’m quite familiar with them. But even in this case, a discerning eye will spot the truth.

I’ll let Ronnie Coleman explain:

“To build more strength, I have to concentrate on using more weight; more weight requires harder work; harder work takes me beyond the level of my previous workout, which pushes the muscle to further growth. In short, an increase in size results only from my commitment to increase my strength.

Hardness, on the other hand, is built by repetitions. Just as steel is hardened by intense heat, so a muscle is hardened by pressurizing it with blood. Higher reps mean a harder muscle. That’s the reason most of my reps are in the 12-15 range. A huge muscle is worthless if it isn’t ripped and steel-hard.” (Ronnie Coleman, Muscle and Fitness, Oct. 2013).

There are always big guys who could “sling s**t” in the gym. I think of them like catapults. They can throw up a lot of weight a couple of times, but their base strength is actually pretty weak. There are “big” guys, and then there are “strong” guys. There are guys who have muscles that look nice, and there are guys who have muscles that work well.

Are you a show horse or a work horse? One is not necessarily better than the other, but my personal opinion is that I’d rather be a work horse than a show horse.

Next time your muscles start to burn, just close your eyes, wander around in your inner darkness, find that switch and flick it to “fight.” You’ll be glad you did.

Related: CT Fletcher is correct: Over-training is a myth

‘Pumping Iron’ inspires, decades after its release

Pumping Iron Arnold Schwarzenegger

‘Pumping Iron’ came out in 1977, at a time when body building was still genuinely considered freakish. The world had not yet been sufficiently introduced to Arnold Schwarzenegger, and by extension the kind of action star that he would help popularize during the 80s and 90s.

But perhaps more importantly, ‘Pumping Iron’ continues to inspire countless Americans to head out to the gym or to start an exercise routine, no matter what their goals are. Not everyone can be (or wants to be) Mr. Olympia or Mr. Universe, but everyone can take steps to improve their health and wellness. If you’re looking for a movie with “good” guys and “bad” guys, a family man (Mike Katz) and a lovable underdog (Lou Ferrigno), give it a watch when you get a chance. You won’t be disappointed.

Want humor? It has that, too. When a cocky young man asked Arnold for advice, he had this response:

Eight years ago when some fellow came to me in the gym and said, “I want to win Mr. Munich, you know. And I am a perfect poser and I have a fantastic body and I just want to learn and new posing routine, a new style. Something way out, which nobody expects.”

So I said, “Well, let me see the posing routine you have right now.” Well when the guy took his clothes off and posed for me he looked like nothing, number one. And his posing was bad. So I mean, I think he was just crazy, you know? So I thought, well okay, if he thinks he’s the best poser I’m going to pull a little trick on him. And so that’s what I did.

I told him, I said I have a new posing routine from America. I’m in correspondence with all the best athletes in America, and so on. And I told him that the new thing is he has to scream while he is posing. And he looked at me and said, “Wow, that’s a new idea.” I said, “That will really come off impressive when you go out on stage and scream. People can’t miss you! They will look at you!” …

So I taught him how to scream, you know? […] I taught him how to do it. The higher your arms go up, the higher you make a screaming noise. And the lower your arms come down while you are posing, you know the lower the noise. You know, like, “Aaaaah! Oooooh!” This kind of a thing. Well, I practiced with him for about two hours. I spent a lot of time mastering his new posing routine, and he mastered it very well. He was screaming really loud in the end. The high and low. And he went to the Mr. Munich contest. I told him when he walks out he has to scream loud, too. “Aarrrg!” And so he did, and obviously people were not ready for that at all. So he went out there and screamed loud and went through three or four poses with the loud screaming and they carried him off the stage and then they threw him off the stage. And then threw him out. The guy is totally nuts.

‘Pumping Iron’ even has a few lines that will make you ask yourself, “Did Arnold really say that? Was he lying? Was he telling the truth?” I know the answers to many of those questions … but I won’t ruin it for you. You’ll have to do your homework for scenes like “the pump.”

The greatest feeling you can get in a gym, or the most satisfying feeling you can get in a gym is “the pump.” Let’s say you train your biceps. Blood is rushing into your muscles. And that’s what we call the pump. Your muscles get a really tight feeling like your skin is going to explode any minute. It’s really tight. It just blows up and and it feels different. It feels fantastic.

It’s as satisfying to me as cumming is, you know? As having sex with a woman and cumming. So can you believe how much I am in heaven? I am like getting the feeling of cumming in the gym, I’m getting the feeling of cumming at home, I’m getting the feeling of cumming back stage when I pump up, when I pose out in front of 5,000 people. I get the same feeling. So I am cumming day and night! I mean, it’s terrific, right? So I am in heaven.

Pumping Iron Arnold
God only knows what sort of crazy stories Arnold has that will never see the light of day.

With that said, the best parts of the film are the scenes where the athletes talk about training, because their advice is applicable to many disciplines:

The body is not used to maybe the 9th, 10th, 11th, and 12th rep with a certain weight so that makes the body grow then. Going through this pain barrier. Experiencing pain in your muscles, and aching — and go on and go on and go on — and these last two or three or four repetitions, that’s what actually makes the muscle then grow. And that divides one from a champion from one not being a champion. If you can go through [pain], then you may go on to be a champion. If you can’t go through [pain], then forget it. And that’s what most people lack — is having the guts to go in and says, “I go through, and I don’t care what happens.” It aches, and if I fall down I have no fear of fainting in a gym. Because I know it could happen. I threw up many times while I was working out, but it doesn’t matter because it’s all worth it.”

Boom. That’s life summed up right there, and oddly enough it’s spoken by the guy who said “I am cumming day and night!”

Today we live in a society that avoids pain at all costs. We live in a society that fears pain. It fears a whole lot of things … but it really fears pain. Emotional pain. Physical pain. Economic pain.

The truth is, often times the most spiritual, emotional and physical growth we attain comes from enduring hardship. You make muscle by destroying muscle. You improve your endurance by pushing your limits. The mind almost always gives in before the body. Success often comes from the knowledge we gain through failure. If you aren’t pushing yourself to failure, you aren’t pushing yourself. If you show me a successful person, I will show you a person who has failed many, many times.

I firmly believe the U.S. obesity rate is an outward manifestation of the cultural rot going on inside the minds of millions of Americans. When self-esteem reigns supreme and everyone is afraid of offending the guy next to them, you wind up with a “comfort zone culture.” And when you stay in your comfort zone, you get fat and lazy. Insulated from insults or criticism, always seeking to feel good instead of possibly experiencing pain, the mind and the body and the soul atrophy. What’s left is a life wasted. And it’s sad, because it never has to be that way.

I respect anyone who takes a leap of faith on a new career or a new job, because they’re jumping into the super unknown. There might be a pile of pillows at the bottom, or their might be a load of bricks. I respect anyone who writes, because they offer themselves up to the slings and arrows of complete strangers. Those intellectual battle scars bring with them experience that will serve the writer well in the broader war.

Likewise, I respect anyone who finds an exercise routine that works for them and then sticks to it. The body really is a like a piece of clay. The “you” that you want to see in the mirror is there right now. He stares you in the eye every day. He just responds to hard work. When you put in the time you’ll coax him out. And when you do, you’ll think differently and you’ll act differently and those around you will respond in kind. And you will never again want to go back to your comfort zone.

Don’t trust me? Watch ‘Pumping Iron,’ and hopefully some of the all-time greats of body building will change your mind.

Related: Schwarzenegger’s ‘Six Rules for Success’ are sage advice for all Americans

The New Year’s resolution: Self-improvement’s kiss of death

Years ago I had the pleasure of managing a gym, and the start of the new year brought in a wave of people into the facility, which predictably receded well before Spring. It seems as though New Year’s resolutions are the kiss of death for most individuals’ efforts at self-improvement.

The problem with most plans is that the mind is in the wrong place from the start. The individual says “I’m going to go to the gym more often,” or “I’m going to eat healthier foods.” The heart is in the right place, but the mind is not. There’s a reason why they say the road to hell is paved with good intentions…

Instead of doing something, you should be something. Instead of saying, “I’m going to do more running this year” you should say, “I am a runner.” In one case you’re asserting the desire to engage in an activity and in the other the activity is integral to who you are. Psychologically, these two positions seem to be only off by degrees, but when you plot out the vectors they produce, on a long enough timeline the differences are profound.

It always puzzles me to see people go on drastic diets or exercise programs. They swing life’s pendulum wildly in one direction and convince themselves that it isn’t going to come barreling back the other way. They enter into an exercise program that leaves them unable to walk for days on end, get discouraged and then give up because they didn’t scale the workouts to their ability level. They go cold-turkey on drinking or smoking or eating — or whatever the vice may be — and then fall right back into bad habits because they never properly committed to the right lifestyle to begin with.

When you take possession of a lifestyle, questions disappear. You don’t have to wonder whether or not you should have that extra piece of cake — you just don’t. You don’t have to wonder whether or not you’ll exercise the next day — you know that you will. It’s what you do because it’s who you are.

Over a year ago I severely injured my shoulder. I couldn’t lift my left arm up to wash my hair and had nights where I couldn’t sleep because of the pain. Needless to say, when I finally was able to start exercising again my weakest exercise — the pullup — was even worse. I made a rule: Any time I exited or entered my room I would do a set of pullups. Over time I got stronger … and stronger … and stronger, until one day I realized my pain was gone, my mobility had returned, and what was once a weakness was now one of my strengths. It took almost a year for that reality to unfold, but it all began with a mental directive that while the timeline was negotiable, the end result was not.

Mother Nature uses time and pressure to mold the physical world around us, but I firmly believe we too can use the very same methods to achieve success, wealth, health and happiness in our own lives. Once you honestly determine the person you are, your mind will seek out ways to bend reality to your will and you’ll attract the kind of company into your life needed to assist you in your endeavors. Make that switch from doing to being and check in with me three, four or five years down the road. My bet is that you will have done away with the practice of making big New Year’s resolutions in favor of constantly recalibrating the little things, which reaffirm and enhance the better person you’ve become.