A guest post by Martin Totland
Having any kind of surgery is a total drag, but it doesn’t have to scare you away from the gym or an active lifestyle. I should know; in the last eight years I had two invasive surgeries that required extensive recovery and I went through months of exhaustion and despair looking at the husk of a man in the mirror. Today, five years into barbell training, and over a year into training at SF Iron, I’m stronger than I’ve ever been. I’m also a little less despaired looking at the guy in the mirror.
I was always pretty active growing up, some periods more than others. As a kid I was biking, climbing trees, building forts of bales of hay, skateboarding, playing soccer, and running around like any other kid. As a teenager I dabbled in jogging (in my defense my brain was still developing at that time) but I was less active and more into movies and using my computer.
In college I used the campus gym and pool a lot. I also started a fencing team with a friend and fenced for almost two years. A turning point came in 2011 when I visited a good friend in New Mexico. He introduced me to powerlifting and although he’s not a coach, showed me how to squat, deadlift, and bench press. He also gave me some reading materials on the benefits of lifting heavy. Thanks to the persuasive powers of my friend I was hooked. I haven’t looked back since.
But before I earned the callouses on my hands, back in February of 2008, I had a medical emergency that required an invasive abdominal surgery. I won’t bore you with the gross details of what caused it but I ended up with 22 surgical staples in my stomach, six of which had to be removed later to clean up a painful infection. (The surgeon left an open wound in my stomach the size of an egg, to heal on its own, to “avoid air pockets forming in the muscle tissue.” The point is, I walked around with a deep wound in my stomach for several weeks with nothing more than a bandage and some gauze to cover it. It was just as awful as it sounds.)
The recovery period sucked in several ways. First, the amount of energy your body uses to heal after surgery is hard to imagine if you’ve never gone through it. Everything was exhausting; getting out of bed was a slow and clumsy dance to avoid using the wrong muscles. I walked hunched over and out of breath to avoid stretching my scar. I must have looked like a shuffling zombie. Talking at length (which I tend to do) was difficult. And on and on.
Second, the boredom was crushing since I was used to being active. I didn’t lift regularly back then but I was out and about a lot, ran several times a week, and had a physical part-time job. Being confined to the couch, the bed, or just the house for a few weeks drove me up the wall. If you go through the same I recommend finding a fun, intellectually stimulating hobby you can do from your couch to preserve your sanity.
Third, I didn’t know what my body could handle during recovery and it made me too cautious. For instance, I wasn’t breathing right for weeks. Inhaling normally made my scar hurt so I began breathing real shallow, almost panting. I also hunched over to avoid the pain of standing up straight and stretching my abs. I didn’t realize how important these were for recovery. The silver lining of it all was that it prepared me for round two, six years later.
In the three years after my first surgery, I began to take exercise more seriously. I entered college determined to stay active and not eat the crap diet of an average American college student. In my first two years I ran 5K’s several times a week, pushed a little weight around on the machines, and did a lot of swimming, as well as fencing. I didn’t gain the Freshman 15 but I didn’t improve much physically either despite spending a lot time in the gym. Then I started taking barbell training seriously in the spring of 2011 and things changed.
(If you’re reading this and you’re new to regimented barbell training you might be unfamiliar with the difference between exercise and training. Exercise is doing a physical activity for the benefit it gives you that day, ie. feeling great after a good run. Training is going to the gym with a program and sticking to it to achieve a future goal no matter how you “feel” that day.)
I immediately found barbell training and the Big Five lifts more satisfying and useful than messing around with the machines, and obviously much more fun than a treadmill. I imposed some regularity on my training but didn’t yet understand the importance of proper programming.
Every time I went to the gym I squatted, benched, and deadlifted and did chin-ups sometimes. I didn’t record my workouts at all. I half-assedly remembered what I did last time and went from there. Too often I just lifted what “felt” appropriate on that day. If I could time-travel I would have gone back to slap my younger self silly to instill the importance of recording my workouts.
My regular-but-sloppy training continued for three years mostly uninterrupted. I saw muscle and strength gains despite not keeping records and my diet changed mostly in the form of how much I ate. I was happy with my progress. If it wasn’t for what happened next, I might not have changed my lifting ways very much.
In early June, 2014, I had abdominal surgery for the second time and for the exact same reason as the first. I had been doing barbell training for three-and-a-half years at this point. I was stronger than I’d ever been. I thought I looked better than before. I felt better, slept better, had a bigger appetite, and ate healthier. I looked forward to going to the gym. I had finally found a sport I managed to stick with. Training was going really well, I thought.
On June 6th, a day after I hit a deadlift PR of 180 kg/396 lbs., I doubled over with a familiar and debilitating stomach pain. I recognized it immediately and went to the hospital. I had been there a week before because of some milder pain and the doctors gave me a free pass to return whenever I wanted.
I ran as fast as I could to my floor and told the nurse on duty who I was before collapsing into a chair. Four nurses rushed over with all sorts of medical equipment. After they did some quick tests I got completely pickled on morphine and the doctors scheduled surgery for that day.
This time my recovery went a lot better. I was prepared and knew more about what my body could handle. I felt that physical activity, opposed to sitting around, would aid my recovery. Not being left with an open surgery wound also helped a lot.
I spent almost a week in the hospital. I walked around in the halls with rolling walker to lean on. I consciously took deeper breaths and made a bigger effort to stand up straight. When I got out of the hospital I spent two weeks at my family’s house to get help with normal things like carrying groceries, fetching things, and getting out of bed. I moved back to my apartment as soon as I could. It was right next to my gym and my membership was still active.
When I felt bold enough I got back into the gym. There was no way in hell I was going to lift just yet but I was determined to get moving. I used the stationary bikes and the treadmills to work up a sweat and stayed cautious to not overdo it. I had much less energy. After a session on the treadmill I was pretty much done for the day. After a while I ran carefully on the treadmill with an incline to avoid hard landings. Soon I dared to use the machines in the gym: the barbells were still too much. At least I could push some weight safely and easily abort, unlike having to drop a bar at the bottom of a squat for instance.
This was in the late summer of 2014. When I went in for surgery I was scared to death that my recovery process would prevent me from moving to the Bay Area for school - I had enrolled at the UC Berkeley Graduate School of Journalism and the semester began in late August. Luckily I was in good enough a shape to move and start grad school.
One of the perks of being in school is having world-class facilities available to you 24/7, like a great gym. So I started lifting weights again at the university.
I was glad to get back into it and get away from the necessary evils of bikes and treadmills. The equipment and hours were great but I quickly realized that getting a good workout between classes was really hard. Undergraduate bros crowded the place and there were always lines to use the squat racks. They were swarming the place like flies on horse manure, with no sense of organization or gym etiquette.
One time, as I was about to unrack the bar for a squat set, a young bro walked into my rack, turned to face me, grabbed the pull-up bar and started doing hanging leg-raises. He had his headphones in and pretended to see right through me. Besides feeling like slapping him around a bit, I realized I had to make a change. Everything was a mess, every useful piece of equipment had a line of guys waiting for it, there were no good coaches, and people got in each other's way all the time. This was no place to get strong again after surgery. I decided to find somewhere else to train.
I lived in downtown San Francisco at the time. I looked around for gyms near my apartment where I could get some coaching and take my training further.
Although I had gotten back into the groove of training after surgery I hit a plateau. My squat wasn’t going up, my bench stagnated, and I wasn’t pressing or powercleaning. Only my deadlift was getting better. I soon found a small barbell gym in walking distance from my place and signed up for four sessions with a Niki Sims. While I was there I remember seeing a bearded guy who usually carried a motorcycle helmet whenever he came in to work. He introduced himself as Josh Garza.
My four sessions with Niki went quickly. She made me realize I knew way less about safe, effective barbell training than I thought. At the same time I was in visual journalism class at school. As an assignment I had to film a two-minute interview with someone about their job, so I asked Niki if I could interview her. I was really excited for barbell training again after our sessions together and I was excited to film a short piece on the training method and the coach that was now helping me get strong again.
Niki happily agreed to the interview but told me that it would take place at a new gym she was starting at. I had briefly heard of this new gym: the old one was no longer in the picture.
This new gym was SF Iron. After filming my interview with Niki there I kept coming back to train. It was closer to my house than campus, it wasn’t crowded with people stumbling over each other, and most importantly there were coaches who knew what they were talking about, and a fun and supportive environment. Hell yes! I had finally found my place to train and to surpass my old self.
I’ve been with SF Iron since it opened. I’m glad I have. I worked with Niki for almost eight months before Josh became my coach. Thanks to their insights and ability to spot gaps in my performance (which there are many of) I have become stronger than ever before. My squat has increased by 110+ lbs. and my deadlift has gone up by 95+ lbs. My bench is stronger than ever and I’m more confident under the bar. I have learned powercleans and how to perform the Press 2.0 (I still have some issues with the press but working with Josh is making a big difference).
Currently my best numbers are: a 350x5 squat, a 275x3x5 benchpress, a 460x5 deadlift, a 165x3 press, and 175x3 powerclean, all at a body weight of 235 lbs. My goals for 2016 include a 400 lb. squat, a 500 lb. deadlift, and 300 lb. benchpress. I would aim higher but I have to focus on graduating too!
In less than 18 months I went through an invasive surgery and an exhausting recovery period but kept moving enough to resume real training pretty quickly. Then I began setting new PRs and became stronger than I’ve ever been.
A real difference between my first and second recovery period was muscle mass. When I came out of surgery in 2008 I had only my “normal” lean body mass to go on. In 2014 I had significantly more muscle and a much better foundation with which to resume training after the operation. This made me better equipped to handle the physical demands of shuffling around - I was less weak in the aftermath the second time around.
I cannot stress this enough: packing more lean mass on your skeleton will make you better equipped to handle any sort of medical emergency. Like Niki Sims said, “It’s harder to die with more muscle on your skeleton.” In the words of Mark Rippetoe, “Strong people are harder to kill and are more useful in general.” The muscle mass I was able to “rest on,” that carried me through recovery, I got through training on my own and with little knowledge. Now I have a coach, a little more knowledge, a great environment to train in and about 20 lbs. more muscle on me.
My weight and strength weren’t the only things that changed when I got serious about training. I got interested in human movement and how our bodies work, a much bigger appreciation for physical challenges, and a better attitude towards life. I’m much more aware of nutrition; I view food as fuel, not just something to stuff in my face to avoid feeling hungry. I sleep better, and I’m more insistent on getting my eight hours instead of just getting by on six hours or less.
Barbell training helped me bounce back from surgery and helped me instill better habits and a better diet. Without exaggeration, I can say that barbell training changed my life.