cw: talking abt chronic pain
Everyone derides the EC basement gym, but I kinda like it. The paint is peeling off the walls. Thick dust gathers in the corners. The equipment is shaky and old, and there are barely enough plates for one person to squat while another benches. The gym is usually empty when I come down, however, so the lack of plates is rarely an issue, and you don’t have to wait for various machines to open. There are big speakers to connect to, and I blast rock through the room as I stretch, roll my shoulders, and approach the squat rack.
I’ve come to love weightlifting, for the most basic reasons: the feeling of getting stronger and lifting big objects. I love the way your muscles tremble at the end of a workout, when you’ve pushed to the edge of your strength, the wobbly feeling in your legs when you climb stairs the next day. I like the look of muscle, when I’m able to build it. I’m hardly the first admissions blogger to discover strength training during their MIT years.
Before MIT, I had a lot of false starts with strength training. I went to gyms sometimes in high school — and nearly every day while living in my car, to shower — but I never hit a solid routine. A guy I met while backpacking in Italy showed me how to use the kettle bell; I enjoyed the lesson but didn’t see a kettle bell again for months. During lockdown, I downloaded a home workout guide. I recall there was a lot of stepping on and off of chairs. I didn’t really know how to set myself up to make progress.
Oddly enough, the precaution-filled spring semester of 2021 helped in this regard. The social scene was relatively dead, so there was plenty of time to work out. The meal plan offered protein and veggies every day, so eating healthier required little extra effort on my part. I happened to pod with someone who knew how to do squats, bench presses, and deadlifts, which I’d long wanted to try but hadn’t started on my own for fear of injury. As soon as the Next House gym allowed podmates to work out together, she showed me proper form. Then off we went!
Covid precautions at the time mandated that we reserve 30 or 60 minute slots at the beginning of the week, up to 120 minutes total, and that only one pod worked out at a time. Having time slots held me accountable, since you couldn’t skip a workout and promise to make it up the next day — the gym was booked out a week in advance. Having the gym all to myself gave me space to get started; there was no worry that I was being judged for how much I lifted or how long I rested. When bench presses or deadlifts were just too painful, and I had to cut a set short, I could re-rack the weights without anyone looking on. Not that people would actually care.
At the end of spring semester, I was a lot stronger. My triceps were visible in a way they hadn’t been before. And my carpal tunnel was worse — because it’s always getting worse, because writing on an iPad is difficult and I did most of my psets on an iPad then, and, potentially, because of the added strain from lifting weights.
That’s been challenging to navigate. Carpal tunnel syndrome is theoretically aggravated by small repetitive motions, like typing or playing an instrument. Mine is in fact aggravated by basically everything, from stabilizing a squat bar on my shoulders to holding a pushup position. Dumbbells are especially difficult.
I think the most difficult thing is that I cannot tell if the pain exists but will fade in an hour or a day, leaving my hands as normal as they get, or if the pain is an indicator that I am making the problem worse. If the former is true, I might well push through a set; if it’s the latter, I’d better stop.
I don’t mean this to be a blog about ‘how to lift with a chronic pain condition.’ Bodies are different, and each condition requires a unique, fine-tuned approach. Consult your doctor.
And when your doctor tells you nothing’s wrong, except maybe don’t lift (or write, or play your instrument) for a few months or forever; listen to yourself.
Navigate how much pain you can take. Decide how much is ‘worth it,’ whatever that means for you. I don’t know if there is any ‘how.’ I’m just figuring it out by trial and error.
I went to physical therapy this summer. They had me bend rubber bars, and squeeze spring-loaded grip strengtheners, and play with putty. By the end, I was a lot better at those activities. I could bend really hard rubber bars. But typing still hurt.
Eventually the physical therapists told me that they hadn’t solved my problem, and sent me away. I spent a while processing the fact that three months of appointments hadn’t actually helped — maybe they’d alleviated something, but the slow decline hadn’t stopped. During that processing, I went back to the gym, just in case lifting hadn’t damaged anything.
And found that I could do more pull-ups than before.
What did that mean? I dunno. Every test I’ve taken reports that my body is normal, just in pain. There’s no permanent damage machines can record. And for the moment I’ve decided, screw it, I like lifting heavy objects!
Come fall, I went back to setting myself workout plans, pushing through a lot of pain, and allowing myself to mentally disengage from it. I stop when it hurts too much. I have concrete goals for squats, which don’t rely too heavily on hands or wrists, but my goals for other lifts are more flexible. I don’t need to push to a certain number. Though I’d like to bench press my body weight, eventually.
During this unholy process, I’ve gotten a lot better at listening to myself. One example is that I don’t always force myself to do more-painful exercises, say push-ups, just because a workout plan demands it. Instead I’ll substitute with planking or dumbbell rows, which leave my upper arms and body sore, not just my wrists. I’ve also made a habit of having decent form.
I’ve gotten better at working out with friends, saying, “Let’s do this workout plan together. I might skip certain sections.” Then generally I don’t skip the sections, but I have to establish, to myself, that I’m allowed to.
I’m allowed to, I tell myself, and whoever I’m working out with will not think I am weak or lazy. No one in the gym will think that, because the people in the gym don’t know what workout plan I’m following or deviating from. Even if they cared, it wouldn’t matter.
Generally these little worries sit at the back of my head, because most of me is just an animal, glorying in the fact that I’ve squatted many pounds some inches down and then some inches up again.
I signed up for a PE weightlifting class this It wound up not working with my schedule, which I only realized after the first class. The first class, I came in telling myself that nothing was a competition and everyone understood that. All of us were there to learn. Still I was nervous that I’d feel terrible if I couldn’t do some lifts, when everyone would know I was sitting something out.
But when we started stretching, I remembered for the umpteenth time that I do know my body. I leaned deeply into lunges, felt various muscle groups complain that I’d been sitting all day. I let myself fall into easing out the kinks and knots. Knowing how to do that felt good. Feeling myself limber up and prepare for the workout helped me remember why I was there, why I keep coming back, even though it wasn’t easy.
It doesn’t get easier. You just get stronger. And my insecurities might not vanish, but they’ll shrink. Already they are much quieter than they were one year ago.
When I was fourteen, I made a policy that I wouldn’t bully myself when actively working out. I was, at the time, a lot more fond of bullying myself. But I knew that creating a positive feedback loop around exercise was important; I’d be more likely to work out a second time if I hyped myself up the first time around.
Over time, my mindset became healthier, and I found I had to remind myself of that policy less and less. The thoughts I silenced weren’t as biting, and they grew to be fewer and farther in between. I still stick to the habit of shutting off negative self-commentary during workouts, though often nowadays I’m telling myself to be less cocky.
P.S. I use this site for plans, recommended to me by Petey, though there are many options out there on the web!