Dialing Up the Intensity

At the end of November, I returned home from a second successful family vacation. I say “successful” because I was able to walk so much better than I had in the past. I owe this to the fact that I had added stationary bike and lunges to my exercise regime. With the bike, I had built a lot of balance and control in my lower leg movement. With lunges, I had strengthened my glutes, quadriceps, and hamstrings. These exercises combined to improve my speed and balance. Moreover, I no longer feared falling, as I could easily spring back to my feet.

Now that I was back, I had half a year before I would travel again. I wanted to use this time to increase the intensity of my rehab again. My body was progressing exponentially. Instead of being drowsy for the first few hours of my day, I was alert and raring to get to the gym. No longer did I need to shower to wake myself up or climb back into bed for a power nap. I could sit on the couch and pet Mary, secure in the knowledge that I could get downstairs for my ride with thirty minutes to spare.

Being in the lobby so early held several advantages. First, I was guaranteed that someone could wake me up if I dozed off. This would make it impossible to miss my ride. Second, since there was a restroom in the lobby, I could go a couple of times before I got on the bus. This would alleviate my worries about incontinence. Third, I would be ready to go if the bus arrived early. From my days working at UPS and Fed EX, I had always been cognizant of keeping drivers on schedule. If a driver wanted to make up time on her route, she could do so by leaving early with me.

When the bus finally arrived, I would invariably step up with my left leg. That way, my workout would begin from the moment I started my trip. Once on the bus, I would refuse help with my seat belt. I would reach down and hold the buckle end with my stroke affected hand. Then I would use my right hand to lower the arm rest and buckle the seat belt. Next I would pull my right hand to the safety bar at the front of the bus. Pulling my body backwards, I would stretch my left arm for the whole ride. When we pulled up to the gym, I was wide awake and stretched.

At the gym, I was now trying to dramatically increase my leg strength. On leg press, I was pushing myself hard. For over a year I had just been working out with the weight of the sled. I wasn’t really experiencing a lot of gains in strength, but I think fear of failure was holding me back. In October, I added ten pounds and hoped for the best. I was able to do this ten times. So I started doing several sets with it each time I did leg press.

These sets were very easy for me, so I decided to start going up five pounds a week. I was surprised at how my body took to this. I had expected my gains to continue to be very modest. On the contrary, it was like I had never stopped lifting leg weights. Since my right leg hadn’t been damaged, I didn’t feel the need to challenge it yet. I would start each set by using both legs for the first five reps. After five reps, I would drop my right leg and just push with my left leg for ten reps.

This was exhausting, but it was also empowering. When I stood, I found myself no longer leaning to my right. I found that I could lift my left leg much higher. When I walked, I could feel my hamstrings and glutes flex. I no longer had to think about lifting my toes with every step. My gait narrowed; my steps were sure. In the gym, I became more confident about carrying my weights to the machines. I didn’t need my cane or guide hands. I knew I wasn’t about to fall.

Eventually I was able to lift a 45-lb plate with my left leg. My goal became to lift two plates. In order to accomplish this, I decided that I should do leg weights four times a week. I also decided to add squats to my lunge days. In addition to helping me build power, this would make bending down to pick something up less threatening. So the next day I did lunges, I committed to three sets of squats.

I had no problem setting and resetting my feet. I ducked under the bar. Gripping the bar, I practiced shooting upward. Then I went down. When I pushed upward, I could feel thrust through my calves. My toes felt a little unstable, still I drove the weight all the way up. I did this for ten reps. As I completed each rep, I imagined that I would soon have complete control over all the muscles of my lower leg. I did two more sets, trying to feel my calves and toes flex every time. When I was finished, I walked out of the gym, lifting my left foot effortlessly as I went.

As I mastered leg exercises, it would be important to start focusing on my arm. I noticed one day that there was a hand bike machine at my gym in Roseville. Hand bike was something I had only done a few times after being released from the hospital. But the few times I had done had been very productive. So I decided that it would be a great exercise to start doing regularly.

After a couple of times, I established a regular pattern. I would sit down on the seat and adjust it until I was as close to the pedals as I could be. Even at this distance, my arm didn’t stretch far enough for my back to rest against the back of the seat. My arm and shoulder were tight, but there was no longer any pain associated with trying to work them. At first, I had a problem with my grip. No matter how firm a grasp I had on the handle, my left hand would slowly slide down it. I would have to stop every couple of minutes to adjust my grip. There were several times when I wanted to try using just my left hand, but it was too hard to turn the hand pedal.

Then one day, I decided to try a different method. I began by using both hands to pedal. After five minutes, I felt like my left shoulder was nice and loose. So I dropped my right hand and only pedaled with my left. My RPM slowed down precipitously, but was still above five. I pedaled hard to try to keep it near ten. I tried extend my arm and my shoulder to drive the pedal forward with every cycle. My arm wasn’t about to completely straighten any time soon,but maybe it would after a year of doing this exercise continuously.

Once I hit five minutes of single arm pedaling, I started using both hands again. Not only was this ridiculously easy now, but I was now able to sit back farther. My RPM increased to over 40. I could have kept up this pace indefinitely. My shoulder was extremely loose now. After five minutes, I decided that it was time to work my right arm again.

This time, I tried to focus on my triceps. Not thinking about my shoulder, I tried to will my arm forward while in the overhand part of the cycle. As I pulled the pedal back towards me, I tried to let my back and shoulder do the majority of the work as opposed to my arm. Unlike before, this time using a single arm really felt like work. Maintaining the pace wasn’t as important; I just wanted to keep moving. If it felt like hard work, my arm was getting stronger.

After five minutes, I started using my right arm again. I used both hand in tandem as I pedaled through a two-minute cool down. When I was done, it didn’t feel like I had really worked that hard, but I had to wipe sweat from my head repeatedly. Even if my arm would never straighten fully, I knew it was entitled to this kind of regular exercise. Until I was able to work a more diverse training split, I would do hand bike this way every day I worked my Roseville program.

My workout ended the same way it began – with a walk up the steps of the bus. This time, my left leg almost collapsed from exhaustion. It was satisfying because it was due to hard work. If I had been doing nothing or wearing a brace, it would have been disappointing.

I pulled my hand forward on grabbed on to the safety bar. It was simple to get it there. I pulled my body back as far as it would go. As I talked to the driver, I felt my arm loosening and growing straighter. It was so empowering. He asked me how long ago I’d had my stroke and how often I worked out. I told him about my four year ordeal, adding that I see a little improvement every week. But that only happens if you’re meticulous and dedicated.

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