As Spring came around, I took the change in weather to assess my fitness plan for the year. I knew I wanted cane use to be optional by December. That meant that I should be practicing walking around caneless outdoors after the weather turned nice, as I didn’t want to begin when the fall weather was rolling in. In order to be strong enough by summer, I needed to start conditioning my body immediately.
Since I was already walking around without my cane indoors, I figured the best thing to do was to add a degree of difficulty to my walks between workout stations at the gym. The obvious challenge would be carrying weights around more. I was moving some plates in place already, but that really entailed things like holding on to a machine while moving the weight from a rack onto a peg. What I needed to do was walk across the floor without holding onto anything. This would force me to work on my balance, and having to carry the weight would increase the difficulty.
The first place I tried this was at the gym where I do most of my upper body work. Seeing that the lat row machine was open, I walked over and laid my cane beside the machine. Then I carefully walked to the weight stack, all the time hoping I wouldn’t trip and embarrass myself. The easy part was bending down and picking up the 25-pound weight. As I stood up, I was surprised at how light it felt. I turned and walked back to the lat row machine.
When I got to the machine, I swung the weight up and pushed into place. I sat down and did a few sets. When I was done, I started stripping the weight off. Another member asked me if I wanted help. “Nah,” I told him. “I got this.” I proudly carried the load back to the weigh tree, trying to stay as centered as possible.
That successful experiment gave me a great deal of confidence. I began purposely planning my workouts so they would entail even more walking around with weights. The first few times carrying the weight around were like the first few times I tried walking around the building without my cane: I had to literally and figuratively learn to let go. The brace I was wearing was designed to stand up by itself’ and the ankle was hinged, so my foot could swing up but not down. I might stumble wearing this brace, but it was designed to make falling nearly impossible. It struck me that every time I walked across the weight room without my cane, I just kept reminding myself of this. This didn’t annoy me because I will have to concentrate and give myself mental prompts for at least a year after I stop using the cane.
Another body part I really wanted to start developing again was my chest. Before the stroke, I loved doing several different exercises every chest workout. In fact, I had been bench pressing when I suffered the stroke. I had been able to do flies, but having a severely bent wrist prevented me from pressing. I really missed the bench press. In addition to how much I enjoyed the exercise, being able to perform the activity that I was doing when the stroke was triggered would give me a feeling of overcoming the stroke.
I had tried forcing my wrist backward with my left hand, hoping to make it more pliable. However, my occupational therapist had explained that all forcing a body part to move would do was increase the corresponding tone. So I was stimulating an increase in the pressure that was causing my wrist to bend. Since that wasn’t a solution, I asked my doctor the inject my wrist the next time she injected me with muscle relaxer. After waiting for two weeks, I didn’t notice much of a difference. Even when I went to the gym and tried bench pressing, I wasn’t able to get my wrist to bend the way I needed it to. So I stopped trying.
That was in January. Since then, the staff had started stretching my shoulder, and I had formulated my plan to stop needing a cane by year’s end. I was on a quest to be able to use my shoulder and triceps by the summer as well. Therefore, it made as much sense to me to try to push my body to bench press. I would give these muscle groups three months to start responding to my exercise attempts.
The next time I went to the gym, I found an open machine and dragged a modified bench to it. I elevated it slightly and slid beneath the bar. I helped my left hand into position, so my hands were shoulder length apart. I pushed upward, squeezing with my left hand, and trying to make sure that my palm was absorbing the force. My left side was barely doing any of the lifting, but the point was to continuously force it to maintain correct positioning while the right side pushed the bar up and down. The day would come when the form was so natural that that side of my body could start engaging in the work too.
Another exercise I had gotten away from performing regularly was lat pulldowns. Before the stroke, I had made these a vital part of my regimen. They were fun to do and they really helped strengthen my back. After the stroke, I mostly used them as a way to stretch my left arm and shoulder out. These muscles suffered from such tight constriction that I barely had much range of motion. My right arm would start out higher and come down lower than my left. In addition to not maintaining proper lifting form, my back twisted while I attempted this, too. I tried several different methods to correct my form. When none of them seemed to work – at least without a great deal of mental effort – I gave up lat pulldowns altogether.
With my renewed commitment to regaining upper body strength, I decided to rededicate myself to lat pulldowns. From the first time I sat down to do them, things were different. I reached up with my right hand and pulled the bar down. Where my left hand formerly wouldn’t stay open, it opened and slid along the bar into position. I concentrated on raising my left arm high at the start of the exercise, then pulling it all the way down. I also tried to lean a little to my right side, assuming that it would correct any deviation to my left.
The movement felt correct. I was even able to use more weight than before. Fearing that I could merely be feeling a workout high, I asked someone to shoot video of me doing the exercise. I carefully broke down all of my movements and body positions. Sure enough, my arm was moving a lot more. There was no curve in my spine. The exercise felt right because I was doing it the right way.
After four days of working out in a row, I awoke with my shoulder feeling stiff and sore. I wondered if I had mildly dislocated the joint, because it felt like it was drooping and I couldn’t lift my arm as high as I could remember. I could only lift my arm until it was level with my shoulder, but I felt like I had once been able to lift it to my ear. To make sure that I wasn’t deceiving myself, I looked through the photo gallery in my phone.
Sure enough, my arm reached no higher in previous photos than it did presently. It was probably just soreness. I recalled the first time I had lifted upper body weights years ago. The next day, my arms were so sore that I could barely lift them in the shower, so painful that I wondered how anyone could stand working out and facing this pain every day. But I let my friend guide me through a second workout that day. To my surprise, I wasn’t sore on the third day. Endorphins had taken over. There was no more pain after that.
I would learn, through years of trial and error, that no matter how long it had been since I’d stopped working out, I was never sore beyond the third day. Whenever I let myself get truly out of shape, the goal was to try to get back in the gym three days in a row. Since all muscle building since the stroke was revealing itself to be a slower process, I assumed the same would be true of soreness. It would linger for four or five days.
Prior to having the stroke, I would have worked a sore muscle group almost as intensely as I had the first day. This time, since I had already scheduled two days off, I allowed my shoulder to rest for two days. When I went back to the gym, I still worked the joint because I assumed that no use at all would be even worse for it, because it would lose all of the flexibility gains. I backed off to about 50% of the intensity I had been recently working at. Since I was scheduled to see a doctor for my quarterly Botox injections in four days, I could ask for diagnostic testing if it was still bothering me at the time.
During my last few days of shoulder exercises I had started experimenting with a greater variety of movements. One I settled on in order to isolate my left shoulder was side raises. I would begin by gripping a dumbbell in my left hand while resting it on my thigh. I would lift it up and out past my thigh, lower it as far as I could, then bring it back up. After a set of 12, I would bring it back up to rest on my thigh.
Not only were these raises good for my shoulder, but they also helped me with my entire arm. The first two times I did them, I was unable to get a lot of movement; as I lowered the weight, it would slide along my thigh. I could not straighten my arm much, so the exercise was generally about maintaining my grip. When the set was done, I could bring the weight back to my thigh, palm down. But I lacked the ability to rotate my wrist, so I would have to guide it with my right hand.
By the third workout, I was able to move the weight out and down without it touching my thigh. I was able to stretch my arm more, so I could feel my triceps working at the bottom of the movement. But even more dramatically, I could rotate my wrist to bring the weight to rest unaided on my thigh. It might have just been a 5-lb weight, but I was already making gains. Diligence was the only thing that was required now.
I was quickly losing my fear of walking around the weight room without my cane. Walking to and from the weight rack with a dumbbell in each hand was no longer an intimidating prospect. Before and after the exercise, I walked between my bench and the rack, concentrating on facing my target and not trying to move too quickly. I didn’t stumble or misstep. Bending down to pick up my cane was now an afterthought. And as I walked on to my next challenge, my legs felt light enough to run.