Starting Strength Set Me Free


“Thanks, I got this,” I say to the well-meaning gentleman
offering to lift my bag into the overhead bin. A year ago, I would
have looked around pleadingly for help, but not today. I am a
66-year-old woman who thought, up until 6 months ago, that I would
spend my time sitting squarely on my butt, in pain, watching life
pass me by in a prison of aging. My life has changed utterly and
completely. Starting Strength has set me free.

I retired from teaching
just a few years ago, full of hopes and dreams for traveling,
gardening, hiking, skiing, skating – all of which require physical
fitness. My dreams were shattered when I developed mysterious pain in
my hip. Despite “physical therapy,” chiropractic, injections, and
medications, the chronic, acute pain continued to worsen, causing me
to limp. It also kept me from sleeping, as the pain loved to rear its
ugly head in the wee hours. I had even fallen a few times. My life
was reduced to watching others doing what I wanted to do, sitting
“squarely on my butt,” and, regrettably, asking, “honey, could
you pick up some Doritos?” I grew weaker day by day.

After almost 2 years of
this, I was sent to the Orthopedic Surgeon. We know that to a hammer,
all the world is a nail, and so, looking at the MRI image of a labral
tear, he told me, “The only option you have is a hip replacement.
You will not get better. Don’t bother going to PT anymore. Maybe
you should wait a while because the surgery only lasts for 15 years.
Make an appointment for injections. Here is a scrip for pain meds.
Come see me in 3 months. Get lots of rest and stay off it.” He
might as well have told me: just go home and wait to die.

You see, it was very
hard for me to accept physical vulnerability. All my life I have been
extremely active; I would even say I was a badass. As a young girl, I
was a competition figure skater. Later, I took up alpine skiing, and
moved from the east to Colorado, where I skied the steep and deep of
the Rocky Mountains. In the summers, I loved to water ski between the
buoys, hike “14ers,” and ride a dirt bike over 10,000-foot
mountain passes. I never trained for any of this, I just did it. It
was fun.

As time went on, I
realized I needed to prepare for my financial future, and I became a
teacher. While I remained active, I no longer participated in
demanding sports. Walking replaced hiking, and teaching the little
ones to read forced me to sit squarely a great deal of my time.
Slowly, imperceptibly, I lost the physical capability I had always
had. Now I am ready to retire, and I realize that I am overweight and
in pain. I did not realize that I was weak as well.

After scraping myself
up off the floor, I started to embrace reality. OK, so you need hip
replacement surgery. What are you going to do about it? Well, if I do
need surgery, it would behoove me to get in shape, and maybe even
(cough) lose a little weight, beforehand. So, we joined the fitness
center at the state university.

We went regularly,
husband and I. We did the machines, and then went to the pool so I
could do the “aquacise” given to me at my last PT visit. I liked
splashing around in the water, and it gave me a bit of relief from
the pain. The machines, however, were like detention in high school.
Not only were they boring and tedious, but I found the process of
spraying and wiping (with a used cloth rag) to be just, well, yuk.
I persevered, however, because that was all I had.

One day, while I was
waiting my turn to do my 20 reps on the knee extension machine (it
was, after all, “leg day”), I was looking at the vacant barbell
racks on the other side of the room, and my mind drifted back in
time. I have, for many years, been a reader of the Instapundit. Glenn
Harlan Reynolds has posted many of the articles Mr. Rippetoe has
written for PJ Media, and I had read a few. I even took up squatting
for a time – albeit with some pretty purple hand weights. The Blue
Book seemed a mystery beyond my comprehension, however.

An Athlete of Aging working on the single most useful exercise in the weightroom.

Back at home, curious about the barbells, I went to the Starting
Strength website and began to click around. Not long in, I came upon
Dr. Sullivan’s Barbell Training is Big Medicine. My heart racing, I
read it twice. I hopped over to Aasgaard and bought The Barbell Prescription. In the forums, I found the list “Rip’s Articles,”
and read them all. Now I am hooked. Could this be the help I was
seeking?


I was profoundly
moved at reading Rip’s narrative about Dr. Coleman. I took Rip’s
advice: “So, read carefully my important lesson: The most
significant loss in physical capacity with advancing age is strength
– the ability to produce the force of muscular contraction.”

It all became so clear.
I was weak, and this is why I was in pain. It wasn’t because I was
not stretching enough, or had not done enough exercises on the big
ball, or even that I had not been running far or fast enough. My
weak, deconditioned muscles were unable to support my joints, so they
rubbed and clanged in ways they were not meant to. Loss of strength
had seeped into all the corners of my life and had made it a
miserable place.

Rip goes on: “All the
other physical problems associated with age – the loss of muscle
mass and balance and bone density, the increased risk of diabetes,
and the much higher risk of physical injury – are related to either
the loss of strength itself or the process by which this loss
occurs.” There you go. He was singing my song.

And so I would begin my
NLP the next day. No more machines. I would take Sully’s
prescription and get under the bar. God help me. Husband thought I
was bat-shit crazy and stuck with the machines. He did spot me to
make sure I did not kill myself.

Where to begin? How do
you use the rack? How much does the bar weigh? How much can I lift?
We live in a remote area close to the Canadian border, and I could
sooner fly to Wichita Falls than I could drive to the nearest SS
Coach. I asked the very kind, very buff young man from Cameroon who
worked at the desk to show me around the rack and plates. I read the
Blue Book, and I watched Rip’s videos over and over. I started.

I learned what it means
to do the program. At first, I had to use the lightweight aluminum
bar they kept locked in the office. The AD told me I could use it,
but to make sure I put it back because the “meatheads” would
overload it and break it. I was squatting 15 whole pounds! Of course,
the lightest plates are 2.5 pounds, and I certainly was not able to
go up 5 pounds each workout. So we got a set of microplates. Most
days it is only half a pound, but I always go up. I got the shoes,
and I keep a paper logbook every training session. Early on, husband
saw the light and joined me. Now, we watch and coach each other.

wallace hiking with her dog

As Athletes of Aging, we cannot take a hike in the woods for granted. We must train for it.

Even a few short weeks into NLP, I noticed changes in my body. Moving
through my day got easier. I began to take walks in the woods,
something I had dearly missed. More workouts passed, and I started
going outside to work in the yard. And then one day, I stood up and
did not feel the usual sharp pain. Could it be?

As of this writing, I
have been “doing the program” for 6 months. I can tell you every
single aspect of my life has changed. Most importantly, my hip pain
is 95% resolved, and I no longer limp. This is a major life change.
Starting Strength has set me free.

I have freedom of
movement. I go through my day, “interacting with the environment,”
feeling strong and capable. Open a heavy door? No longer do I wince
thinking of the hand, elbow, and shoulder pain that would bring. I
plant my feet, and use my power to pull the door, inviting the
younger ones to pass first. I can walk briskly up a hill in the woods
and keep up with the dog. I can push a wheelbarrow around the yard. I
can figure skate. When I go to Lowe’s, I no longer need to wait for
a “Code 50” – Lowespeak for a weak old lady who cannot lift a
bag of mulch or even a can of paint. I can do it myself.

I am set free from the
tyranny of dieting. Caloric restriction, Keto, intermittent fasting,
Noom, I have done it all. Dieting is misery. More muscle mass means
the need for more calories. My concern now is whether I have eaten
enough, especially enough protein. It is pure bliss. I have also been
set free from the scale, that nasty daily reminder that you are a
failure because your weight went up. Now I know that number means
nothing, and so I have put the scale away. I can look at myself and
see that I have gained muscle mass. Yeah, there is a bit extra around
the middle, but nowhere near what it was. And, who knows, that bit
might help me out should things get dicey one day.

I am set free from
lower back pain. I must have had it for 20 years, and just became
accustomed to the constant, nagging, low-grade ache. Everyone has it,
right? Not anymore. My lower back is strong enough to do all the
important things I need it to do to get through my day. Thank you,
deadlift.

I am set free from
having to think constantly about my “core.” “Let’s do some
core work. You need core strength to do this.” Yoga, Pilates, all
the things. I have spent more time doing core work than I can tell
you, and it never seemed to make any difference.

wallace skating

Balance? Perhaps, but above all, figure skating requires strength.

I am set free from the detested treadmill at the gym. As a skier and
hiker, there is nothing more soul-sucking than having to get on that
monstrosity and watch the timer go round for 45 minutes of “aerobic
training.” That is my idea of one of Dante’s circles – pick
your favorite. I am also set free from long hours at the gym: 3 x 5
of squats, deadlifts, bench press and overhead press just do not take
that long. No more sets of 20! Freedom!

I am set free of
avoiding my reflection in the mirror. I look pretty good now – I
have the strength I need to keep my spine straight, my shoulders down
and back, and my belly supported. My clothes fit me and I like how I
look and feel in them.

I am set free from
having to stay home. We are planning to travel to Africa soon. This
means walking distances, a long flight, and, yes, putting my own bag
in the overhead bin. I can do all of it because I have trained to do
it.

You see, I have become
an “athlete of aging.” “When are we lifting?” is the central
question when we make our schedule. Lifting comes first, but it is
not onerous or a chore. We look forward each session to filling out
our logs, calculating the plates, and accomplishing a PR (the beauty
of NLP – you get that every time). I try and spread the word with
friends my age, particularly when they comment about my appearance
and vitality. They listen, but few of them have actually gotten under
the bar. Maybe they are incredulous, or think it is too hard or too
dangerous, or just too weird. Or they have a bad back or a bum knee
or…

Rip was right (what
else is new?). He dares all of us to follow the program: “Do it
exactly as written. Do not add your helpful WODs, curls, and running.
Do it without deviation for a minimum of 6 months. It’s only 6
months. You have 6 months to improve every aspect of your physical
existence, right? Just try it. Just this one time. See what happens.”

I took the dare, and
indeed in 6 months every aspect of my physical existence has
improved. Profoundly. I can only imagine what the next 6 months will
bring, and all the months and years after that. I imagine I will
remain a novice for a very long time. I look forward to enjoying the
good health that being strong has brought me. Starting Strength has
set me free.  


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