Are disabled athletes more mindful?

Barbells might be my new obsession. Remember my new shirt from the Fitness Tee Company in Michigan?

“Let’s hit the bar.”

I bought it after my first bench press with the barbell. I have always wanted to lift barbells. I’m fascinated with power lifters, and admire women like Meg Squats. She recently had a baby, but to stay on topic, here is one of her lifting videos: 5 things I wish I knew before I started lifting.

So when my trainer first put me on the bench with a barbell, it was in part to evaluate me. What he didn’t know was my secret burning desire to do it. And it did not disappoint.

Those first couple lifts I learned so much— about form, about using “power zones” in the body, and how a simple bench press uses most of your muscle groups. Fascinating. To see other people do it hints at the complexity, but to do it yourself is a true lightbulb moment to the depth of the interactive mechanics of the human body.

Today I did my first one plate barbell deadlift. Pretty much because my trainer said, “You could totally lift that,” and pointed to the barbell on the floor.

And I said, “I’ve always wanted to.”

You could totally lift that.

Dan, my personal trainer at Apex

So he let me deadlift the one-plate (on each side) barbell. I mimicked his form, which appeared to be underhand and it was a totally different kind of effort from the dumbbell deadlifts I previously completed. Those seemed very concentrated in the butt and legs, these included more of the body in a fluid way.

I did three in that first set and returned to my dumbbell circuit— 10 lb dumbbells in a swing style motion up to a press, 10 reps, followed by 10 bicep curls— before back to the bar. This was my cool down set of the day. And I did 3 more additional sets at the barbell— a set of five, another circuit with the dumbbells, then eight at Dan’s urging, another circuit, and he asked for another eight, but I tapped out after five.

I determined that I prefer underhand grip. Overhand grip puts too much stress on my lower back. Mixed grip is awesome, too, but I think that may require some work before I can up my weight. Mixed grip forces a certain instability and requires more focus on balance, which as a balance exercise would be stellar.

But what does any of this have to do with athletes and disability— the idea I propose in the title?

I have no athletic talent what so ever. My coordination is awful. I tend to walk “all done f*cky” when my health is poor or I am fatigued. I also deal with a myriad of aches and pains from walking crooked and associated issues with my S1 joint.

But my trainer often comments on my form, well, once he reminds me to point my toes for a squat or perfect that lean for a row. He’s even commented that I’m “built for that” while we do certain exercises. That once I correct manually what my brain can’t make my body do automatically, that I use a very deliberate form.

As I’ve mentioned before my weight training is very meditative for me because I am counting (something my trainer and the teenager were discussing because she said even with a decade of band she can’t count) and my trainer said I was good at keeping count, but that many of his clients needed assistance. I am also thinking about control in every motion of the exercise— from each body movement, to pace and control.

And on top of that, I try to note feeling and body function. Though that is touchy. In a “leg day” session a week or two ago, Dan said he noticed something strained about the lift I was doing. He wanted to know if it were legs or back bothering me.

I had to do an extra rep of the exercise to answer him. Because I hadn’t noticed.

“Ankles,” I answered. “My ankles are stiff and shaky today.”

All of this makes me think, and question, how those of us will a mild physical disability like cerebral palsy might be better athletes because we don’t have talent or physical advantages. But we know our bodies and we are accustomed to acknowledging the details of our bodies and their functions.

Does the fact that I am required to concentrate on every motion make me more prone to perform that motion closer to perfection than someone who can breeze through it without thinking about it?

Compelling idea.

Training Update: Finishing Week Three at Apex Training

My body turned to me as I went to my car after work today, and as I fiddled with the radio (calling up Natalie Merchant on Spotify singing Space Oddity), my body said to me,

“Jesus, woman, what are you doing? We need to talk.”

But seriously.

Let’s start at the beginning, shall we? But we can’t spend too much time on all this as it is 1:30 a.m. and my aching body craves sleep.

The teenager was up fairly early today so I suggested she and our almost 1-year-old pit bull/mastiff/black lab puppy walk with me to the gym, about 5 blocks away.

Now if you’re new here… I’m 46 years old, a former newspaper reporter. I have an amazing 17-year-old daughter. Her father and I separated two years ago but he lives nearby and is still an important part of our household. I have cerebral palsy. He has a club hand. I have recently started a quest to learn more about my body, restart my bodybuilding commitment (I was really into it six years ago) as an alternative to traditional physical therapy, and hopefully lose the 20 pounds I gained stress eating to cope with the toxic workplace of the last nonprofit I worked for.

So, the teenager, the dog and I walked up to the gym. F. Bean Barker is learning new manners everyday and the guys at the gym thought she was a beautiful dog.

And then the focus changed to leg day. Now, on upper body day I get to train like a normal person. On lower body day, my poor trainer has to balance my physical deficits with my desire to kick ass.

Or maybe I’m just as awkward both days, and I just never noticed.

Today was session six. It’s the last week of two sessions a week and next week we increase to three.

Please note: I have been in gyms lifting weights since college, which was about 25 years ago, and in recent years I’ve been in physical therapy to learn to walk, for balance, for the strain of my lumbar region caused by trouble with my S1 joint and my broken ankle. Every body is different. Every ailment or disability is different. It is a quest to balance what works for you, what your body needs and what hurts.

I firmly believe that nothing fixes the body like the right exercises. But for people with disabilities or health issues, it’s hard to recognize what pain you need to work through and what hurt is bad. As a weight lifter, I know muscle recovery pain. As a person with a disability, I often experience burning pain.

As a society, I feel like we invest so much money in medical tests, mental health, drugs, organic food, but we don’t want to pay for a trainer.

My trainer is getting to know me. He knows how to observe me. He asks questions about my mobility. We test exercises by going easy at first and adjusting them based on my performance.

And he reads me well.

There are times I can tell he’s afraid of pushing me too far and then I do the exercise and he makes it ten times harder because I surpassed his expectations. This makes him a good trainer because it means he’s testing my basic form and strength so I don’t get hurt. And he reads my body language to see how I’m doing— not relying on my words.

A good trainer has to push you out of your comfort zone. But he also has to make sure everything’s executed for best impact and in a way that you don’t get hurt.

I have to admit, I hated him a little today. But I also love his full body approach. But when he tells me to do sumo squats with a 15-pound dumbbell and my toes pointed out AND make sure my knees “follow” my toes… I don’t know whether to cry or punch him.

It’s the gym— both those feelings are valid.

But let’s examine the issue. My knees face in.

This means to perform the motion he has requested, I need to move one foot at a time carefully into position. I need to really concentrate on balance. As I move, I need to keep my head up, focus on stretching the knees to position in line with my toes (which is not the way they go) while holding a weight and trying not to fall.

I was dripping sweat by the end of this session— before he hands me a kettle bell to end the work out with kettle bells swings.

When I got home, I made a massive high protein vegan pasta. See me make it here (this can also be my official “before” video.)

I ate 90% vegan today. Only animal products I had were half and half for my coffee and a pack of beef jerky at work. I almost had iced tea with local honey but the teenager spilled it when I left it on the dog crate.

This was dinner:

Speaking of dinner— tonight at the Bizzy Hizzy my team competed in the Stitch Fix olympics. We won the gold medal in the egg toss. I was relieved they weren’t real eggs.

In other news:

  • I almost started editing William Prystauk’s latest novel in the Kink Noir series.
  • My Poppy Z. Brite books have arrived.
  • I hurt. I hope it’s the good hurt.
  • My friend Joan not only brought us old linens, but scored a cat carrier and animal crate at a yard sale.

Lower body & kitten bodies

Today marked my first lower body work out with Dan at Apex. I did something I rarely do and wore a little tennis style athletic skirt to the gym. I don’t like wearing shorts. There are two reasons why.

1. I honestly don’t like my flesh touching various surfaces: hot car leather, wooden chairs, the concrete if I sit on my steps, of course “thigh rub.” You get it.

2. But I also don’t like to see my lower body in motion. It’s a visual reminder of my physical issues.

So exposing my legs to a relative stranger was a way of me making myself vulnerable. But if Dan is going to monitor and critique my form, he can see my knees.

Lower body. I was so… not anxious, not scared. Maybe trepidation? We did pretty standard upper body exercises. Easy starting point. Dumbbells. I was happy with it. Very happy. (See more here.)

Dan brought his six-month-old son. What a happy, charming, beautiful baby. He didn’t mind seeing my knees.

And right away, Dan put me at ease. I’m impressed by the depth of his knowledge— my physical therapists have explained the same info to me so I know he’s done his homework on normal physiology.

Our exercises yesterday included a supported squat using some overhead ropes (that was amazing! I felt like I could move like a normal person. I could have done that all day.); some mild lifts with a plate that was like a full body deadlift, slowing stretching out the whole self; and some squats with a resistance band moving up and down from a bench. Many of these movements required great concentration on my part but I knew from past physical therapy that he was nailing it.

He apologized for not working me harder but he wants to focus on getting everything moving and flexible again so I don’t get hurt.

That is exactly what I need right now. I shouldn’t be working out hard. I just want to establish the habit, get my metabolism working again, and oil the machine, so to speak. I am so thrilled. Giddy.

And I walked slowly home with no falls.

As my rest period at home, I finally wrote the solicitation letter for FURR’s Coffee and Kittens pop-up cat café August 15 at Forks Community Center. The organization is working hard, my former employee and friend Janel and I are brainstorming away and reaching out to potential sponsors.

I hope to have FURR volunteers give five minute talks or demonstrations on various cat topics: TNR, basic cat care, how much cats can reproduce, declawing and cat scratching behavior, working with hissy spitties, cat body language, trimming nails, seniors for seniors, why kittens aren’t easy.

Activities will include live kittens in play pens to cuddle, cat story time (I will read cat stories), and musical chairs with cat-themed music. We hope to have some raffles— the chance to name some kittens, hopefully some prizes. And cat merchandise for sale.

And of course refreshments.

Did I mention live kittens????

The teen and Bernadette

Owning my personal fitness

It’s Monday. And wow is it a Monday!

Before I continue, let me get the usual disclaimers/introductions out of the way.

Like many people, I had a rough 2020– I’m actually grateful to Covid for slowing down my life and allowing me to survive some severe emotional stress that caused me to have high blood pressure, develop a bad comfort eating habit and end up anemic. I had a difficult job experience, lost that job, and now work in the Stitch Fix Bizzy Hizzy and deal with my daughter’s crazy dog, my stubborn cockatoo and a bunch of foster cats. I’m forty-something, a single mom, 20 lbs overweight and struggling to understand my body, specifically my cerebral palsy.

My day started with chasing the “pig pony” dog Bean (we call her that because she snorts like a pig and is the size of a small pony) around the neighborhood because she decided to jump the fence and ignore her recall commands.

I’m in my kitchen now, eating a public-school issued bowl of Cheerios with an out-of-date white milk leftover from the teenager’s recent school dates. I met with my trainer today (and my friend Janel who is helping me set up the FURR Coffee and Kittens event at Forks Community Center August 15).

I headed up the hill to Apex Training to meet with my trainer Dan. I finally remembered to ask Dan if it’d be okay if I wrote about him and our work together and he said yes, so I no longer have to be sneaky.

I’m comfortable with Dan. He’s laid back but he knows his stuff, understands the movements and the physiology, and keeps a careful eye without making you feel stared at or inadequate.

He almost seems apologetic that we’re going slow and using 5 and 10 pound dumbbells and not lifting at a pace that makes it a cardiovascular event. But that’s what I love! The anemia, when combined with the cerebral palsy especially, makes it so easy to get tired and clumsy and hurt oneself.

Today, we did some upper body work. 30 minutes, slow and steady. 3 sets of 2 exercises each. Pretty standard way to set up a 30-minute work out hitting the triceps, biceps, chest and upper back.

Five years ago when I did this, I did a lot of cardio, did calisthenic ab exercises every day and did ten to fifteen minutes of lifting focusing on just one muscle (i.e. biceps or triceps) not the whole group.

Like I said, I know what to do, but I’m a person and people get lazy. I need Dan right now, as I’ve said, for several goals:

  1. Restart the consistent habit of training.
  2. Increase energy.
  3. Improve strength, flexibility and agility.
  4. Build muscle and tone body.
  5. Lose weight.

Many of us tell ourselves we can save money and do it ourselves but the reality is there is a big difference between we are able vs. the commitment of we will.

I fully intended to eat a banana every day to get more nutrients into my body as I recover from anemia. Did I?

Does it look like I did?

But back to the training… I find the actual activity of lifting, when I am working with a class facilitator or fitness trainer, meditative. Everyone should focus on their movements when strength training, but I really have to with my disability. Focus is required to make sure all the body parts move as they should. I have to count the reps, remember to breathe, and control the motions all at the same time.

When you are doing all of that, your mind empties. And you just flow with the movements of your body and the feeling in your muscles.

Like today was “oh hello triceps, are you still under all that arm jiggle?”

When I left Dan I was sweating. I was limber. I felt invincible. I was walking home reminding myself how powerful I am.

I fell.

I lost my balance on the sidewalk and just fell about half a block from my house.

My right arm is scraped from the back of my shoulder almost to my wrist. The upper shoulder stings the worst. It’s been two hours and it still stings. I also bounced on my hip and upper thigh— so that is already starting to bruise.

I called out from work tonight. Based on where I’m at in my menstrual cycle and the summer sun, I’m going to blame anemia for this lapse in balance especially since all day yesterday I had no energy. Anemia is awful. Anemia with a mobility disorder is a nightmare.

But this is why I’m working out.

I own my weaknesses. Let’s fight!