It was just over a year ago that I hurt myself.
I knew I shouldn’t have lifted that day, let alone chased a Personal Record on a workout that demanded speed and repetitions on a technical movement. The tightness in my lower back was evident and I told myself that I should just go home. Still, I hoped I could work out whatever nastiness I felt with some focused stretching. Starting with my ankles, calves and hamstrings, working my way up to my core, back and shoulders, I stretched and restretched, hitting each movement at least twice. I rolled my lower back, my upper back, my thoracic spine over the hard plastic roller our gym had tucked away in the corner. I ran a hearty half-mile to get my oxygen going, my blood throttling. I pulled back on my fingers, bending the tops of my knuckles toward the lower part of my forearms, breaking up any tightness that stuck in my wrists.
I prepped myself mentally to accomplish the goal I headed to the gym with: to finish Grace in under two minutes, putting me in elite company with other competitive exercisers.
Grace is arguably the simplest of benchmark workouts. Load a bar at 135 pounds, clean and jerk it thirty times. Record your time, and typically ignore that most of your reps didn't exactly display olympic form.
There is little nuance and even less strategy, making it one of the truest tests of explosive strength and lactic threshold. As profoundly as it kicks your ass, Grace is relatively easy, especially when you can move a lot of weight.
At 6’ 4” and 260 pounds, my body is hardly ideal for anything involving endurance, nimbleness or gymnastic physicality. I can run a nine-minute-mile if I have the next day and a half to recover. I can string together three pull-ups, maybe. Forget muscle ups or toes to bar.
But when it comes to lifting heavy shit off the ground, I thrive.
I hit a few cleans with an empty bar, my back creaking with the explosion of my hips. I told myself to check in with my body at each passing rep, that as soon as I felt a tinge of actual pain, I would stop and live to lift another day.
But in the back of my mind, I knew there might not be another day. Our gym was in the throes of our annual Barbells for Boobs fundraising effort. It was an event made even more significant by the battle with breast cancer one of our gym friends, a woman named Kara, was in the trenches with at the time. With my wife and I slated to fly out the next morning for a long-delayed honeymoon, that was the day.
I loaded twenty pounds on the bar and convinced myself that I’d be fine. After a few 95-pound cleans, I felt a bit better. My back was still not as warm as I would have liked, but it’d have to do. I worked my way up the ladder, hitting single clean and jerks at 135, 155, 175 and 185. I stretched again and rolled my lower back between each rep. My back was as good as it was going to get and I again promised myself to listen to my body (which, at that very moment, I was actively ignoring). I thought of Kara, of the pain that must have been radiating through her at the very moment, her body overwhelmed by the chemicals of chemotherapy and the fear of the unknown. I told myself to stop being such a pussy, to get to the fucking bar and to break the two-minute barrier that had eluded me to that point.
The bright red numbers on the gym clock ticked down from ten as I chalked my hands and approached the bar. It hit zeros and I went to work.
One, two, three, four reps, all touch and go. My plan was to blast through the first ten, rest a few seconds, hit two sets of five and five, and finish with a steady and even-paced final ten reps. I was well on pace, probably a bit under my target time when I felt a shot reverberate through me and a searing pain radiate down my right leg.
I threw the bar off my upper chest and crumpled to the floor in pain, knowing exactly what was wrong. I had herniated a disc in my lower back once before and was experiencing the singular pain all over.
Dragging myself from the empty gym, I limped to my truck, cursing my thickheadedness, cursing the fact that somewhere in my mind, I knew all along that no matter how much I stretched or rolled or prepped, that this would be the final outcome.
Cursing the fact that I knew I should never have lifted that day.
Alas, I did and I fucked myself up to the tune of being sidelined for a then-indeterminate number of months. A major back injury isn’t a rolled ankle. It’s not a jammed finger or a twisted knee. A major back injury renders you all but useless, reminding you with every painful breath how interconnected your body really is. A twist of a foot reverberates through your hips. A lift of your arm results in a deep wince and the feeling of a hot fucking poker jammed into your back.
My doctor’s prognosis came as such: “These injuries are deep. When you feel like you’re ready, good and healed, and fit for the gym, wait another two months.”
She said it would be at least six months for me before I could be tossing meaningful weight around, likely another two to four after that until I would be back to my pre-injury weights. She prescribed a steady slate of stretches, many of which found me on all fours, lifting my legs like a dog at a hydrant.
In the ensuing days, I promised my wife (a health coach by trade and a major advocate of gym rat-ism) that I wouldn’t go near a weight until our unborn son was at least a few months old. At the time of my injury, she was six months pregnant and would be needing me to bend over and pick up our baby countless times in the coming months.
After a few months away from the gym and some quality time getting to know our son, I resigned to focus on low- and no-impact activities. Swimming, stretching, major core work and yoga eventually gave way to light bouts of racquetball, long and fast-paced incline walks and super light jogs. My time on the basketball court was limited to solitary shootarounds, draped in multiple sweatshirts to induce as much sweat as possible, sadly telling the pickup lifers that I’d have to pass on the next game. Soon I was on a football field, running cones, hitting sets of up-downs and working my way up to full-blown sprint workouts.
Pushups, situps and air squats followed yet I maintained a focus on core work and yoga that I had theretofore ignored as part of my regular workouts. Though the pain subsided, I could still feel tinges of tightness in my lower back when I pushed hard.
Now, ten months later, I am just getting back to the bar. A 135-pound power clean, formerly my warm-up weight, is a something of a struggle. I haven’t dared deadlift and my strict press has dropped by almost forty percent. Whereas ass to grass was never an issue for me before, my front and back squats find me barely hitting parallel.
Knowing that strength comes back ten times slower than it goes away doesn’t ease the frustration of ostensibly starting from the ground floor. It feels like I’ve never moved weight before.
But I’m at the bar. The roughness of its knotted knurling feels at home in my hands which have grown soft and callousless in the intervening barbell-less months and while the strength of my muscles is gone, the memory they possess remains.
Strength will come in time and when it does, I’ll smash the two-minute mark and I’ll do it for Kara, who is thankfully in recovery.
Until then, my focus is on form, on empty bars, on light, five-, ten- and twenty-five-pound plates. I stand above the bar, repeating the instructions so many weightlifting coaches have drilled into me over the years.
Fast elbows, straight back, open chest, drop quicker than the bar, breathe, push yourself under the weight.
And most important… listen to your fucking body.
Michael Venutolo-Mantovani, a writer and musician living Chapel Hill, North Carolina, is one of the few people on Earth who loves punk rock, creative nonfiction and Olympic weightlifting equally. Born and raised in New Jersey, he tries not to complain about the pizza down here too much.