I am a massive couch potato (my hobbies are “reading,” “the Internet,” and “cooking,” and I have found ways to do the last one sitting down), and come from staunchly thick-legged German stock on my mother’s side and gravy-loving southerners on my father’s side, so, I’ve never been what one might term “sporty.”
But I also love skinny jeans and knee high boots and the willowy athleticism of yogis and dancers, and this year – finally a few years out of college, more steadily employed, in a supportive relationship, it occurred to me that there were things about my health worth preserving (and preventing). Heart disease runs in my family, as well as diabetes, high cholesterol, and stress and fatigue related disorders – all of which have prevention linked with regular cardiovascular activity.
So, I started working out. At first I was just doing random workouts on Netflix Instant – bootcamp! yoga! Salsa dance party! But then a few other Persephoneers started doing Jillian Michaels’ 30-Day Shred, and I thought, that looks so cool.
So I tried it and the first five days I really loved. I felt like I was getting stronger, my endurance was improving, I felt a dramatic upswing in my mood and wasn’t having weird gastrointestinal problems when I drank milk in my coffee (a side benefit I did not anticipate at all). I had so much energy I had difficulty getting to sleep. I took my first weekend since I started off, intending to go back for day six the following Monday. I slept through my alarm on Monday, so resumed on Tuesday of this week – and the terrible happened.
I was only a few pushups into the first set of pushups in the Level One workout when I felt a horrifying, sharp pain in my right-side lower abdominal muscles. Yes, I apparently had muscles under my spare tire, and apparently they were on fucking fire. The pain crippled me; I could complete the leg and arm exercises for the rest of the workout, but could not stand to do crunches, could barely pick myself up off the floor when I was down there for weights or ab work at all. It was horrible.
So I Googled the issue, certain that I had just been doing the exercise wrong for the first time or that this tearing sensation is normal in people who actually work out from time to time.
It wasn’t normal. And there were quite a few alarmist stories out there about hernias. Since I don’t have medical insurance (as I’m in the middle of a temp-to-hire contract at the moment), I was panicking, thinking, oh God, a hernia. They have to operate on those. What the hell am I going to do?
Well, looking a little deeper into the Googles, I was assured that if it was a hernia, I would not have been able to stroll blithely the half mile to the train 40 minutes after my injury, and would hardly be moving. (See Nick Offerman’s wonderful portrayal of Ron Swanson suffering a hernia on Parks and Recreation for how a Real Man deals with hernia pain.) What more likely happened, several sites reported, was that, because my abs were terribly weak, they were being worked in ways to which they were not accustomed, and this probably caused some very minor tearing. (Minor, they say, because of how otherwise fine I seemed to be.) They cautioned anyone in this situation not to keep doing the damn pushups but to do other exercises to increase abdominal strength while the muscles healed: regular crunches should be fine from here on out, provided I listen to my body and stop when it says STOP!
I assure you, if this is a situation you’re in, your body will tell you loud and clear.
Another exercise that imitates a lot of the strength building push-ups offers without ripping your abdominal muscles in half are planks. Yes, I know, planking is an obnoxious half-dead-already Internet fad but if you do a quick YouTube search of “how to do planks” you’ll see it’s also a challenging exercise.
Mostly, I’m learning that you can’t just barrel your way into exercising all gung ho without testing the water first. In order to behave strong, you have to build strength; it’s not just an arbitrary ability to lift heavy things. Strength is what gives your body support and allows you to perform athletically in a safe and consistent manner, avoiding injury and preserving your body’s well being. I didn’t really get it before I started working out, but now that I do, I’m glad that – even if it had to come with some yelp-worthy muscular injury to begin with – I’m learning how to listen to my body now.