A few days ago, my wife asked if I’d go to the gym with her and help her with a few things. It’s been literally years since she’s stepped inside a gym, with or without me, and needless to say I was more than surprised (and no, the missus looks nothing like the girl in the image above, or any of the other ladies in the photos on this blog post).
A little background.
She had a hip replacement about 15 years ago. A number of injuries, starting in childhood and culminating in the early morning hours of January 1, 2000, served to erode the cartilage in one hip down to zero. She researched other treatment options, but a standard hip replacement was the only viable solution.
She’s a woman of “a certain age,” which means, in part, her hormones are all out of whack. She also has a number of other issues that have her going through a chiropractic program. Additionally, decades of repetitive motion injuries have left her with a very weak grip.
Since an artificial hip means no running forever, she walks a lot. She also does a combination of exercises recommended by the chiropractor and those she learned about from this DVD set plus the related book.
She has a lot of discipline, and in fact, she can be very focused on anything she sees as a goal, even to a fault. This sometimes means that if she has a goal for me, it’s very important that I go along with it (hence all the dietary supplements I take).
So when she asked if I would go to the gym on Sunday instead of Saturday, and help her out with some exercises, I was, as I’ve already said, surprised, but also very pleased. With my son David moving on and no longer coming to the gym with me, it was nice to be able to share one of my passions with the woman I married over 33 years ago.
But I assumed she had specific exercises in mind and wanted me to spot her on or something.
We had intended to be at the gym right when it opened at 8 a.m., but when she got out of bed this morning and made an exclamatory statement, I looked at the clock and saw it was about 25 minutes to 8 already.
We decided to shoot for 9.
When we got to the gym, she wanted to start out with 20 or 25 minutes of cardio, so I figured I could cut back from my usual 40. After I got off the elliptical, I couldn’t find her, so I figured I’d take in a few sets of spine-supported crunches. She showed up before I could get started, and this is when things got interesting.
She wanted me to design a beginning weight training program for her so she could regain some strength. I realized I’d have to put something together on the fly, but its gave me an opportunity to introduce her to free weights.
I immediately thought of squats. No, not with a barbell, but either bodyweight or really light dumbbells. But her hip replacement won’t let her go anywhere near a full range of motion for squats, so we settled for the regular leg press machine, plus everything else that follows.
She wanted a routine that would work her whole body, but didn’t want to do any more than a total of 5 separate lifts. Here’s what happened.
Leg Press Machine 20, seat setting 8
Cable Low Row
Dumbbell Bench Press
Bent Over Kettlebell Pulls
Since this was the first time she’s been back to the gym in quite a long while, we had to experiment to find the right starting weight for each of her lifts. I figured going light would be a lot better than trying to add too much of a load too soon. Also, I started her out on a standard 3 sets with 10 reps for each set, not working to anywhere near failure.
Like I said, the leg press machine is the closest thing she’ll ever get to a squat, so it’ll have to do. Since that leaves only 4 more exercises to program in, I was thinking as fast as I could about what would fit the bill and still be safe.
The cable low row seemed the logical selection for her upper back and biceps. She actually did more sets than what I recorded, but I only wrote down the weight she said was “about right”.
Barbells are out of the question at this stage of the game, so I introduced her to dumbbell bench presses. Her form was terrible, reminding me that people who watch me lift probably think the same thing. But in this case, I was there to help. 5 pound dumbbells were a tad light but 7.5 was her current limit.
I kept trying to think of what she could do that was more or less like a deadlift or rack pull. Kettlebells seemed the answer. I did record our experimenting with weight, and 15 pounds ended up being the correct load for her. I kind of invented this, so I don’t know if it’s a real thing that other people do. If anyone knows, clue me in (I’ve since done a search…deadlifts with kettlebells is a thing).
Basically, I had her bend over at the waist with the kettlebell in hand, as if she was going to do a straight-leg deadlift, and then pull up to the lockout. I don’t think she’s ready to pull its off the floor yet. This gave me a great opportunity to watch her spine, and she tends to hunch over curving it forward.
One thing that surprised me is that it’s incredibly difficult to coach someone on how to fix this if you don’t know what you’re doing. I’m sure an experienced trainer could have managed in a flash, but it was hard to know what she should do to return her spine to neutral and maintain it throughout the pull maneuver.
But then, I had an idea.
The squat rack was free and I asked her to watch me do a back squat with just the 45 pound barbell. No chance of getting hurt, and it would let another set of eyes see what I’m doing.
True enough, she confirmed that even looking down and trying to do everything right, my spine was all over the map. I tried to describe what a neutral spine is supposed to look like throughout the lift, as if a broomstick were attached to the back of my head, back and butt.
From what she described, it seems that I start out curving my spine forward (which surprised me), and then as I sink down into the squat, my lower back curves inward into an extension. That, I figured out given my current tweak, but what I couldn’t comprehend was how to fix it. From a standing position, if I tuck my butt in hard, I achieve a neutral spine before actually starting the squat.
As I went down into the squat, I tried different angles with my head, but frankly, having no experience on what to look for, the missus couldn’t help much. She later suggested that maybe I could hire a trainer, just for one session, to coach me in correct squat mechanics.
I don’t know if that’ll go anywhere, but I guess we’ll see. Guess it’s zercher squats for me tomorrow. Has me a tad worried about my rack pulls, though (It occurred to me too late, that I also could have had her watch me do zercher squats and rack pulls, just for comparison).
For her fifth and final exercise, I was going to have her do some seated shoulder presses with dumbbells, but she wanted something for her abs. I demonstrated spine-supported crunches to her, which are easy enough once you see them, and she shooed me away to do more cardio work, so I didn’t see how many reps she did per set.
She’s going to do this program a couple of times during the week, then next Sunday, we’ll go to the gym together again and I’ll do some more work with her.
I’m pretty sure I hit all the basics.
- Leg Press for quads, glutes, and hams.
- Cable Low Row for the lats, traps, and biceps (maybe rear delts).
- Dumbbell Bench Press for the pecs and triceps (maybe front delts).
- Kettlebell Straight Leg Pulls for the lower back/core and hams.
- Spine-Supported Crunches for the abs/core.
I didn’t try to push her and she wasn’t particularly wiped out by the end. Also, she only rested maybe 15 or 20 seconds between sets, so I know she was nowhere near the limits of her endurance. I do know she is still pretty weak, and the idea is to slowly introduce her back to resistance training so she can eventually build some strength (she used to lift back in the day, but only wiht weight machines).
I actually had a pretty good time, and I think she did too.
I went back and did another 20 minutes on the elliptical at a higher speed and more resistance just because I could. She finished her ab crunches and did some stretching and was over by the bulletin board killing time when I was done. I suppose I could have done my own crunches, which I neglected, but we’d been at the gym for 90 minutes and we have other things to do today.
Over the years, we’ve developed a diverse set of interests and we’re both pretty self-contained human beings, so we don’t often engage in a shared activity, particularly one where I am in control and she is the learner.
Not only did this feel good, it felt “normal,” if there is such a thing.
I don’t know if my wife will ever get to the point of lifting any significantly heavy weight, but if she can at least get a bit stronger, and especially if she learns to enjoy working with the weights, it’ll definitely be a path to improving her health.
It’ll also be something fun the both of us can do together.
Don’t limit your challenges, challenge your limits.