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Personal Lessons from Setbacks

Success, Training

You'‘ve been working hard, training hard, and following your diet.

Things seem to be going fine—great, even. But then, you get faced with an unforeseen setback. A major one. Maybe even a life-changing one. They happen.

It’s happened to me, that’s for sure, and later on I will talk about what was the biggest training setback in my life.

For as long as I’ve been an online fitness coach, I have routinely received letters from clients who will write me because he or she is now facing a long setback or layoff—which is fine and as it should be, because that is exactly when you should write your Coach!

They’ll often tell me they fear it means, “losing all their hard-won gains.” (Thankfully, this isn’t how the body works, as you will see below.) They are also depressed by the inescapable loss of their momentum, which had nothing to do with their effort or their motivation. It was just life getting in the way.

That is understandable. The key thing to remember is that attitude is everything. Just this year I’ve had a couple clients with long layoffs due to injuries requiring surgery and convalescence. They are both now back at it, and I have been impressed by their attitudes toward the whole scenario.

Listen, you can’t prevent all setbacks. When they happen, they happen. You can prevent some of them with smart training, but some things just come out of nowhere. It is all about how you handle them that matters. Setbacks do not have to mean total “stagnation and regression.” Setbacks present limitations, but these limitations can be opportunities, and I will show you several concrete examples of this.

Setbacks as Opportunity

Setbacks are a fantastic opportunity to learn about your body and yourself. The mature mind accepts what is, not what the ego wants. Again, attitude is everything. And yes, attitude adjustment can be itself a part of the learning experience.

Now that they’re back at it, they are appreciating their diet and training and the “opportunity” to hit ‘em again at full-strength. It’s easy to compare this scenario to the fully able-bodied people who write me who want the results, but they can’t string together a solid two weeks of diet and training consistency. I often wonder what they would be like if they lost the opportunity for results that they keep squandering for no good reason.

There are many reasons for long setbacks and forced layoffs: Illness, injury, variable life circumstances where maybe you have to take care of a sick or dying loved one. Real life happens and setbacks can be a very real element of a fitness lifestyle.

Let’s talk about setbacks due to injury. Any injury is a learning experience if you let it be one. It will teach you its lessons. In wanting to workout and exercise the muscles in spite of a painful limitation due to injury, you learn to focus and not abuse the injured area. An injury gives you an opportunity to learn something new about your body, and about your training. Sometimes this will be very slow, because at first you may have to stay away from training entirely, then ease back into it, and ease back in particular on your injured body part. This can be an excellent means of enhancing your biofeedback skills.

If an injury leads to an imposed layoff from training, as in a true setback, then it is an opportunity to learn a lot about your mind as well. There can be an upside to everything – even forced downtime.

My own major injury and setback

Back in 2000 I had two discs from my spine removed, and nothing to replace them.

This was because by the time I had the surgery the damage was just that bad, and several “chips” from my badly herniated discs had broken off and attached themselves to the nerves of my spine. The doctors got most of those pieces out, but they explained to me that touching a nerve root that way is a lot like putting angel hair pasta in boiling water, and watching them expand. The nerves grow that much, and in my back they were still extremely inflamed.

They explained that there was no way of predicting how my body would react to that. Our bodies are complex, our spinal columns especially so! I was told at one point that there was a chance I’d have to “learn to walk again.” Or, I may walk with a limp the rest of my life they told me. Or, I could heal. There really was no way to tell.

I was desperate for the surgery, let me tell you. What I remember most about the weeks and months leading up to the surgery was a lot of pain, then more pain. I had a lot of trouble walking, and this meant sometimes days at a time in bed.

Anything was better than this kind of pain; even walking with a limp would have been a worthy trade-off at the time.

When I initially hurt my back, I was big on the seminar circuit. Even though I had severely injured my back and knew it, I kept showing up for these seminars. Yes, I made it worse by doing so, partly because I always had to be the one doing the exercise demos. That should have been lesson number one for me. By the time I got a specialist appointment, and then had surgery scheduled, weeks had turned into months, and the damage had been made worse. By that time I could barely function, and the pain was 24/7.

By this time, I really couldn’t do very much physically—this is where the lessons truly began. While waiting for the surgery, which was still months away, I kept going to the gym and doing “something.” But this wasn’t a whole lot, let me tell you.

Sometimes it was one-legged leg extensions and one-arm pushdowns and the inner/outer thigh machine. Sometimes it was even less. I wanted to keep “showing up” at the gym, even if I couldn’t do anything that was really very effective.

I didn’t want to lose the discipline of slotting that time into my day and making it count for something. First, having that kind of routine and regimentation helped me with the rest of my day. Second, I didn’t want to have to re-learn the routine, or re-learn the discipline and effective time-management, especially if I was going to be able to return to my training regimen.

I kept the barebones skeleton time frames in for training, just so it remained part of my schedule. Even though I wasn’t really “working out” anymore, my mind kept to the regimen and the discipline of it. I found this to be a huge benefit later on.

Keep in mind, I was never embarrassed about what I could or couldn’t do at the time. I listened to my body. I was grateful just to be showing up. I realized how connected my soul was to the whole lifestyle (and I mean the “lifestyle,” not the “sub-culture”). I was grateful to just go to the gym, even though I wasn’t even able to break a sweat, or do anything even remotely close to the intensity I was used to (which, yes, I took pride in). Sometimes my training was simply very sloooww short stride walks on the treadmill. Again: I was doing things based on what my body was telling me.

As I got closer to the surgery, things got worse and more painful, to the point where occasionally all I could do was lay on my stomach.

After my surgery: Getting worse before it gets better

Was I all better? No!

After the surgery was even worse. The doctors told me that because of post-surgical neuralgia – and because my neuralgia had been made worse by those disc-chips attached to the nerve root – I was going to be worse than I was before surgery. Things would be much worse before I started getting better. It was the old one step forward, two steps back.

The doctors weren’t sure how well I could or would recover. A lot of it was just up to my body, and a lot of it was up to me. They predicted it would be about two years before I would be totally okay again, if ever. Coincidentally enough, it was indeed almost two years to the day that I was once again back to being the Scott Abel who could go to the gym and “eat thunder and crap lightning!” as Mickey from Rocky so eloquently put it.

For a while pre and post-surgery all I could do was lay on my stomach, so I ate all my meals lying on my stomach. I walked by taking little old-man steps, more like a shuffle than a step. I got a cane and relied on it heavily for weeks and weeks (more on that later). I remember lying in bed thinking, I would love to even have a *bad* workout day right now, which is ironic, given that I used to pride myself on never having bad workouts.

I recall realizing just how much the training and lifestyle meant to me, and that if I ever got the opportunity to resume my training again, I would ALWAYS appreciate it from that day on, if that day ever came. Again, I am not talking about a personal lifestyle, not about the physique sub-culture. By then I couldn’t care less about that anymore. I am talking about realizing just how much I loved training for training’s sake, and for all it did for my spirit and soul. The appreciation for something I had been doing for decades was reborn in me, for the simple reason I could no longer do it.

That kind of rebirth and appreciation is stupendous. I firmly believe this is what set my career on a new and improved path that I have sustained until today. It gave me a greater sense of appreciation, gratitude, and respect for a lifestyle that makes me go.

There was humility to learn and face as well. Those weeks before surgery, being reduced to old man shuffle steps on a treadmill, or to simply lying on the floor — it all starts out as just a bruised ego.

But after the surgery, when things actually got a bit worse, and I had to do basically all my walking with a cane, I came to appreciate that old phrase, “there before the grace of God, go I.” You realize that small setbacks can become huge ones. Humility makes you appreciate everything that you take for granted. It can often set you in a new direction as well.

My future training, and how limitations breed creativity

After the surgery, I realised that any future training I did would have to have little to no spinal compression, especially at first. I forced to think and re-think my own knowledge base. Another lesson! Working within constraints breeds creativity.

With my pre-existing shoulder issues, I was already at the point where there was little barbell training I could do, at least in terms or pressing or back squats. I started researching for other methodologies of training that I could blend with my own. I started reading more of J.C. Santana and Vern Gambetta, just to name a couple. They seemed to speak the same language as me, only from angles I hadn’t considered before. (More lessons.)

This opened up a wormhole to new training possibilities – my MET training was born when I started combining this research (often on functional training) with my own experiences in hypertrophy and innervation training.

My “setback” was already paying off in other ways that would never have been likely without my surgery and long layoff. I was learning AND benefitting! This was only possible because I wasn’t “wallowing” in poor me’s. No, of course, in many ways I didn’t “like” being injured, but I was acting on my newly reborn appreciation for the fitness lifestyle. All of sudden in front of me all I could see was possibilities, instead of limitations.

I no longer looked at my cane as a reminder of what I lost. I now valued it as a tool for my recovery, almost like I would a set of dumbbells. I could walk again; it wasn’t perfect, but it was something, and it still represented progress.

I began to be able to eat sitting up again. These were tiny, small improvements, but having just experienced worse, I was taking none of it for granted. I had a smile on my face for every little improvement.

My setbacks weren’t over yet. I was feeling better and better and the surgeon and my doctors were pleased. I started to go back to the gym, cane in hand, using my cane to walk from machine to machine, watching old ladies and feeble out of shape men set the pin to heavier weights than I could use at the time. More humility lessons, only this time, my ego was no longer in the way. This time, I was able to smile and laugh about it.

I decided to make a grand gesture about “a comeback.” I contacted a local contest-promoter I knew whom I knew respected me a great deal. I told him I would like to “guest pose” at his show, which at the time was about 12 to 14 weeks away. He asked me about my training. I told him I had just started back, and my first day was today. He asked me where I was at. I told him I had lost about 45 lbs. in the last year. He was sceptical that I would be able to guest pose.

We left it as a possibility, but nothing else.

However, with that in my head the next day I went back to the gym a little more excited, but still way less prepared than I realised.

Then it happened. I walked with my cane over to the seated chest press machine. I selected only 30 lbs. (in the days prior to surgery I could have used the whole 250 lbs. stack). I pushed the foot pedal to move the grip bars forward, and suddenly my back went out again. It was too much too soon. I fell to the floor and needed help up, and back to my car.

So, back to the hospital I went.

I felt dejected. More importantly, I felt stupid. I knew that still—still!—even after all that I had been through, I still hadn’t grasped the enormity of it all. I still wasn’t respecting my body and the trauma I had put it through. The difference was that by then I was actually chalking these things up as “lessons.”

I called the promoter and told him that I had another setback and that I likely wouldn’t be able to guest pose. Frankly, at this point, I wasn’t sure if I was ever going to be able to train again. After another week off, I went back to the gym, starting over, yet again, but even wiser than before and respecting my body for what it could do, and respecting what it could not.

From there my fitness and strength improved. It kept improving. I astonished myself with my progress at times, but I was still realising that it all had to be different now. It was. My training was now a grand experiment in how to produce overload without risk of injury. Having an injury like this means you are always susceptible to re-injury. That was always at the forefront of my mind.

“But, my precious muscles are gone!”

Actually, no. Yes, I lost 45 lbs. in the period immediately before and after surgery. But as I said at the beginning, it doesn’t just waste away. That’s not how the body works.

My muscle memory kicked in. I gained back all 45 lbs. of lost muscle in about 10 weeks. I had an endorsement contract with a supplement company at the time, and the magazine did a big spread about how I gained 45 lbs. of muscle with the “supplements” I used. That pissed me off because it was so misleading; I didn’t “put on” 45 lbs. of muscle. I regained back the muscle I lost through an extended layoff and surgery. That’s not at all the same. My muscle memory kicked in and my body remembered and complied, which was another lesson for me on how resilient the body can be if you treat it with respect and honour it and try not to force it to do things before it is ready.

I called the promoter back and told him that if it isn’t too late I would love to guest-pose at this show. He asked me if I was sure. I was. Very. I showed up and guest posed and appreciated every second of it. Then I received an offer to guest-pose at an even bigger show.

I wanted to make my guest-appearances “events” rather than just hitting a bunch of poses. Here is me at one of my first appearances when I was pretty much fully healed from back surgery.

I still had many training limitations, but I was also onto a whole new methodology of training as well.

The date of that video was 2002. The doctors were right! It was indeed exactly two years before I was truly good to go again.

Saying Goodbye to My Cane (+ a private secret)

From here, I kept improving more. I was back to hangin' n' bangin' again. But I wasn’t done with making a statement about how much I learned from my setback/layoff, and how appreciative I was for it now that it was behind me. I wanted to do something personal, that meant something special to me. And I did.

I was known for my guest-posing routines, but I wanted to choreograph a routine where I could use my recovery cane as part of my shtick.

I had kept my cane always near me as a reminder of what I went through, and as a reminder of how appreciative I was for it. But before I could say “good-bye” to this cane and leave it behind as part of my past, I wanted to do something symbolic with it.

So I am now going to let you all in on a very private secret.

This guest-posing in 2004 was my own personal homage to my full comeback from surgery. And the cane was my way of respecting all that it taught me. I painted the cane red for my performance here. No one else really knew that the whole routine was actually based on just wanting to use that cane one more time as a completely healed and healthy me – almost thanking it for the role it played in my recovery and how much I appreciated it.

On the one hand, yes, the performance is a bit tongue and cheek, what with the costume and all, and I look at it and laugh; on the other hand, at the very same time it is a very personal and emotional thing to watch.

Here is that performance, cane and all:

And my encore song “Won’t Back Down” was also homage to facing my recovery and refusing to be a “victim” in it. Again, I am letting you all in on some very private stuff here. Here is that part of the 2004 performance:

From here I kept honing my MET training methodology. Everything I read about training, or about physiology research, was exciting and invigorating again. If you see my 6 Days Hybrid video programme from 2006, you can see me leg pressing 12 plates per side. If you see my 5 Day MET training you can see me doing RDL Deadlifts with 315 lbs. Not bad for a guy with no discs in his lower back!!

Some Limitations Still Exist

Now, I have training limitations for sure, both because of my surgery back in 2000, and now with my age, and because of my osteoarthritis in my shoulders, as well. But my initial setback/layoff from back surgery taught me to see possibilities where others might see only limitations. So, the journey continues!

So, I say to you: you may indeed be right now going through a very serious setback or forced layoff from your fitness lifestyle. Whatever it is: learn from it. Get your ego out of the way, and get past what you think you’ve lost. Look for finding the light in what can be gained. For all my clients, or even potential clients: if you need the help of your Coach to guide you through it, I am right here.

[Tweet theme=”basic-white”]WHATEVER it is: learn from it. Get your ego out of the way and get past what you think you’ve lost via @CoachScottAbel[/Tweet]

Lessons from setbacks: you can be a victim, or you can be a victor!

As usual, some of you will get it; some of you will not.

If you have stories or personal experiences of setbacks, I'd love to hear your comments here on the blog.