A little confession: I’ve been dreading writing this post since the first part of my series on the MASS training program went live a month ago.
You see, around the same time I wrapped Block 1 in this four-block, 16-week program designed by Pat Davidson — a brutal phase I’ve happily described as the most wonderful-terrible thing I’d done in the gym in a long time — I was also beginning to feel a little tickle in my low back. The tickle could also be described as “pain,” but it was so quiet, like a ninja barely but expertly scraping the tip of his bokken deep inside my right hip and so unlike the more intense back pain I’d endured following a slip-and-fall three years ago, that it seems unfair to characterize it as more than it was.
But, even a tickle is hard to ignore. And as I prepared for Block 2, my brain was wracked with wonder and worry: What is this? What did I do? Is it a flare-up of the old injury? Is it something new? Was my form off? Did I sleep weird? Is exercise going to make it worse? Would doing nothing make it worse? What can I do to make it go away? But really, what is this?
I used the opportunity to take a closer look at my recovery — what I was eating, how I was sleeping, whether I was overextending myself in other areas that may have compromised my physical body in some way.
As Davidson explains in the MASS e-book, creating a fitness plan that works for you is about stress management. When we add a stressor (exercise, in this case) on top of existing stressors (work, kids, commute, life), the body gets to work trying to reconcile it. If we can reconcile the stressors, we get stronger; if we can’t, well, there are numerous outcomes and they’re rarely ones we want.
“Stress will affect you in an almost limitless number of ways,” writes Davidson. “You will ultimately feel tired, cranky, anxious, achy, possibly depressed, and you will doubt the process. You will be riddled with negative internal self-talk. To moderate your stress, you need to
ensure that your life is in order around your training to the best possible degree.” He stresses the importance of sleep, proper nutrition, and a good community. “If you do not have a good life, then you will not make it.”
When I think about managing stress, the image that always comes to mind is stuffing sausages. If I overstuff the sausage, it’ll get weird-shaped and lumpy (making it hard to cook), and if I keep overstuffing, then the casing will burst, right? So my choice is to be mindful of how much I’m stuffing in, or to get roomier casing. The casing won’t magically make way for too much stuffing.
All in all, I spent a lot of time this month thinking about the tickle in my back and wondering/worrying what I was doing to overstuff my sausage. Especially during my workouts.
Whereas last month I described an almost meditative state in moving through each movement, this month all my focus was on my back, on that ninja-tickle. Two out of 16 workouts were truly fun, “wonderful-terrible” in the same way last month’s had been. During the others, I was an anxious mess. I started spending more time warming up and setting up, delaying the inevitable 45-minute circuit. I knew that once I got started, it would be fine. But, with the tickle on my mind, the first rep was a horror. Not because it was any more or less painful than standing still. (It wasn’t.) But because I had no idea what was going on and no way to anticipate if it would get worse.
Alas, it did get worse. In week 4, the gentle scrape of the ninja’s sword devolved into something akin to stabbing. For the sake of consistency, I tried to keep up my workout schedule: I went to the gym as planned, set up the equipment, and at times chose to do no more than walk from station to station when the timer buzzed, staring at the equipment at my feet.
In the first seven weeks of MASS programming, I watched my daily volume increase from 25,000-ish pounds lifted per session to nearly 40,000 pounds. And then, in the last workout, it shrank down to a speck over 13,000 pounds. It was all I could manage if I wanted to avoid the pain. And I did. Nothing is fun if you’re hurting. Exercise for the sake of exercise simply isn’t worth suffering, at least not for me.
This is why I’ve dreaded writing this post. I wanted to rave about the programming again — not only because I think it’s a great program but because that would mean I was feeling good and getting better. I wanted to write about how well I’d managed the stress of these workouts in the context of my life — not just because that would mean I was feeling good and getting better, but because it might inspire someone else to try something new or push just a little harder than they think they’re capable. Something in the vein of: “If I can do it, anyone can.”
I can’t say any of those things today. I was feeling good, but now I don’t. I was getting better, but now I’m not. I tried my best to manage the stress of the workouts, but my back tells me I didn’t succeed. I can’t tell anyone, “If I can do it, so can you,” because right now it doesn’t feel like I can do much of anything.
“Pain is the great equalizer,” or so the saying goes. It’s hard in this moment to think of anything else, and hard to give myself credit for things that went well and ways in which I might be stronger now than I was a month ago. It’s hard even to recognize my efforts to seek out the source of the tickle and the bit of success I’ve had in just the last three days. Even though the pain is steadily abating, it’s hard to think anything but “GAH! THAT HURTS.”
Which brings me to my final reason for not wanting to write this: Despite the rough time I had in Block 2, I’m still planning to move on to Block 3.
I can’t really explain this compulsion, beyond wanting to start what I finished. I’m going to give myself a few days, stick with the tools that seem to be helping the pain, and then just do the thing. Best-case scenario: The tickle magically disappears. Worst-case scenario: I spend a lot of time setting up equipment and then standing around staring at it. My guess is that the actual result will be something in between: The pain continues to subside gradually and I find movements that don’t exacerbate it.
Meantime, I have Davidson’s words on my mind: “We are stronger and more resilient than I could ever have imagined when I started out as a strength coach. MASS is a stress bomb. It’s my best guess as to the upper limit of human stress tolerance. It may be too much for you,” he writes. “If I break you, you will repair yourself, or you will die . . . and if you die, you die. If you do not die, you will fortify your structure with reinforcements and a greater arsenal. You will become an unstoppable juggernaut.”
I don’t want to die, and I don’t have aspirations of becoming “an unstoppable juggernaut.” (Though now that I think about it, that does sound pretty cool.) But I do want to find out how strong and resilient I am.