19 August, 2013

Be very careful who you trust

Today was weight training with Rob Something-Or-Other in Amherst, Massachusetts.

Actually, "today" was about 22 years ago, but I will tell you the story today, the moral of which is to be very careful who you trust, even for things as seemingly trivial as a workout partner at a local gym.

When I finished my undergraduate program in electrical engineering at University of Massachusetts, I stuck around and started a graduate degree in the same program. I am not sure I was really committed to the idea of being a graduate student at that time, but I was definitely not committed to going out into the real world. In my late teens and early twenties, I had been interested in weight training and in running, and I did a lot of both these activities. There was a local gym where I worked out, usually alone. Somehow, either through a trainer, or just through acquaintance, I came to meet a guy named Rob who was of approximately similar strength to me. He was a little bit stronger, which can be good, in terms of motivation. I don't think he was a student. He was a couple of years older, and I don't actually remember what he did, or why he was living there at the time. Guys in their early twenties, lifting weights, might not even think to have a conversation about something unrelated to the task at hand.

We worked out together at least a couple of times a week. I can't recall if we made plans to do it, or if we just tended to be there at the same time. On one occasion, we were doing a leg press machine, I cannot remember what it's called, but It's one where you're seated at about a 45 degree angle, and there is a bar that you load the weights on, and then push them up a track with your legs along that same 45 degree slope. It's a machine, but the kind that takes free weights on it. We were doing a lot of weight at that time. I am pretty sure that I was routinely putting 4 "plates" on each side, which comes out to about 360 pounds. But, when you factor in the slope and the track and all that, you aren't actually lifting 360 pounds (if my trigonometry serves me correctly, I would guess that, at 45 degrees, you're lifting no more than 0.707 of the weight). In any case, I was pretty strong then. Rob was stronger, and he often did 5 "plates" on each side. One day, I decided to give it a shot. When the weights came down, there are only two options: (1) you press the weight with your legs, or (2) your workout partner assists you. The situation that occurred on this day, unfortunately for me, was (3) neither of the above. When the weight came down, I was not able to press it up. It was too much. I asked for assistance and, instead of immediately offering me modest assistance, which would be standard protocol, Rob said "C'mon! You got it! You got it!" and I distinctly remember saying "No I don't!!" At that point, the assistance should be significant. Your spotter should never let the movement stop, even without a request for help. And, in the event of a request for help, the spotter should get the weight off you immediately. Rob didn't do that. Given that I wasn't getting much help, and that I now needed a lot of help, I had no choice but to try to get the weight up. And when I did, I felt something "POP!" in my low back. After getting out of the machine, I was unable to bend forward more than a few inches. This pain lasted for many days, and affected my movement significantly. In all likelihood, looking back, I had probably either badly herniated or ruptured discs in my low back. And that was the start of all the problems that have affected me intermittently since that day.

I never thought anything much of the importance of picking a spotter judiciously. But, when you think about it, it's practically as important as choosing a designated driver, or someone to hold the ropes for you when you're climbing. I never thought I was going to *need* my spotter for something that would ultimately have a permanent long-term impact on my health. But that's exactly the way it turned out. When we choose people to assist us in ways that relate to health or safety, we are really choosing to put, at least to an extent, our "life" in their hands. It's a big choice. Not a trivial one. Choosing "any warm body" is not paying the due respect to our own well being that we should be paying.

I don't know how many choices I have made between then and now that exacerbated the problem that started on that day. But I now know that the single greatest "health issue" that I currently face was the result of casual judgment regarding my own safety.

Think about who you choose to trust, and let that choice be an act of commission, rather than omission.

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