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Painful Back and Body? How Personal Training Can Help

Updated on May 26, 2017
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Rula Lenski is an experienced writer on the topics of women's self-esteem and self-defense.

You Aren't Old. This Guy Is.

Sergio Agnoli, born 1926, is an Italian middle-distance runner and world record masters marathoner (4 hours, 16 minutes, 57 seconds, at age 82). He took up sports at age 60.
Sergio Agnoli, born 1926, is an Italian middle-distance runner and world record masters marathoner (4 hours, 16 minutes, 57 seconds, at age 82). He took up sports at age 60. | Source

A Real Alternative to Back and Body Pain, with a Sample Training Routine

It happened suddenly: Common exercises and activities, like vacuum cleaning, wracked my back with pain. I hardly believed the X-rays showing my lower spine deeply curved to the left -- lordosis -- and disks in the upper back deteriorating. How had that happened?

"It's aging," the doctor said, and added that I could blame the lordosis on 20 years of office work and sitting. He said to take Advil.

Because of back pain I quit Zumba, canoeing (friends went without me), bicycling, dancing, lawn mowing, and cleaning (I had to hire people). I went to the gym less often, and quit basic exercises I'd done for years, like barbell squats and overhead presses. I took a trip earlier than planned, concerned about whether I could hoist the luggage if I waited. I carried lumbar pillows to the movie theater. Back soreness kept me awake nights; there wasn't a way to get comfortable.

Was this inevitable? I was not ready to accept all those limitations. With my world getting smaller every day, after hearing "Accept it" from doctors and the chiropractor, I finally called my gym's personal trainer, a middle-aged man with all sorts of certifications and a specialist in "corrective exercise," which sounded like what I needed. I won't tell you his name. This is not an ad. This is about how I rescued myself.

Reach Out and Get Results

Personal training, twice a week for four weeks, restored my life and vigor, and it was the best $480 I have ever spent. Nothing can regenerate my spine, but the trainer helped me develop specific muscle groups to support it and compensate for it, and a strong core for good posture to prevent further damage. Now I belong to two hiking clubs, do yoga and Pilates, and earned an orange belt in Tae Kwon Do.

Most fitness facilities (91 percent) have personal trainers on staff or on call. Start by asking at your nearest fitness facility. It costs nothing to go in and ask, and many trainers, like mine, offer a tryout session free. Most trainers are freelancers and will travel to your favorite gym or to your home if you have a home gym.

"Bird Dog," Ilustrated

Balancing on an opposing leg and arm, raise the other leg and arm. Alternate sides and do it 15 times. Builds the core and trains balance.
Balancing on an opposing leg and arm, raise the other leg and arm. Alternate sides and do it 15 times. Builds the core and trains balance.

A Sample of My Personal-Training Routine

Only one-third of my trainer's exercises included weights. Here's an hour of training, after I'd built up to it over four weeks. My trainer insisted on perfect form.

1. "Suitcase squats" with a dumbbell in each hand, 3 sets of 10 reps each.

2. Resistance band around thighs, bend knees, step from side to side, 3 sets of 15 reps each.

3. Pelvic tilts with heels on a riser and arms out, 3 sets of 15 reps each.

4. One-armed cable pulls, 3 sets of 12 reps each arm. (At home I use elastic resistance bands bought for a quarter at a yard sale.)

5. Rear-deltoid dumbbell flys, 2 sets of 10 reps each with two-pound weights.

6. "Bird dog" pose (pictured), 3 sets of 15 reps each.

7. "Dead bug," 3 sets of 15 reps each.

8. Side planks, 1 plank each side, 30-60 seconds. I built up to that from zero.

Tips and Best Practices

1. Get an older trainer. My trainer, very fit with gray in his beard, understood aging bodies the way a young person cannot. Four or five years before I'd tried out a 20-something trainer who worked me like a Marine and seemed embarrassed to hear I'd had a mastectomy. Mature ones know better. AARP and the NY Times report that there are more older trainers now than ever.

2. Communicate with your trainer. "Communication between you and me is the key," was one of the first things my trainer said. He told me I must speak up if something hurt, or was too difficult or too easy, or if I had any questions. He gave me his phone number and email address, and was unfailingly polite.

3. Have a goal. On the first day we took half an hour to catalog my complaints and pinpoint my aches and pains. He measured my height, weight, waistline and body fat (30 percent). We discussed fees and he drew up a contract and an exercise plan and had me start a food diary. Over the course of our sessions I learned that my diet was very good, but my extra treats, like cookies and martinis, plus forced inactivity because of my back, explained the eight extra pounds I'd gained in a year. My goal, however, wasn't a Barbie body; it was to treat my aching back.

4. Be honest. I kept an honest food diary and showed it to him at every session. When I came in for a session with my back sizzling with pain, I told him that, and also that I'd do my best, and I did my honest best. Honesty was part of our open communication.

5. Ask for credentials or references. My trainer had been working as a trainer for eight years. He has certifications from the American College of Sports Medicine (ACSM), American Heart Association, several others I can't remember, and certification in CPR.

6. Make sure he or she is all about wellness. That includes knowledge about nutrition, digestion, body mechanics, sports equipment, ergonomics, illnesses such as arthritis or high blood pressure and their treatment, realistic goals, and positive thinking.

7. Be sure he or she is healthy and a pro. What they look like matters: It resembles what you will eventually look like. My trainer was fit and wide awake, always dressed in clean, non-smelly, non-revealing athletic clothing and shoes. He still competed in master's-level (over-40) athletics. Always on time, very professional, he was always at my side to watch me exercise and correct my form, and earned his $60 an hour.

8. Remember the exercises for later. I couldn't keep paying my trainer forever, although I wished I could. I wrote down his advice (for example, "When you eat a carbohydrate, always eat protein with it") and made notes about the exercises. I then repeated the workouts on my own. He had given me a key to my own health.

9. Fork it over. "Personal training" sounds so wasteful, so jet-set and twee. I had always thought so and cringed at the price. Yet my health and mobility came back fast and was worth every penny.

Why not physical therapy instead? Because without a prescription physical therapy is far more expensive than personal training. Why not chiropractic? I love my chiropractor, who un-kinks my neck and relieved my pain, but didn't restore me to my former self. Why didn't I try a sports-medicine facility? They treat mostly dedicated athletes recovering from acute injuries such as ankle sprains or torn rotator cuffs. Not ordinary people.

We all agree that health is the most important thing in life. Get the right personal trainer and you will be glad you spent that money to reduce your pain and save your precious health. Don't sit on the sidelines of your own life!

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