How a Woman with a Rotator Cuff Tear Got into the Best Shape of Her Life

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Meet Cindy Sue.

Cindy goes to the gym and decides she wants to work her pecs. She’s 64, she’s seen people use that one chest press machine, and knows it works the chest because it a sticker says “chest press” in small writing on the machine. Cindy sits down on the machine, sets a weight she thinks she can do, and goes to town. She does 3 sets of 12 reps to exact. She thinks it felt great. She felt her whole upper body working. Things are good. She wipes off the machine like a good gym-goer does and goes home. 

A few hours later, Cindy’s shoulder starting hurting. “OWW!!” She says, maybe including a few expletives. “It must have been that machine. I thought everything was fine…what happened?!”

So what did Cindy do wrong? In Cindy’s eyes, she didn’t do anything wrong. She got on a machine that SAID “chest press” and she ended up in pain a few hours later. What gives?

What Cindy failed to think about (and most people weight training in general) is her restrictions, current posture, and maybe that rotator cuff tear she forgot she had 10 years ago. 

To understand this more, we’ll need to look into Cindy’s past, Christmas Carol style. So let’s go.

Cindy was never too much into sports growing up, but she loved to bike. She biked all the time. When she turned 40 however, things started to change. She started going through menopause, hot flashes and all. Her lower back started to give her trouble and she started feeling less motivated to work out. Everything started hurting! She gave up biking and took up crocheting instead (she loves making blankets for her grand babies). At 54, Cindy was helping her husband lift a heavy piece of wood (her husband’s of course a carpenter) in their backyard, and she felt something snap near her shoulder.

Over the course of the next few days, her back and the front of her shoulder hurt so bad, she decided to go to her doctor. After an X-Ray and an MRI, Cindy got the results back and found out she tore her rotator cuff. “My rotator what?!” she asked. The doctor assured her that physical therapy over the next 3-6 months would help the pain. If it didn’t, they would do surgery. Cindy did the physical therapy, started feeling better, and decided not to do the surgery. Her doctor released her.

On a Wednesday, Cindy, now 60, read an article in Reader’s Digest (because I mean who doesn’t love their articles?) that discussed the benefits of strength training for women over 50. She thought about that old gym membership she still paid for that she never used. That Friday, Cindy got up early, got her gym clothes (and her game face) on, headed to the gym, and the rest is history.

Now that we’ve dove into Cindy’s past, do you now see any issues with what Cindy did at the gym? If not, let’s discuss.

Cindy used to ride her bike all the time, remember? If you think about riding a bike (think Lance Armstrong), you’re usually bent over the bike to grip the handles. When you see bicyclists, they often ride very hunched over do to the nature of the exercise.

Over time however, this can lead to body adaptations and make bicyclists’ posture less than ideal. It leads to rounded shoulders, AKA your shoulders slump forward. This creates tightness in the chest and actually lengthens/weakens muscles in the upper back. Since muscles are attached to joints and tendons, these changes can reposition joints and strain tendons over time creating dysfunction and pain.

Cindy then went through menopause and her back started hurting out of the blue. She stopped biking and took up crocheting, you’re remembering all of this aren’t you? Most crocheters are again slumped over due to the amount of sitting required. So, not only did she stay hunched over biking all those years, but now she is doing a hobby that also leads to suboptimal posture over time.

After not working out for years and a little older, Cindy tears her rotator cuff. Cindy of course thought it “just happened” but in reality, her activities, hobbies, and lack of posture correction put so much stress on her joints, muscles, and tendons that her rotator cuff had no choice but give in.

She does the physical therapy. She learns exercises that help strengthen her shoulder again and the supporting muscles around it hopefully. I mean, after all, she did say it was feeling better. But after physical therapy, Cindy didn’t continue doing those exercises. She wasn’t told she really needed to or how to progress exercise over time to be more challenging or complex.

Physical therapy is a blessing for most, but it often fails to equip clients for long-term success in pain management. Why? Because physical therapy is reactive. You broke your leg and now you need to walk again? They got you covered. You tear your rotator cuff and need to reach up in your cupboard? You’ll be reaching up into that cupboard with so much ease, you’ll host a dinner party for 60 people and get coffee cups down all night just ‘cuz.

But for those who want to continue or start to do resistance training, physical therapy very often falls short. If you really want help starting to get back into your old gym routine or begin a new one, the best physical therapists to ask are those who have worked with athletes. Athletes don’t just stop playing their sport for the rest of their lives (unless it’s something they really can’t recover from), they must…go on. Of course if you’re reading this, you probably are in that line of thinking — you must go on. You don’t want to give up your gym routine. You can’t just not lift weights the rest of your life. You have to do SOMETHING. Right?

This is where personal trainers come in. I don’t know how many times over the past several years, I’ve heard “I want to start weight training, but I got injured, and now I don’t know how to start. No one could show me.” There again, many physical therapists do not set their patients up for success in the “gym” world. In a clinical and homebound world, sure, but not the real, gym world.

Let’s find out what happened to Cindy two weeks after her shoulder injury.

After Cindy hurt her shoulder, she rested for a few days and the pain went away. Thank goodness. But she decided that maybe she needed some help. She knew her physical therapist couldn’t help her (plus her insurance wouldn’t cover any more visits), so she decided to request a trainer to show her some things she could do in the gym that wouldn’t hurt her.

She started working with Georgie, a new trainer at the gym. Georgie just graduated college and got certified as a personal trainer last year. So far, Georgie’s only worked with about 5 people consistently since she’s been working at the gym for 6 months. She’s lost a lot of clients too…but she wouldn’t dare tell Cindy that. Maybe this time she can help Cindy and get her to stay on with her. After all, she needs money to pay her college debts. She’s got this.

Cindy and Georgie meet for a consultation. Cindy describes her past love for biking, crocheting, lack of activity, rotator cuff tear, and her recent experience hurting her shoulder on the chest press machine. They start training together. Georgie shows Cindy how to do crunches, burpees (modified of course), chest presses, and lat pulldowns over the next hour. Cindy says she’s getting that pain her shoulder again. Georgie tries to make Cindy feel better and says, “Well, it’s just because you haven’t worked out in a while. Let me just take off a little bit of weight.” Cindy still continues to have pain over the next couple weeks. Cindy breaks it to Georgie she’d like to cancel her next session and Georgie never sees Cindy again. 

Cindy’s now worked with a physical therapist and a “certified” personal trainer and each one of them has let her down. She gets discouraged and stops working out.

Classic, right? Relatable, definitely. Three weeks after leaving Georgie, Cindy’s neighbor Ann asks Cindy how her workout routine is going. Cindy says, “Not good. I stopped because I was in so much pain, even with a trainer. It’s hopeless.” Ann recommends a Cindy try a different trainer, one that she’s been working with herself for over three years. She’s GREAT. I have knee pain, and she has done wonders for me.

Cindy meets this new trainer. During her consultation and assessment (Georgie didn’t even do that!), Cindy finds out that her posture, muscle tightness, and weakness is causing her pain. She found out that it’s not even the shoulder that’s the proper, it’s the muscles around it that need to be strengthened. After the first week of training, Cindy’s already feeling better.

Cindy’s new trainer works with her on her posture when she’s not at the gym, gives her corrective exercises to do at home each day, and focuses on lengthening Cindy’s tight muscles and strengthening the ones that are weak. She also starts Cindy on specific core exercises (that aren’t crunches!!) to really strengthen her core from in the inside out. Cindy’s back pain goes away.

One year later, Cindy has lost 40 pounds, 23 inches, is pain free, and looks leaner than she’s ever looked. She still works with that trainer too. We’ll leave her unnamed.

So how did a woman with a rotator cuff tear get into the best shape of her life? She trusted her trainer who had good testimonials, learned to be aware of her posture at all times, lengthened muscles that needed to be stretched, and strengthened muscles that needed to be strengthened. She didn’t push it too hard to the point of pain or losing good form, and she actually started ENJOYING her journey. Her trainer found a program that worked for HER. Her trainer listened, had the knowledge from experience, and delivered life-changing results.

If you find yourself in Cindy Sue’s predicament, do not lose hope. There IS help out there and there IS a way for you to still be able to workout around your injuries. All it takes is a little knowledge and hard work. If you need help and you are between 30-60 years of age with normal aches and pains, let me know you what I can do for you. You do NOT need to be going around like a broken record. We can work through it together.  All of my training is done online and by phone and Skype. All workouts are sent to your phone with demonstrations of me doing every exercise. You can do the workouts on YOUR schedule. You can get started by submitting the form below to see if we’d be a good fit for each other. And all it takes is 3 minutes of your time.

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Until next time,

Lisa

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