Sunday, September 26, 2010

From Discectomy to Deadlift - A True Underdog Story

Ryan Binge is 23 years old, he can deadlift 195kg, snatch 90kg and clean and jerk 110kg. But only four years ago he could lift zero kilos due to debilitating back pain.

This is a story of how someone can come back from injury and multiple surgeries. How they can go from sitting at home in pain to running, progressing to half ironman triathlon and eventually lifting heavy things over head Olympic style.

It begins in a tree – surgery no.1.

At 18 years old Ryan was a full time tree surgeon. A physical job that involves lifting objects in awkward positions, climbing, and looking cool while holding a chainsaw.

Chainsaw - the main reason people become tree surgeons

Six months in, he started to get lower back pain. He toughed it out but the pain gradually got worse, until eventually Ryan sort help. The back consultant diagnosed disc prolapses at L3 and L4. Surgery was proposed, and a micro discectomy was performed on L4. And after just 12 months, Ryan’s tree surgery career was over.

Things get worse – surgery no.2.

Unable to work, Ryan sat at home in pain, in his own words

 “Feeling sorry for himself.”

While off work, he was continuing to receive physiotherapy for his back as he still had a significant amount of pain. During one of the physio sessions the therapist lifted his knee in a simple mobility exercise, Ryan experienced immediate searing pain, pins and needles shot down his leg.

Ryan was referred back to the consultant. This resulted in another discectomy being performed on L3, a mere 6 months after the first one. He had undergone two spinal surgeries before he was even 20 years old. Things were not looking good. Ryan stopped physiotherapy. All in all Ryan says he basically sat at home for one and a half years.

Micro discectomy - how its done
Micro discectomy - with part of disc removed

Tree surgery was no longer an option. Realising he had to do something about the rut he had found himself in, he started to look for a way forward. He decided to do a lifeguarding course and things began to change. He still had back pain, but sitting at home for the rest of his life just wasn’t an option anymore.

Lifeguarding, Running, Triathlon and shin splints.

After completing his lifeguarding course running secured a full time job. Realising he needed to get his fitness back Ryan started running.

Then a strange thing happened, Ryan says

 “Running made my back better, I was in less pain”

Buoyed by his new found fitness and confidence, he started to enter some races and completed his first half marathon two years after his first back surgery.

He then decided to try triathlon, bought a bike and added in swim training. His work ethic and diligence soon saw him promoted to duty manager, and he applied the same principles to his training. Unlike some people who spend more time talking about training than doing it, Ryan just got on with it.

He soon completed sprint distance, Olympic distance and at 21 years old he completed a half ironman triathlon.

In 2009 his shins started to hurt. Like a lot of endurance athlete he continued to run with pain. Also during this time he was probably in a state of overtraining. The term overtraining is banded about too much by weight trainers who think hitting their chest more than once every 7 days is going to be too much. But endurance athletes can end up hammering their bodies everyday; with no deload weeks or periodisation. The demands of triathlon can mean multiple training sessions per day, for several hours, and most triathletes have to fit this around a full time job.

Being proactive about his training and always keen to learn more and how to fix himself, Ryan went to a see a sports physiotherapist and local sports medicine doctor who has worked with professional and Olympic level athletes. He also got a professional gait analysis, and adopted a series of corrective exercises and moved his running style from a severe heel strike to more of a forefoot style.

However, the pain continued and probably wasn’t helped by a reluctance to rest while training for the half ironman. In October 2009 after the half ironman, Ryan stopped running.

Surgery no.3 - weights to the rescue.

During this period he was also starting to get pain in his shoulder, mainly during swim sessions and it was restricting his ability to do swim training. This is not uncommon for swimmers and triathletes engaged in hours of training, after all there is a condition called ‘swimmers shoulder'.

At this point he started a standard bodybuilding split routine in the gym. Around about this time I also showed him how to do the Olympic lifts.

In January 2010 Ryan had a diagnostic arthroscopy on his right shoulder which showed there was no impingement. He was given rotator cuff band exercises to do and stopped swimming.

He believes strength training has helped his shoulder. He now avoids movements like lateral raised and wide grip bench press. But thinks the Olympic snatch has helped his shoulder – as it has increased his shoulder strength, stability and mobility.

Around this time he started to focus more and more on the Olympic lifts. As flexibility and mobility were a weak point for him, he really worked on them as much as he could, as well as building up his strength in the deadlift.

Ryan practising the overhead squat - he's really had to work on his mobility

Now, I have to point out that I take no credit for Ryan’s increase in strength and improvement in his back pain. Even though I teach evidence based exercises for chronic lower back pain I didn’t actually show him any of these. I coached him on his Olympic lifting technique and how to keep a neutral spine while deadlifting, and that’s about it. All the credit goes to him.

Back to the woods

Ryan had decided that his back was now strong enough to go back to tree surgery. He wanted to be back in the outdoors and not stuck staring at a swimming pool. He could now deadlift 195kg and clean and jerk 110kg overhead with no pain, both feats that he couldn’t do when he was originally a tree surgeon. His strength had never been better, and his back felt stronger than before.

In June 2010 he returned to tree surgery. He still has numbness behind his left knee and hamstring after the original disc prolapse but otherwise has no problems. His back aches sometimes after a hard day, but then so does everyone’s, and he now sees the tree surgery as functional training.

The future is unwritten

Ryan is looking to compete in an Olympic lifting competition in December. His goal is to snatch 100kg and clean and jerk 125kg. He has recently gone through a bodybuilding type phase, training 5 x week, but is now focusing on the Olympic lifts for December.

He is also looking to join the armed forces within the next year.

And he wants to complete an ironman distance triathlon within five years, ideally the ‘forest man’ in the New Forest.

Weak points and 20/20 hindsight.

When I asked Ryan if he would have done anything differently. He says without hesitation

 “I would have gone to exercise quicker.”

 And when he first started triathlon he would have

“had more rest days or light days and paid a triathlon coach from the start”

This is an interesting point, so many people think they can train themselves and don’t need any help. However, every pro athlete has a coach in some form. A coach can save you years of trial and error and keep you on track.

Ryan says his weakest point is his nutrition; he needs to work on food preparation and increasing protein intake.

Flexibility has always been an issue, and Olympic lifting mobility drills have helped. (See the videos where  Ryan is in the overhead squat position, this was slightly unfair as I asked him to demonstrate these exercises with minimal warm up, also note that he is wearing Nike frees in these videos and not Olympic lifting shoes and with no bumper plates he has to control the weight down).

Wrap up

This story shows that spinal surgery doesn’t have to hold you back. Am I suggesting everyone with back pain start Olympic lifting? Of course not, this was Ryan’s choice. However, don’t be afraid to start moving your body. Exercise works for back pain, I have a whole bunch of testimonials from people who attended our 8 week chronic back pain course and it transformed their lives, using evidence based exercises and back sparring strategies for everyday living.

I have no doubt Ryan will reach his goals. He’s one of those guys who doesn’t moan or complain, he gets on with it. He’s unassuming, one of those genuinely nice guys (and he’s single ladies!) but deep down has that competitive streak. The desire to push himself to his limits, compete and see how far he can go, like all successful athletes.

There are inspirational people around us all the time you just have to look for them. They’re not in the media, they’re not famous and they don’t have PR companies promoting everything they do. They’re just out there doing it. And it may be a truism, but all you have to do is start, take that first step – it’s always the hardest one. Don’t be afraid to admit you can’t do it by yourself, seek the help of those who have already made that journey, the ones with a proven track record. This doesn’t mean the journey will be easy but you’ll get their quicker and with a lot less diversions along the way.

I’ll keep you posted on Ryan’s Olympic lifting numbers and competition in December.

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