I was at my gym -- TheGymKC, in midtown -- not long ago, and my lower back was sore. It has been sore approximately half the time since the 2011 afternoon when I threw out my back carrying a window air-conditioning unit up two flights of stairs. I was 28. Now I'm 31, an age that seems too young to be griping every other day about back pain.
Usually it's a dull, low-grade ache, but I had played pickup basketball a few days before and awakened the following morning struggling to turn over in bed. After several days of amassing sympathy -- hobbling around the office, whining to friends -- I heard it suggested that my back might be less prone to these problems if I, you know, exercised it. Maybe, the thinking went, if I regularly activated those muscles, rather than twisting my body in grotesque ways to avoid using them, things would improve.
How had I not thought of that? Also, how does a person exercise his lower back?
So I was lurking around the gym, trying to identify which machines might do the trick. Most workout machines have an illustration of a human body on them, emphasizing the muscles targeted. I moved casually from station to station, stealing glances at the drawings, striving to appear aloof. Eventually I found what looked like a match for my aching back.
I still had to figure out how the thing worked. I looked for another typical gym sight: a three-step illustrated explanation indicating what your body should be doing while you're using a given machine. This wasn't a straightforward butterfly or shoulder-press piece of equipment, though. It involved a very elaborate harness. So I stood there and examined it with my hands crossed over my head, pretending to catch my breath in between reps of an extremely vigorous routine.
After about a minute, I felt confident that I could strap in. I stuck the pin into a low weight, stepped in and positioned my arms and legs where I thought they were supposed to go. Then I tried to move my torso forward, as instructed. That didn't work, so I tried moving backward. Nothing. I figured that maybe I'd set the weight too high, so I adjusted it to the lowest possible setting, then tried again. Nothing. Went backward again. Nothing. I adjusted my arms to the other side of the bar they were resting on. Nope.
I stared at the illustrations -- artwork designed to be intuited in an instant, without the aid of words -- but my tiny brain just couldn't process what it confronted. Finally I disentangled myself from the machine and stood next to it like an idiot, staring at my feet to avoid the gaze of the hundreds of other gym members. That's when I had my revelation, my rock-bottom moment: I need some outside help here.
Because I belong to a gym, where I've gone about three times a week for the past three years, I've deluded myself into believing that I'm improving my body. But on closer examination, I'm not doing much there. I do three rounds of four workouts: arm curls, a rowing machine, an incline press and a hold-barbells-while-I-squat thing that I'm pretty sure I invented. I flail on the elliptical trainer for the length of a podcast. I rarely sweat. And in the past year, without my changing any aspect of my lifestyle, I've gained about 10 pounds.
About that lifestyle: There's room to rein in some excess. During the day, I behave pretty well. I eat things like granola and eggs and wheat toast, and I make fruit-and-vegetable smoothies with a Magic Bullet. But come 6 or 7 p.m., I turn into a monster. Crazed with hunger, my body demands huge, salty, fatty meals, and I oblige it. I drive to a taco shop or a pizza place or to Oklahoma Joe's (pro tip: Avoid the line and call in the order). And I eat until my body tells me that it can't handle more food. Often the food is gone before this signal arrives.
I'm reluctant to disclose how much I drink because there are some people out there, like doctors, who might infer that I have a drinking problem. I do not have a drinking problem. I don't crave liquor in the morning, and I don't drink to silence demons, and I don't require alcohol to fall asleep at night. I drink mostly because going out to bars and shows usually seems like the most fun thing to do. If I'm addicted to anything, it's to having fun. And in my time on earth, drinking has proved to be a very effective way for me to have fun. If I had to honestly answer that doctor's-office question about how many drinks I consume in a week, most weeks it'd be in the 25-30 range. On a Christmas-break type of week, we might be getting up into the low 40s.
"I'll tell you how you could lose a little weight," a health-conscious friend said recently. "You're not gonna like it. You just have to drink less beer. If you stopped drinking beer, I bet you'd lose 20 pounds."
But that gets into my whole theory about the tyranny of healthy living. Stay with me for a second. There's that story from World War II about Winston Churchill's advisers coming to him and suggesting that Britain cut funding for the arts in order to pay for the war. Churchill refused, saying, "Then what are we fighting for?" -- the idea being that a country without the arts is hardly a country worth saving.
That's roughly the way I feel about my lifestyle as it relates to fitness. Yes, I want to be healthy, look good, live long. I want to win the war. But I'm not willing to cut funding for delicious pies and cakes. If I can't drink nine beers on a Friday night and stop by the gyro truck on the way home, that sounds like a shitty life to me. I'd rather be a fat fuck than give up those freedoms.
I realize, of course, that there's a middle ground. I'm not an unreasonable man. I'm willing to make concessions in order to lose weight and gain muscle. I'm willing to eat healthier dinners. I'm willing to curb some of my drinking, or drink a different kind of alcohol. I'm willing to exercise more strenuously.
I'm willing, in other words, to get the help I need. So recently -- more recently than that bad day at the gym -- I looked up some people in town who know about this sort of thing.
My first stop was Biofit, a fitness operation at 12076 Blue Valley Parkway, in Overland Park. Its founders, Scott Heffner and Justin Prier, are certified personal trainers. Prier is also a physical therapist who favors a neuromuscular approach, which is unusual in the profession. (Heffner and Prier initially bonded over a shared enthusiasm for muscle-activation techniques, which identify and eliminate muscular issues that cause restricted motion, pain and injury.) Biofit's comprehensive approach makes it attractive to athletes seeking rehabilitation and endurance training -- it counts Chiefs players, college tennis players, high school golfers and Olympic athletes among its clients.
But Biofit also works for a schmo like me, who wants to ease a trouble spot and is looking for a little guidance on better workouts and nutrition. The process is necessarily slow-going. I didn't do a lick of exercise on my first visit. Prier and I talked over my goals ("Look kinda better with my shirt off"), and then he took me through a range-of-motion assessment. (Prices run anywhere between $45 and $99 per session.)
"If some part of your body is weak, other parts of your body are compensating for it," Prier told me. "So one of the first things we do with clients is a range-of-motion assessment to see where their deficits are."
It was a simple evaluation. For example, I was asked to turn my left hip a certain way, then turn my right hip a certain way. As I complied, Prier noted the differences. Among other things, it was revealed that I have some seriously bizarre deficits in my left ankle; it moves about half as well as my right ankle, and I could barely balance myself for longer than a few seconds on my left leg. "So when we start working you out, we take those irregularities into account," Prier said.
The next step: muscle-activation technique, which seeks to jump-start those weak