As I contemplated topics to write about for this article and subsequently procrastinated for a while, I realized my procrastination and contemplation were likely resulting from my current state of mind. “Starting Over” is such an oxymoron expression coming from me, based on my persona, my past articles for this magazine, and my passion for not waiting for New Year's Resolutions to set new goals, but rather setting new goals today, continuing where you left off. If I can help it, I rarely ever put myself in a position to start over. I prefer to continue, to refine, to improve, to advance, and to grind it out, not start over from ground zero. Starting over doesn't necessary speak to me, but recently I've had to start listening to that voice that I did my best to ignore for so long. After four glorious years being injury-free and even boasting about my consecutive years without anything slowing me down, I experienced a rude awakening that I didn't see coming. Therefore, for this article, I'll share a story that perhaps many of you can relate to. We've all had to start over at one time or another in our lives, and this is my current starting over story.
In late April I had a really powerful chest workout with my training partner, fellow VHF Mag columnist, Vanessa Espinoza. It was one of my best chest workouts in recent memory. The following day I flew from Denver to Los Angeles and had my strongest-ever shoulder workout at the Bodybuilding Mecca that is Venice Gold's Gym, training with one of my best friends, Will Tucker, who is a 4-time champion vegan bodybuilder featured in my latest book, Shred It!. Following those back-to-back heavy workouts was the Los Angeles Vegetarian Festival (L.A. VegFest). That morning I felt a bit off and a few hours into the show I suffered severe symptoms of food poisoning. I never ate anything at the festival, so whatever bug got me was before I even arrived. I had to leave the festival and I spent the rest of the day violently ill, nearly going to Urgent Care, and my streak of doing more than 100 push-ups and crunches per day (which I have referenced in previous articles numerous times as a source of pride of accomplishment) came to a sudden halt at 988 consecutive days, falling short of a goal I had for 1,000+ straight days. I was barely able to walk and struggled just to lie down and rest, and exercising simply wasn't an option. I was sad that my streak was over, especially because I hadn't missed a day of my consistent effort in nearly three full years, and I was inspired to get right back to work and keep going even after one missed day.
Two days later I was back in Colorado, feeling better, and I returned to the gym. That night, just 48 hours after heaving all day, no doubt causing some stress on my spine, I tore a disc in my lower back and was immediately sidelined. My injury likely came on the heels of months of heavy lifting and some extra strain on my spine when I was ill. After more than ten doctor visits and five full weeks away from the gym, I started to feel a bit better and made a slow return to do basic machine and cable pressing movements in the gym, along with the rehabilitation exercises prescribed to me by the doctor. Rehab and recovery was going well, but then my back relapsed and I was forced to take another week off from the gym. This would continue to happen for the next two months. I would feel better and then my back would go out again. Though my exercise is very basic, limited to training chest, shoulders, and triceps with seated machine and cable presses, my overall muscle mass has more or less stayed the same. I have found ways to work around my back injury without causing any additional pain, and my weight is at an all-time high with both muscle, and admittedly, some increased body fat due to lack of regular training and cardiovascular activity. I actually think that my upper body is bigger than it has ever been because I have not trained my lower body in months, yet I am heavier than ever with an emphasis on training upper body regularly, noticing sleeves becoming tighter on my arms.
As a former champion bodybuilder, and as a weight lifter who was just months ago setting new personal lifting records every couple of weeks, I truly am starting over. I struggle to bend over and cautiously sit down at a seated machine and move from machine to cable exercise for only three muscle groups throughout each training session. At the time of this writing, I have gone a full four months without training legs, back, or abs once, and I have only trained biceps about five times, being cautious not to lean too far forward to pick up machine or cable handles. I have avoided free weights including dumbbells and barbells for the past third of the year. As I sit in pain while I write this article, I reflect on those wonderful years when I could run, jump, bend, twist and when I had good general mobility. I am guilty of taking those abilities and experiences for granted, and now I am starting over, at times trying to figure out the best way to sit in a chair or climb into a car to avoid aggravating pinched nerves throughout my back, hip, and leg.
Though I am in a rare position of starting over, I remain positive amid all the ups and downs and uncertainty about what any given week will bring. I even feel like some of my recent flexing photos are some of my all-time best, weighing in at over 200 pounds with the biggest upper body I have ever owned. I guess the moral of my story is that even if we don't want to start over, life sometimes has other plans, and we have to be flexible and accommodate new situations and make the best of them. I'm still training, working on a new book, and staying focused on a bright future, even if I've had to slow down a bit and reflect on how I got here and what I need to do to get where I want to go. If you are currently starting over in any area of health and fitness, setting New Year's Resolutions starting from scratch, realize that you're not alone and that many of us have been there or are currently going down the same path. Stay positive, stay motivated, stay hungry, and follow your passion and make it happen. See you at the finish line.
- Robert Cheeke, best-selling author of Shred It! and Vegan Bodybuilding & Fitness, 2-time champion bodybuilder, and founder/president of Vegan Bodybuilding & Fitness — www.veganbodybuilding.com.