Tonight, I practiced doing squat walkouts with 405 lbs. I did a full squat at 385, but it wasn’t convincing enough to justify trying it with an extra twenty pounds on there. So instead, we loaded the bar at 405, and I just practiced stepping back into position with the weight on my shoulders, making sure my breathing and stance was correct, acclimating my nervous system to the feel of that weight, before replacing it in the rack. In the coming weeks, I’ll make an attempt at an actual squat with it.

Like any simpleton, I’m impressed by the significance of big, round numbers. 400, oooh! But the thing I’m really proud of is that less than four years ago, I couldn’t even do that with 55 lbs. I could hold an empty bar on my shoulders, but putting even a five-pound plate on each end put too much pressure on the rotator cuff in my right shoulder. I had been diagnosed with rheumatoid arthritis in January of 2004, which itself was three and a half years after symptoms first appeared. My right shoulder was particularly affected — I had long since been in the habit of rolling it forward to ease the pain, since holding proper posture — chest out, shoulders back — was too painful. My orthopedic doctor had been talking about possibly doing surgery, involving drilling a hole in one of the bones. I don’t remember the details, but suffice it to say, it would have been a complicated procedure, and who knows whether it would have worked. In any event, other than the medication that eventually relieved my symptoms, the only rehab I got for my shoulder was one of those resistance bands, which I would tie around a doorknob in order to do rotator cuff exercises. Fast forward nearly twenty years, and I’m still in much the same state. I had no expectation that things would ever be different. That’s when I started doing actual work with my trainer. Within several months of that first aborted attempt, I was able to actually do real squats, to my complete surprise. And now look at me go!

I’ve worked through several other problems along the way (I refuse to call them “issues”). My adductor, piriformis, IT band, and ankle have all required patient perseverance at one time or another, as well as the services of a vicious massage therapist (I say that affectionately). Tennis elbow and plantar fasciitis have made appearances as well. At first, these setbacks were discouraging, but now I’m confident enough to think, “This, too, shall pass.” My philosophy has always been that of the tortoise: slow and steady will, if not “win the race,” at least get me to where I’m going eventually. I don’t fear those aches and pains anymore; I trust that they’ll fade with enough consistent effort.

I don’t distrust or blame doctors in general. If anything, in my own experience, their biggest failing was an overabundance of caution. In fact, I find it’s the alternative medicine types who tend to leap to unjustified conclusions in their haste to show up “mainstream” medicine. But when it comes to those mysterious, debilitating ailments that fall in the no-man’s-land between drugs and surgery, those things that we resign ourselves to enduring as the inescapable cost of aging, I’m firmly convinced from experience that the best thing you can do for yourself is attempt to make yourself stronger, whatever your limitations. You don’t have to become a powerlifter, you just have to challenge yourself, little by little. I’m telling you, it’s worth it.