Reporter, trainer share in gains from strength work

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Monday was hard.

I had been dreading it all weekend, this moment of truth. It was time to see what eight weeks -- give or take a few days -- of strength training had actually wrought.

Since early October, my friend Ann and I had been under the tutelage of YMCA trainer Leslie Snyder, known privately as "Torture Girl." Only half kidding.

"Sheila," I scolded myself on my way to meet my measurements. "You feel healthy, you know you're stronger and your wedding ring is trying to fall off, for goodness' sake. Spine up!"

And that had been our stated goal to Leslie -- we wanted to be stronger, able to hoist a hefty shield against many woes of aging.

You know how it went. We test drove many of the Y's fancy machines, but used simple things like stability balls and step benches more.

Our own weight provided a sweaty workout much of the time. You may have no idea how hard it is to jump, balance and push up a hundred and ... something ... pounds, in sets of 10.

Try staying upright when you're hanging onto straps and swaying in the air. Yeah, that will test your deodorant while your body tries darn hard to kiss the ground.

I knew things were changing inside my skin. I have grown fond of flexing my leg and pointing to a muscled thigh. "Look at that," I shout to bystanders. "It's a ROCK!" People, including my husband, are just sick of it. He's dutifully felt up my biceps dozens of times with faux enthusiasm.

Don't feel bad, he's also had side benefits of a wife with more zing who can hug him in half.

Ann, too, can see results. Although forced to miss some Y sessions due to business travel, "I know I am stronger," she said.

Her weight didn't shift but her flexibility jumped to the moon. "I am bending and touching my toes. I haven't touched my toes in years."

I agreed, but Monday would tell me if I was all blow and no show and my test anxiety was crawling through my brain, muttering pessimistically.

Ready?

I, too, did not lose pounds. In fact I gained three, but my waist is two inches smaller. Indeed, most everything is smaller, including my tummy, my knees, calves, chest, hips, thighs -- in ranges of half an inch and up.

Both biceps are smaller around by an inch even though I can now pull eight more pounds with those guns.

Then there is the sit-and-reach test, whereupon I sat my firmer butt on the floor and reached forward as fa-a-a-ar as I could with a little handle and cord combo. Yeah, that measurement stretched 21/2 inches, since I have less tummy to push past.

Take that, bathroom scale. Not to mention (I am mentioning it, of course) I reversed my age by a year, according to the data summary.

I even changed Leslie's opinion about her assignment to turn two slumpy ladies into women eager to see muscle in the mirror.

I asked her to write something up about what she learned from me because, goodness knows, I learned plenty from her.

My trainer started out with her own expectations, turns out.

"I really wasn't sure what to expect. It's rare that I receive a personal training 'assignment,' especially from the big boss.

"I knew there would be many eyes and ears watching this experiment, which, technically it was. I had the assignment to introduce the women of the Valley, via you and Ann, to various types of strength training along with the reasons behind it.

"In all honesty, it began as a very difficult assignment because I knew you would be expecting to see changes and I wasn't really sure how that would play out in a scenario that looked more like a 'taste and see' experience than a 'well balanced meal'.

"Add to that all the beginning comments of what you two weren't interested in changing (nutrition, tracking, etc) and I wasn't really sure what we were going to experience together."

You've read about what surprised me about this journey. Leslie had her own surprises about me.

"This one's easy -- the way your body responded to the exercises. I said it more than once, 'Your body was hungry for this.' Each session surprised me. You came ready to receive whatever I brought. Your breakthrough moment came in the weight room when I presented the platform for you to jump onto. I knew the look in your eyes immediately. It's the look that I've seen many times and it strikes me deep in my core because that look tells me we've reached a threshold where the task at hand is not really the challenge. The task represents so much more, and every time I see it, I recognize that whatever it is my client is facing in the outside world, or more likely, deep within themselves, has come to a head.

"That's why people, including you, have an emotional response when the task is accomplished. You step up on stairs everyday. You step down every day and strangely, you move in all directions everyday.

"But, when put in front of you as an isolated exercise, everything within you pushes back. It's when you confront that fear and overcome it that we begin to make progress. That day in the weight room was your breakthrough day."

The YMCA trainer has seen just about everything, she wrote.

"I've been training individuals and groups for a long time so I didn't really have any major 'aha moments', but I always appreciate learning the stories behind the people. I've often said that health and wellness is rarely about food and exercise. This was true for you and Ann, too. Health and wellness is wholistic and encompasses the whole person. When a person is ready to acknowledge that, then we can make progress."

Finally, it's nice to know it wasn't all work for Leslie. This gig provided merriment and a little slice of reward.

"I couldn't help but chuckle watching the two of you in the weight room at the beginning. You described it like two kindergartners following a teacher around. That was a great description and pretty accurate.

"And getting you on the TRX (strap core workout system). Or, should I say, watching the two of you trying to get your feet into the foot cradles, maneuver the handles and thinking that I was going to have you suspended off of the ground.

"And, of course, becoming the notorious trainer at the Y who is 'beating up that Shelly Hagar.' Too funny.

"My most rewarding moment came seeing your response to the fact that you lost nearly 15 inches over your body after only 7 weeks of what I would consider 'non-focused training'. Give me six months -- you'll probably be on the cover of the next Shape magazine."

"You're really just getting started," Leslie told me on Monday.

I agree. I now know the same body that sighs in pain some nights, the mutinous knees that try to go out on long walks, the familiar arms that gain heaviness after yard work -- all are capable of doing the stuff that will make those moments all but disappear.

I am stronger, I am in less pain and I am healthier. Just as I had hoped.

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