“As far as your fitness, you’re going to have to start from square 1.”
These were the words from the nurse coordinator telling my husband what to expect after donating his kidney. The care team at KU Health System was dead honest about the ramifications for which Thomas was signing up. I believed it would be an uphill journey, but what fitness journey isn’t? What a blessing to, not only get to witness this true and selfless act of saving the life of a close friend, but to get to be on the other side and put Humpty Dumpty back together again.
I certainly believed we’d have to start from scratch, but I also knew that Thomas was in great shape before surgery. He could have easily just stopped exercising the minute he knew he was a match, but he was kicking ace clear up to the days before transplantation. Square 1? Maybe for a week or two. Never underestimate the human spirit.
He had four incisions for extraction, one of which was a few inches long and right through his bellybutton—clear through that ever so lovely rectus abdominis (anterior abdominals). Oh boy. In any programming, that’s exactly where we start. Trunk stability—meaning glute, hips and those 360 abs—is vital for everything that follows.
Reestablishing the mind-to-muscle connection
Thomas was instructed to restrain from lifting anything over 10 pounds for six weeks, which is surprisingly easier said than done. It seemed like more of a mental game than anything. And keeping our rowdy boys (and dog) from being physical and enacting body-slamming take downs was like playing defense for 42 days straight. One evening, after those 6 weeks, he decided to try an assisted (meaning his feet were anchored) sit-up.
“I remember sitting there on the ground almost in disbelief at what was happening,” Thomas recalls of the first time he attempted a sit-up. “It’s a bizarre feeling when your body doesn’t respond the way you think it should. Just weeks earlier, a sit-up was an easy task. And on that day, my first attempt was a fail. I did eventually do one that day, but I had to focus so hard and really think about engaging my abs.”
For those six weeks, he had basically disconnected the mind-to-muscle connection with his core. In going from laying to sitting to standing, he was using everything but the trunk of his body to protect the trauma site. Can you imagine being disconnected from your center? It sounds completely confusing and hella frustrating. Take away the middle of anything at all, and the whole would probably crumble. The amount of focus it took to tell those abs that it’s okay to contract was heavy, but once the connection was reestablished, it didn’t take long for everything else to follow.
“I will say that once that mind-body connection was made, progress came quick,” Thomas said.
A few of the exercises Thomas has been doing at home lately.
Corrective Exercise Program
Our schedules with work and as parents made in-person training difficult, so I started putting together programming for him to do on his own. Then, when the exercises get too easy, we progress as tolerated. And progress he did! Planks, squats, box jumps, pushups, pullups – not much of a hill in the fitness arena, doc. Keeping your body spit-shined is so important for anything, both expected and unexpected, to ensure you come out high on the other end of it. Our bodies are positively awe-inspiring.
His first set of exercises were bodyweight sets like floor bridges, quadruped contralateral arm and leg raises, isometric planks, squats, step-ups, and just the motion of the deadlift. I was hesitant to give him anything that had weight overhead or weighted dynamic movements until he was able to create and hold onto enough trunk tension. Of course, he hit some of the fun stuff like biceps and triceps, and some easy cardio on our treadmill and elliptical machines. I sent him outside for bike rides whenever the sun was out for that golden Vitamin D. As far as specifically abdominals, we didn’t do anything with spinal flexion the first couple of weeks, aside from the first experimental anchored sit-up.
Weights and Plyometrics
Next, came some anti-rotational core work to increase that ever important stability component. He was able to maintain posture with dynamic movements pretty quickly! As a result, we added a little weight for overhead presses, bench presses, lunges, and some easy plyometrics with squat jumps and box jumps. Those came fairly easy, although there were twinges from scar tissue that got pulled on a bit here and there.
This week, he’s working on multi-planar step-ups, renegade rows (yep, he can already do those!), contralateral toe touches, bridge pullovers, heel taps, side plank reverse flys (another !) and a bit more complex leg sequences like a reverse lunge to squat right into a box jump. Pretty amazing, guys.
“Looking back at the past three months, I’ve certainly been blessed,” Thomas said. “Everything aligned to make this possible. Beyond being a match to donate, I had a family that had my back, I worked for a company that was very supportive, and I married a woman that knows how to make sure I stay strong. I still have work to do, but I’m getting stronger each week. I see a triathlon in my future, for sure.”
What’s next on the fitness path? We’re going to hit the truly complex movements with multiple muscle synergies, like the classic curl+squat+press , heavier deadlifts, and maybe some hanging abdominal work. As he is a seasoned desk-jockey, we’re always working to reverse those repercussions, like rounded shoulders and forward head. Stay-tuned!
For More: Thomas did an interview about the kidney donation with his company, U.S. Engineering Company Holdings, which you can read here. It shares more details about the surgery and the overall process.
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