One writer and trainer shares how a setback in the gym changed the way she views her own strength.

By Emily Abbate
Updated: July 28, 2017

I felt a sharp pain ring through both of my quads as my body lowered toward the ground. I immediately racked the barbell. Standing there, sweat dripping down the right side of my face, it was like the weight was looking back, taunting me. My quads stung like I had tried to lift eight times my body weight. The best way I could describe it was as if I had instant next-day muscle soreness. Instant WTF syndrome.

I stared at the barbell, all 55 pounds of it lying in the J-hooks. This barbell weighed almost 100 pounds less than I could back squat at this time last year. It must be a fluke, I thought. At this time last year, I remember the cheers surrounding me as I went for that one rep max. I remember that same feeling of disbelief-but because of what I could do, not what I couldn't. This wasn't normal, I told myself. There's no way I've taken this much of a back step.

But still, there I was. I tried it again, and the pain persisted. Frustration increased. I took a step back.

Back in March, I had hurt my back attempting a lift at a weight I had never moved before. Going for the PR had triggered some arthritis in my lumbar spine, and well, things hadn't been the same since. Doing something as minimal as an upward dog in my go-to hot yoga class, I'd feel a twinge.

Doctors told me I needed to work on my core strength if I wanted to alleviate pressure on my spine and get back to where I used to be. Despite incorporating core exercises into my regular routine, I had stepped away from a lot of the weightlifting I'd been working so hard at over the past couple years, afraid that I'd worsen my injury. Instead of tackling 6:30 a.m. CrossFit workouts with the WOD squad in Midtown Manhattan, I traded box jumps and burpees for the Spin bike and weekend long runs. (Related: These Abs Exercises Are the Secret to Preventing Lower Back Pain)

I guess you could say that recently, I'd kind of gotten to this point where I said screw it. My doctor said something along the lines of "the arthritis isn't going to go away, so the best thing you can do is learn how to live with it." For me, living with it meant trying to get back some of my strength. Living with it meant not entirely giving up something (read: CrossFit) that made me feel like such a total badass for so long.

So, on that particular WTF-is-going-on-here morning, I went back. Standing a few steps back from that 55-pound barbell, I soaked it all in. I had the audacity to ask myself were you really at that polar opposite place at one point? I know the answer is yes. There are even Instagrams to prove it. It feels like just yesterday that I stood in the same room, shedding tears over a barbell when I lifted more than my body weight for the first time ever.

On that particular day, I left the CrossFit box defeated. It took me an hour or so of dwelling on what happened until it hit me: What I loved about this workout style in the first place was always having the opportunity to improve. I loved trying new things. That wasn't ever going to change. Just because there's a roadblock for me right now doesn't mean there's not a viable detour. The journey doesn't stop because I have a bummed back. The journey only continues.

There are always going to be obstacles. But true strength isn't about how much weight is on that barbell. While there are surely going to be more setbacks in my future, those don't define me. True strength is about digging deep when challenges pop up. That strength I've been working on? Whether I'm standing in front of a 155- or 55-pound barbell, it's deeper than that. That inner growth is something no one can ever take away from me.


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