dj kreger

Musings. Liftings. Eatings.

A Glimmer of Hope

An interesting thing happened yesterday. I broke my old bench press record by 15 pounds. I had not been training to break this PR. In fact, I’d hardly been training at all. Due to a recent back injury, I had to minimize my training to very light weight work and certain body weight exercises. This is not exactly conducive to breaking personal records.

So what happened? Why the sudden breakthrough? I’d been struggling to crack through this plateau for well over a year! As I have been thinking through this, I do what I typically do and analyze from every possible angle I can think of. The angles:

  • change in diet
  • reduction in training allowed for fuller recovery
  • alternate periods of high intensity and very low intensity
  • a degree of attention to fixing some mobility issues

Honestly, I don’t think any one thing outweighs the other. Can I do better with diet? Yes, absolutely. I feel like I have made many good changes over the last several months, and the benefits from those changes may take a while to be fully realized. But I think there are still some small tweaks that I can make. I have just started some of those changes, so I don’t know how effective they will be. Time will tell.

Can I manage my training better? Yes, I am constantly refining my methods and discovering what works for me. I have to find a balance that keeps the ankylosing spondylitis from acting up too much while training hard enough that I see progress. I am not satisfied to just stay at the same numbers on the barbell. I want more. But I have to balance my drive against what the AS will let me do. Otherwise, I am constantly in this cycle of “Train Hard then Break”…I need to figure out how not to break.

I am learning how important a role stress plays in my performance from day to day. And I am learning that if I feel ‘off’, I should just let things go, particularly after I have done several warm up sets. If things are not feeling better by then, I need to stop. Injury is looming around the corner. If things improve, then I can press on.

And that is what happened yesterday. Each set felt a little better than the last. I hate to say it, because it sounds so cliche, but I have to listen to my body more now than I ever have. I can’t just beat it into submission.

Frequency and intensity of training is something that I have to figure out. I think I may have come upon a solution by accident. Over the last couple of weeks, I was paying more attention to how I feel and training accordingly. This usually meant a couple of days of hard training followed by very low level activity – just enough to stay loose and work out some kinks.

Can I focus more on mobility and treating old injuries? Definitely yes. This is an area that I tend to neglect. I’ve been doing a little bit of work on my pec minor (which I think led to the greater comfort during bench press, leading to the PR), but I know I can do more. And need to do more. Hip mobility is also a major issue, and it is compounded by my work situation. Desk time is very bad for hip mobility. And poor hip mobility is frequently associated with low back pain and dysfunction. So yes, work to be done.

Or, as Steve Pulcinella told me, it’s just my magic bacon.

The Wood Cutter

There once was a man who lived  his long days quietly and in peace. But he was alone. The paths of life had taken  from him all he had known and loved. He could not change this, and so he went on with his life. Just living.

As is usually the case with someone who knows great sadness, his world looked grey and flat. His little home was just a grey little shack with no extravagant features or extra rooms. It simply functioned as a place to live. Nothing more.

Each day, his day started the same: he awoke, washed his face, ate a simple meal, and went out to the forest to find wood that he could trim down and split into firewood. While out in the forest alone, he had only his loneliness to keep him company. When he had enough wood to fill his cart, he would return to his shack. There he would trim, split, and stack the wood to sell to his neighbors. He finished his day with another simple meal, washed himself, and went to sleep.

Every day alike…endless days filled with labor and remembrance of loss. It hardly seemed worth living. But he carried on, mostly because he knew no other way.

But one day, something changed.

There had been a great storm the night before, and many trees were knocked down by the high winds. He had gone out into the forest as usual and had nearly filled his cart with wood when he noticed a rustling in the bushes. The sound wasn’t large, so he investigated. He found a small ragged grey bird. She seemed to be unable to fly or run, as she made no effort to escape when he reached out to scoop her up. He set the grey bird down in a clear area, hoping that maybe she would try to fly away. But she just fell over, struggling to keep her head up.

He scooped up the little grey bird again and tucked her into his chest pocket. Perhaps he could care for her and bring her back to health. When he arrived home, he arranged an old blanket in a box and set her inside. He put a bit of water nearby and found some seeds for her. Then he went about his routine as usual.

The next day, he checked on her before leaving for the forest. She was still looking pretty ragged, but her eyes were alert. He went on about his day…but he found himself thinking about her and wondered whether she would be there when he returned home.

He was happy to find that she was, and was even sitting up a little better. She had eaten a bit of the seed. He was very encouraged and sat with her a few minutes before carrying on with his routine. Occasionally, he would peek in on her. Just to be sure she was okay, of course.

Days passed, and each day she seemed a bit stronger. She would perch on the side of the box, but would never leave it. Small efforts seemed to tire her quite quickly, but still, there was improvement. Her feathers became more glossy and smooth.

One day, he thought to build her a more suitable dwelling. He took a knife and trimmed several small branches to arrange as a roof over the box. This seemed to please the little grey bird, and she hopped around and picked at the sticks and perfected their arrangement.

Each day, his thoughts turned more and more to the little grey bird, and he began to forget his losses. He began to think of more items that he could make to give the little bird a place to perch on and exercise her wings. He wanted to encourage her healing and see her become strong again. So he built a tree of small branches, making sure that there were strong branches for her to rest on. This made the little grey bird quite happy, and she gradually worked her way to the top branches. Her wings seemed to be filling out with long graceful feathers, and she was becoming much stronger and more active. She even began to sing a beautiful song each time he arrived home from the forest.

He began to realize that perhaps he should let her go back to the wild…but he was very attached to her. His heart had grown very fond of her beauty and her song. He didn’t know if he could let her go. He thought that he would build her a fancy home and decorate it with flowers. That should make her happy! So he did, but this home had a door on it.

He placed her inside and let her explore. She hopped around inside and arranged small bits of the new house to her liking. She seemed very happy, and this made him happy. He carefully closed the door, and went about going to bed.

The next morning, however, she was tucked back in a far corner of her house and wouldn’t come forward when he offered her some seed. He thought this was a bit odd, but went on with his day. When he returned home, she didn’t sing for him. When he went to check on her, she had barely moved from her corner, and he became very concerned. He brought her out and put her in her old box where she had more freedom. Slowly, she began to regain her former vibrancy and even sang a short song.

He realized that he could no longer keep her. This made him sad, but also made him happy that she was also ready to be on her own. He knew he would miss her, but he couldn’t keep her caged and see her become so sad.

He scooped her up, much like on the first day he saw her, and held her close to his chest. He walked outside and held her in his hands, then gently tossed her up into the air and set her free. With a rapid flutter of wings, she caught the air and rose up on graceful wings, spiraling up out of sight.

He watched her until he could no longer see her, his heart heavy with her absence. He eventually turned to go back inside and return to his routine. But as he turned, he heard a rustle of feathers, and the little grey bird swooped in front of him. Utterly shocked, he held his hands out, and she came to rest on his palms.

He pulled her to his chest and softly whispered,  “My little bird.”

One Year After: Training

yoke carry

About a year ago, I was diagnosed with ankylosing spondylitis, a type of arthritis that originates in the sacroiliac joints and spreads up the spine, eventually fusing the vertebrae together. You can learn more about my experience with this disease here and here.

One year ago, I was training 4-6 days a week with a mix of powerlifting and strongman training that would have had me hitting a number of big goals by the end of 2013. But when I introduced Humira and some heavy duty NSAIDs to my body in June, things started to go downhill. Not at first…at first, I seemed to feel a little better. I could move a bit easier in the mornings, and I seemed to recover from my training sessions in a normal manner, as opposed to the several days of recovery I would need before I started on the medicine.

However, after a few months on the drugs, I noticed that I was feeling pretty flat, lethargic, and slightly ill. In October, an international flight put me over the edge and I had a mononucleosis flareup that just wouldn’t ease up. The acute systems of mono took far longer to disappear than they usually do, and I was left with lingering issues for several months afterward. One of the main side effects of Humira is that it can compromise your immune system.

In January this year, I’d had enough. I stopped injecting the Humira and stopped the pain medications, too. I made these choices after quite a lot of research on both drugs and their effects on the gut and immune system. I could afford to deal with the pain. I couldn’t afford a compromised immune system and a damaged gut. It took about 6 weeks for my body to heal from the damage caused by the drugs. I began to regain my energy, and pain levels actually DROPPED!

Toward the end of February, I began to slowly transition into a regular training schedule, beginning with body weight exercises, and increasing from there. At first I could only do a couple sessions a week, but then it was three and then four. Now, I am training 6-7 days a week, with 6 of those days being weight training days. I never could do that while on Humira and pain meds. Changing my diet and eliminating potential food irritants has made the biggest difference in my pain levels. I recover faster, and I don’t feel so bad in general anymore.

I am currently training with a high volume approach using kettlebells. This is primarily an effort to dramatically increase my overall work capacity, but also to ‘bullet-proof’ my posterior chain…the area most affected by ankylosing spondylitis. I have another powerlifting competition in a month, so I am still working the primary lifts at relatively high percentages. I don’t want to see any slip in strength. I am actually responding quite well to the volume and frequency of training and everything is feeling lighter and faster. Precisely what I’m looking for!

One Year After: Nutrition

IMG_20140518_202659[1]My nutrition has changed quite dramatically over the last year, but it was a slow process. If you were to call my way of eating by any particular name, I suppose it would be called the Autoimmune Protocol Paleo diet – or AIP in the common lingo around the web. For those of you who might be rolling your eyes about Paleo anything, this is a method of eating that has been developed by doctors who had personal experience with autoimmune diseases and who were not being helped by the standard Paleo diet (which is actually anything but standard, depending on who you talk to). I have actually resisted the idea of following the Paleo diet ever since I first heard about it. Eliminate bread, dairy, many fruits, grains??? Really? It seemed ridiculously restrictive to me.

Now, before I go any further, a few bits of disclaimer stuff: I am not a doctor. I do not portray one on TV. I am not a nutritionist. I am not a dietitian. I am not a scientist. Anything that comes next is purely MY experience and what I have learned from others who have gone before me. If you have an autoimmune disease, or think you might, this little tale of mine is being told simply to give you something to think about. Ask your doctor before making any drastic changes to your diet and/or medications (he probably won’t have a clue about what to do with the diet, but that is beside the point).

I question everything. I don’t care much who the source is. I want to know why, and I want to know how a conclusion was reached. I want to know what information was excluded and what was included, and why. So believe me when I tell you that I was highly skeptical of this Paleo thing. And to some degrees, I still am. That is because I don’t want to stop learning. I don’t want to assume that one particular way is THE way.

It just so happened that my research on causes of inflammation took me down the Paleo rabbit hole. No other food research has gone where Paleo has gone in terms of looking at root causes of many of our health problems. I am not going to try to bore you with details of how I came to some of my (ongoing) conclusions. But researching inflammation is a bit like peeling an onion. You have to keep digging deeper and asking why.

Here are some of the best resources I’ve found for helping me with my current nutrition plan:

And there are many more, but these sites are probably the most thorough and easy to read.

The basic idea for me is to avoid anything that is proven or suspected to be an exacerbating factor in inflammation. I have had to learn how to make all new foods, eliminate foods that I loved (but which obviously did not love me back), and completely changed out my spice cabinet.

Things that I no longer eat: gluten, grains (occasionally, I eat rice in small amounts), nightshades, dairy, legumes, and I keep a wary eye on how I react every day so that I am aware of foods that may irritate my stomach, because that is invariably followed by a massive flare in joint pain.

Things that I DO eat: seafood, nearly all fish, pork, beef, lamb, duck, turkey, chicken, bison, rabbit, etc. Vegetables are quite high on my diet as well, although I need to avoid high FODMAP vegetable and fruit.

I am actually enjoying this new way of eating. Do I miss some of my old favorite foods? Sure…but I don’t miss how they mess with my stomach and make me hurt. I have tried to reintroduce some of these foods after being off them for a while…and the results were very clear. I should NOT eat them!!!

The main effect of taking control of my diet in this way is that I no longer take medications or pain relievers. As I mentioned in the first article in this series, I had far too many side effects and nearly zero benefits from taking either arthritis medications or pain relievers. I also train 5-6 times a week now, and feel far better off the meds than I ever did while I was on them.

And I’ll write more about that in the next post.

One Year After


About a year ago, I was diagnosed with ankylosing spondylitis. This is an arthritic condition that begins in the sacroiliac joints and radiates up through the spine. In the early stages, there will typically be chronic low back pain, hip pain, and morning stiffness. It is usually diagnosed in young adult men.

So I guess I have that going for me! I’m young again!

The worst result of ankylosing spondylitis is that the vertebrae begin to fuse together when the ligaments essentially convert into bone. If you’ve ever seen someone permanently all curled over, they may have ankylosing spondylitis in its advanced stages. Obviously, this will be life changing in a limiting way.

I don’t ever want to get to that point. And I will do everything within my power to avoid being all crippled up. I refuse to accept that fate.

After my diagnosis, I was put on Humira and given some different pain medications to use on a regular basis. Duexis (high doses of ibuprofen with famotidine) was the one that seemed to be most effective. And by effective, I mean that it might drop pain levels from 8, where I usually was, to 6 on a scale of 1-10. I have a history of not responding well to most pain relievers, so this didn’t really surprise me.

I used Humira for a little over eight months. In this time, I went from training 4-6 times a week to less than once a week by the end of the eight months. This definitely wasn’t the kind of progress I’d hoped for. By training, I mean powerlifting and strongman training…heavy weights, lots of repetitions.

The pain relievers were causing me massive stomach issues, and I ended up in the ER a couple of times.

I may not be the smartest guy in the world, but I could things weren’t working out. So I began to research the connections between arthritis, chronic inflammation, digestive issues, and nutrition.

What I found was pretty amazing. And I am still learning amazing things every day.

Nutrition plays a critical role in how we feel and function. Brainy, right? But what is important to keep in mind is that what we put into our bodies is just as important to how we feel as what we DON’T put in our bodies.

And this includes medicines, pain relievers, antibiotics, etc. Without going into massive detail, my gut flora has probably been compromised for years. As a young teen, I took antibiotics extensively to treat really horrible acne. This undoubtedly had an effect on my gut flora – those important little bugs that break down my food and keep my body functioning optimally.

It wasn’t long after this that I gained a massive amount of weight. 100 pounds in a year, actually. And it didn’t stop there. I’ll be the first to say that there are many factors that play into this weight gain – sedentary lifestyle in college, deep-fried and battered cafeteria food, late nights and early mornings, and mononucleosis. All of these things contribute to the freshman 15 for many students…but I took it to extremes.

What does this have to do with ankylosing spondylitis, though? Well, when your gut flora is destroyed by antibiotics, you are pretty much left defenseless. Your immune system is compromised. Your food doesn’t get digested properly. Your intestines become porous. And food particles get into your blood stream and create all kinds of havoc. In short, your body starts attacking itself to eliminate the enemy.

Arthritis is one of the autoimmune diseases. And the medicines that were given to me were actually compromising my immunity system even more. This particular risk is stated in the literature for Humira. So…I was shooting something into my body that was going to make my already stressed immune system even weaker. Fabulous.

After eight months of this, it was time to get to the root of the problem. Back in January this year, I started to learn what kinds of things tended to induce, aggravate, and complicate inflammation in my body. I needed to learn what was causing or aggravating my condition.

Here is the short list:

  • Gluten
  • Nightshades
  • FODMAPs (Fermentable, Oligo-, Di-, Mono-saccharides and Polyols)
  • grains, legumes, dairy, refined sugars, modern vegetable oils, processed food chemicals
  • pain relievers, NSAIDs, COX-2 inhibitors

Now, I’m not saying that all of these things are bad for all people. They tend to be problematic for people with autoimmune diseases. Are these foods causative of autoimmune disease? I don’t know. I leave that to the scientists. I just know what tends to cause pain flares for me. I know what causes intestinal distress for me.

It looks like I may have to write a series on my experience with this. It’s getting long. Part two coming soon!


Half a Ton of Fun


First of all, I had a fantastic time competing at my very first powerlifting competition. I highly recommend that you pursue competition if you are even cautiously thinking about it. What struck me most is that everyone there is FOR you. Everyone wants you to succeed.

And now, on the numbers. I totaled 1086 pounds. My goal was to break 1000, and if I nailed my first attempt on all three lifts, I would be at 953.5, so I had to get at least one of my second attempts. Each of my second attempts were current personal records that I had performed in training within the last week or so. So I was pretty confident that I could get the lifts, but you never know what will happen.

I was one of two squatters. The squat was added late in the registration period, which is why there were only two of us. My first attempt at 347 was fast and smooth. My second attempt at 386 was given two white lights…the red came for being a bit too high. The third attempt at 397 was given three red lights for being high, and I knew it as soon as I started coming out of the hole. I’ll have to work on depth. I hadn’t had that kind of weight on my back in almost a year, so I am not too disappointed with this.

The bench press came as a surprise when I was put in the second flight with much lighter lifters. I had to scramble to get ready and had no time for a warm up. It was all good though, as I nailed the first lift at 242.5. The second lift was 270 and I got two whites. The red came for my head coming up slightly. The third attempt at 275.5 was disqualified for my head coming up. This is another area to work on for me. Again, I haven’t bench pressed for about half a year due to some biceps tendon issues, so I am thrilled with this result.

My favorite lift is the deadlift, and I sailed through each attempt with no issues at all. I actually felt amazing by this time (VERY ODD for me), and hit 364 on my first attempt, 396 on my second, and 430 for my last pull. I am especially happy with this lift, because a week ago, 385 felt hard. I decided to throw caution to the winds after the second attempt and just do whatever felt right. I had been hoping to get 405! I am ecstatic with 430!

Goals for my next competition:

  • Drop a couple weight classes. As I get my dietary requirements figured out to cope with the arthritis and inflammation, I’m sure the fat will come off.
  • Get all my competition lifts up to my best gym records of a 415 squat, a 285 bench press, and a 485 deadlift. Actually, I’d love to smash through all of those by the end of the year. We shall see!

Enter the Platform

That’s right, I have finally committed to competing in powerlifting. No, I do not feel ready. No, my lifts are not really what they used to be. Yes, I am still going to do my best. That is what I can do right now, and the opportunity is there.

Reasons why I shouldn’t be competing:

  • I am far heavier than I should be. In the aftermath of arthritis meds and painkillers (another story for another post), I am nearly as heavy as I have ever been.
  • Since I can’t take arthritis meds or painkillers, ankylosing spondylitis makes my body hurts 24/7. There are no good days anymore. I can help reduce the severity of the pain in various ways, but it is never gone.
  • My current best lifts are significantly lower than when I started on the medications.
  • The day after this competition, I legitimately may be unable to get out of bed.

Reasons why I should be competing:

  • I can only get better from here. Weight will come and go throughout the rest of my life. I need to stop using it as an excuse.
  • I have learned that I am in full control of the severity of my pain. Pushing really hard with the weights WILL increase my pain. Eating sub-optimal foods will increase my pain. What won’t change is the fact that the pain is there. Again, I need to stop using it as an excuse to check out of life.
  • My current best lifts are just one measuring point…one blip on the screen. They are what they are, and I have worked for them.
  • The day after this competition, I will be able to look back and be satisfied with what I have done.

Which set of reasons looks better to you? I know what looks better to me. Competition isn’t necessarily about how you measure up against others. That’s just an ego boost…or ego crusher, depending on how you do. I’m the only guy in my division, so I literally have no one to compete against. This is just about me doing my best.

I intend to go to the competition this Saturday, and I intend to do my best. It will be a finger in the eye to the old me who kept making excuses about why I didn’t deserve to be on the platform.

Progress, Perhaps?

In the last month, I have continued to recover from mononucleosis, figured out that I am lactose intolerant (drink a gallon of milk in just a couple of days…you’ll know all you need to know), and have been fighting a sinus infection. This kind of a month does not lend itself well to increasing work capacity like I wrote about in my last post. I think I may actually be worse off than I was three weeks ago.

The positive of all this is that I have learned from the trials of last month. Milk is officially off the diet. Cheese doesn’t seem to bother me, but I’ll keep it to a minimum. Ice cream seems to be a bit problematic for me, and it’s probably best that I leave it out of my diet anyway. It’s a trigger food for me…much like most foods with cheese in it. Honestly, I don’t think avoiding these foods will be difficult for me now that I know it has the potential to land me in the ER.

I have also learned that due to having ankylosing spondylitis, I will need to take a much more flexible approach to my training, as well as a different mindset. I need to have a more relaxed mindset – meaning that I shouldn’t start to freak out when my back says NO on my usual deadlift day. A strict plan is probably not going to work out very well. I will be making a return to instinctive training, which means that I still focus on the primary barbell lifts and just rotate through them, performing them when I feel able to do so.

Now that I have the GI issues sorted out, I should see my energy begin to pick up, and I’ll be able to put a bit more effort into my conditioning. So…perhaps…there MAY be progress in the near future.

At any rate, I’ll keep figuring out a way forward.

Work Capacity

Right now, I have none. And that needs to change. Partly, my lack of work capacity is due to a recent bout of mononucleosis, but it is also because I generally dislike cardio activities and have focused too long on maximum effort lifts.

I dislike the cardio because I am no good at it. I used to do long distance cycling, but it always hurt to be in the saddle that long. My low back was a mess after such long rides. And now I know why after being diagnosed with ankylosing spondylitis. Due to this, I doubt I’ll ever be doing 100+ mile rides again. 15-20 miles may be my limit. Running is great exercise, but I am reeeally bad at this. Which is exactly why I need to do it more. The closest thing to running is walking, and I have started to walk a mile every other day. I focus on my posture and keep my chest high. This forces my back muscles to stabilize me…something that is crucial for me in my pursuit to maintain posture. I constantly push my pace and try to get faster at finishing the mile. Now and then, I may add a bit of distance, but for now, my focus is on getting a faster time. And then I’ll start running. Hey, a guy can dream, right?!?

Naturally, I will still be training with weights, and there will still be a heavy component to my plan, but I’ll also be working in some circuit type training, using a variety of barbell movements and odd object lifts, and building strength in a broader way. My joints need a bit of a break from the really heavy work on a regular basis, so this will be a profitable change of pace.

In the last couple of days, I have done sledgehammer swings with a 10 lb. sledge (whacking a wood stump), low rep deadlifts with only a minute rest between, and a squat/push-up superset and a overhead press and barbell row superset. As you can see, variety is a key in my training. I like to vary the stress that I apply to my body. As I get older, I tend to focus on doing things in such a way that leave me feeling BETTER, not worse, after the session.

Catching Up

Hi. I’m alive.

The last couple of months have been pretty stressful, and I’ve had little energy to put toward writing on this blog. After I re-injured my lower back in September, training slowed waaaaay down. My workouts consisted of mobility sessions. Not very exciting stuff. Once in a while, I’d feel like coming out of my hermit shell and try an actual training session with a barbell. I’d be able to perform okay, but would pay for it for several days afterward. And then in late October, I had a mononucleosis flare up. I’m still working through the fallout from that, since Humira (my ankylosing spondylitis drug) can make infections a lot bigger deal.

You learn a lot about what really matters to you during a time like this. I really, really miss the daily training. I miss having the energy to spend with friends or family; just making it through the work day has been a minor miracle. I’ve tried to eat optimally for my health, but I have to be honest and say that a lot of comfort food has met with the pointy end of my fork. But even that has led me to seek out answers to why I fall back into bad eating habits when I feel lousy. And I think I’ve learned some new tools to help with that in the future. Future blog post material.

Okay, now for some positive stuff. I have a brand new power cage in my living room, built with the expert skills of my dad. He has had several life changing injuries in the last year or so, but can still turn out masterful work. I’m pretty proud of him.

I have also been collecting some items to vary my conditioning training. I am now the proud owner of a pair of 4 p0und hammers, and a 10 pound sledgehammer. These will make a nice addition to the prowler, battle ropes, and medicine balls that I already have. I still plan to make atlas stones and have begun to plan out how I can make farmers walk implements.

English: Frederick Winters during 1904 Summer ...

English: Frederick Winters during 1904 Summer Olympics Русский: Фредерик Уинтерс во время летних Олимпийских игр 1904 (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

I am getting close to feeling human again, and I think I will turn my focus to conditioning and fat loss as a priority. After over a month away from consistent training, I can still pull over 405 on deadlift, and squat into the 400s as well. So I’m not too worried about strength. I just really need to optimize my strength:weight ratio. I’m considering posting my training here on a daily basis, or as often as I train. We’ll see. If you want to see it, let me know. It will basically be preparatory for strongman, so there will still be heavy work, but there will be a lot of high intensity intervals and skill work, too. Should be a good mix of things, and it will largely be based on how I’m feeling on any given day.


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