Starting Over After A Training Layoff: One Year Later

I just realized that it’s been one year since I returned to training after my surgeries


Returning to strength training wasn’t a seamless sort of thing. No “Bam, it’s time to lift heavy again.”

After four months without heavy lifting, it took weeks just to feel comfortable in the gym again. Then I had to regain enough flexibility and neuromuscular control to lift heavier – much longer than I thought, actually.

Coming back was a slow process. My upper body changed fundamentally after having my bilateral prophylactic mastectomy with reconstruction. But today I feel strong, maybe even stronger in some ways. (I’ll be writing more about coming back as a beginner in, where I have a recurring column.)

Here’s more insight into where I stand after this challenging year.

Four Months Off From Training, Oh My

From March through July of 2015, my top priority was recovering from my two surgeries. Recovery didn’t end in July; that’s just when I started lifting again. A mastectomy is a massively invasive procedure – it’s the cutting of nerves, fascia, muscles, and other tissue and hoping it all heals up nice and neat. It’s major and has changed my body forever.

Since I had a complication on one side, I had extensive physical therapy – 20 sessions total. This was to regain upper-body mobility (which all mastectomy patients need) and to relieve discomfort and pain in my right underarm area, which didn’t heal properly. 

The upsides?

  1. I don’t think about dying all the time anymore. I’m free of worry, fear, and the tests and their scary results. Fifteen years were enough of that noise.
  2. I’ve regained much of the muscle I lost, become even stronger, and learned new ways of training by trying different methods.

I still have some discomfort where the surgery complication occurred, but my plastic surgeon told me I’m miles ahead of most women in terms of progress, probably due to my fitness level. So please encourage anyone you know who’s having surgery to keep their tissue healthy for faster recovery – strengthen and stretch those muscles and stay at a healthy body weight. Most importantly? Stay active.

My Measures Of Progress

Since I like tracking my progress using a spreadsheet, I know how much muscle and fat I’ve gained or lost over any period.

As usual, my shoulders gain mass the most easily and my lower body lags (particularly with the issue I talk about below). Also, I typically have the best gains while on creatine, but the water retention is almost too much for me to take.

I also like using photos to track my progress. Take this photo, for example. On the left is only three months after I stopped training, and you can see that I lost almost all my deltoid gains. On the right is one year later.


It’s motivating for me to look back at photos of myself when I was really rocking a lower body fat, too, to see if I can get back there.

Pullin’, But Not Quite On My Own (Yet)

Before my surgeries, I could do 7-8 unassisted pull-ups and was up to 9 at one point. Pull-ups transformed my upper body in a way no other exercise could. (Here’s the blurry video of me doing 8 pull-ups a few years ago.)

Over the last year, I’ve rebuilt muscle and may even be stronger than before. But even with all my successes in coming back from major surgery at my age, I’m still disappointed I’m not back to unassisted pull-ups yet.


There are several factors involved. I may have ‘wasted’ some time by trying to get back to pull-ups without adequately strengthening my pectorals first (I began correcting this error last winter). As it stands, I can do one pull-up with 40 pounds of assistance. I’m whittling away at that number using eccentrics and other methods and consider it a win to have come this far in five months!

But still, this is a good example of what all of us do: Focusing on the ONE thing we can’t do well, while ignoring everything else we’ve achieved. It’s all good to have goals, but I’ve had to remind myself to stop the self-flagellation over not being able to do unassisted pull-ups yet. 

It may not even be all due to strength and muscle deficiencies. My chest muscles, which were ‘relocated’ above my implants, shift upwards almost violently when I pull up, and I have yet to overcome this.

Sometimes I wonder if I’m even physically capable of doing unassisted pull-ups again, but I’m not giving up. I know the impact that pull-ups can have on one’s upper body and I love the badassery of pull-ups… So fun. 


Me today

Other More Mundane Hold-ups

I benefited from active release technique (ART) last winter to calm down muscle spasms in my right shoulder. Now, with stretching, my shoulder behaves itself nicely.

But it’s always something, isn’t it? I’ve had “bad feet” all my life and this spring my right foot decided to start acting up big time. My heel is unstable, my foot is too flexible, and I don’t land right. My podiatrist says I’m a “hard walker.” The troubles impact my ankle, knee, and all the way up my right side to my hip.

So I’ve been working on getting my orthodics adjusted and bracing my knee and ankle. It’s sadly prevented me from being as active as usual this time of year. I still try to walk, hike, and cycle every few days, but the winter fat hasn’t come off as readily as in the past. (Although it’s tough to tell what is fat and what is water retention – lots of that going on too). It’s also thwarted my squats, which I fell in love with again this spring but have to be careful with until I work this thing out.

On the bodybuilding side, I realized that while I was busy rebuilding my glutes, my hamstrings remained puny. This is surely affecting my squat and deadlift and who knows what else. A muscle imbalance is a nasty thing. It leads to compensations, which can lead to pain and injury. No good.

But just as with pull-ups, I’m motivated by this weakness and committed to hammering them into submission. My hamstrings will get in line the next few months. I’m putting them first in my workouts and adding in some extra stimulation just for them.

Belts And Badassery

I’ve never worn a weightlifting belt because as I was a purist, I believed it was a crutch for a weak core. But I’ve also had trouble bracing my body with enough tension to lift heavier. But ever since using my new belt I’ve been able to push harder with deadlifts and squats, which makes me happy! It’s important to use a belt correctly, and I talk about that more here.

Thanks for reading, for understanding when I neglect this blog, and for being freaking awesome. The best thing to ever come of my career as a fitness coach and this blog is connecting with people like YOU. 

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See you in nirvana~

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