Overcoming Adversity

July 9, 2009 07:35 AM

After over two years of training primarily with kettlebells my body has reached levels of elite fitness that seem almost surreal. Hardstyle training progressed me to pressing the Beast (106 lb. kettlebell) while only weighing in at 175 lbs., lowered my resting heart rate to 48 beats a minute while never touching a stepper, elliptical or treadmill, and taught me that in order to get better at any lift, I must practice it more often to "grease its groove" rather than hit it so hard that I put myself out of commission (this last piece I learned has been applied to other aspects of life outside the gym).

Following the principles of the RKC School of Strength, I kept on hitting personal records in my training over and over without setting out to do so. When I received the Spring 2008 Hard-Style catalog, my eyes instantly got stuck on the advertisement about qualifying for the Power to the People Deadlift Team. It only made sense to me that I shifted my training from squatting three or four days a week to deadlifting the same so I could put some numbers up and qualify. My training was going great! On more than one occasion in practice I pulled over the qualifying total of 2.5 times my body weight. I was confident that I would do well and registered for an Amateur Athletic Union (AAU) sanctioned power lifting PL meet scheduled for 8/16/08. My training was almost complete and I was about to peak my cycle for the competition.

Exactly two weeks before the competition, tragedy hit me…literally. An on-coming SUV side swiped my motorcycle (about 40mph on a bike colliding with an oncoming car traveling about 40 mph). Direct impact was to my left hand and minor injuries to my Left leg occurred as well. X-Ray revealed that my 2nd and 3rd metacarpals were crushed to dust at the carpal/metacarpal junction (see figure 1). Absolutely amazed, the doctors didn't understand why there was no damage further up my arm past my hand from the impact.

Figure 1: X-rays of shattered 2nd and 3rd Metacarpals in bold square.

Surgery #1: Major reconstructive surgery took place on 8/12/08. The team of surgeons inserted 5 pins into my hand and rebuilt it to the best of their ability (see figure 2). When I woke they disclosed that the 2nd and 3rd metacarpals in my left hand had been crushed into 10 bones each. After the surgery the doctors casted me for seven weeks and directed me to work on making a fist without being prescribed any formal rehab or occupational therapy.

Figure 2: X-Ray was taken 2 weeks after the first surgery showing
metal support system that pinned my hand back together.

Doctors Prognosis:
  • 10% loss of function
  • 6 months before I can create a pincer grip
  • 1 year recovery to get my hand back to where it was pre-injury.
Surgery # 2: It included pin removal and manipulation of my hand and wrist on 10/3/08. While lying on the bed awaiting surgery I showed my surgeon videos from my phone of me doing a bottoms-up press with the 32kg and snatching the 40kg for reps…..at the time he was not impressed and responded with, "Why aren't you breaking your wrist?"

On October 13th, 2008, two months from first surgery, I returned for a post-operative follow up of the pin removal. The doctors were flat out blown away by my recovery speed. At this point during my recovery I was able to completely close my fist, grip with a firm handshake, create a pincher grip (able since 1 month post 1st op) and perform finger opposition for every finger except pinky (almost there now). The doctors were baffled by my capabilities. They called me "a freak" (not sure if that is a medical term or not) and said I am about 4.5 months ahead of the normal healing curve. They were perplexed as to why my bone has healed so fast. They called in all the surgeons of my hospital's hand clinic and passed around my cell phone with the videos of the 32kg bottoms up-press and 40kg snatching. They took pictures and video of my hand and its mobility at such an early stage in recovery, discussed possibly doing a case study on me and declared that they were not going to "waste my time with formal rehab" at all.

How I trained during my down time

I made an apparatus that attached to my distal bicep and allowed me to hang from a pull-up bar for modified pull-ups (see figure 3). I also performed a ton of low cable high pulls with an ankle strap wrapped around my distal bicep. My training partner supported my cast so I could do 1 arm push-ups and provided me with manual resistance while I performed seated military presses. I squatted as heavy as I could comfortably go 3 times a week and added interval sprints in my workouts to help boost natural testosterone and growth hormone (GH) production. With my good arm, I went into maintenance mode. That entailed pressing light, bent pressing, modified get-ups (see figure 4), 1 handed swings and reached my goal of completing the old RKC snatch requirements by snatching the 24kg 60 times consecutively w/o putting the bell down.

It has now been approximately two and a half months since the first surgery. I am currently performing clean and press and pullup ladders with the 24 kg kettlebell climbing down from 5 (3:1 ratio of volume left vs. right arm), 20 - 40 yard farmers walks several times a day, walking with weight overhead for as long as I can handle, 20kg snatches, 24kg get-ups and added deadlifts back into the mix. I am pretty much back to my old training habits, I just have to quit a little earlier following the good pain/ bad pain scale and overall hand fatigue.

Figure 3: Homemade Pull-Up Chord

Figure 4: Modified Bottoms-Up Get Up

Post Injury Personal Records…
  • 8/18/08- medicine ball push-ups supported on cast
  • 9/19/08- Fingertip pull-ups (while casted)
  • 10/3/08- Cast and Pins Removed
  • 10/6/08- Clean and press 24 kg kbell
    • 24 kg Pull-up
  • 10/15/08- Body weight push-ups
  • 10/27/08- 32 kg Pull-up
  • 10/30/08- 32 kg Press
  • 11/3/08- 315lb Raw deadlift x2
  • 11/3/08- 40 kg Clean and press
    • 24kg Snatch x 10
  • 11/5/08- 40kg Pull-Up
  • 11/10/08- 32kg Get-Ups for 5 minutes
  • 11/10/08- 420lb raw deadlift = 2.54 x current body weight
  • 11/12/08- 40kg Get-UP
  • 11/15/08- 15 consecutive 24kg snatches
    • 24 kg Bottoms-Up Clean and Press
Short term goals by Christmas:
  • Close Captains of Crush #1 in my left hand
  • GTG pull-ups with 32kg and soon 40 kg kbell
Longer term goals to be completed before summer:
  • Complete the beast challenge (hopefully at a workshop)
  • Qualify for next year's Nationals' PTP team
The understanding of basic of exercise physiology in combination with a little hard-nosed determination has pushed me through an accelerated healing process. I limited my toolbox to only a few concepts and applications to keep rehabbing my hand simple. Each day I would push myself through the pain a little more playing with the frequency (volume) over the course of the day, or if I my hand felt ready by increasing the load. All the hard work has been paying off and I look forward to my next PL meet in the upcoming year.

Angelo Gala, III is a Certified Level II Russian Kettlebell Instructor, National Strength and Conditioning Certified Strength and Conditioning Specialist, Certified Personal trainer and group fitness instructor at Fitcorp located in the Prudential Center in Boston, Massachusetts. Angelo earned his B.S. in Physical Education with an emphasis in Exercise Science at Plymouth State University. He is available for fitness consulting, private, team and group training.

To schedule a consultation with Angelo, he can be contacted at agala@fitcorp.com or thekettlebelleffect@gmail.com