This is Will TenBroeck's story of discovering a debilitating hip condition, undergoing treatment, and making his way back to lifting.
I am 29 years old with a love of lifting and fitness. Week after week, I am squatting, benching, deadlifting, and overhead pressing. Powerlifting is my wife. Strongman is my mistress. I am building my strength, my body, and my mind. The feel of iron in my hands electrifies me. I am crushing PR after PR and objective after objective.
In the interest of advancing my career, I start running again to qualify for a law enforcement job. I have a good career as a probation officer but I have a desire to be a police officer. The running is going pretty well. At one time, I was a good runner when I was in the Army National Guard, so it comes back to me pretty quickly. Then one day I feel some pain in the right side of my groin. I do the normal things to help: ice, heat, foam roll, and stretch. I think I've just strained my hip flexor or groin — it would not be the first slight injury I had experienced.
A few months go by and my groin pain is still there. Many events happen during this time. I welcome my first child into this world and I lose my mom to her 15-year battle with scleroderma. I go to a chiropractor/physical therapy office nearby. The chiropractor checks me out and does not notice any chiropractic issues. He refers me to the physical therapist. I go to physical therapy twice a week for a few months. My muscle strength is great and I feel a little better.
All the while, I continue to lift four days a week (5/3/1 style). My numbers are still going up. A few more months go by and I notice pain in my groin again. This time I notice a reduced range of motion in my right hip — flexion and external rotation mostly.
I go to a sports medicine doctor to get this checked out. She does some tests and sends me to get x-rays. I go back for my follow-up appointment and she tells me the x-rays show osteoarthritis. Arthritis? I am only 29 years old!
The doctor refers me to the physical therapist at the office. I do physical therapy and have no issues with the strength aspects of the hip. In fact, the physical therapist tells me I am the strongest person she has ever helped. However, the mobility of my hip is just getting worse. I research every hip mobility exercise known to man. I spend hours on the internet and YouTube daily. I try them all. I try joint supplements and diet changes. When my hip is warm, it's a little better. The cold is awful.
A little more time passes and I am limping. The limp gets worse and worse. I try to modify deadlifts and squats to be able to be somewhat strong. The squats keep getting higher and the deadlifts are from a rack. I go to see an orthopedic surgeon. They do x-rays at his office. He tells me, "Your hip is worse than the 75-year-old man that I just saw a few minutes ago.” Well, I appreciate the honesty, doc! He sends me to get an MRI, which just confirms what we already knew. The doctor confirms I have severe osteoarthritis and femoroacetabular impingement (FAI). He says I should try cortisone shots until I cannot manage and then I should get a hip replacement. Hip replacement? At 29?
Well, I'm not going to get a stupid hip replacement. That is for old people! I go to another orthopedic surgeon to get a second opinion. He gives me the same diagnosis.
At this point, there is no more running. Squats and deadlifts are too painful to even attempt. Anytime I do anything remotely hard I pay for it for days. One night while giving my dog a bath outside, I attempt to walk back to the house, but my leg locks up and I have to drag myself back inside. I immediately have to lie down from the pain.
As this happens, I don't think cortisone will do much other than mask the pain for a short time. I go back to my sports medicine doctor to try some prolotherapy injections. The goal of prolotherapy is to regrow cartilage. Since I basically have no cartilage left, it's worth a shot. Unfortunately, it doesn't work.
Now I am 30 and more than a year has gone by with this pain. One day I am on Facebook looking for information on FAI and osteoarthritis. I post a question in an FAI group on Facebook looking for help. Well, apparently some kind soul answers my question and says I should look into “hip resurfacing.” I research it and it seems like something that could help me out. I live in New Jersey and can only find two doctors that perform hip resurfacing. I make an appointment with one of them.
The Appointment That Changed My Life
I drive an hour away to the appointment in pain. Did I mention my right hip is the destroyed one? I hand over my MRI CD to the office and they take x-rays. They go over the normal questions. Dr. David Feldman comes in the room and tells me I had a traumatic event in my life that caused my hip to separate from the socket, which caused extra growth (FAI) and ultimately osteoarthritis. I had totally forgotten I had a bad fall on an army obstacle course about nine years earlier. Like the hard-headed person I was, I walked it off and never got it checked out. Well, apparently that scary fall on my right side is what led to this mess.
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I express that I love to lift weights and I am an active person. He tells me that hip resurfacing would be right for me. He tells me he has done many of these surgeries on athletes. He even did the surgery on an MMA fighter who returned to fighting. If this worked for a person who throws people around in a cage, it might work for me.
The doctor gives me some papers on hip resurfacing to look over at home. He puts no pressure on me and tells me if I want to do it, just make another appointment. At this point, my son is walking and I can’t keep up with him. I need to do something. I discuss it with my wife and decide it is time.
I schedule the surgery as soon as possible, for May 5, 2015.
The Big Day
We arrive at the hospital very early in the morning. I am a little nervous. I've never undergone such a big surgery and I am married to the love of my life with a 15-month-old son and a daughter on the way. The staff walks me over to the operating room. I won’t forget this because walking over makes me feel like a man. I see the friendly people in the operating room and then I'm falling asleep.
A few hours later, the surgery is over and I wake up. This is an exciting moment for me. I am alive! I ask the nurse if the surgery is over and if it went well. She says yes. I'm so happy at this moment, even drugged up. Dr. Feldman comes in to check on me and tells me everything went well.
The Next Day
The following morning the physical therapist and occupational therapist come by to start my rehab. Step one is to get me out of bed. This literally is the hardest physical endeavor I have ever undertaken. On my first attempt to stand up, I get extremely lightheaded and almost pass out. I have to lie back down because I'm so weak. We try again a few minutes later and I am successful. They show me some basic leg swing movements and I take a few steps with the walker.
The Hospital Stay
My stay is in the joint replacement wing of the hospital. I am by far the youngest person there. The nurses love me because I walk the halls with my walker and do my exercises religiously. They have never seen a human so motivated to get stronger so quickly. I move as much as possible. My goal is to recover and get back to doing what I love.
Home Physical Therapy
Having medical insurance is a blessing that sometimes we take for granted. Luckily, mine covers this expensive surgery, hospital stay, and a physical therapist to come to my house three times a week. He shows me how weak I am and pushes me to get stronger. In addition to the beating he gives me three times a week, I walk as much as possible with my walker like an old man rushing to the early bird special. In fact, my first day home I walk half a mile around my neighborhood.
About three weeks post-op, I switch to a cane. Big pimping! I use that for a week or so and then I take the training wheels off. I focus on walking correctly again. It is so nice to be able to walk without pain or a limp.
Outpatient Physical Therapy
I go to outpatient physical therapy for about two more months. There, I do single-leg exercises like the total gym single-leg squat, calf raises, leg extensions, leg curls, and stretches. In addition, I receive a massage that is anything but pleasurable. You would be shocked at how tight your muscles get after being cut.
Return to Lifting
Most people with hip arthritis would just be happy to walk normally again and be pain-free. Well, I am not most people. About a month after surgery I head back to the gym. I do some light bodybuilding exercises, machines, and physical therapy work to get stronger. A pump is better than no pump! I continue to do lots of walking.
After a month of lifting purgatory, I decide to start reintroducing the power lifts. I go back to a modified 5/3/1 and start very light. I use no leg drive on the bench. I use the seated hammer strength military press for overhead. I am not ready to back squat yet, so I do dumbbell front squats to a box and deadlifts very light. I continue to do my physical therapy exercises and I stretch every night. Around this time, we welcome our baby girl into this world. Knowing she was coming into this world pushed me to get this surgery done. I did not want to be useless and force my wife to take care of two little ones.
Small Progress Goes A Long Way
We all know the concept of progressive overload. The first year of lifting post-op focuses on improved form and small steps forward (literally and figuratively). I no longer live in the past of how much I used to lift. I start back at zero and every time I add weight, it is a PR. This is huge for my mental success. I'm so happy to be lifting again and using my body the way it is intended d to be used. At work, I make sure to use the stairs whenever possible just because I can. I am also reintroduced to my old hobby of hiking again. I hike as much as seven miles in a day with no problem — not bad for a guy who couldn’t walk a few blocks because the pain was unbearable.
Year two of my rebirth is focused on getting stronger. As long as I am making progress, I am happy. I can squat with better form now than I could a few years prior to my groin pain. I actually have better deadlift form too. I am a leaner 200 pounds than I was before, and I have squatted 405 and deadlifted 480 since recovering from arthritis. Not bad for a guy who wondered if he would ever squat or deadlift again. I can do whatever I want again and it feels great.
Just because you have an injury does not mean it is the end. Do research. If it needs to be surgically healed, do what it takes to recover. Surgery is not magic and you have to work in the rehabilitation stage. It is going to take time to recover and you have to be patient because the end result is worth it. Don’t sit around feeling sorry for yourself. I looked at my recovery as a challenge and I treated it as my destiny. Injuries are another roadblock in what we call life.
Will TenBroeck is an avid fitness and healthy living enthusiast. Will has worked in military, security, and law enforcement positions where fitness was life. Will operates a No Nonsense Health and Fitness Website at www.overcomefat.com.