One Man’s Story of Lifting Heavy: Bullied, Bulking & Battling Injury

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“I am still somewhat of a meathead and like to work out heavy.” – Rich Shulman, FAFS, CSCS, Fellow of Applied Functional Science

I recently had the privilege of interviewing Core Flyte customer and personal trainer Rich Shulman who (like me) hails from the great State of Maryland. Rich shared his story with me about how he transitioned from being a picked-on, weak teenager to a competitive powerlifter and bodybuilder in the 1970s. His training experience and academic work gave him a strong passion for the science of exercise, leading him to become a gifted personal trainer.

Bullied for Being Jewish and Feeling Weak
Rich remembers his teen years with tremendous clarity. He said his classmates would pick on him for being Jewish and he felt “pudgy and weak” during his early teen years. Rich recalled, “I got sick of one guy calling me ‘kike’ [a derogatory name for Jews] and I punched him in the face. He punched me back and put me in a headlock. He was about fifty pounds heavier than me and I couldn’t get out of it.” The fight was broken up, but later in the school year, Rich was walking home from a friend’s house in the dark and that same bully jumped out of the back of a station wagon and beat him up.

Rich recalled one specific incident in gym class in his seventh-grade class when his physical weakness became abundantly clear to him. This incident was pivotal as it sparked his motivation to get stronger. He said, “I remember we were broken up into seven groups of students by our gym teacher for a weightlifting class. I was in group two and group seven was the strongest group. I remember the kids from group seven coming down to our group and picking up with one arm the weights we were challenged to lift with two arms. I just thought ‘wow, this is terrible.’ That led me to working out at home and getting stronger.”

Getting Strong and Meeting Arnold
In junior high school, Rich took up competitive powerlifting. He had reached his adult height of 5 feet, 7 inches, and was squatting and deadlifting more than twice his 145-pound body weight. At age 16, Rich was ranked informally among the top 10 powerlifters in the nation in his weight class. He stayed in his home state for college, enrolling at the University of Maryland. Rich hit the books and was a hard-worker, developing a keen interest in kinesiology, his major. At age 19, he worked for a local gym as an exercise instructor. In the late 1970s, there were very few group classes or personal trainers, so Rich’s role was to instruct new gym members and provide support to members while they worked out.

Like many bodybuilders during that era, Rich was in awe of Arnold Schwarzenegger and he wanted to be just like him. Rich said, “Arnold was my idol. I met him at age 18 in 1978 at a book signing and shook my head, thinking ‘man, I want to be like him.’” Rich briefly transitioned into competitive bodybuilding. Bodybuilding, unlike powerlifting, is not about how much one lifts, but rather about sculpting one’s body to display muscularity. Rich was good at bodybuilding too. He won the only competition he entered and was declared “Mr. Metro” at age 21. Rich may have continued to compete, but he hurt his lower back while training, and ultimately needed back surgery. This made it difficult to keep training.

Battling Injury
“I’m very prone to injury,” Rich said. He has dealt with a litany of training-related injuries. He said, “My joint issues came on because when I was younger I hurt my back, which may have been the result of an earlier knee injury. Changes in my movement quality occured as a result of the knee and back injuries. My movement compensation led to strength and mobility imbalances. I now have arthritic hips, a torn medial meniscus in my right knee, a torn rotator cuff in my left shoulder, degenerating discs in my back, and I still try to go at it pretty hard in the gym.” What caused the first domino to fall? Rich is convinced that it was heavy lifting with too much frequency and volume.

Still Lifting Heavy
Even though Rich is constantly managing injuries, he continues to lift heavy weights. For Rich, there are many reasons for this. “I still want to look good and be leaner. I want to be strong,” Rich said. “I train at a gym where I’m 55 and the average age of trainers is a lot younger. Lifting heavy weights with correct form helps me to feel more authoritative.” He contends that low-intensity exercise, such as steady state cardio or high-repetition lightweight weightlifting, isn’t sufficient for substantially improving cardiovascular or muscular fitness unless you are deconditioned. In addition, there is a mental component in lifting weights for Rich: it simply makes him feel better. He said, “The emotional aspect of working out intensely is good for my head.”

Assessing His Clients and Being Cautious About Heavy Weight
One of Rich’s favorite philosophies is “if you’re not assessing, you’re guessing.” He takes great pride in evaluates his clients both when he first meets them and on an ongoing basis, to identify potential imbalances that could lead to injury. Rich said, “Typically, pain occurs with people who move inefficiently. I can look at their static and dynamic posture and predict that they won’t be so good at this or that because of asymmetries. From how they move, I can identify what exercises they can and can’t do. I look for movement inefficiencies that make up for lack of mobility or strength in some area of the body.” Rich wishes that he had someone like the person he is today to guide him during his early days lifting weights. “Young kids can compensate in their movement patterns as much as they want and they won’t get hurt until they’re much older,” he said. “It kills me to watch the poor exercise form kids use in the gym because it puts them in an increased risk for injury later in life.”

Rich doesn’t believe that everyone should lift heavy like him. He finds bodyweight exercises helpful, especially in evaluating movement. “I find value in learning how to move your body before lifting weights. I have people do regular pushups before doing any bench press.” The Core Flytes are playing a larger role in his clients’ exercises as they help them improve balance, coordination, and stability. “The main exercises I have my clients do with the Core Flytes are rear lunges, side lunges, and various core exercises from kneeling and pushup positions. He also uses the Core Flytes to perform easier exercises with senior and disabled clients. For example, with one client who has multiple sclerosis and is partially paralyzed, Rich said, “While sitting, she sits down and puts one foot on the Core Flyte and slides her foot back and forth just to get some movement, knee flexion, and extension.”

Using His Experience to Teach Others
Early on, Rich focused on lifting heavier weights and paid less attention to strategies for improving recovery and mobility. He has a wide range of clients who learn the nuances of exercise to meet their unique goals. When he began his career, few gym goers were over the age of 50. Today, the average age of his clientele is well over 60, and many of them are in their 80s. For older clients, he employs what he calls “anti-regression” training, which is minimizing the loss of muscle mass, function, and efficiency. Rich’s oldest client is 87 and has a broken shoulder and limited mobility. For this client, Rich said, “We work on trying to keep her being able to perform her daily activities.”

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Be Flyte Fit,

Jeremy Greenberg
Co-Founder & CEO
Flyte Fitness

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